AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football turned a major corner in the 2016 season when it came to defense, and its special teams unit was among the best in the entire country. In 2017, the Tigers expect more of the same.
Auburn will lose several of its top defensive players in recent memory — Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, Josh Holsey and Rudy Ford — to the next level. But the 2017 team returns plenty of starters, including a completely intact linebacking corps and several difference-makers in the secondary.
After taking a way-too-early look at what Auburn has coming in its 2017 schedule and what is in store on offense, let’s take a detailed walk through the projected defensive and special teams depth chart for 2017.
Again, this is an extremely early projection. Lots of names and roles will change between now and the start of the season. But, judging by the 2016 depth chart, practice observations and what those in the program have said over the last few weeks, here is the best guess at the pecking order when Auburn opens spring practice in a couple of months.
(Players in italics are current 2017 commitments who have not arrived at Auburn yet. Players with asterisks by their names are eligible for medical redshirts for 2016 and could have their classifications changed.)
- Marlon Davidson, sophomore
- Byron Cowart, junior
- Paul James III, junior*
After his strong true freshman campaign as a starter, Marlon Davidson is expected to be a leader for Auburn’s defensive line in 2017. Davidson will be the top returning lineman following the departures of Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, and the Tigers will need him to become a more consistent pass rusher in his sophomore season.
Byron Cowart will be competing for more playing time in the offseason after two underwhelming seasons following his signing as one of the top recruits in the country. Cowart couldn’t stay on the field consistently in 2017, and a late-season emergency appendectomy hurt some of his progress.
Paul James III can play either traditional defensive end or Buck, and he’s eligible for a medical redshirt after his knee injury early in the season. If he can get back to full speed, James has a chance to be a key player on the line.
- Derrick Brown, sophomore
- Antwuan Jackson Jr., redshirt freshman
- Jaunta’vius Johnson, redshirt freshman*
It’s next man up for Auburn at nose tackle following Montravius Adams’ departure. After playing impressively in spurts as a true freshman, fellow former 5-star recruit Derrick Brown looks like the man to take over at nose tackle. He brings plenty of size and athleticism to the position, much like Brown did, and many teammates tap him to be a future star.
Auburn has two players behind Brown in Antwuan Jackson and Jaunta’vius Johnson that bring tremendous size and skill. Jackson redshirted in the 2016 season, and Johnson could get a medical redshirt after suffering an offseason injury in his redshirt freshman year. They both need to step up and provide the depth Auburn relied on down the middle in 2016.
- Dontavius Russell, junior
- Andrew Williams, junior
- Alec Jackson, true freshman
This position is straightforward as well. Dontavius Russell returns after his second straight season as a starting defensive tackle for the Tigers. He’s an underrated force up front, taking on blocks to open up things for Auburn’s edge rushers and linebackers. His experience will be crucial.
Andrew Williams backed up Russell in 2017, and while he could challenge for a starting job at nose tackle, he looks more like a traditional tackle for the upcoming season. Auburn’s lone commitment on the defensive line for now, Alec Jackson, has the versatility to play both inside and outside in college and fits right here in a position that lost several seniors in 2016.
Buck defensive end
- Jeff Holland, junior
- Nick Coe, redshirt freshman
- Paul James III, junior*
Jeff Holland will have the early lead in the race to replace Carl Lawson as Buck defensive end — and, by definition, top pass rusher — in 2017. Holland was referred to as a “fifth starter” on the defensive line by defensive coordinator Kevin Steele for his work in the third-down Rabbits package. While he didn’t have the sack totals of someone like Lawson, he consistently got in the face of the opposing quarterback.
Nick Coe took a redshirt in 2016, but he could be in line for a monster 2017 season. The 6-foot-6 former high school wrestling champion turned plenty of heads during Sugar Bowl practices and has the natural skill set to be a demolishing pass rusher.
James can play Buck, and Auburn is fighting on the recruiting trail for more ends to add to its roster. The Tigers could also convert one of its several outside linebackers to Bucks this offseason.
- Deshaun Davis, junior
- Tre Threat, sophomore
- K.J. Britt, true freshman
- Tre’ Williams, senior
- Montavious Atkinson, junior
- Tadarian Moultry, true freshman
- Darrell Wiliams, junior
- Richard McBryde, sophomore
- Chandler Wooten, true freshman
In 2016, Auburn had one of its best years at linebackers since the days of Tommy Tuberville. And the great news for the Tigers is that all but one of their players there — senior reserve T.J. Neal — return for 2017.
The starters and backups should remain the same from the end of 2016. Deshaun Davis holds things down at middle linebacker, with Tre’ Williams taking most of the reps in two-linebacker formations as the weak-side starter. Darrell Williams, who has the ability to play all three positions, starts on the strong-side.
Auburn returns all of its backups there, including Richard McBryde, who had a strong season off the bench in 2017. When it comes to filling out Auburn’s current class of linebackers, look for K.J. Britt to play in the middle with Tadarian Moultry and Chandler Wooten to line up on the outside. However, all three have the ability to play anywhere in this unit, which should make them even stronger in 2017.
