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Auburn defense needs newly established playmakers to keep stepping up

Michael Niziolek

mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Auburn defensive back Carlton Davis, No. 18, intercepts a pass in the end zone at Kentucky in Lexington, Ky. on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2015.
(Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)
Auburn defensive back Carlton Davis, No. 18, intercepts a pass in the end zone at Kentucky in Lexington, Ky. on Saturday, Oct. 15, 2015. (Zach Bland/Auburn Athletics)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn believes the offense has made it through “difficult times” heading into the second half of the season.

Malzahn was addressing the midseason quarterback change with his comments during his weekly Tuesday press conference.

The same can’t be said for a Tigers’ defense that’s dead last in the SEC in total defense (426.2 yards per game), and tied for second to last in scoring defense (25.7).

Both numbers went up this past week as Auburn gave 27 points on 497 yards of total offense to Kentucky.

As hard as defensive coordinator Will Muschamp is working for a quick turnaround, the defense isn’t suddenly going to become the class of the SEC. He will have to settle for smaller victories -- an improved turnover margin, forcing more negative plays -- stemming from individual defenders stepping up as reliable playmakers.

One name that keeps popping up is true freshman Carlton Davis.

“He made one of the key plays of the entire game against Kentucky,” Malzahn said.  “He's a guy that's getting more and more confident, he's playing very good football, he's a good tackler and he's playing very good on special teams. He's definitely been a bright spot.”

Opposing quarterbacks picked on Davis earlier this season, but he's settled into starting role. Davis has forced a turnover in each of the past three games (two interceptions and one forced fumble).

“Being a young guy, he’s really improving,” linebacker Tre’ Williams said. "His ball skills are great and that’s what we really love about him.”

He leads the team two interceptions to go with 12 tackles (10 solo), one pass break-up and a forced fumble.

Without Carl Lawson, Auburn has lacked much of a presence up front outside of Cassanova McKinzy. McKinzy moved from linebacker to defensive end two weeks ago, and the experiment has paid off sparking production on both sides of the line.

DaVonte Lambert’s name was barely mentioned in the early part of the season, but he spent was very disruptive in the backfield against the Wildcats.

He sacked Patrick Towles for a loss of eight yards at the end of the first half Saturday. Lambert’s play on third down forced the Wildcats to punt, and helped the offense close out the second quarter with a last second field goal.

The senior also played a pivotal role in forcing a turnover on downs on Kentucky’s final possession.

On a short fourth down attempt, he burst through the Wildcats’ offensive line to get Towles to roll out of the pocket where the quarterback was met by linebacker Justin Garrett. 

“He's very important and you can see him improving each week,” Malzahn said. "He's getting more confidence in the knee. I think he had one of his best games, if not his best game, last week. He's a guy before he got hurt last year was playing very good. You can see him getting back to that level and it's very important the second half of the season he does that.”

Lambert injured his knee last year against Samford then missed the final two games of the season, and spring practice.

The 6-foot-2, 282-pound senior lineman has 13 tackles, four solo, with one sack and three quarterback hurries. His sack against Kentucky was the first sack by an Auburn defensive lineman in five weeks.

Last year, he had 3.5 sacks in 11 games.

Lambert admitted that his confidence level is finally getting back to where it was at this time last year.

“I’m starting to get more confidence in myself than I had earlier this season,” Lambert said. “It’s also showing in the games that I’ve been working on it in practice. I feel pretty good, getting close.”

Michael Niziolek covers Auburn football for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. Email him at mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com or follow him on Twitter, Facebook or Google+

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