2014 Key Returnees:
Jeffrey Whitaker (Sr), Angelo Blackson (Sr), Gabe Wright (Sr), Montravius Adams (So), Ben Bradley (Sr)
Dontavius Russell, Devaroe Lawrence
I really thought Jeff Whitaker would provide much more this season; however, the senior DT missed the last few games with injury and never really was able to contribute too much to the defensive line. Out of the group of DTs, Montravius Adams and Angelo Blackson tied for the most sacks on the year for the tackles at three.
The Rhino package discussed in the early season - moving Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams to the end at times - did not pan out. At all. In fact, it was primarily abandoned early in the season and Wright and Adams moved back to the inside. Gabe Wright only accounted for one sack.
I thought the defensive line would be greatly improved, and that is even when I knew Auburn would be without defensive end Carl Lawson to help on the edges. I set as goals having the DT sack ratio going from 10% of Auburn's total sacks (as it was in 2013) to 25% in 2014, and dropping the rushing yards allowed from the 163 yards/game total of 2013 to much closer to 100 yards/game. Let's see how the Tigers did by those goals...
By this measure the season was a success because they accounted for 33.3% of Auburn's sack total during the 2014 season.
That 33%? Seven out of twenty-one. Yes, you read that right, Auburn only managed 21 sacks during the 2014 football season. The production on the ends just wasn't there. The defensive line that picked up 10% of the 2013 sacks actually had 1.5 sacks LESS in 2014, yet they still ended up with a high percentage of Auburn's total sacks. Of course, Auburn didn't have Dee Ford and his 10.5 sacks, and Carl Lawson managed four on his own in 2013. The lack of an edge rusher severely hampered Auburn's total line play.
Rushing Yards Allowed
At first glance, Auburn's run defense did not improve at all in terms of rushing yards allowed per game. In fact, they regressed by 5.77 yards/game. The defense allowed opponents to gain 168.77 yards/game on average during the 2014 season. Not all of that falls on the defensive tackles, but stopping the run was one of my big metrics, so all I have to go for is numbers. That 168.77 yards/game average IS a bit misleading, though. I'll get to just why, shortly.
The season started pretty well for Auburn's run defense. After allowing 153 yards to Arkansas (primarily all in the 1st half), they proceeded to shut down opponents' rushing attacks until the Mississippi State game. Allowing Texas A&M to rush for 176 yards is inexplicable and just one more bit of weirdness to tack on to that particular game.
The true damage to Auburn's total defensive numbers comes from the Mississippi State, Georgia, Alabama, and Wisconsin games. Auburn allowed their opponents to run for 223+ in each of those four contests. Allowing Melvin Gordon to run roughshod over them is what destroyed the stats.
If you remove the bowl game completely, Auburn allowed 149.5 yards/game rushing during the regular season. If Auburn had held Wisconsin to that number during the bowl game, it would have been good for 44th place in the nation and one spot ahead of Mississippi State. Instead, the Tigers finished 67th in the nation in rushing yards allowed per game.
So, had Auburn's defense performed to its season average to that point, the 2014 run defense would have improved over the 2013 run defense. Not by the amount that I was hoping for, but an improvement nonetheless.
You can't discount the bowl game, though. It was one of the more embarrassing performances by an Auburn defense, ever. Of all time. Allowing 400 yards rushing? Allowing one player to run for 300+? Granted, this is a player who set the single game rushing record earlier in the season in three quarters (only to have that record broken a week later), but still. We expect Auburn defenses to be able to handle that. This Auburn defense didn't.
Tackles For Loss
One metric I didn't account for in the preseason was tackles for loss. For the defensive tackles, that might even be a better metric for evaluating the season's success. Tackles for loss account for the penetration and stopping of run plays and screen passes. So, let's see how the Tigers measured up here.
In 2013, Auburn's defense accounted for 90 TFL. Of those 90, 24.5 of them were by players at the DT position. In 2014, Auburn accounted for 82 TFL, and 24 were at the hands of DTs. So the DTs accounted for 27.2% of TFL in 2013 and 29.2% of TFL.
Does that mean success? I think it means maybe the DTs performed a little better than I previously thought. They did not really improve over the 2013 season, but they may not have regressed as much as I feared. Most of Melvin Gordon's yards in the Outback Bowl were right up the middle, after all.
So as we approach the 2015 football season, how does Auburn look at the defensive tackle position?
I have to admit, this is a unit that scares me. Auburn lost a the majority of contributors at this position to graduation. Montravius Adams and Devaroe Lawrence are now Juniors. They'll be joined by incoming JUCO signee Maurice Swain. In terms of upper classmen... that's it. Underclassmen? Dontavius Russell will be a sophomore, Jauntavius Johnson will join the team as a part of the 2015 signing class. That's all of them.
I may be missing someone or had classes wrong from looking at Auburn's roster, but that's pretty bleak. Five defensive tackles? Montravius Adams will be eligible to go pro after this season. Nothing in his performance to date indicates he's ready to make that move, but Nick Fairley's junior season came out of nowhere, so you never know. The same could apply to the other two upperclassmen.
The good news is that Will Muschamp does often employ a 3-4 style defense with a hybrid DE/LB. I suspect we will see Auburn run a lot of that with the number of DTs projected to be on the roster. I also suspect you will see the 2016 recruiting class be filled with defensive tackle prospects.
As of right now, this is probably the unit on the team I am worried about the most. I'm worried about them because of depth and experience. Adams has a ton of potential, but his 2014 campaign didn't build upon 2013 the way we hoped. Maurice Swain will be called upon early and often to make a contribution.
I don't suspect Dontavius Russell will miss any playing time over the reported incident of "harassing" a female veteran, because I suspect nothing comes of it. He was the #12 DT in the nation in the 2014 class, and at 6'3, 285 lbs he will be a nice addition after a year of working with Ryan Russell. I hope Jauntavius Johnson is ready to contribute early, because unless Auburn moves a player inside from the end position, depth is going to be a big worry in 2015.
Next up: Defensive Ends.