Auburn might finally have the pieces in place for the defensive turnaround coach Gus Malzahn has promised the past two seasons.
Malzahn was similarly optimistic at the annual event last year thanks to the high profile hire of Will Muschamp.
The results weren’t spectacular — both in the win column and the weekly box scores — but the Tigers’ defense finished the season trending in the right direction holding three of their final five opponents to 20 points or less.
Auburn’s defense had its best statistical performance in more than two years in the Birmingham Bowl by holding a Memphis team led by NFL bound quarterback Paxton Lynch to 205 total yards of offense.
Premium content for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“We played well in the second half of the season,” Malzahn said at SEC Media Days in July. “There's a lot of carryover, as far as our defense last year and defense this year, which I think is important. And I think we got a chance to have one of the best, if not the best, defenses we've had at my time at Auburn, which I think is very important.”
Malzahn is putting faith in new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele to carry the momentum forward.
Auburn is bringing back a similar number of returning starters as it did in 2014, but the group’s overall depth is much improved and should create a sense of urgency during fall camp.
“The competition with guys coming in and stuff, you don’t want to get passed up,” sophomore defensive lineman Byron Cowart said during spring practice.
Cowart, who had a turbulent first year on the Plains, is one of the many young linemen competing to get in defensive line coach Rodney Garner’s eight- to 10-player rotation.
Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams will get as many reps as they want, but there is plenty of playing time up for grabs.
Cowart will compete with Marlon Davidson, Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown, Paul James III, Antwuan Jackson, Maurice Swain, Devaroe Lawrence and Dontavius Russell. The team’s depth at the position even allowed Malzahn to switch Prince Tega Wanogho from the defensive to offensive line during summer workouts.
Auburn’s depth in the secondary is equally as strong.
Defensive back Carlton Davis and safety Rudy Ford anchor a group with plenty of experience. Tray Matthews, Stephen Roberts, Jeremiah Dinson, Nick Ruffin, Joshua Holsey and T.J. Davis have all played meaningful minutes.
Graduate transfer Marshall Taylor and redshirt freshmen Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis give the coaching staff added options.
While Auburn isn’t as flush with talent or experience at linebacker, the situation isn’t anything to panic over considering experience didn’t translate to performance last year.
Tre’ Williams was the most experienced linebacker on the roster with only four starts until T.J. Neal officially joined the team. The graduate transfer from Illinois could help new linebackers coach Travis Williams develop promising underclassmen Darrell Williams and Deshaun Davis.
Considering Auburn’s defense hasn’t finished better than 62nd in the country under Malzahn’s watch it won’t take much for the group to fulfill the promise their coach made at SEC Media Days. The Tigers should get find out early in fall camp if they have the right combination of talent to finally get it done.