Another spring practice means another offseason of questions. How will Auburn rebuild the offensive line? Who will be Auburn’s new bellcow at running back? What do all these injuries mean to Auburn’s wide receiving core? Can Auburn replace important pieces in the defensive backfield? Which freshman or little used reserve is ready to turn into a big time contributor?
All important questions that we won’t really know the answer to until kickoff in September. But for me, the main question I have coming into this season is a simple one. Just how good will this defensive line be in 2018?
Big Time Returning Talent
One of the biggest question marks heading into the 2017 season was how the heck Auburn was going to replace the big time production of Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Throw in also having to replace important rotational pieces Devaroe Lawrence and Maurice Swain and it was clear Auburn’s DL might take a bit of a step back in 2017.
Auburn actually got better up front which is a credit both to Rodney Garner’s ability to recruit and develop top talent. Jeff Holland emerged as Auburn’s new pass rushing star while Derrick Brown took over Adams’s role as the dominant interior presence. Dontavius Russell did Dontavius Russell things while Andrew Williams emerged as a quality #3 DT. Nick Coe lived up to the hype as a do it all man up front and Marlon Davidson battled through injuries to put together a solid sophomore campaign.
Everybody but Sensei Mud return in 2018. This is going to be fun.
Russell returning was under appreciated news for this defense. You could argue that the big man was playing his best football the final weeks of the 2017 season. Heading into the first Georgia game in November he had for his career compiled 5.5 TFL and 1.5 sacks. He matched that TFL total and doubled the sack total over the final 5 games of the year. Oh and he was doing things like this...
Brown is already starting generate some buzz for the 2019 NFL draft which should be no surprise. The towering 6’5” 330 lbs beast lived up to that 5* billing in 2017 with 57 total tackles, 9.5 tackles for loss, 3 sacks and a forced fumble for good measure. That’s 14 more tackles and 1.5 more tackles for loss than Montravius Adams produced in his explosive senior season. There’s a very good chance Brown will be even better in 2017 especially with his battery mate Russell returning for his final year of eligibility.
One of the more underrated players in Auburn’s defense last season was Andrew Williams. The former 4* DE is a great example of what happens when you buy into Rodney Garner’s system and take the time to be developed. He redshirted in 2014, played a very minimal role in 2015, started seeing some action as a sophomore in 2016 before becoming a big piece of Auburn’s defensive line rotation in 2017. I thought he really shined as Auburn’s nose guard in their 3 man fronts where his understanding of leverage and his violent hands allowed him to be force to reckon with in the interior. There is very little dropoff when Williams replaces Brown or Russell in the rotation.
After starting as a true freshman in 2016, Davidson didn’t necessarily put together the dominant sophomore campaign he had hoped for in 2017. But that’s a tribute to just how high this dude’s ceiling is when 42 tackles 6.0 TFL 3.0 sacks & a FF is considered a disappointment. The big man battled injuries all season long and appears poised to take that next step in 2018. If he can become a more consistent pass rusher it’s a bit scary how good he can be.
The final major piece returning is Nick Coe who carried a 0% success rate into November which is just absurd. The 6’6” 270 lb North Carolina native lined up all over the place in 2017 and will probably do more of the same in 2018. He backed up Davidson at strong side defensive end but was also the extra pass rusher in Auburn’s “Rabbit” package. Oh and he also slid inside some as a defensive tackle. I still think there’s a chance he ends up starting at the Buck spot but there is no question he will play a major role in Auburn’s rotation next season.
But what has me believing this group can play at an even higher level in 2018 is the emergence of the next wave of talent, specifically at the Buck position where two big time 2017 class signees are making major waves this spring.
Moultry was one of the stars of the 2017 signing class and the feeling was he would have an early impact. It took some time as he had to transition from linebacker to Buck but by the end of the season he had usurped Paul James as the #2 man at Buck and started flashing some of that elite talent. He’s generated some major buzz this spring with his play and has his fellow defensive lineman feeling good about replacing Holland’s production in 2018.
Big Kat Bryant
After the second scrimmage of the spring where Bryant compiled FOUR sacks, Kevin Steele said the switch had flipped for the Cordele, GA native. Bryant was forced to play out of position a bit at the SDE to give the Tigers more depth last season. He’s back at the position he was recruited to play and it sounds like he wreaking havoc. A year in the weight room should help the lanky pass rusher improve as a run stuffer as well next season. If both Bryant and Moultry live up to the offseason hype this fall, the Tigers are going to be making quite a few quarterback’s lives miserable in 2018.
One again, thanks in large part to Rodney Garner, Auburn added another group of high upside DL to the roster this past signing day. JUCO DL Daquan Newkirk arrived this spring but an achilles injury sidelined him right before practice began. Still, I expect him to eventually find his way onto the field in 2018 at either DT or DE. Joining him this fall will be 4* Coynis Miller, 4* Richard Jibunor, 4* Kayode Oladele and 3* Caleb Johnson.
Of that group, Miller is probably the most likely to make an early impact. He was the top rated DL in the state of AL this past signing class and a guy Nick Saban REALLY wanted. He shined in the Under Armour All America Game and will have a chance to break into the rotation this fall. Really excited to watch this kid develop over the next 3-4 years.
The other three incoming freshman are all wildcards. Jibunor and Oladele are both Nigerian natives who only recently started playing football. In Oladele’s case, he literally has only played one season of high school football. So while both of these guys have insane ceilings, they might need a year or two of development before making an impact on the field. However, they are also freak athletes whose natural ability may make it impossible to keep them off the field this fall. Finally, there’s Johnson whose position at the next level is really up in the air. He’s athletic enough to line up at Buck, strong enough to play the end and has the frame to grow into a DT. His development should be really fun to follow this fall.
Finally, there is sophomore Tyrone Truesdell and redshirt freshman Alec Jackson who could make an impact in 2018. Truesdell saw some snaps last season thanks in large part to his unreal strength. Jackson redshirted and judging by the practice videos that have come out so far this spring is still learning how to not play so tall. But both of these guys have the skillsets to be contributors in 2018. My guess is Truesdell ends up the #4 man in the interior while Jackson will need another year of development before joining the rotation.
It’s hard to not be excited about this defensive line heading into the 2018 season. Even average play from this group would result in a top 5 DL in the SEC. But we should expect far better from average from one of the best front 4s in college football last season. I fully expect for the third straight season Auburn rolls out an even more ferocious defensive line this fall.