Gus Malzahn felt at ease as he stepped to the podium in Hoover last month during Auburn’s turn at SEC Media Days.
Yes, the Tigers’ seventh-year head coach enters the season with hot-seat speculation abound — something he said he is embracing — and, yes, Auburn has uncertainty at quarterback ahead of its season opener against Oregon. There’s something else Malzahn’s 2019 Auburn team has: a good defense.
A very good defense. Perhaps even the best defense on the Plains in the last decade.
“I believe we have a chance to be the best defense that we have, at least in the 10 years I’ve been at Auburn,” Malzahn said. “That is a really good feeling.”
It’s a feeling that has permeated throughout the team during preseason camp, and one that was reiterated during the Tigers’ first scrimmage of the fall, when the defense absolutely dominated the offense. That prompted Malzahn to quip that if he wasn’t the head coach and solely held the title of coordinator, he wouldn’t have been smiling after the scrimmage.
So, after three straight seasons with a top-15 scoring defense under Kevin Steele — making Auburn one of just two FBS schools to accomplish that under the same defensive coordinator in that span — what sets this group apart from the rest Malzahn has seen since 2009, with 2012 the lone year he wasn’t on the Plains?
According to some of the players on this year’s defense, it boils down to four factors: experience, talent, athleticism and effort.
“Man, we got a lot of talent,” junior linebacker K.J. Britt said. “A lot of talent. This is probably the most athletic defense I’ve ever seen, really a smart defense, too. One thing that’s going to set us apart is that we have leaders in every room. When you got a field full of leaders, and everyone is going to get on the wagon and roll with it, you ain’t got a choice but to be good.”
Auburn returns seven starters on defense, including four in the secondary and three crucial pieces along the defensive line, as Derrick Brown, Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson — all likely first- or second-round picks in 2020 — opted to forgo early entry into the NFL this offseason. The team’s entire two-deep at safety is back, as well as veteran corners in Javaris Davis and Noah Igbinoghene.
The Tigers replace their entire starting linebacker corps from last season, which combined for 231 tackles in 2018, but what they lose in overall experience at the position, they should make up for in sheer athleticism and natural ability. That’s no knock on Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson, but the four linebackers expected to replace them on the two-deep this year include Britt (a former high four-star prospect who has emerged as the leader of the group), Chandler Wooten (a former three-star who earned Under Armour All-America honors), Zakoby McClain (a former high four-star prospect) and five-star freshman Owen Pappoe, who owns the Nike SPARQ testing record at The Opening.
While Auburn anticipates no drop-off at linebacker and an improved secondary, the true strength of the defense is that defensive line, which Malzahn believes could be “dominant” this season and has already stoked discussion about whether it’s the best in college football entering the season.
“We got every missing piece,” said Davidson, a four-year starter at defensive end. “We’ve got all the pieces back. Nothing is missing. K.J. Britt, he’s stepping up into his spot great. Chandler Wooten stepping in. Owen, Zakoby they’re doing a great job at linebacker. And secondary, of course we’re going to handle that. You got JD back there, and he’s flying around and he’s communicating with our guys.
“And the D-line, we’re going to be the best. I feel like we are going to be the best this year.”
Though Malzahn agreed that this year’s defense has no shortage of athleticism, he believes one of the biggest factors trending toward success on that side of the ball is the experience the Tigers have at each level of the defense. Auburn will start three seniors, as well as a junior and a sophomore in the secondary, likely two seniors and two juniors on the defensive line, and probably two experienced juniors at linebacker — even if they lack starting experience.
“We’ve been athletic in the past, but I think when you got experience you can play faster, you know, and be more instinctive, so I think that’s probably the biggest thing that I see,” Malzahn said. “They understand their defense, their role, the responsibility allows them to play faster than having to think through everything. At least with the older guys you can really see that.”
The Tigers also bring back Steele for a fourth year as defensive coordinator, which gives a welcome and somewhat unprecedented continuity on that side of the ball. Auburn hasn’t had a fourth-year defensive coordinator since Wayne Hall spent 10 seasons on the Plains from 1986-95.
“You can give praise to Coach Steele, man,” safety Jeremiah Dinson said. “He’s been here. He’s going on his fourth year here. That’s big. You know, a lot of things change. You know, he’s stayed with us.... We know the playbook in and out, so that’s good for us.”
As for the effort factor, Davidson believes this year’s unit has a “special” attitude and commitment to hustling that sets it apart from the other defenses he has been part of at Auburn. After all, the six starters who chose to return for 2019 all felt they had unfinished business to attend to, and they don’t want to let an opportunity pass them by due to lack of effort this season.
Even if Malzahn is brimming with confidence about this being Auburn’s best defense in at least a decade, the Tigers know they still need to go out and prove it on the field once the season begins.
“We’ve got a pretty good chance, but a lot of people — we could talk all day,” Dinson said. “We’ve still got to put the work in, which we’re doing, but we can. We can. It can happen.... It’s going to be good. But a lot of talk. Everybody can talk all day. But you know, we’ve got to put the work in.”