AUBURN, Ala. – It should come as no surprise that the deep and disturbing defensive line that Auburn brings to Athens on Saturday contains nearly as many Georgians with an attitude as the home team’s.
After all Rodney Garner, the former longtime recruiter and coach for Georgia, now recruits and coaches for the Tigers. And if there is a lad of a certain size and disposition anywhere between Blue Ridge and Bainbridge, Garner will know of him. Add to that the fact that Auburn recruiters always have fed on the green pastures of its neighbor state.
“Credit Auburn being a special place, a great school,” the Tigers’ coach Guz Malzahn said, beginning his public-service announcement/explanation for the origins of his D-line. “(Credit) Rodney Garner having Georgia ties. And traditionally, we’ve always recruited well in Georgia. It’s a big state for our success.”
What is notable is that said line is right at the heart of a nice little bounce-back season for the Tigers. They got lost there for a little bit behind the offensively consumed Malzahn. Now, they are found, behind their fourth defensive coordinator in five years (Kevin Steele), and this deep defensive line in which players rotate in and out like birds at a feeder. The Tigers enter Saturday’sgame ranked eighth in the land, at 7-2 (5-1 in the SEC).
You can’t say you weren’t warned. Malzahn informed the world before the first snap that his D-line was one of the best, if not the best, such unit in the country. How now does the coach believe the players have come up to his expectations?
“I think they have played well all year,” he said. “Now we’ve got some young guys starting to step up helping us with depth. It has been a good year up front.”
Wait for it … wait for it. Here comes the inevitable coach’s disclaimer: “We have to continue to build upon that thing. This week’s no different. We’ve got to play well up front. We’ve done that every game so far.”
It will take a village to chase down Bulldogs freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, but Auburn comes in waves, bringing all levels of experience. From junior Carl Lawson (sack leader with 8.5, from Alpharetta, Ga.) to 6-foot-5, 330-pound freshman Derrick Brown (who has played both tackle and end, from Sugar Hill, Ga.). From senior Montravius Adams (the leader, from Vienna, Ga.) to freshman Marlon Davidson (a prized signee from, no, not Georgia, but rather Alabama).
The Tigers comfortably can slip in anyone from their two-deep depth chart, five of those players with Georgia on their birth certificates.
Adams and Lawson have emerged as real play-wreckers, combining for 11.5 sacks and 38 tackles for a loss. That is the way to get noticed, spending so much time in the opponent’s backfield that they really should invite you to be a special guest speaker in the huddle.
And it is good to be noticed, Adams has found.
“Seeing all the publicity about the Auburn defense, it’s really exciting to be a defensive player now you’re hearing about defense. Especially having been here a couple years and nothing really being said about the defense,” he said.
The quiet was well-earned. The Tigers ranked 71st in the country in total defense last season, 66th the season before and 87th in 2013. They are a relatively robust 25th thus far this season.
Malzahn this week picked out one lineman on which to brag. Not easy when you have an embarrassment of riches in this supposedly hard-to-fill position group (for anyone outside of Tuscaloosa, that is). That would be the 6-4, 309-pound Adams.
“He’s a different player this year. Now, he was a really good player before, but he has really raised his level. He is becoming a man. He’s growing up, he’s more mature. His approach to practice, his approach to games. He’s one of our best players,” Malzahn said.
“It’s more of a mental mindset, just trying to get better at all the little things that coaches say, the little things that you see wrong with yourself,” Adams said, explaining the difference. “Being able to take coaching better.”
As to what credit the new defensive coordinator deserves for this season’s improvement, Adams points to Steele’s adeptness at clutter removal.
“The main difference how coach Steele runs his defense: We want everything to be simple. We want everyone to know their assignments. So when it’s time to go out there and play, it’s easy to go out and execute. Everyone knows the couple assignments that they have and just do what you have been taught,” Adams said.
Nothing much complicated, after all, about crashing the line of scrimmage and creating mayhem. Especially this week for a group with so many players who already feel right at home on the Georgia side of the line.