AUBURN, Ala. — On paper, Auburn football should have its most balanced roster under Gus Malzahn in 2017. But each positive aspect of the Tigers roster has a potentially troublesome flip side. Here’s a preview of Auburn’s upcoming season using each position’s biggest reason for confidence and its biggest reason for caution.
Behind quarterback, the second-most critical position in the SEC might be defensive line, home to some of the nation’s best talent in the trenches.
Although Auburn football lost two of its best defensive linemen in recent history this offseason in Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, there’s still a lot left over from its resurgent 2016 campaign. Auburn uncovered a pair of potential stars from its 2016 recruiting class, and it could go as much as three-deep with former blue-chippers across the front.
The Tigers still have to come up with a permanent solution to a problem that stumped them for years — without Lawson, who leads the way in sacks and quarterback hurries? Auburn will enter the fall looking for a couple of potential difference-makers to stand out from the pack.
If this unit plays to its potential, it could be the best on the defensive side of the football. But if there’s a drop-off from 2016, Auburn could feel the ripple effect across Kevin Steele’s entire defense.
2017 Auburn football defensive line
- DEFENSIVE ENDS
- Marlon Davidson (Sophomore; 6-foot-3 and 282 pounds)
- Jeff Holland (Junior; 6-foot-2 and 249 pounds)
- Paul James III (Senior; 6-foot-3 and 260 pounds)
- Nick Coe (Redshirt freshman; 6-foot-5 and 270 pounds)
- Tre Threat (Sophomore; 6-foot-1 and 244 pounds)
- Markaviest Bryant (True freshman; 6-foot-5 and 224 pounds)
- Tyler Carter (Sophomore; 6-foot-1 and 270 pounds)*
- Gary Walker (Sophomore; 5-foot-11 and 270 pounds)*
- DEFENSIVE TACKLES
- Dontavius Russell (Junior; 6-foot-3 and 310 pounds)
- Derrick Brown (Sophomore; 6-foot-5 and 316 pounds)
- Andrew Williams (Junior; 6-foot-4 and 286 pounds)
- Byron Cowart (Junior; 6-foot-3 and 283 pounds)
- Jaunta’vius Johnson (Sophomore; 6-foot-2 and 324 pounds)
- Tashawn Manning (True freshman; 6-foot-3 and 320 pounds)
- Tyrone Truesdell (True freshman; 6-foot-2 and 338 pounds)
- Alec Jackson (True freshman; 6-foot-5 and 280 pounds)
CONFIDENCE: Plenty of talented depth
Auburn football lost its two most productive defensive linemen and a couple of depth pieces on the interior. However, this unit could improve on 2016 thanks to sheer depth — even with the departure of former top-50 recruit Antwuan Jackson.
The Tigers signed four defensive linemen and could move a piece or two around to create a wave of talent. Marlon Davidson heads into his second season after a bright debut as a starting defensive end in 2016. Former 5-star Derrick Brown has the potential to pick up where Montravius Adams left off. Jeff Holland, the projected starting Buck, is constantly in opponents’ faces.
Defensive line coach Rodney Garner said this spring he wanted 10 “championship level” defensive linemen for the upcoming season. He has eight scholarship players at defensive tackle alone in 2017, led by third-year starter Dontavius Russell.
While defensive end isn’t as deep, there’s a high ceiling there with Davidson, Holland, Paul James III and Nick Coe. Each of those edge defenders have played well in spurts already — Coe’s work coming in practice as a redshirt — and the sophomore Davidson is the only one who has had a lot of playing time. There’s a lot of room to grow, and a lot of depth to keep everybody fresh and happy.
“It helps us perform in the fourth quarter,” Garner said this spring. “It helps morale in the room. It helps practice. Guys, I think they go out there and know, ‘Hey, if I go out there and bust my butt and I’m coachable and I’m fundamentally sound and not busting my assignments, I can do it at a championship level. I know Coach will play me on Saturday.”
CAUTION: Rebuilding the pass rush
Of the 23 sacks by Auburn defensive linemen last season, 13.5 of them came from Lawson and Adams. Add up the career sacks for the Tigers’ returning linemen, and you only get 11. That means Auburn has to quickly engineer a pass rush in 2017 with pieces that haven’t done it much at the collegiate level.
Holland created a lot of pressure last season but seemed a half-second away from quite a few big plays in the backfield. If he can take that next step — literally — he’s the ideal pass rusher to lead the way this fall. Davidson’s high motor and natural skills should make for a good-sized jump in his numbers as well. James was a constant presence in the backfield at A-Day after missing most of 2016 with injury.
But, as Garner said in the spring, everyone will have to step up in 2017. Brown and former 5-star Byron Cowart have the ability to play both inside and outside, and the Tigers might have to get creative to generate extra pressure. Markaviest Bryant or even someone such as natural linebacker T.D. Moultry could provide early shots in the arm as true freshmen.
“Last year, we were a pretty good four-down pass rushing team,” Garner said. “So the goal is to be a better four-down pass rushing team. That’s a process.”
It’s a process that might be slow at first. Lawson was one of the most skilled pass rushers in college football — even if the numbers didn’t always show it — and Adams had a great senior season attacking the quarterback from the inside.
Over the last few seasons, the Tigers struggled mightily in this category when Lawson was out, and now he’s gone. Auburn has the pieces for another strong defensive campaign, but a rebuilding pass rush could keep it from reaching a dominant level.