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2020 Depth Chart: Defense - Fall Camp Edition

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A lot of talent is gone but a lot remains

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: JAN 01 Outback Bowl - Minnesota v Auburn Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Yesterday, I took a stab at what Auburn’s offensive depth chart could look like this fall. Today, we flip to the other side of the ball where Kevin Steele looks to field another elite unit for the 5th season in a row.

There’s no denying some big time talent has departed the Plains since last fall but while working on this it quickly became apparent that a ton of talent remains. There will likely be a step back because you don’t lose guys like Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Noah Igbinoghene and get better. But I don’t think the step back will be all that big especially if some veterans can step up.

Lets’ take a look.


Defensive End

  • #1 Big Kat Bryant | 6’5” | 247 lbs | Senior
  • #3 Zykeivous Walker | 6’4” | 266 lbs | Freshman
  • #96 Jaren Handy | 6’5” | 252 lbs | Sophomore
  • #4 Jay Hardy | 6’4” | 299 lbs | Freshman
  • #45 Caleb Johnson | 6’2” | 248 lbs | Sophomore
  • #90 Daniel Foster-Allen | 6’4” | 250 lbs | Freshman

It’s Big Kat’s time. The senior has seen plenty of meaningful action for the Tigers over the past 3 seasons and he’s been an important piece of Rodney Garner’s unit up front. But it’s time for Bryant to crank up the production and emerge as one of the top ends in the conference. He put a ton of pressure on QBs last fall but struggled to record many sacks. That needs to change this fall. I have confidence it will.

Behind him is a long list of incredibly talented but unproven freshman and sophomores. The Tigers signed two of the best defensive end prospects in the 2020 class in Zykeivous Walker and Jay Hardy. Coach G snatched both away from SEC East instate programs who thought they were locks. I expect both to make an early impact, specifically Walker who has drawn some early comparisons to Marlon Davidson.

I am very interested to see what happens with Jaren Handy. He’s noticeably slimmed down which is the opposite of what I expected. I always figured Handy would grow into a defensive tackle. But at 252 lbs, he’s going to be on the edge. It will be interesting to see if trimming down makes him a more explosive pass rusher off the edge.

Tons of talent at this position for the foreseeable future.

Defensive Tackle

  • #94 Tyrone Truesdell | 6’2” | 326 lbs | Senior
  • #92 Marquis Burks | 6’3” | 312 lbs | Junior

Tyrone Truesdell was a nice surprise last season. Most, myself included, expected Nick Coe to develop into Derrick Brown’s battery mate in the interior of Auburn’s defensive line. In fact, Coe started at defensive tackle with Brown to start the season. As you recall, Auburn’s start to the season on defense was not great. One of the adjustments that changed that Oregon game was Truesdell being inserted at defensive tackle. He started plugging lanes including that monumental 4th down stop.

But what was most surprising was his ability as a pass rusher. He’s actually Auburn’s returning sack leader on the defensive line with 3.5 last season. If he can repeat that performance in 2020 he will likely hear his name called at some point in the NFL Draft next spring.

Behind him is JUCO signee Marquis Burks. He’s another bulky interior presence who should excel at plugging run lanes. I feel good about Auburn’s run stuffers this fall.

Defensive Tackle

  • #44 Daquan Newkirk | 6’3” | 317 lbs | Senior
  • #8 Coynis Miller Jr | 6’2” | 312 lbs | Junior
  • #49 Dre Butler | 6’5” | 304 lbs | Sophomore

The bigger question is who can replace Derrick Brown? The likely answer is no one. Instead, Auburn needs strong performances from multiple players to fill that massive hole. The good news is the Tigers have 3 very talented candidates. The bad news is they have yet to prove they can consistently get it done.

It was really hard to order these guys but I went with Newkirk number one simply because I think he’s the best athlete of the bunch. In fact, he’s almost too explosive as it’s resulted in two torn achilles in two seasons. If he can stay healthy, he’s got a chance to have a strong senior season. I am cheering for this kid as he’s been on a long road to this moment.

Behind him I have Coynis Miller who could easily be a starter. The former 4-star has yet to consistently put it together week in and week out. There’s no denying the raw talent, it’s just about being locked in on every snap. If he can take that next step, he’s got a chance to be a breakout star on this defensive line this fall.

I almost put Butler number one. This kid’s JUCO tape was as good as any JUCO prospect I’ve seen in quite awhile. Despite his size, Butler excelled as a pass rusher and I think he can really become a problem for interior offensive lines moving forward. Between Newkirk, Miller and Butler, Auburn should be able to find 2 SEC quality tackles. No one player needs to be Derrick Brown good this fall but if the trio can combine to at least come close to his type of impact that would be huge for the Tigers.

