AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football’s defense set the bar last season under first-year coordinator Kevin Steele. Now it’s time to go higher.
In Steele’s first season, the Tigers jumped from 54th to No. 7 in FBS scoring defense. They don’t want to stop there.
“Now we have to be beyond that,” senior linebacker Tre’ Williams said Monday, after the team’s first fall workout of the 2017 season. “I still we feel like we have a lot to work on from last year because we didn’t win the SEC Championship or the National Championship so we’re still not as good as we should be. That’s what we’re working toward now.”
The Tigers defense is eager to forge championship aspirations into reality, even without four players who were selected in the 2017 NFL Draft. The unit has something perhaps even more important it’s been missing in recent seasons.
“More than anything, more than the defense, I’m glad we have the same defensive coordinator, if that means anything,” Dontavius Russell said. “I like him, he likes us and he puts us in a good position to do well, so that’s what I’m most excited about.”
Of course, Steele’s bringing consistency to Auburn’s defensive meeting rooms after years of a coordinator carousel. Also returning are defensive line coach Rodney Garner and linebacker coach Travis Williams, who will be joined by new defensive backs coach Greg Brown.
“It’s kind of like a type of deal where I feel like all of our coaches off set each other and it definitely fits well,” Russell said. “We’ve got coach Steele and Coach G and those two have a good balance together.”
Lofty goals and titles don’t seem to out of reach, however, when the path to reach that point has been laid out. And players buying in to the philosophy isn’t a concern, either.
“We know the coaching staff’s expectations,” Williams said. “They’re going to increase them, so it’s on us to keep playing, keep listening to them and they’re going to lead us in the right direction like they did last year. We did a lot of great numbers last year, so we can do even better numbers this year.”
With the exception of a handful of seniors like Williams and safety Tray Matthews, Auburn’s core leadership is on the younger side.
Russell, a junior, and rising sophomore Marlon Davidson are expected to anchor the d-line. Jeff Holland and other juniors have been waiting for their turn to shine. Then there are freshmen like buck Big Cat Byrant and Travion Leonard, who are expected to have an impact early in their first year on the Plains.
Still, Steele and his staff have prepared their young groups well in a short time.
“We got to have that confidence in ourselves,” Williams said. The defense has to have confidence in the offense, and vice versa. So we’re kind of blocking everything out and keeping ourselves motivated as a team, so we know that we have each other’s back.”
Somehow the staff has even trained their players on how to handle high expectations and hype. And there’s quite a bit of that surrounding Auburn heading into the fall. Still, Auburn’s defense remains unshakable.
“Like (coach Travis Williams) T-Will says, ‘Don’t drink the Kool-aid,’ Williams said. “Don’t listen to everything everybody says, because you don’t know. They might say something good about you one day and turn on you the next, so you can’t really look at that stuff. You got to block it out and just play within the team.”