Auburn University

Gus Malzahn may have his ‘best defense in 10 years at Auburn.’ Here’s why.

Auburn’s Derrick Brown talks about setting an example for younger players at SEC Media Days 2019

Auburn's Derrick Brown spoke with media at SEC Media Days 2019 about the importance of setting an example for younger players.
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Auburn's Derrick Brown spoke with media at SEC Media Days 2019 about the importance of setting an example for younger players.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn became a popular name in the college football world when his fast-paced offense took the SEC by storm back in 2013.

The rest of the nation might have caught up, as Malzahn said “everybody is going fast now.” This season, though, it may not matter. Now, Auburn’s defense is the talk of SEC Media Days. The Tigers return an experienced group anchored by two talented defensive linemen in Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown, and the head coach is not short of confidence in the group.

“Defensively, I think we’ve got a chance to be the best defense in my 10 years at Auburn,” Malzahn said. “That is a really good feeling. It starts with our defensive line, and the three guys who chose to come back.”

Those three guys, Davidson, Brown and redshirt junior Nick Coe, must fill the void left by departed four-year starter Dontavious Russell. They’ve got enough talent: Brown was named to the 2019 Bednarik Award (CFB’s best defensive player) watch list after he had 48 tackles (24 solo) and 10.5 tackles for loss a season ago.

Davidson, meanwhile, had 46 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. Davidson also led the SEC with three blocked kicks. Coe, last season’s starter at buck, grabbed 27 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and seven sacks.

The other major area of experience for the Tigers defense is its secondary, the group that returns nearly everybody from a season ago, and boasts three seniors — Daniel Thomas, Javaris Davis and Jeremiah Dinson. Malzahn said the senior trio is “leading the way,” boasts lots of big-game experience and is full of confidence.

“(The secondary) had an outstanding spring,” Malzahn said.

Now, the TIgers’ experience and confidence must translate to results. Auburn’s defense ranked No. 38 in total defense in 2018, behind LSU, Georgia, Alabama and other conference foes. The Tigers ranked outside the top 50 nationally in red-zone defense, and tied for 16th in team sacks.

Davidson said he works with tackling dummies “all day” to make up for all his missed sacks in 2018. He said the missed sacks irked him the most, and have been one of the driving forces behind his offseason work.

“Waking up every day and thinking that I was so close to making this play or I was this close to making that play,” Davidson said. “I have been working on finishing the big plays.”

Given the fact that Auburn has no starting quarterback as of yet, and considering the inconsistent play of the offense last year, the pressure on the defense only increases.

The Tigers ranked 30th in third down defense last season. It gave up a first down on around 37 percent of the plays in that situation. That’s something the Tigers wish to improve, too. Auburn opponents converted 68 third downs.

“At every position, we need to be very good around whoever’s going to be our starting quarterback,” Malzahn said. “And the thing about us with our schedule, the first part of our schedule is a man schedule. So we need to go in a hurry.”

Malzahn is was not lying. Auburn’s opening opponent, Oregon finished 9-4 last year and beat Michigan State 7-6 in the Redbox Bowl. They beat Washington, just like Auburn, and return a talented quarterback in Justin Herbert, who made this year’s Maxwell Award (best quarterback) watch list and threw for 3,151 yards and 29 touchdowns last season.,

Three weeks after the Oregon game, the Tigers travel back to Texas to face Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M, which beat LSU and took Clemson down to the wire last season.

Fans will find out pretty quickly, then, if this Tigers defense is as talented as it’s made itself out to be.

“Nobody wants to be a loser,” Davidson said. “Being a loser hurts. You feel bad, you feel like you let people down. This year we are going to make sure that the Auburn family is happy. I promise that I am going to leave (the Auburn football program) the best that I can.

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Joshua Mixon is a reporter for the Ledger-Enquirer. He covers sports (Auburn and preps) and local news, and is a member of the Football Writers Association of America. He previously covered Georgia athletics for the Macon Telegraph. You can follow him on Twitter @JoshDMixon.