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‘Best in the country:’ Imposing defensive front driving Auburn’s improvement

Auburn's defensive line poses for a group photo during a 58-7 win over ULM Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn's defensive line poses for a group photo during a 58-7 win over ULM Saturday, Oct. 1, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn has made significant improvements on defense this season heading into the halfway point of the season.

The secondary is better with Joshua Holsey anchoring the opposite side of the field as standout defensive back Carlton Davis while the Tigers’ depth at safety has helped prevent teams from going over the team.

Auburn’s linebackers have been anything but the weak link they were expected to be.

Deshaun Davis is at the center of the group’s development drawing rave reviews through the first five games.

Coaches credit the linebacker for being a key leader on the field — making the proper checks, getting players in position, communicating with his teammates — while having a knack for getting to the ball.

The upgrades in the secondary and at linebacker have contributed to Auburn’s improvement, but coaches and players see the defensive line as the driving force in this year’s leap forward.

“Want the truth? We have one of the best pass rushes in America right now, that’s what I feel,” Holsey said this week. “Those guys up front are some of the best we have in the country.”

Auburn is ranked 15th in the country in scoring defense through the first five weeks of the season giving up 16.4 points per game. The last time the Tigers’ defense accomplished the feat through an entire season was 2008 when it allowed 18 points per game.

Holsey attributed the defense’s success to holding opposing offenses to a 30 percent conversion rate on third down to what the linemen are doing in the trenches.

“On third down, you know those guys are going to get to the quarterback and effect pressure and it seems like no one can run the ball on the interior on the front seven,” Holsey said.

Auburn’s defensive line isn’t just getting to the quarterback on third down situations either. The Tigers’ have 11 sacks this season and have hit the quarterback 41 times. The numbers through five games put them on pace to beat last year’s numbers (19 sacks, 78 hits) by the end of October.

The relentless pressure impacts the opposing offenses in a number of ways even if Auburn doesn’t end up putting the quarterback on the ground.

Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele described how the relentless effort he sees on film impacts the opposing quarterback in a number of ways — it can change a quarterback’s launch point, make him move around the pocket, make him throw it when he doesn't want to or distort what he's seeing.

“When you start seeing seven, eight, nine hurries, as well as some sacks, the clock's ticking — get rid of the ball,” Steele said of the opposing quarterback’s mindset.

The group is benefitting from tremendous depth — Auburn is relying on a 10-man rotation up front — that allows starters like Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams to be rested in key situations late in the game.

“The expectations they put on each other in practice they make each other better,” Steele said. “I think that has showed.”