Buck

  • #29 Derick Hall | 6’3” | 238 lbs | Sophomore
  • #99 T.D. Moultry | 6’2” | 253 lbs | Senior
  • #25 Colby Wooden | 6’4” | 268 lbs | rFreshman
  • #37 Romello Height | 6’3” | 215 lbs | Freshman

After Jeff Holland’s departure following the 2017 season, Auburn has been on the hunt for the next elite pass rusher off the edge. Both Big Kat Bryant and T.D. Moultry have seen action but have struggled to consistently bring pressure. Late last fall, Derick Hall emerged as the man at Buck earning starts in the last 3 games. He didn’t record a sack but he showed enough flashes for there to be excitement heading into the season.

It’s now or never for T.D. Moultry. Once believed to be a lock to make an immediate impact for the Tigers, Moultry has struggled to stay on the field and to consistently produce. There have been moments when he’s come screaming off the edge that made you remember the borderline 5-star talent coming out of high school. But then weeks would go by before you heard his name again. I am doubtful he ever morphs into the monster we all thought he might be when he signed but if he can develop into a solid #2 option at Buck that would be big for the Tigers this fall.

Weakside Linebacker

  • #0 Owen Pappoe | 6’1” | 222 lbs | Sophomore
  • #9 Zakoby McClain | 6’0” | 211 lbs | Junior
  • #36 Josh Marsh | 6’2” | 219 lbs | rSophomore
  • #35 Cam Riley | 6’4” | 209 lbs | Freshman

Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain return looking to build on a strong 2019 season. While Bo Nix received most of the attention for starting at quarterback as a true freshman, don’t overlook Pappoe’s impressive freshman campaign. It ain’t easy to get on the field on this defense even more so as a true freshman. Pappoe not only started but at times was the lone backer on the field for the Tigers. I expect him to emerge as one of the best in the country this fall and 1st round hype being to build heading into his junior season.

At times, I thought Zakoby McClain was the best linebacker on the field last season. Ricochet Rabbit could see time at the MIKE as well with Chandler Wooten sitting out but I have him listed at weakside for now where he played in 2019. I hope Auburn finds ways to get both of these guys on the field at same time this season. That’s a lot of speed and some hard hitters to deal with as an offense.

Behind him are two very interesting players. Marsh has a chance to crack the rotation with Wooten sitting out especially if he slides to MIKE or if McClain does. There’s been a lot of positive buzz around Cam Riley early though I doubt he makes an impact as a true freshman. He’s got a chance though to develop into a really good player for the Tigers.

Middle Linebacker

  • #33 K.J. Britt | 6’0” | 243 lbs | Senior
  • #32 Wesley Steiner | 6’0” | 227 lbs | Freshman
  • #30 Desmond Tisdol | 6’0” | 231 lbs | Freshman
  • #48 O.C. Brothers | 6’1” | 236 lbs | rFreshman
  • #43 Kameron Brown | 6’0” | 237 lbs | rFreshman

Britt will be the heart and soul of this defense in 2020. One of the hardest hitters in the conference, no one questions his toughness. There are still questions though about his ability in coverage which at times was exposed last season. If he can improve in that area he has a chance to be one of the higher drafted linebackers from Auburn in quite some time.

The big question mark for the linebacker corps is who replaces Chandler Wooten as the backup MIKE. I expect Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain to get some work here as well but someone will need to step up so T-WILL can feel confident that he has 4 guys he can trust every Saturday.

There are 3 names I am keeping an eye on: Josh Marsh, Wesley Steiner and Desmond Tisdol. I have Marsh listed at weakside but he could slide to MIKE if needed or if T-WILL elects to play Zakoby here that would allow Marsh to be the #2 guy at the WILL.

The other two names are freshman. Wesley Steiner is an intelligent, athletic freak who was quietly one of the highest rated players in Auburn’s 2020 signing class yet had little hype. I am a big fan of his skillset and could see him earning playing time immediately as a freshman.

There’s also Desmond Tisdol who landed in Auburn’s class after Trenton Simpson decommitted and signed with Clemson. Tisdol is the T-WILL middle linebacker prototype. A 6’0” 227 lb human missile who ain’t afraid to hit someone, I have high hopes for this kid down the road. We’ll see if he can win the backup spot this fall.

Nickel (Star)

  • #6 Christian Tutt | 5’11” | 192 lbs | Junior
  • #11 Zion Puckett | 5’11” | 205 lbs | rFreshman
  • #13 Ladarius Tennison | 5’10” | 197 lbs | Freshman

Honestly, you could list five players here. Auburn’s secondary is pretty versatile especially at the star and safety positions. Barring any experimentation at corner, Christian Tutt will return as Auburn’s starter at the Nickel spot. This is such an important piece of Kevin Steele’s defense and Tutt thrived there last fall. He struggled late in the season in some pretty tough individual matchups but he’s still someone Steele has a lot of confidence in and I expect to have a strong junior campaign.

In all likelihood, Jordyn Peters is the #2 guy but I think he might see more time at safety this fall so I decided to move him there on this list. Instead, one of my favorite players of the 2019 class in Zion Puckett will have a chance to see some action. He too could slide back to safety if needed as well.

