MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Standing in the Alabama summer heat at Wynlakes Golf and Country Club, former Auburn players discussed the future of their alma mater, and all of them sparked their prognostications on one foundational block: the Tigers defense.
That conversation would not have been at the forefront of discussions last season, or the last seven years on the Plains for that matter. The Tigers defense hasn’t ranked in the top 25 since 2008 and ranking in the bottom half — if not the bottom of the barrel — of the SEC has been more common than not since Gus Malzahn became offensive coordinator in 2009 and later the head coach in 2013.
But with a strong defensive line returning, led by end Carl Lawson and tackle Montravius Adams, even a former Auburn quarterback and Malzahn protege is siding with the defense this upcoming season.
“Outside the quarterback position, I’m excited to see what the defense is going to do,” former Auburn quarterback Chris Todd said. “I think we have a good group of guys over there. Coach is doing a good job on the defensive side of the ball. All the coaches are pumped up. I did an event with them last week and they all seem very optimistic.”
Former Auburn offensive lineman Kendall Simmons, a two-time Super Bowl champion, is also siding with the defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s defense this season. Simmons played for Tommy Tuberville before he was drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2002.
“It’s probably the most excited I’ve been about a defense really since (linebacker) Karlos Dansby and (cornerback) Carlos Rogers,” Simmons said. “I really think they’re going to be the heartbeat of the team. We’ll probably have to lean on them a lot. I want to see what they’re going to do behind the center.”
All three of the former Auburn players to speak to SEC Country at the Montgomery Auburn Club’s 19th annual Scholarship Golf Tournament seemed to favor one quarterback over any other on the Auburn roster: sophomore Sean White, who threw one touchdown last season after replacing Jeremy Johnson as the starter three weeks into the season.
“You know what, I really like what Sean White can do,” Simmons said. “I haven’t seen the transfer (John Franklin III). I saw the young guy, the freshman (Woody Barrett), they’ve got that is coming in. Right now I know he’s just still learning the system, the guy who uses his legs and can probably turn into a good passer, but I think Sean White can do a good job. I’d just like to see him stay healthy. I think he makes good decisions and I think he can handle it.”
White injured his ankle and knee late last season, opening the door for Johnson’s return as starter until White regained the reins in the Birmingham Bowl. The two quarterbacks combined to throw 11 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
Todd can relate to needing a good defense to back up the offense. He set several Auburn records, including throwing five touchdown passes in a game, during his 2009 debut with Malzahn calling the plays.
“If you look back the last few years, there’s been a lot more pressure put on the offensive side of the ball at Auburn,” Todd said. “When you have a head coach coming in that’s offensively minded or a coach coming in that is defensively minded, people tend to look at that side of the ball. Even the quarterback position specifically, I personally think there’s more pressure on the guy at Auburn because they’re looking for the offense to roll. Anything you can do to help that, especially a guy that’s coming in that’s new or a guy that is trying to find his way as he matures, I think that’s great. The defense is only going to help things.”
Auburn opens the season with five straight home games, starting with national runner-up Clemson, led by Heisman Trophy front-runner Deshaun Watson. Kickoff is Sept. 3 inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I really think they’re going to show up and surprise some folks and do really well,” former Auburn defensive end Bret Eddins said. “The pieces are there in a lot of areas to have a great team. It’s just a matter of showing up and making plays. We were a lot closer to winning some of those games last year than I think a lot of people realize, so if you just make a few more plays, extend a drive or get a turnover here or there, that can really flip the season in more ways than people realize.”