- Carlton Davis, junior
- John Broussard Jr., sophomore
- Malcolm Askew, true freshman
- Traivon Leonard, true freshman
- Javaris Davis, sophomore
- Jamel Dean, redshirt freshman*
- Jeremiah Dinson, sophomore
- Jayvaughn Myers, redshirt freshman
There are quite a few names and faces to sort out at cornerback in 2017. Josh Holsey is gone after his strong senior campaign, but the Tigers already have a ready-made replacement there in Javaris Davis, who opened the season as a starter opposite Carlton Davis and field cornerback.
Jamel Dean is a wild card. For most of the offseason, it looked like the Ohio State transfer would be the starter opposite Carlton Davis. But he suffered a knee injury in fall camp and missed all of his redshirt freshman season. The Tigers are still high on him, though, and he could make a move to the top of the depth chart.
John Broussard Jr. found a role as a true freshman, and Jeremiah Dinson should finally be back after the devastating shoulder and knee injuries he suffered against Texas A&M in 2015. Jayvaughn Myers will look to crack the rotation after a redshirt season. Auburn currently has two commitments who most likely will play corner in the versatile Malcolm Askew and the underrated Traivon Leonard.
- Daniel Thomas, sophomore
- Montavious Atkinson, sophomore
- Jordyn Peters, true freshman
Nickel is wide open after the departure of senior leader Rudy Ford. Daniel Thomas, who had two interceptions in the Iron Bowl and started in place of Ford in the Sugar Bowl, is the projected leader there. He had a surprising true freshman campaign, and it’s clear the coaching staff trusts him.
Montavius Atkinson, a safety-turned-linebacker, could also play nickel in 2017 for Auburn. He’s practiced there, and his strong-side linebacker spot is usually the one that is sacrificed when Auburn jumps into nickel packages. He has the coverage and run-stopping abilities to play there.
True freshman Jordyn Peters could be a face to watch at nickel because of his all-around skill set. Don’t be surprised if Auburn moves a safety or a backup corner — someone like a Tray Matthews, Stephen Roberts or Nick Ruffin — to play nickel this fall.
- Tray Matthews, senior
- Markell Boston, junior
- Carlito Gonzalez, true freshman
- Nick Ruffin, senior
- Stephen Roberts, senior
- Marlon Character Jr., redshirt freshman
Like linebacker, safety looks secure for Auburn after a strong season for the most part in 2016. Tray Matthews hasn’t made his decision to return for his senior year official, but he told reporters he expects to stay on the Plains. His leadership and tackling ability will be important for the 2017 defense.
Nick Ruffin and Stephen Roberts will continue to battle it out for the starting free safety spot after sharing the role in 2016. This depth chart could change depending on what Auburn tries at nickel. Markell Boston looks secure as Matthews’ backup at strong safety, and Marlon Character Jr. should be in line for some snaps as a redshirt freshman. Carlito Gonzalez has the look of a strong safety out of high school.
- Daniel Carlson, senior
- Anders Carlson, true freshman
- Ian Shannon, sophomore
- Anders Carlson, true freshman
- Tyler Stovall, senior
- John Franklin III, senior
- Ike Powell, senior
- Zach Wade, junior
- Bill Taylor, true freshman
Daniel Carlson is back for his senior season, which is fantastic news for the Auburn offense. Carlson will go after the Lou Groza Award as the nation’s best kicker, something he was a finalist for in each of the last two seasons. His presence will be immense on both field goal opportunities and kickoffs, as he was a touchback machine in 2016.
Carlson will also get the chance to mentor his younger brother, Anders, who will arrive on the Plains this offseason. Expect to see Daniel Carlson get one more big year as one of the Tigers’ best specialists of all-time before handing the reins to the next Carlson in line.
Right now, Ian Shannon is in line to replace Kevin Phillips as the Auburn punter. Phillips came on strong at the end of the season and booted plenty of un-returnable punts. Shannon needs to work on his consistency, but he has the leg to be a weapon there for the future. Anders Carlson can also punt, so he might be used as an emergency option there as a scholarship player.
Don’t overlook the fact Auburn is set to return the rest of its field goal team in 2017, too. Tyler Stovall and Ike Powell play key roles in Carlson’s success, and that consistency will go a long way.
- Kerryon Johnson, junior and Kam Martin, sophomore
- Jason Smith, senior and Kyle Davis, sophomore
- Stephen Roberts, senior
- Jason Smith, senior
Auburn will most likely open up the return man competition in the spring like it normally does, but here’s a projected look at how it could shake out. Kerryon Johnson should be a starter at kick returner. With Rudy Ford and now Stanton Truitt out of the picture, look for Kam Martin to use his speed on special teams in 2017. Martin repped as a second-team return man in Sugar Bowl practices and has the skills to be dangerous there.
At punt returner, Stephen Roberts brings the most experience, but Scott Fountain will most likely get several players to challenge him there in the offseason. For now, Roberts is a returning starter there, with Jason Smith providing some extra competition.