Anytime your defensive line loses two draft picks in Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, you probably shouldn’t having a shining outlook for the next season. That is, unless you’re the group set to shine for the Auburn Tigers in 2017, which boasts a very solid and deep group that should uphold the benchmark set by the 2016 Auburn defense.
Auburn will lose a combined 13.5 sacks with Lawson and Adams departing to the NFL, but there’s plenty of experienced older talent to go along with the wild young bucks that the Tigers will play this season. Let’s check the group, shall we?
Through the first couple of days of practice, Auburn’s first-team defensive line has looked this way:
FIRST LINE OF DEFENSE
Defensive End - Marlon Davidson
Davidson spent all last season contributing for Auburn after getting the surprise start in the opener against Clemson. He never disappointed either, racking up 38 total tackles, 6 TFLs, and 2.5 sacks in his true freshman campaign. He’s got a humongous frame at 6’3 282 pounds, and could be one of the guys who moves inside to play the defensive tackle spot on obvious passing downs.
Defensive Tackle - Dontavius Russell/Derrick Brown
Brown’s another lineman who played in his true freshman season, coming on more toward the end of the year (even though he did recover a fumble against Clemson). He began to get more regular work from late October onward as he finished the year with 11 tackles and a sack. The 6’5 316 pound monster should be able to disrupt the middle of offensive lines throughout the SEC, especially when he’s paired with the wily veteran in Russell. Russell began his career with a bang in the 2015 season opener versus Louisville, as he racked up 2.5 TFLs and a sack in his debut. Last season he did not record any TFLs, instead serving as more of the run-stopper and finishing his year with 28 total tackles. At 6’3 310 pounds, he and Brown provide nearly 650 pounds of beef in at the forefront of Auburn’s defense.
Buck - Jeff Holland
Blooming up to 250 pounds in the current Auburn strength program, Jeff Holland’s put on the proper size to be able to play with a hand on the ground, or roaming around on the edge, as the Buck position calls for in this defense.
Holland finished with just 13 tackles in 2016, but he had 3 TFLs to go along with that, and a fumble recovery against LSU early on. His build reminded me of Tray Blackmon when he came out of high school, but overall, he should be a nice disruptive force taking over for Carl Lawson on the edge. Expect his sack numbers to go up this season.
NEXT GROUP UP
Defensive End - Nick Coe
If you’re looking for an unexpected guy to come in and make a big difference this season for Auburn, look no further than Nick Coe. The redshirt freshman from Asheboro, NC has increased his heft from 240 pounds last year to more than 270 pounds as fall camp has begun in Auburn. He’s been the next guy in line behind Davidson at the defensive end spot, and he’s already drawn some incredible comparisons due to his size and quickness.
Auburn defensive end Marlon Davidson compared redshirt freshman Nick Coe to Myles Garrett last night. Here's why. https://t.co/DpKUHMlg5F— Justin Ferguson (@JFergusonAU) August 3, 2017
With the amount of defensive linemen that Auburn’s traditionally played over the last few years, Coe will certainly get plenty of opportunities. His versatility has been noted by defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, who believes he’ll be able to contribute from multiple spots on the line as a pass rusher. Put a start by his name now, and we’ll see if he lived up to the preseason hype as the year goes along.
Defensive Tackle - Byron Cowart/Andrew Williams
Here’s a double-dip case of two big, highly-rated defensive ends out of high school bulking up and moving inside to play the tackle spots. Both Cowart and Williams weigh in between 280-290, but this is a case of getting more athletic guys on the inside instead of the classic hogmollies that Auburn boasts with the first team defense.
The story of Byron Cowart is long-documented, with the ultra-hype out of high school as one of the countries best players overall, he hasn’t exploded the way we thought. He’s got just 12 total tackles over the last two seasons to go along with a single tackle for loss, but much more has been made about Cowart getting the mental aspect of things straightened out as he’s moved inside.
As for Andrew Williams, he came out of high school as the nation’s 12th best defensive end according to 247, but he’s also sputtered over the last two years. He’s got just 17 tackles, but blossomed into more of a run-stopper last season. This year, as he’s made the move inside, he’s trying to apply things he learned from Montravius Adams last year.
Buck - Paul James III
James joins the defensive line crew in wearing an unusual number (#10), to go along with his unusual talent on the field. After winning the Defensive MVP award at A-Day back in the spring, James has been slotted as the second guy at the Buck position early on in fall practice behind Jeff Holland. He’s got similar size to Holland at 6’3 260, and worked through an early spring injury to stand out to everyone in the spring game. Coaches and players alike raved about his ability to stop the zone read, and to work through the mental roadblock that stemmed from his injury last year.
The thing about the two-deep that we’ve seen through the first few fall practices is that starters will really be name-only. The defensive coaches at Auburn have such a heavy rotation on the defensive line that all eight of these guys should play a ton of snaps in all different combinations. For younger guys like Davidson and Brown, working in unison with some of the older guys will help their growth, but Auburn’s definitely not lacking on the line. Count the front as a strength for the Tigers heading into the 2017 season.