But the real man to watch is Ladarius Tennison. A Robinson Therezie clone, expect Tennison to be a special teams warrior at minimum. It wouldn’t shock me if he saw the snaps after Tutt at this spot. I am excited to see this kid hit the field for the Tigers.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Louisiana State Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Cornerback

  • #23 Roger McCreary | 6’0” | 188 lbs | Junior
  • #10 Devan Barrett | 6’0” | 200 lbs | Senior
  • #24 Eric Reed Jr | 6’0” | 187 lbs | Freshman

For 3 straight seasons, Auburn’s #1 cornerback has left for the NFL early and been drafted by the end of Day 2. Roger McCreary looks to be the next man up. The former low ranked 3-star out of Mobile has developed into one of the SEC’s best corners. Going back and watching some tape from last season it’s wild how much better he got each week. By the end of the season I thought he was the Tigers 2nd best cornerback. He will draw the toughest assignments this fall and I think he’s ready for it.

The Tigers though need to find someone behind him. I once believed Devan Barrett was going to be a 1,000 yard rusher for the Tigers but now the former Tampa Catholic standout is trying to crack the CB rotation as a senior. I’m cheering for him to have a Trovon Reed like senior season.

Keep an eye on freshman Eric Reed Jr. He was one of the big signing day steals for the Tigers. The Georgia Bulldogs really wanted this kid and were believed to be the leaders up until his announcement. Louisiana DBs tend to come ready to play when they step on campus though I expect we are a year away from seeing Reed play meaningful snaps.

Cornerback

  • #22 Marco Domio | 6’1” | 180 lbs | Junior
  • #18 Nehemiah Pritchett | 6’1” | 177 lbs | Sophomore
  • #26 Jaylin Simpson | 6’0” | 171 lbs | rFreshman

This is the one position up in the air in Auburn’s secondary heading into the 2020 campaign. The Tigers need to find a 2nd and 3rd guy they can trust to play Steele’s aggressive press man coverage on the outside.

Two obvious candidates have emerged in JUCO signee Marco Domio and sophomore Nehemiah Pritchett. If there had been spring practice I would have Pritchett listed as the top guy but with no spring ball that leaves the door wide open for Domio who I believe was the best JUCO prospect in the country last fall.

When Simpson saw action last season it was at safety but he’s reportedly working at corner which I think is a better fit for his skillset. I think the staff feels pretty good about what they got in McCreary, Domio and Pritchett. What would really help is if someone like Simpson could be ready to contribute meaningful snaps this fall and give this secondary more depth on the outside.

Free Safety

  • #21 Smoke Monday | 6’2” | 196 lbs | Junior
  • #15 Jordyn Peters | 6’1” | 200 lbs | Senior
  • #16 Malcolm Askew | 5’11” | 185 lbs | Junior

A fan favorite before having every taken a snap for the Tigers, Smoke Monday is now ready to be a starter. After a strong freshman debut I thought Monday took a bit of a step back in 2019, Iron Bowl pick 6 withstanding. He’s got solid range and all the swag you want in your deep safety but sometimes seems to lose focus and get out of position. One of the reasons Auburn’s defense has been so tough in recent seasons is that Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson rarely gave up anything easy. To continue that trend Auburn needs Monday to become more consistent and develop into that NFL caliber safety we all know he can be.

After missing most of last season with an injury, I am expecting a strong senior year from Jordyn Peters. He’s a glue guy in this secondary capable of lining up anywhere Auburn needs him. My guess is he will see more action at safety this fall but he could also backup Tutt at the nickel. Hopefully he can get back to blocking punts on special teams now that he’s healthy again.

Strong Safety

  • #20 Jamien Sherwood | 6’2” | 220 lbs | Junior
  • #19 Matthew Hill | 6’1” | 190 lbs | Sophomore
  • #5 Chris Thompson Jr | 6’1” | 202 lbs | Freshman

Roger McCreary is clearly Auburn’s top NFL draft prospect in the secondary heading into the season. However, #2 just might be Jamien Sherwood. The Florida native can do it all whether that’s lining up as a linebacker and shedding a block from an offensive guard or matching up with a wideout to cover a deep route, Sherwood plays all over the field and that versatility makes him a real weapon in Auburn’s scheme. It would not shock me if he’s a first team All-SEC performer this year.

Auburn beat out Clemson for Matthew Hill in large part because the better looking Tigers wanted him on offense while Dabo thought his future was in the secondary. Dabo was likely right and Hill agreed to make the switch this offseason. I am excited to see what he can do as Hill is one of the better athletes on the roster. Given his hips, I could see him seeing action at corner as well.

Don’t be shocked if the true freshman Chris Thompson sees a lot of snaps this season either. He was one of the truly shocking pulls of the 2020 cycle when McGriff snatched him away from the instate Longhorns. I see a lot of Jamien Sherwood in his game and expect Steele to use him very similarly.


War Eagle!