AUBURN, Ala. — Plenty of Auburn fans expected a true freshman to quickly emerge as a starter at Defensive end opposite star pass-rusher Carl Lawson.
Few, if any, expected that defensive end to be Marlon Davidson.
Several months after former 5-star and top-five recruit Byron Cowart opened his Auburn career with just six tackles and zero sacks, the 4-star Davidson enrolled early on the Plains.
A few weeks after his arrival, Davidson found himself lining up with the first team on one of the deepest defensive lines in college football. He made the quick leap that Cowart was expected to make in 2015's fall camp.
"I've been here five years, and as far as freshmen coming in to play—especially in the spring—he's as good as I've ever seen," Auburn left guard Alex Kozan said. "He's got to keep working, keep improving, but he's solid. I think he's ready to play now."
While his classmates at Greenville High School 100 miles away were preparing for their senior prom, Davidson was getting ready to become a potential starter in the SEC.
A few days after Kozan declared him the best true freshman he had ever seen, Davidson got the first of what could be many starts inside Jordan-Hare Stadium at the annual A-Day Game. He matched fellow starter Lawson with four tackles, which were the most of any defensive lineman in the scrimmage.
"Consistency in a young guy is really hard to find, and that's what he's been able to do," Lawson said. "He's been able to be consistent and every day come out here and try to get better. He takes coaching. When he [coach Rodney Garner] gets hard, a lot of young guys don't take it very well. He's been prepped for it."
The coaching that Lawson referred to is the trademark vocal nature of defensive line assistant Rodney Garner, a former Auburn player who has coached for more than 25 years in the SEC.
Starting defensive tackle Montravius Adams said it takes a while for blue-chip recruits such as Davidson to get adjusted to "Coach G" and the way he runs practices.
Garner isn't normally one for high praise in his interviews, especially with questions about highly touted underclassmen. But this spring, he was positive in his outlook on Davidson.
"I think he's got a chance to have an impact and help our team," Garner said. "Marlon, he continues to get better every day. I think he has very bright future."
As a strong-side defensive end, Davidson brings a different kind of size and versatility to an Auburn defensive line that is loaded with experience. He was listed this spring at 6'3" and 281 pounds, and he has the ability to move inside.
In spring ball, the Tigers used him on the interior during passing situations to provide an extra burst of pressure up the middle.
"He's extremely quick and powerful for a young guy," new Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said.
While some coaches want to slow-play their incoming freshmen and ease them into life at the college level, Steele is the complete opposite.
He sees a potential difference-maker in Davidson, and the veteran coach is pushing him as hard as he can, regardless of his age.
"I don't have brakes. I ain't tapping no brakes," Steele said. "We'll go as full speed and as fast as we can. He is a guy that's very physically, mentally and emotionally mature. ... If you'd watched it and didn't know, you'd think he'd been around for a couple of years, and that's the biggest thing."
Davidson might be a new student on Auburn's campus, but he has been around the program for several years now.
The defensive end started coming on unofficial visits to Auburn in 2012, when his older brother Kenneth Carter was a starter on the defensive line. Carter now works for Auburn football on its support staff.
Carter was nearly identical to Davidson in size during his Auburn playing days, and he made starts as both an end and a defensive tackle. Lawson even said this spring the best comparison to Davidson's playing style was Carter.
Even when Davidson's recruitment exploded as a junior and he started receiving offers from schools all over the country, Auburn was always a projected leader for his signature.
He committed to Auburn last September and, despite a strong push from Alabama, signed his financial aid agreement with the Tigers in December.
"The sky is the limit," Carter told Keith Niebuhr of 247Sports last fall. "He can play any spot he wants. That’s the way I feel, by looking at him and the way he moves and how big he is."
A few months later, Davidson has already carved out his own spot on the defensive line, serving as the instant-impact defensive end Auburn fans have been craving for quite some time.
With the amount of rotation Garner likes on his defensive line and the depth the Tigers have built up there, there's still a role for Cowart—the former recruiting star who Davidson has passed in a short amount of time—in 2016. As Garner says, everyone's adjustment to college football is different.
"Some guys are quicker than others," Garner said. "That doesn't equate to success or failure, I don't think. This guy may come in in year one and live up to those expectations. This guy may not live up to those in year two or three. That doesn't equate to whether he was successful or not."
Early in his "year one," Davidson has met and even exceeded the highest expectations set on him by topping the depth chart as an early enrollee.
The work has to continue throughout the summer and into fall camp, but Davidson's teammates agree that he's well on his way to greatness, echoing his older brother.
"He's a competitor," Adams said. "Everything he does, he competes. In this league, that's just what you have to do. I think with him doing that, he's just going to keep getting better.
"The sky is the limit."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.
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