HOOVER, Ala. — The best defensive mind in football didn’t stand on the Gillette Stadium sidelines or wear crimson in Tuscaloosa.
If you ask Auburn coach Gus Malzahn, it’s the man who just got run out of Gainesville, Fla., after losing 21 games in four seasons.
“In my opinion, he is the best defensive mind in all of football, not just college football,” Malzahn said of new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp during SEC Media Days on Monday. “His approach, his energy, his enthusiasm for the game, he just has that presence around him that he gives all the coaches confidence. He’s got the ‘it’ factor.”
Muschamp’s inability to turn Florida into a winner during his time there has been well-documented. Even that, though, wasn’t enough to erase the impressive pedigree he developed over two seasons on the plains in 2006-07 and three in Austin, Texas, from 2008-10.
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And that is why a defense that finished 65th overall is suddenly regaining the confidence it admittedly lost in the latter part of the 2014 season.
It’s the mental edge, Malzahn said, that has changed the atmosphere on the defensive side of the ball throughout the spring and summer.
“Playing with excitement,” he said. “In spring, they started taking on his personality and that’s a good thing.”
A year ago, any mental edge the defense had began to slip out the window when it allowed more than 30 points in seven of its final eight games. During that time, it allowed more than 40 twice and 50 once, losing three games in which it scored at least 30 points.
Senior defensive back Jonathan Jones said that the confidence is beginning to return under Muschamp.
“You can sense that these guys aren’t down on themselves,” he said. “We have to be able to maintain that confidence and battle through adversity this year.”
One way to do that is to lean on what Malzahn expects to be a much improved pass rush, something the team lacked down the stretch last season. Asked multiple times about the defense, he began each answer with that point.
Getting Carl Lawson back after a year on the shelf due to ACL surgery will make a big difference, Malzahn said.
“You saw it the second half of last season, we had trouble putting pressure on the quarterback,” Malzahn said of his absence. “To have him back 100 percent is a very big thing.”
“It’s going to make my job a lot easier,” Jones said of Lawson’s return.
Linebacker Kris Frost said the team was comfortable and confident in their new defense, transitioning well under Muschamp. More than anything, he was hungry for the opportunity to put to rest the popular perception of his defense.
Asked if the unit ever gets tired of being considered the team’s weak link, Frost pursed his lips and allowed a barely-noticeable smile.
“Every day,” he said.