Better or worse? Previewing Auburn's defense in 2022
Auburn has plenty to like on defense in 2022, and there’s plenty to build on from last season.
Despite the result, the defense in the Iron Bowl, for example, collected 7 sacks in a highlight-reel bonanza against Alabama. It was the most sacks for the Tigers in any game since the 2005 Iron Bowl. Overall last season, Auburn finished 5th in the SEC in scoring defense (21.8). There were notable departures but also key returnees who put off the NFL for another year.
So, let’s take a look at some categories and play better or worse for Auburn in 2022:
Pressuring the QB: Better
The defensive line is one of the bright spots for Auburn in 2022, led by Derick Hall, who announced his return in December, and is expected to be a first-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. He led the Tigers last season with 9 sacks, which was 3rd in the SEC, and 12.5 tackles for a loss, which was 9th. Another veteran pass rusher is 4th-year sophomore Colby Wooden, who also enjoyed a strong 2021, as he had 8.5 tackles for a loss and 4.5 sacks.
Hall is one of the clear leaders on the d-line, and was a vocal supporter of Bryan Harsin during the offseason turmoil that centered on his job security and future. He and Eku Leota both received high praise from Harsin coming out of the spring.
Leota added plenty of protection behind Hall, as he added 10 tackles for a loss and 7 sacks, second on the team in both categories. Dylan Brooks is another contributor in this area, and has a couple of mentors in Hall and Leota to help elevate his game.
Since 2013, Auburn only has 2 players to reach double figures in sacks, but with this combination, there’s plenty of possibility for Hall and Leota to join the likes of Jeff Holland (2017) and Dee Ford (2013) in that special production category.
Run defense: Worse
The Tigers were near the top of the SEC (5th) last season in a special year for run defenses, as the Tigers allowed just 126.9 yards per game, and that was also 29th nationally. One major addition to the middle of the defensive front is Oregon transfer Jayson Jones, a former Alabama commit and originally from Calera, Alabama. He’s listed at 6-5, 320 and had 19 tackles last season. He was a 4-star prospect in high school in Calera. He committed to Alabama in 2018, but was a 2020 signing day flip to Oregon. The plan is for Jones to be an anchor on the d-line.
Stopping the run will include several new faces, including linebackers coach Christian Robinson, who played at Georgia and previously coached at Florida. The departures of Chandler Wooten and Zakoby McClain will give way to the likes of Wesley Steiner and Cam Riley. The youngsters offered a positive glimpse into the future in the spring game when Steiner led all players with 6 tackles, including 4 solo stops, while Riley was the defensive MVP after he contributed 5 tackles and a sack.
Of course, the main cog in the middle of the defense will be veteran Owen Pappoe, who will be back for a fourth season. Last season, Pappoe missed significant time because injuries, and only appeared in 5 games. However, over 3 seasons, Pappoe has played in 29 games, and made 163 tackles, including 12 for loss and 6 sacks, as well as 5 passes defended (1 interception), a forced fumble and a fumble recovery.
Pass defense: Better
A couple of key figures in Auburn’s secondary, Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday, have moved on and it won’t be easy to replace them, as they were at one time indispensable pieces of the Auburn secondary. Along with experience, finding a replacement in leadership will be key, and that will come in part from Vanderbilt transfer Donovan Kaufman, who is in his second year in the program, should be in the mix at nickel, and is among the most vocal players in the secondary. Other nickel options include Zion Puckett.
Some new faces could help improve the production numbers, as Auburn was near the bottom (12th) in the SEC in pass defense a year ago, as the Tigers allowed 245.8 yards per game, and 23 touchdowns.
Jaylin Simpson, despite a series of injuries, has plenty of potential. Others in the mix at cornerback are Nehemiah Pritchett and Oregon transfer DJ James. Cross-training will be a key for the Auburn to be diversified and build depth across the board.
At safety, Caleb Wooden burst on the scene during the spring, and other new faces to round out the options are Cayden Bridges and JUCO transfer Marquise Gilbert.
Wooden, a freshman safety, made 2 turnovers during Auburn’s first practice of the spring back, and big plays were a theme from him throughout the spring.
Special teams: Better
Auburn last year finished 2nd in the SEC in punting in 2021, as Oscar Chapman averaged 44.1 yards per punt. If Auburn can develop a strong running game and defense, a bread-and-butter approach would see the punter flipping the field and improving field position as a natural complement. However, it’s difficult to maintain that average for another season.
In the return game, Pritchett was Auburn’s best kick returner last season and should start the season there again. On punt return, Kaufman and Jarquez Hunter are the candidates.
Harsin’s philosophy leans on special teams, and especially early last season, Auburn took advantage of key special teams plays. That’s one reason he uses starters on special teams.
Auburn has had significant turnover, especially along the defensive line, but there are plenty of faces to make a jump in production.
For example, Jones, who can play a 4-technique or 3-technique, came in from Oregon after the Tigers lost 10 players this offseason to graduation or the transfer portal. That includes 5 on the interior line where Jones will be front and center, and try to replace the likes of nose tackle Tony Fair graduating while Dre Butler, JJ Pegues, Lee Hunter and Marquis Robinson all hit the portal. Because of those departures, depth is an obvious concern up front. On the back end, there is more versatility and potential to be flexible.
There’s a good mix of experience and potential here to have an overall improvement from last season.