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There are plenty of reasons for Auburn to be optimistic about making serious improvement on defense this season.
Snagging an NFL coordinator, Brian VanGorder, was a fine start. The Southeastern Conference's youngest defensive line is a year older, a year stronger and presumably a year removed from rudimentary mental errors.
That also bodes well.
Still, VanGorder's group aims to finish among the league's top four defenses. That can't happen without major contributions from some players who lack high-profile reputations right now.
With that in mind, here's a look at three players who will begin the season with modest expectations and have a chance to emerge as All-SEC players in December.
• DE DEE FORD: The junior isn't anonymous to Auburn fans, who watched him make remarkable progress in April 2011.
Ford was in the midst of a break-out season last fall before succumbing to a back injury. Surgery ended his season in early October - and removed him from SEC consciousness.
He's now back at full speed. VanGorder is pleased.
Ford always has provided break-neck speed off the edge, but he now has enough upper-body power to make a difference against the run. Corey Lemonier has received the preseason accolades - he's a star in his own right - but Ford has the same kind of ability.
• CB CHRIS DAVIS: He was having a fine early season in 2011, playing well enough serious recognition, but really struggled after returning from an ankle injury suffered against Clemson. Though Davis returned in October, he didn't look like the same player.
In fact, his season looked terminal.
Then came the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Davis, fully healthy after two months of rehabilitation, played the most complete game of his college career. His efforts yielded Defensive MVP honors.
Is he unknown? Not exactly.
With that said, Davis hasn't yet earned much mainstream notice. If he remains healthy and embraces subtle changes instituted by assistant coach Willie Martinez, the junior can emerge as one of the SEC's most complete corners.
• LB KRIS FROST: What sticks out most about Frost is his mental refinement, which gives him a chance to contribute despite a serious lack of experience.
And he's no slouch when it comes to raw talent. Frost was rated a five-star prospect upon signing with Auburn in 2011, but spent last season on the scout team after off-season shoulder surgery.
Can the athleticism and above-awareness converge and turn Frost into a star this fall? He'll have a chance. Daren Bates is entrenched on the weak side and Jake Holland has a clear shot at the job in the middle, but competition along the strong side appears to be wide open.
If Frost can position himself ahead of Jonathan Evans on the depth chart, he'll have a chance to flourish as VanGorder's bone-jarring enforcer. His enthusiasm and attention to detail could lead to steady work for years to come.
ALSO UNDER CONSIDERATION: S Jermaine Whitehead, DT Angelo Blackson, DT Gabe Wright, S Erique Florence, LB Justin Garrett
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