Auburn football: 5 things that will define the Tigers' defense in 2021
As with all things this spring with Auburn football, the season is defined by change, and the defense isn’t an exception.
Derek Mason replaced long-time defensive coordinator Kevin Steele. Mason made a name for himself and his defensive prowess at Stanford before moving to Vanderbilt. Mason’s defensive scheme will be fluid, but at its purest form means a switch in formation to a 3-4.
Auburn’s defense wasn’t bad last season, but it also wasn’t good enough to shoulder an offense that wasn’t capable of putting up eye-catching numbers. The Tigers ranked 6th in the SEC in total yards allowed (406.0) and allowed the 4th-fewest points (24.7). For the most part, the defense did its job given the injuries and opt-outs — Texas A&M not withstanding.
Jamien Sherwood is certainly a big hole that needs to be filled among starters not returning, but outside of that Auburn brings a very experienced group to the 2021 season that should give Mason what he called a “smörgåsbord” of options to go about building his unit.
With that said, these are the 5 biggest questions — and potential answers — facing the Auburn defense for the 2021 season:
1. What sort of Edge will this new defensive front have under Mason?
Out with the old, in with the new. Gone are the days of Steele and Will Muschamp’s defensive front with a Buck position, and in comes the addition of an Edge defender.
Derek Mason successfully used a 3-4 scheme at Stanford, and he plans to implement that at Auburn, although he revealed that the formation will vary throughout games and the season. In a 3-4 scheme, the Edge position is essentially an outside linebacker who has the ability to stand (or line up wide in a 3-point stance) or he becomes just a simple pass-rusher on the line should the base change to a four-man front.
Auburn worked 4 players at the Edge position this spring, with Derick Hall emerging as the clear-cut favorite to start, although Caleb Johnson saw time with the first-team defense during A-Day. Making up the 3-man front will likely be Colby Wooden at end, and Marquis Burks and Tyrone Truesdell as the tackles. And while the Tigers are fairly deep at defensive tackle, it’s worth noting that J.J. Pegues now calls that position home after playing tight end as a freshman.
The biggest thing to come from the scheme change is that it will allow for Auburn to be versatile. Mason isn’t afraid to change to a 4-3 and even experimented with 2- and 5-man fronts this spring. What the Tigers may lack in terms of depth on offense, Auburn has a plethora of options in its front seven.
“I think the versatility of the front seven, OK man, is going to be huge for us,” Mason said this spring. “Just in terms of speed, size, athleticism and trying to create one-on-one matchups. For me, right now, I’m like a kid in a candy shop.”
The summer months will be spent continuing to tinker with his starting mix, but Mason and his defensive front will undoubtedly be the strength of this team next season.
2. Does the schedule kind of break Auburn’s way?
Life in the SEC is always dangerous, and new offensive stars who were anonymous in 2020 will inevitably be discovered in 2021. But looking at Auburn’s schedule, and there isn’t necessarily a lot of established offensive juggernauts lurking.
The Tigers are scheduled to play 9 Power 5 programs, beginning with Penn State on Sept. 18. While Penn State is normally one of the better offenses in the country, the Lions will still be in the early phases of working up to speed in a new offense from new OC Mike Yurcich.
Of the 8 SEC schools on the schedule, only Mississippi State’s Will Rogers and Ole Miss’ Matt Corral have more than 5 career starts with their current team, and Rogers may be replaced by Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham.
JT Daniels at Georgia and Max Johnson (or Myles Brennan) at LSU both have started only 5 or fewer games for their respective teams, and Auburn gets them early in the season before things are fully ironed out.
The obvious elephant in the room is always Alabama to cap off the season, but as LSU can vouch for, replacing an entire offense after a national championship is no small task, no matter how well you’ve been recruiting.
All this is to say, things could have been a lot worse for the Auburn defense. Not only do the Tigers have one of the more veteran defenses in the league, but playing against so many unproven offenses has to bode well.
