AUBURN, Ala. — When the Tigers get the chance on obvious passing downs, they love to send in the rabbits.
Not actual rabbits, of course. But Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele wants to see his defensive line attack with the same quickness of those fluffy-tailed animals.
Auburn’s “rabbits” package is a speed-first package along the defensive line. On plays when Auburn wants to get after the opposing quarterback — especially third downs — starting freshman defensive end Marlon Davidson moves to tackle, replacing sophomore Dontavius Russell.
Sophomore defensive end Jeff Holland checks into the game, lining up at a standup defensive end spot opposite junior starter Carl Lawson. With Holland in the mix and Davidson bringing his pass-rushing speed to the inside, Auburn has four of its top five sack-getters for 2016 on the field at the same time.
“Jeff Holland is really considered a starter to us,” Steele said last month. “He’s considered a starter because when we go rabbits on third down he goes in and Dontavius comes out. He doesn’t like to come out, but he comes out … So it’s a pretty good group of guys to keep them fresh.”
And the rabbits do their job at an incredible efficiency.
In those three games, the package was responsible for 8 quarterback hurries, 2 sacks and a forced fumble that led to a Montravius Adams defensive touchdown. That means on half of the passing attempts the Auburn rabbits package faced, the defensive line affected the quarterback in some major way.
LARGE MAN TOUCHDOWN: Carl Lawson beats Rankin with ease, Montravius Adams scoops and scores, and Maurice Swain dusts off the big guy. pic.twitter.com/KeB1xVTiCz
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 9, 2016
Auburn didn’t even get many chances to run out the rabbits against Ole Miss thanks to the Rebels’ no-huddle nature that limited substitutions.
“We actually didn’t play rabbits very much,” Steele said Wednesday night. “Not (much) at all, simply because you can’t get them on and off the field when you’re ‘playing soccer.’ It’s hard.”
However, on the five plays in which Auburn used the formation, it came up with 3 quarterback hurries and a sack. The sack came from Holland on a 3rd-and-12 play in the third quarter. On the ensuing drive, Auburn took a 27-22 lead.
— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) October 31, 2016
“We were not as effective in third down,” Steele said. “That’s something that really somebody doesn’t pay a lot of attention to, but they were 4 of 4 in the first two drives. That’s bad for us. But then they were 3 I think of 12 for the rest of the game, which made a huge difference. That was directly affected by the guys up front.”
Holland has been especially effective in affecting the opposing quarterback in 2016. The 250-pound Holland is a pure speed rusher on the edge. He’s usually in the face of the passer whenever he checks into the game as that “fifth starter.”
According to Adams, Holland leans on the pass-rushing expertise of Lawson, who has 7.5 sacks and 21 quarterback hurries as the starting “Buck” defensive end.
“He’s been sticking close to Carl because he’s — you know — kind of a fan of the pass rush,” Adams said last month. “Some guys are just real big fans of the pass rush. I’ve seen him progress in the pass, and really, the thing about Jeffery is he’s a competitor, and he always wants to compete.”
While Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner uses a variety of combinations up front to combat the pass, the rabbits package is the most efficient at making impact plays.
“We work hard, and we get coached hard as a d-line by Coach Garner about the pass rush,” Holland said after Auburn’s win against Arkansas. “We just want to have a lot of pressures and sacks, and we just want to slow up the quarterback.”
Thanks to Holland’s effectiveness on the edge, the Tigers don’t drop off when they want to sacrifice starting experience in Russell with more speed.
The rabbits package is a key cog in Auburn’s deep line rotation, which has been the calling card of a resurgent defense in Steele’s first season on the Plains.
“When we play a game like tonight like we played we need a rotation,” Lawson said after Auburn’s win vs. Ole Miss. “There’s a lot of plays, they were pacing us, so you know you need a rotation of defensive linemen, and all of those guys are very talented.”