While defensive improvement is imperative if the Auburn Tigers are to live up to their preseason projections, miracles should not be expected. Based on last year's numbers, even if the defense had improved 50 yards per game in SEC play, it would have only moved up two places in the total defense standings.
Defensive line play, and specifically end play, is a spot from which new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp will be looking for significantly improved production. Auburn only had 10 sacks in SEC play, good for 13th in the SEC last season, but has reason for optimism that the play of the front seven can improve enough to aid the secondary.
Carl Lawson returns for his redshirt sophomore year and could be the linchpin for the defense. Lawson missed all of 2014 after tearing his ACL during fall camp, but will look to build on a freshman All-American season in 2013 that saw Lawson garner four sacks. Praise has been heaped upon Lawson during this fall's camp and, if that is anything to go by, Auburn's pass rush should improve immediately. Lawson will be slotted in the "buck" position, a hybrid defensive end/linebacker position that has been taken up by Dante Fowler the last few seasons at Florida in Muschamp's defense.
Opposite Lawson will likely be senior DaVonte Lambert or five-star freshman Byron Cowart. Lambert led Auburn with 3.5 sacks last season as a first-year junior college transfer, but missed spring practice after a knee injury towards the end of the 2014 season. Cowart enters his college career as one of the top recruits in the 2015 recruiting class and looks to contribute immediately, but has been on a crash course in development and what not to tweet during fall camp.
Up the middle, Montravius Adams returns at tackle after a 43-tackle season in 2014 while redshirt freshman Dontavius Russell looks to be the leader at the other tackle slot. Depth could be an issue at tackle, as three-star junior college transfer Maurice Swain looks to split time with Russell, but Muschamp's hybrid 4-3/3-4 scheme should help mitigate the lack of experience at the tackle position with the relative depth at the end positions.
After combining for 178 tackles in 2014, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost come back at the linebacker position. Despite McKinzy representing Auburn on the 2015 Coaches Preseason All-SEC third team, his place as a starter looks to be in jeopardy (or at least being used as a motivational tactic), as Muschamp has discussed the need for more consistency from McKinzy. Fellow senior Justin Garrett or JaViere Mitchell look like they will take up the other linebacker position.
Even if the front seven can generate a modest amount of increased pressure, it should allow the secondary to be better against the pass and lead to an overall improvement of the defense.