3. Which underclassman will have a breakout season?
If spring practices provided clues, early-enrollee defensive tackle Lee Hunter may make an immediate impact.
Hunter was Auburn’s highest-rated recruit in the Class of 2021 before the Tigers added former Tennessee signee Dylan Brooks to their haul, but Hunter quickly showed at A-Day that he’s more than just a 4-star ranking on a website.
While the 6-5, 300-pound recruit only made 1 tackle at A-Day, it was big, stuffing Tank Bigsby at the line of scrimmage on a 4th-down play that led to a turnover on downs.
“He’s a tremendous athlete,” DB Smoke Monday said of Hunter. “I feel like he has got a lot of upside to him. He is quick off the ball. He is good with driving the pile back and creating a new line of scrimmage, he is very good at that. At the end of the day I feel like he is going to help us a lot this year.”
His arrival couldn’t be more timely given the lack of depth at the tackle position. Jeremiah Wright was lost early in the spring to a torn ACL, compounding the issue of Daquan Newkirk transferring to Florida. Marquis Brooks was the first to make a move behind Tyrone Truesdell, but if Hunter keeps it up, he’ll likely see a fair amount of playing time as Pegues also works in to fill depth at the defensive tackle position.
Not to set the bar too high, but Derrick Brown started all 13 games his freshman season, albeit mostly at defensive end. Last season Auburn defensive tackles recorded just 4.5 sacks, so any help from Hunter would go a long way towards returning the Auburn defensive line to a threat.
4. Can Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain be the best LB duo in the SEC?
They combined for 206 total tackles, 7 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in a shortened season. Only the Arkansas duo of Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool combined for more tackles (212).
McClain’s 113 tackles led the conference, but he somehow failed to earn an All-SEC honor. A motivated McClain, combined with the versatile Pappoe, not to mention the return of Chandler Wooten, who opted out of 2020 has to be a scary thought for SEC offenses.
Quality linebacker play will will be vital this year as the defense shifts schemes and will require knowledgeable leaders to provide guidance.
“They understand and have been in those battles and wars,” Auburn linebackers coach Jeff Schmedding said. “You can’t put a price on having those types of guys, especially because you want competition within the group. Everybody else has to lift up their game.
The duo are also excited about mentoring younger LBs and spoke highly at A-Day of sophomore Wesley Steiner, indicating that he may be an underclassman to watch as an early contributor.
“I think that by the time me and Zakoby leave, I think he is going to be a guy that is going to step up and make a huge impact,” Pappoe said after the spring scrimmage. “You can tell he really wants to be good. He asks a lot of questions wants to be coached a lot so I think his future’ is bright.”
5. How big of a hole was left by Jamien Sherwood?
While the linebackers may lead the defense, Auburn’s secondary also won’t skip a beat after losing just 3 regular contributors to the NFL Draft process. Sherwood, a safety, is by far the biggest hole to replace, but Jordyn Peters and Christian Tutt will also be missed.
Many anticipated Nehemiah Pritchett continuing to work in at corner this season, but in an effort by Mason to get all of his best defensive backs on the field at once, Pritchett is sliding to the starting nickel, while Ladarius Tennison has moved to safety for the early lead in the race to replace Sherwood.
And Mason may know a thing or two about the secondary — he was the secondary coach of the Minnesota Vikings and at Stanford.
The move for Tennison to safety was necessary as the only other options would have been Chris Thompson Jr., who saw limited time in 2020 and early-enrollee Ahmari Harvey, who missed time this spring with an injury. West Alabama transfer Trey Elston will also compete for the spot after making a splash at A-Day winning defensive MVP.
The nickel and safety spot may be a small question, but the corners are locked down by Roger McCreary and Jaylin Simpson, who both had excellent 2020 seasons, not to mention the addition of Dreshun Miller from West Virginia’s best pass defense in the country.