AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele evaluated his freshmen defensive linemen during preseason camp, he liked what he saw.
True freshmen Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown were rarely overwhelmed. The newcomers made few mistakes and when they did misstep, they responded with poise, handling the pressure and expectations like veterans.
Saturday night, however, against No. 2 Clemson, it was not just another fall practice. Yet even in a prime time game, and against arguably the top quarterback in all of college football, Davidson and Brown didn’t just prove they could handle pressure — they thrived under it.
Brown even recovered a fumble.
“It was pretty nice. We teach them out there that if you’re in traffic, get on it, curl up, don’t get up until you hear the whistle,” Steele said. “He followed that to a T. Go back and look at it on the TV. They had to come over there and get him off the ground. He was curled up like a little baby.”
But that little baby played like a beast.
“He’s much of a man,” Steele said. “He’s a powerful man. He’s real conscientious about what he does. It was a very good start for him.”
“He listened in practice,” junior linebacker Tre Williams said. “We worked on turnover drills, and we worked on fumble recovery earlier that week and he did the exact technique. So it was pretty funny, but it was really great to see.”
The 6-foot-3 Davidson, a January enrollee, was the first true freshman to start on the defensive line according to school records dating back to 1985. Davidson won the job in the spring, holding off more experienced players Paul James III and Byron Coward through the summer and preseason camp.
“He, as a rookie, did very well,” Steele said. “He had a winning grade. … And that’s hard to do as a rookie. He played well.”
Brown, who was rated a top 10 prospect by ESPN and 247Sports, also played early in the first half.
In 2015, the Clemson offense averaged 4.9 rushing yards per carry, while Watson averaged 5.3 yards per tote. Dabo Swinney’s Tigers ranked No. 16 in scoring offense last season, averaging 38.5 points per game.
That wasn’t the case in their season opener against Auburn, though.
Auburn’s freshmen helped hold Clemson’s potent offense to 3.4 rushing yards per attempt and allowed only 19 total points.
“As far as how guys played, across the board, we felt like we didn’t have a lot of critical errors,” Steele said. “Didn’t have a lot of mental errors. And as a whole we felt like we’ve got a very good starting point, but we’re not satisfied with a loss and we’re not going to be at all.”
But the season — and freshmen — are just getting started.
“Overall as a defense, playing a team like Clemson, we just feel like the sky is the limit for us,” senior captain Montravius Adams said. “Yeah, we have to come out and show it every week, but after playing them we feel like the sky is the limit.”