Better or worse? Previewing Auburn's defense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 3rd in a series previewing every SEC West team’s defense. Next: LSU.
Auburn football owed a lot to its defense in 2019.
The defense was 7th in the SEC overall and 6th in scoring, and it was often the defense that kept Guz Malzahn’s side in games when the offense struggled to find consistency. That’s how they beat Oregon in the opener. The statement game was holding LSU, the nation’s highest-scoring offense, to a season-low 23 points. LSU averaged 48.4.
The Tigers were headlined by All-American Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. Auburn amassed 28 sacks last season with Brown and Davidson combining for nearly half of them (11.5) – that’s a lot of production departing. However, the Tigers also had to say farewell to 4 other starters.
That’s a lot of quality talent to replace.
The good news for Malzahn and DC Kevin Steele is that entering the 2019 season, the Tigers had to replace almost as many starters and ended up fielding a strong defense. Can history repeat itself?
Does Auburn return enough good pieces to take over some big shoes?
Let’s play better or worse.
Pressuring QB: Worse
The Tigers generated pressure last season, although they found it hard to hit the quarterback toward the end — only recording 3 sacks in the last 3 games. They finished the season with 28 sacks — 10 fewer than 2018.
Brown and Davidson were unique players and a big reason for the success Auburn had up front.
Brown recorded 170 tackles in 53 games, while Davidson was a menace at defensive end, recording 170 tackles and 17 sacks. So it’s common sense to think that the defensive line will be a bit worse – especially at the beginning.
However, defensive line coach Rodney Garner does return some talent in the trenches.
Big Kat Bryant is a disruptive force to passing offenses and heads into the season with 7 career sacks and with a team-best 9 quarterback hurries in the 2019 season. However, the 6-5, 247-pounder will need to step it up if he is going to live up to expectations. He finished his junior season 16th in total tackles with 16 tackles (6 solo) and 1.5 sacks. Bryant is expected to work on the outside, taking over Davidson as Auburn’s leading pass rusher.
Meanwhile Tyrone Truesdell is also expected to take up a bigger role after his 3-sack performance last year. He has played a pivotal role alongside Brown, however, is now expected to take up more responsibility with the All-American gone. Coynis Miller is expected to line up next to Truesdell at defensive tackle, replacing Brown. Last season, Miller had 4 tackles and 2 pass breakups in 10 games.
Bryant and Truesdell have the chance of earning individual honors, but it’s safe to say that this group will need to step it up in order to reach the level of production in 2019. A hard task if you consider Brown and Davidson will be key NFL contributors this upcoming year.
Run defense: Better
This will be the defense’s strength, even without Brown dominating the middle.
Auburn finished 4th in the SEC against the run last season, allowing 123 yards per game. That was the fewest under Malzahn’s watch.
Steele received some good news in the offseason when K.J. Britt decided to return for his senior season. He is set to anchor a veteran linebacker group, which includes Chandler Wooten and Owen Pappoe.
Britt was named first-team All-SEC last year, after he recorded 69 tackles, 10 for a loss, 3.5 sacks and 2 forced fumbles, and is expected to be a premier run-stopper on the inside.
Auburn’s 4 top linebackers made 200 tackles in 2019 and they are all back in 2020.
Pass defense: Worse
Auburn finished 8th in passing yards allowed last season, 10th in TD passes allowed and tied for 6th in interceptions.
The secondary could take a step back with the Tigers set to replace all of its starters with cornerbacks Noah Igbinoghene and Javaris Davis and safeties Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas all gone. On the other hand, Auburn does not lack talent in the secondary.
Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday can very well ease into the starting lineup, with the upcoming season offering opportunities to both ChristianTutt and Jamien Sherwood.
McCreary is the veteran. He led the team with 11 pass break-ups last year and added 1 interception, while also finishing with 36 tackles.
Monday, one of the top athletes in the country as a 4-star recruit in 2018, is a favorite to secure one of the starting roles at safety. Monday is no stranger to big plays. He blocked a punt against Alabama during his freshman campaign. In order for Auburn to not have a fall of production in the secondary, Monday will need to use his combination of size and athleticism to his advantage. He loves to attack the line of scrimmage, but Steele will need to pick the spots. He is a high-risk, big reward type of player who could feature prominently for Auburn.
In the same vein, Tutt has also shown the ability to make big plays. In 2019 he started 12 games at nickel, recording 32 tackles, 4 for a loss, 1 sack, 1 forced fumble and 2 interceptions.
The secondary will need time for the right pieces to be put in place. That’s Steele’s job. The good news is, the pieces are there.
Special teams: Worse
Punting is the unknown heading into the 2020 season.
Auburn might be forced to use kicker Anders Carlson as a punter after Arryn Siposs’ decision to leave school early. Malzahn’s other option is to turn to walk-on redshirt freshman Patrick Markwalter – the only punter on the roster.
Siposs was one of the SEC’s better punters last season, averaging 43.84 yards per attempt. One huge problem: 14 of them were returned, on average, for 17.29 yards. That was the worst in the country. It’s an area Auburn has struggled with, which is puzzling considering the caliber of athletes available.
The Auburn defense lost some big starters, including the 2 big All-Americans up front, however, the foundation is there. It might take a bit for the pieces to line up perfectly but there is potential for the Tigers to put together a very productive defense if a few players step up.