AUBURN, Ala. — There is only so much you can take away from spring practice. But the top talking point for Auburn football so far this offseason is clear — the Tigers defense has been dominant at the expense of its offensive teammates.
“You can just see them getting more confident and more confident and more confident,” Auburn running backs coach Tim Horton said last month. “To be honest, they bloodied our nose pretty good this spring. There wasn’t many days where we walked off the field and said, ‘Boy, we kicked their butt.’ That didn’t happen.”
Auburn’s defense dominated the first scrimmage of camp by forcing 5 turnovers and plenty more three-and-outs.
When the action was televised during the annual A-Day spring game, the first-team defense took things to a different level. Auburn’s second-team offense finished with negative yards in the first half.
The unit didn’t let up, even after backups rotated in, until a long touchdown run from walk-on running back C.J. Tolbert in the fourth quarter.
“They’ve done that all spring,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said.
Auburn’s defense enters its third season under coordinator Kevin Steele with plenty of momentum. The Tigers finished eighth nationally in yards allowed per play and 11th in points per game in 2017.
Although Auburn lost Carlton Davis and Jeff Holland early to the NFL — along with senior leaders Tre’ Williams, Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts — Steele’s defense looks ready for another top-10 finish. The players believe they can be the best in the country.
“I think it starts with Coach Steele and that staff,” Horton said. “They do a magnificent job of coaching them and motivating them and doing all the things that they do. I think the second thing is they’ve got really good players that now they’ve been in this system for a couple of years.”
Auburn returned the rest of its defensive line outside of Holland. Williams and Holland are the only missing pieces from a front seven that is deep with NFL-caliber talent.
The secondary is in a shuffling phase without Davis, Matthews and Roberts, but it created havoc throughout the first half of offseason practice.
“Our defense is the best in the country,” sophomore quarterback Malik Willis said after A-Day. “No doubt in my mind about it. Going against them every day is just making everybody better.”
And the defense didn’t mind proving its strength in spring ball.
“At the end of the day, you don’t ever want to look bad,” junior defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “If I’m going out there and I’m competing, I’m going to compete. I’m not just going to go out there and let somebody beat me. I’m not. That’s our defense. We’re different.”
Other Auburn defenders were quick to point out the Tigers’ offense — which missed several of its top players at different portions of camp — wasn’t a pushover. But they thrived on the confidence they’ve built after two strong years under Steele.
“It’s nothing against the offense,” junior defensive back Javaris Davis said. “It’s just that coach is always preaching, we have to focus on us, do our job, and don’t worry about the opponent that we’re facing. So we just give great effort and everybody plays as one.”
Auburn’s offense should be in a better place when fall camp opens later this year. It’ll have more of its top players back healthy. After all, defenses normally get the upper hand in the spring.
Yet when Auburn’s defense turns its attention to opponents instead of teammates, it expects to see that dominance come back.
“I think because the talent level, the system, the coaching, the effort that they play with, we’re always going to have a chance because teams are going to have trouble scoring on us,” Horton said.