AUBURN, Ala. — The realization hit Darrell Williams on the way back from an Auburn football practice in Week 1 of fall camp.
He was walking down the stairs at the Auburn Athletic Complex with two of his fellow linebackers, Deshaun Davis and Montavious Atkinson. The trio recalled a moment in camp when linebackers coach Travis Williams was “getting on” them for something that happened in practice.
That’s when the junior linebacker from Hoover, Ala., said everything would be different for Auburn’s defense in 2017.
“We were saying last year [what happened in practice] would have been OK, but we hold ourselves at a higher standard because last year is not good enough,” Williams said. “We want to be better than we were last year as a group. We’re going to keep working to get better.”
Last year isn’t good enough for Auburn, but it was a revelation at the time.
Auburn put together its best defensive season since the Tommy Tuberville era. The Tigers’ long-running Achilles’ heel under Gus Malzahn — defense — turned into their strength. Auburn was among the top-25 programs nationally in statistics such as yards per play, points per game and third-down efficiency.
The Tigers are set to return seven starters from that defense and several more players who were key reserves. With that experience in the second year under defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, Auburn’s defenders are thinking big.
“I mean, the sky’s the limit, you know?” junior cornerback Carlton Davis said. “Where we left off last year is something we’re building on. We’re trying to be a better defense than last year. We’re trying to create more turnovers and improve ourselves as a whole defense.”
That mentality has spread across Steele’s defense, which will enter its third year in a 4-3 over scheme that utilizes a hybrid Buck defensive end. The system, which was installed by Will Muschamp in 2015, continued in 2016 under Steele with little change.
“Coach Steele is making that comfortable environment, but we have a standard to live up to as well,” Williams said. “Over the past couple years there’s been a lot of moving around, so I feel like everyone staying with that one defense and building on top of that. Everyone feels good.”
Auburn’s defensive line, anchored by Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, took plenty of the spotlight in that comfortable scheme last fall. While those two stars are now in the NFL, they left behind a measuring stick for Auburn’s returning linemen.
“We’ve just got room to improve … so we can be able to be dominant this fall,” said sophomore defensive tackle Derrick Brown, Adams’ likely replacement. “So we understand that the level of play and that Auburn defense is set to a certain standard, and we’ve got to go with it.”
Behind Brown and the defensive line sit Auburn’s linebackers, which returned all three starters and several rotation pieces. They also added three blue-chip freshmen, including 5-star signee T.D. Moultry.
Their goal this season is to have Auburn’s first All-SEC linebacker since Travis Williams, their position coach. Beyond that, the unit has eyes on national recognition.
“The mindset is to be better than we were last year, to be one of the best linebacker corps in the nation,” Atkinson said. “We have to set the standard higher than it was last year.”
Auburn’s secondary has echoed its linebacker brethren so far in fall camp. While the Tigers’ secondary has changed the most from 2016 to 2017, expectations are rising.
Auburn lost starting cornerback Josh Holsey and nickel back Rudy Ford to graduation. It also lost depth at safety due to offseason departures, and several defensive backs weren’t 100 percent in spring camp due to injuries.
But Holsey said Auburn would have college football’s top defensive backfield in 2017, and his teammates believe they can do it.
“We can be the best in the country, I believe,” senior safety Stephen Roberts said. “I really believe that.”
Last season, Auburn got people around the country talking about its defense. And while pairs of key players are gone both up front and on the back end, the self-belief is running high among Steele’s unit.
“I think we most definitely have improved since last year,” sophomore cornerback Javaris Davis said. “Really, I think it’s just coming from that we’ve played and have game experience. We know what our expectations are — not for ourselves individually, but for ourselves as a secondary and a defense and a whole team.”