Better or worse? Previewing Auburn’s defense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS’ annual preview of every SEC team’s defense continues with Auburn. Coming Wednesday: LSU.
First-year Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin was brought to The Plains for his offensive acumen and ability to develop a quarterback, but if the Tigers succeed in 2021, it likely will have more to do with an upper-echelon defense, rather than the dreams of Bo Nix taking a step forward.
Harsin has tasked former Vanderbilt HC Derek Mason to lead the defense. While typically new coaching staffs are left with a fairly anemic roster, that’s not the case at Auburn.
In Kevin Steele’s 5 seasons as defensive coordinator, the Tigers never rose into the top 4 of total defense in the SEC but also never dropped below 8th. Last year’s team ranked 6th in the SEC, and much of that talent returns, including the SEC’s leading tackler in Zakoby McClain.
One of Harsin’s most endearing qualities to Auburn brass was his history as an effective recruiter, and the new head coach went to work. He landed several defensive transfers who will see significant time immediately and may work into the starting rotation, and a couple of blue-chip recruits to build for the future.
After examining the offense, it’s time for the defense to go under the microscope and see if there is enough there to lead this team and return it to the top of the SEC West. Will 2021 be a year of substantial improvement, or will the defense regress under a new staff?
Pressuring the QB: Better
Auburn’s pass rush was fine last year. The Tigers finished 6th in the SEC, averaging 2.36 sacks per game, which was better than the 2019 effort (2.15). The rush just wasn’t dominant enough to overcome shortcomings on offense. With Colby Wooden returning at defensive end and backed up by Zykeivous Walker, and Derick Hall at edge along with Caleb Johnson, the Tigers were already set to have an improved rush.
Auburn didn’t have any glaring holes at the defensive end or edge positions moving into this season, but there was enough of a need to utilize the transfer portal, where the Tigers pulled 2 players who could pay immediate dividends in 2021.
Eku Leota may be the most impactful addition. The defensive end’s move from Northwestern was the first signal that Harsin and new defensive line coach Nick Eason would be competitive recruiters. Leota played in 8 games last season and finished with 5.5 tackles for loss and a team-high 4 sacks.
Additionally Auburn welcomes former Kansas defensive end Marcus Harris to the program this year. As a redshirt freshman for the Jayhawks last season, Harris led the team with 7.5 tackles for loss. Eason said he hopes to use Harris something a kin to Marlon Davidson, a versatile weapon who can play either end or tackle, a useful skill given the fluidity of Mason’s scheme.
And let’s not forget what is possibly the strongest returning linebacker duo in the SEC, Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe, who combined for 7 sacks in 2021.
Auburn’s pass rush may not be the best in the SEC, but it certainly will not be lacking in talent and could find itself near the top of the conference.
Run defense: Better
Not to be a broken record, but Auburn’s run defense was a middling group in 2020, allowing 163.4 yards a game, 8th in the SEC. But with so much continuity from last year, there’s reason to believe that Tigers take the next step in grounding the run game.
Auburn returns 5 of its top 7 tacklers, including McClain who led the SEC with 113 tackles. Tyrone Truesdell and Marquis Burks return and should start at defensive tackle. Auburn’s top incoming freshman before the Dylan Brooks drama was defensive tackle Lee Hunter, who looks on pace to play a decent-sized role.
Much like the pass rush, there really aren’t a lot of questions to be had regarding the run defense. Much will come down to execution.
Pass defense: Better
Really the only question on Auburn’s defense has to do with its secondary. Who will fill the starting safety role vacated by Jamien Sherwood? And how will the Tigers deal with thinning depth caused by departures via the NFL or transfer portal of Jordyn Peters, Christian Tutt and Chris Thompson Jr.?
For a while it looked as though the Tigers’ only option at safety alonside Smoke Monday was going to be Ladarius Tennison, before the transfer portal and Harsin’s recruiting prowess bore fruits.
Mason also brought one of his former starters, Donovan Kaufman. The safety only started and played in 2 games last year for Vanderbilt before COVID complications sidelined the freshman, but playing against SEC teams in Mason’s defense likely will go a long way, not to mention he’s likely to be Auburn’s kick returner.
But what Auburn may lack at the safety position, it more than makes up for with the top-end talent and experience of Roger McCreary and Monday, 2 of the better returning defensive backs in the league. PFF ranked them as the best pair of returning coverage defenders in the red zone.
Behind McCreary is Jaylin Simpson, who had a fine 2020 in his first full season, as well as Nehemiah Pritchett, who will move to the nickel.
Adding even more depth to the cornerback position, if not maybe a starting position alongside McCreary by season’s end, is West Virgina transfer Dreshun Miller. Miller led the Mountaineers’ Big 12-leading pass defense with 8 passes defended in 2020.
Special teams: Same
Auburn rotated punters last season between Oscar Chapman and Aidan Marshall. Neither was particularly spectacular, averaging 41.0 and 42.3 yards, respectively, with each having just 1 punt sail longer than 50 yards. Both return for 2021, so it will likely be the same scenario.
There’s also always the fan-favorite possibility that Bo Nix drops a little pooch punt, something he did on 3 occasions last year, but with a completely new coaching staff, there’s no telling whether they’ll stick with the bit.
The Tigers were always a respectable SEC defense under Steele, but there’s no question some of the depth and defensive line play had fallen off outside of a few playmakers as the Gus Malzahn recruiting pitch grew stale. For what Auburn lacks in clarity at certain positions on offense, there’s no lack in talent on defense.
Mason should have a very successful Year 1 as DC with the players he inherited. The defense will have to lead the team while the offense works out its kinks, and they’re certainly more than capable of doing so.
Defense travels, and some of Auburn’s toughest games are on the road. If Harsin has any ideations of a 9-3-type season, it will be because the defense turns out to be one of the best in the league.