AUBURN, Ala. — Joy is not a word commonly used to describe the inner-workings of Auburn’s defense in recent years.
More often than not, it’s been painful, as the Tigers finished near or in the bottom half of the SEC in major statistical categories over the past five seasons.
Auburn’s quest to become a top-10 defense for the first time in nine years is an ongoing process, and though progress was made last season (zero offensive touchdowns allowed in the Birmingham Bowl, for example), “joy” was never uttered by coordinator Will Muschamp.
This spring, however, has provided renewed confidence under first-year coordinator Kevin Steele, especially with a deep and experienced defensive line returning this season.
“The biggest thing is the attitude that they’ve had about working hard and responding to demanding to play with great effort and that you’re physical and that you tackle,” Steele said. “The way they’ve bought into that has been — I wouldn’t say it’s a pleasant surprise, but I would say it has been a joy to see.”
Yes, a joy to see. The return of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams along the defensive line have provided Steele a nice base for his positive feelings, especially as the duo takes on more leadership at end and tackle, respectively.
“We’ve improved on everything,” said Lawson, “but we still have a long way to go.”
Auburn’s defense hasn’t changed much since Muschamp bolted to become the head coach at South Carolina in December. Most of that is because the defense branches from the same tree: the Nick Saban tree of defense. Some of the calls remain the same and familiarity has led to looser practices and, as a result, more production.
“We’ve kept it pretty vanilla because we wanted to find out who would play with toughness, who would play with great effort and if you’re thinking and worried about making mistakes and busting then that’s pretty hard to do,” Steele said. “We’ve kept it very, very vanilla.”
The players have been heavily involved with the transition, too.
“Really, coach Steele is trying to help us, and we help him,” Adams said. “If we ask him stuff that’s similar to what we had last year, he’ll make the play call more similar or something like that. He wants it to be simple. He wants us to just go out and execute.”
Save for a 75-yard touchdown pass from Jeremy Johnson to Roc Thomas on a wheel route out of the backfield, Auburn’s defense has limited big plays in the two major scrimmages this spring. They’ll get a chance to show Auburn fans at the first public scrimmage of the spring Saturday — the Tigers’ annual A-Day game inside Jordan-Hare Stadium (3:05 p.m. CT, SEC Network).
“Probably the biggest thing I have noticed — if you had seen the scrimmage (last) Saturday — was the ability to control snap after snap after snap the explosive plays,” Steele said. “We just didn’t let things get out deep on us or long on us. If you do that in this league you’ve got a chance.”