AUBURN, Ala. -- According to Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, Carl Lawson has been cleared for contact for a while. But you'll have to forgive Malzahn and his staff for restraining their formerly injured star pass-rusher until now. With eyes on an SEC title and a defense in desperate need of improvement, they simply couldn't afford to turn him loose.
As it turns out, maybe they were saving Lawson from himself.
When asked Tuesday if he'd be limited during scrimmages, the redshirt sophomore nearly cringed at the thought. He said it would go against his very nature.
"I'm not thinking about the injury," he said. "Coaches are thinking more about that than I am. Even when I got back out there, I've never really thought about my knee.
"I'm one of those players that plays with reckless abandon."
Everyone saw what losing the talent and effort of Lawson meant for the Tigers' defense last season. The pass-rush suffered, quarterbacks had too much time to throw the ball, and the secondary buckled under the weight of the pressure, allowing 12.3 yards per completion and 230.1 passing yards per game, which ranked 12th out of 14 teams in the SEC. Auburn went from national title contender to 8-5.
If Lawson re-injured his knee during spring practice or summer workouts, that would have been it for the defense. Auburn certainly wouldn't have been ranked seventh in the preseason Amway Coaches Poll and voted a preseason favorite to win the SEC by the media.
"It helps a lot because last year we needed some pass-rush and we didn't have that," defensive tackle Montravius Adams said of Lawson's return. "Having everybody back, everybody pretty healthy, it's going to force people to free up somebody."
That somebody might be Adams himself, who struggled to shed blocks last season and had only three sacks without Lawson beside him. Now the former ESPN 150 prospect is playing coy about whether he's in for a breakout season as a junior.
"I'm going to let the season tell you the answer," Adams said.
But Adams isn't the only one keeping things close to the vest as the defense looks to return to form under new coordinator Will Muschamp.
Lawson himself is eager for what's to come. He said he's further along "from a knowledge standpoint" thanks to his season watching things from afar, and claims to have gained a better understanding of formations and "the overall game itself."
"When you're out there as a freshman, you're just trying to read and react and then you look to the sideline because you know you're going to get cussed out," he said. "After that, you just have more swagger about you. It makes you a better football player."
Lawson said he spent much of his down time studying other players, hoping to bring something new into his repertoire.
But he wouldn't go beyond that.
"There are a lot of things that are going to happen in the season that I'm not going to tell you," he said. "It's a secret."
Any new moves?
"Yeah, it's a secret."
What isn't in doubt, however, is where Lawson will be lined up this season.
Instead of putting his hand in the dirt at defensive end as he did under former coordinator Ellis Johnson, Muschamp has him standing up and rushing the passer from the Buck linebacker position. Rather than taking on blocks, Lawson expects to be running more in space.
"You're going to make the plays yourself," Lawson said. "That's why I like it. It's real natural."
For someone who relies so much on instincts and prides himself on relentless effort, it's no wonder he's excited about the change.
Coaches have been doing their best to keep that energy caged, but it's only a matter of time until Lawson breaks loose.
When he does, he could bring Auburn's defense along for the ride.