AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn was far from a dominant unit defensively last season.
The Tigers finished 79th in Division in total defense (giving up 420.5 yards per game) and weren’t much better in scoring defense (allowing 24.7 points per contest), which ranked 48th in the country. But when things mattered most, Auburn excelled, as it was the best team in the SEC on third down, with opponents converting just 33 percent (66-for-200) of the time. It was a similar story when teams got close to the goal line, with Auburn ranking second in the conference in red zone defense (73.1 percent conversion rate), which trailed only Alabama.
Still, the yardage and point totals bothered defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to no end.
“The bottom line is that we’ve gotten some takeaways at critical times, we’ve made some really key fourth down stops, we’ve been good in the red zone, and we’ve been really good on third down for the most part. That’s why we have kept people off the board to some degree,” Johnson said in December. “The other contributing factor is that we run the ball well and have a good kicking game. Those are things that make it very difficult for an opposing offense to get points when you’re constantly losing 10-12 yards when you swap punts and can’t get the ball back on time. We have really given up way too much yardage to think that we have played extremely well this year, but we have played extremely well in some key situations.”
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No defender was involved in more significant plays than Dee Ford. On two different occasions — against Texas A&M and Georgia, respectively — the defensive end got pressure on the quarterback on the final play to seal victories for the Tigers. And Ford didn’t just wait until late-game situations to make his presence felt. Despite sitting out the first two games of the season due to a knee injury, he still finished second in the SEC in sacks (10.5) and tied for second in tackles for loss (14.5).
Now that he is off to the NFL, Auburn will look to younger ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel to try to replicate some of Ford’s production. When spring practice begins March 18, both will get their chance to audition for a starting job.
Even though Lawson had a better freshman season statistically — in addition to being named the defense’s “newcomer of the year” at the team’s award banquet in December — Daniel has already done his part to impress the coaching staff.
"He might be as good of a 1-on-1 pass rusher as we have," Johnson said. "He’s got a great first step, good power. Can use him inside or outside.”
Compared to defensive end, there likely won’t be as much competition at linebacker this spring. At the weakside spot, Cassanova McKinzy returns after leading the team in tackles (75) last season while Kris Frost will be alone at the top of the middle linebacker depth chart after sharing snaps with Jake Holland in 2013.
The biggest questions on defense are reserved for the secondary. The Tigers have to replace two starters in cornerback Chris Davis and safety Ryan Smith. Ryan White, a capable and versatile backup who played in every game last year, also graduated.
Auburn tried to address these concerns by signing six defensive backs in its 2014 recruiting class; that won’t help this spring, however, as none will enroll until later this year. In the immediate future, it would help matters if Josh Holsey can regain his health before the spring ends. The junior started the first six games of the 2013 campaign at boundary safety before his suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice.
When Gus Malzahn updated Holsey’s status last month, the coach was uncertain whether the safety would be cleared for contact during spring practice.
“The good thing is he's got some experience and so we kind of know what we're getting from him and (it gives) the other guys some opportunities to kind of show what they have,” Malzahn said. “Because last year we talked about having depth in the secondary, so hopefully that will provide some more going into the fall.”
Of course, that goal isn’t just confined to the secondary.
If the Tigers can bolster their numbers at every position — and in doing so, give them a better feel for the skill set of their less experienced players — the spring will be deemed a success by the coaching staff.
"We're going to have competition at every spot," Malzahn said. "Spring is a great time for coaches to kind of mix and match and put people in different positions."