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Michael Niziolek: Coach Gus Malzahn’s fate in defense’s hands

Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams addresses the defense on A-Day at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday, April 9, 2016.
Auburn linebackers coach Travis Williams addresses the defense on A-Day at Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday, April 9, 2016. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Coach Gus Malzahn can only shrug off Auburn’s offensive struggles for so long.

Is this an offense capable of averaging 35 to 40 points a game in the SEC? If everything breaks right — and Malzahn’s pick at quarterback proves capable of running his system — it’s still hard to picture the group reaching the same heights as the ones that helped define the coach’s status as an offensive guru when he took over as head coach.

With Malzahn working to keep the temperature on his seat at bearable levels, his fate is going to be in the defense’s hands.

Malzahn signaled as much when he tried to explain why he wasn’t panicking about the offense following a disappointing A-Day performance at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

“I feel like our defense has a chance to be good,” Malzahn said. “We have more depth that we had before. I don’t feel bad, let’s put it that way.”

It’s a strange place for Auburn to be in given the defense’s lackluster results during Malzahn’s tenure. This is a team that’s given up more than 400 yards and 25 points a game each of the past three seasons.

Given the way Auburn’s recruited the past two years and the presence of a healthy Carl Lawson, there’s reason to be hopeful this could be the year Malzahn gets it right on the defensive side of the ball.

Lawson isn’t the only veteran Auburn is happy to have back — coaches expect defensive lineman Montravius Adams to be an impact player this fall — but the oft-injured junior is the type of player a program can build its defense around. On multiple occasions this spring, Malzahn described Lawson as unblockable while Adams called his friend the complete package.

The combination of a healthy Lawson and talent level that’s been significantly upgraded over the last two years makes for an intriguing mix of talent.

Auburn has a star in the making in the secondary with Carlton Davis and a handful of potential breakout players including linebacker Tre Williams and surprising freshman defensive line Marlon Davidson.

Williams, who is expected to be the defense’s anchor in the middle of the field, boasted about the talent level after the first team defense shut down all three quarterbacks on A-Day.

“I loved it,” Williams said. “Like (linebackers coach Travis Williams) T-Will said, we basically don’t have starters because everybody is going to play. That’s a really good thing. That’s something we didn’t have in the last (couple of) years I’ve been here. So it’s good experience.”

The days of Auburn expecting to outscore anyone it lines up against are long gone. When the games count in the fall, the team might have to find its identity on the defensive side of the ball to compete for an SEC title and keep Malzahn on the Plains.

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