War Eagle Extra

Michael Niziolek: Auburn defenders feel at home in Steele Country

Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele walks the field before the game against Arkansas State on Sept. 10, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele walks the field before the game against Arkansas State on Sept. 10, 2016 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn might not be in the Rust Belt, but the football team is firmly in Steele Country.

And proud of it.

The program’s third defensive coordinator in as many years is inspiring players in ways his predecessor couldn’t.

Kevin Steele’s folksy, low-key demeanor is in stark contrast to the fiery presence Will Muschamp cut during his brief return to the Plains.

Players tried to make it work under Muschamp and maybe it would have given more time, but Steele’s vastly different approach is one that instantly resonated.

Joshua Holsey noticed the difference this spring and he wasn’t even practicing at the time recovering from a torn ACL.

“They was really intense,” Holsey said.

Holsey connects Auburn’s defensive turnaround this season — currently 15th in the country in scoring defense (16.4 points per game) —to a fairly simple sounding message Steele has emphasized since he accepted the job at the end of December.

“He always said we are going to lead the nation in effort,” Holsey said.

Relentless effort to be exact.

“You tackle, you got physical and mental toughness, you know your job and you do your job; you keep doing that over and over,” Steele said defining the phrase in September.

The payoff for Auburn players who buy-in — or let it become “second nature” as Holsey describes — is leeway to grow on the field.

According to Holsey, the approach is a unique one.

The veteran defensive back is someone who would know as one of the few players remaining on the team who has actually played for four different defensive coordinators. Holsey credits Steele’s even-handed temperament for spurring the growing confidence on Auburn’s sideline.

“I feel that’s why we are playing to our best right now…” Holsey said. “When you are making a big game plan and you always worry about messing up you aren’t going to play as well. He always tells us if you make a mistake it’s on him. Only thing he wants you to do is to play 110 percent and give a lot of effort. When coach tell you that, you don’t have to worry about making a mistake. You might piss him off, but you don’t worry about it during the game. Everyone is feeding off one another.”

Steele’s not ready to declare mission accomplished yet.

Auburn’s defense has graded well on the effort scale through the first five weeks of the season, but there’s still work left to be done as the Tigers get ready to hit the road for the first time this season.

“We have to play to our standard,” Steele said. “It's not about the opponent, never will be. It's not about who we play, where we play, what time we play, but obviously all those things are different this week. We've got to make sure that our guys understand that to the fullest.”