HOOVER, Ala. – Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson has goals – big goals. He just wants to keep them close to his heart.
“I’m not willing to say what I want to get accomplished,” he said Monday at SEC Media Days. “But there are a lot of things I want to do. I still have a lot to prove to myself.”
Given what Lawson has been through, you can understand why his personal goals for 2016 will remain private.
This time a year ago, Lawson was coming off a torn ACL that had sidelined him for the 2014 season. In 2013, he had been a freshman All-American. With a strong performance in 2015, NFL scouts projected that Lawson would emerge as one of the best pass rushers in the '16 draft.
But he never got the chance to prove how good he could be. In the season-opener against Louisville at the Georgia Dome, Lawson suffered a severe hip injury. It caused him to miss Auburn's next six games, and in the process, Auburn's defense basically went into the ditch.
Lawson was the bell cow of the Auburn defense, and without him, then-coordinator Will Muschamp had to move players around trying to plug holes. Nothing really worked.
"Any time you have an impact player, whether it's offense or defense, you really build around that impact player's strengths," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "And he's a game-changer. When you have a guy like that, it changes everything."
And when you don't have an impact player like Lawson, the whole defense is going to suffer.
How valuable was Lawson to the Tigers' defense? This valuable: In the seven games he played last season, Auburn's defense allowed 55 fewer yards and nine fewer points than the six games in which he did not play.
And for Lawson, not being on the field was pure torture because he felt he was letting his teammates down.
"It was very difficult, but injuries are the nature of the beast," Lawson said. "But for every injury I've had – every mistake I've made – I've gotten stronger from it."
Despite his limited action in 2015, which means he has played just seven games in the past two seasons, Lawson could have turned pro. The NFL scouts still look favorably on his ability as a pass rusher. Lawson, from Alpharetta, Ga., in the Atlanta suburbs, decided to stay at Auburn to prove he could become the player he wants to be.
"What was best for me was to come back to Auburn, finish my degree, become a better athlete and become a better football player," Lawson said. "It was a decision that was made by me and my family."
When Lawson decided to return, so did Montravius Adams, his running mate at defensive tackle. The two, who have known each other since the 11th grade, give Malzahn reason to be optimistic about this defense.
"He's at his best," Malzahn said of Lawson. "He's at his fastest and quickest and strongest he's ever been. Both of those guys had a chance to go to the NFL. The fact that both came back is a big shot in the arm for us."
Lawson returns to work under Rodney Garner, who Malzahn believes is the best defensive line coach in college football. Garner has said that his biggest challenge with Lawson is getting him to back off in practice. Unless Lawson is going full speed, he doesn't believe he is getting better. That showed in the spring.
"The spring was great for me because I got to improve on some of the things I wanted to improve on," Lawson said. "Just the fact that I went through the spring like everybody else was a major thing for me."
But Lawson does admit that he's learned to temper his enthusiasm in practice.
"I've never had a phobia of getting injured or anything like that," Lawson said. "But I have become smarter as I've gotten older. I've had some guys in the league tell me that it's good to take care of your body and get more rest. So instead of going 100 miles an hour all the time, I'm trying to be a little more balanced. And it's made me faster and stronger. But when it's time to go to work, I work."
Auburn finished 13th in the SEC in total defense (405.2 ypg) and 11th in scoring defense (26.0 ppg) last season, but Lawson has no doubt that this unit will be better.
"Things are going to be better because we're all on the same page and we are going to give relentless effort," he said. "Everybody in this league has talent. The difference is executing your defense and getting to the ball.
"I can't wait for the season to get started."
Auburn's defense – and, by extension, Lawson – won't have to wait long to get tested. The Tigers open at home against Clemson, which lost 45-40 to Alabama in the national championship game in January.
"We're looking forward to it," Lawson said.
(You can follow Tony Barnhart on Twitter @MrCFB)
© 2016, Tony Barnhart. All rights reserved.
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