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Offseason spotlight: Auburn

The return of Carl Lawson from injury is like signing a five-star recruit who is already bigger, faster and stronger than your average incoming freshman. He’s been in the program for two years now, and Auburn hopes he can now become that dominant pass-rusher that everyone projected him to be coming out of high school.

Spotlight: Defensive end Carl Lawson, 6-foot-2, 261 pounds, sophomore

2014 summary: Lawson missed the entire 2014 season after tearing his ACL in spring practice. The coaches were hopeful he could return late in the year, but he didn’t come back until the bowl practices and even then he wasn’t 100 percent. Without him, the Tigers finished towards the bottom of the SEC with just 21 sacks. The lack of pressure led to struggles on the back end and ultimately led to a second-half collapse by the Auburn defense. But there’s hope. As a freshman, Lawson had 20 tackles, 7.5 tackles for loss, four sacks and two forced fumbles in 14 games. The talent is there. All he needs to do now is stay healthy.

The skinny: The good news is Lawson was cleared medically before the start of spring ball and has looked like his old self through the first week of practice. He’s first in line for every drill, eager and excited to be playing again. It’s like the brace on his knee doesn’t even exist. Even he says he “couldn’t be happier” despite going through what he calls the hardest thing he’s ever had to go through. The bad news is that he’s having to learn a new position and a new defense with the arrival of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. But the move might work out better for Lawson’s future. Muschamp is expected to use him as the Buck linebacker, a hybrid defensive lineman/linebacker position that is asked to make plays and get to the quarterback. Dante Fowler Jr. played that spot for Florida last year, and he finished with 15 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Now, Fowler is projected to be a top-10 pick in next month’s NFL draft. Lawson has the same type of potential as long as he can stay on the field. If he does remain healthy, he provides the Auburn defense with the impact player it lacked a season ago.