AUBURN, Ala. — Josh Holsey says he smiles more than anyone else on the Auburn football team.
And heading into his final game as a Tiger, Holsey says he’s beaming about the matchup he’ll face from Oklahoma, which is led by Heisman Trophy finalists Dede Westbrook at receiver and Baker Mayfield at quarterback.
“We’re smiling. We know they’re going to come out and they’re going to try us,” Holsey said Monday after Auburn’s fifth Sugar Bowl practice. “They’re going to throw the ball around. They’ve got two great guys, and that’s just going to help our defense with that exposure. You get to face Heisman candidates. You don’t get to face them too many times.”
The presence of Mayfield and Westbrook is generating plenty of energy for Auburn’s defense as it heads into the Jan. 2 Sugar Bowl.
“They’re very excited to be playing the Sugar Bowl against a very good Oklahoma team,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said last week. “Their quarterback is a phenomenal player. He’s good in the pocket. He’s probably even better when things break down. He can extend plays and makes good decisions. … The Westbrook kid is probably one of the better players in college football.”
Westbrook ranked fourth nationally this season with an average of 122.1 receiving yards per game. He also scored 16 touchdowns, which tied for fourth in the FBS.
The Heisman finalist had at least 100 receiving yards in eight of the last nine regular-season games, including 200-yard contests against Texas and Texas Tech. Westbrook has more than twice the amount of receptions (74) as the next highest receiver on Oklahoma (running back Joe Mixon at 32).
Approximately 42 percent of Mayfield’s 38 passing touchdowns, 40 percent of his 3,669 passing yards and 31 percent of his 235 completions went to Westbrook in the 2016 regular season.
“He’s pretty explosive. He blows the top off the coverage a lot, so we’ve got our hands full,” Holsey said. “It will be a good matchup though; they’ll be a great matchup for us as a secondary. He’s one of those guys that we’ve got to make sure we know where he’s at at all times on the field because he’s their go-to guy.”
Westbrook specialized in the deep ball from Mayfield during the regular season. He either tied for the national lead or has the outright lead in receptions of 50-plus, 60-plus and 70-plus yards.
Auburn’s defense, though, prevented those explosive gains during the regular season. The Tigers only allowed 3 receptions of 50-plus yards, and only one reached the 60-yard mark.
“That’s like our main goal each and every week,” Holsey said. “We go into each game to make sure we don’t get the top blown off the coverage. We might give up like a 27-yard gain, but it’s a catch-tackle. We don’t really give up too many deep balls like that. … As long as we do that, I feel we’ll be in great shape.”
Although Holsey won’t play for Auburn after the Sugar Bowl, he’s excited to be a part of the matchup against one of the nation’s most prolific offenses. Holsey believes the game will be a launching pad for the secondary in 2017.
“They’re going to be really, really good,” Holsey said. “Once they get everybody back … they’re going to be really hard to deal with come next year. I feel bad for whoever they got to go against, especially the offense in the spring. … I can’t wait to watch those guys next year.”
According to the always-smiling Holsey, grabbing that momentum for his teammates for 2017 is exactly the way he wants to end his Auburn career.
“They’ll be a top 10 team next year … if we go out and get the win,” Holsey said. “That will send all the seniors out with a smile on our face. It would cap the season off to be one of the good seasons, one of the great senior classes to come through.”