After four straight seasons of fielding a top 20 unit, three of which were ranked in the top 10 per SP+, Kevin Steele’s defense finally took a major step backwards in 2020. It should not have been the biggest of surprises given the personnel losses. It’s hard to get better when you lose Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, Noah Igbinoghene, Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas. Even harder when you lose your stud middle linebacker K.J. Britt early in the season.
Despite last season’s struggles, you could still see the potential. Derek Mason inherits a two deep with plenty of talent but in need of further development. Most of all, he needs to find a pass rusher so this SEC worst 3rd down defense can get off the field this fall.
I am still not quite sure how to break down the defensive depth chart under this new regime. Derek Mason has typically used a typical 3-4 two deep that included two outside linebackers and no nickel. However, Bryan Harsin has been pretty consistent in his career with how he labels his defense so I went with his lexicon. Obviously if we learn that Auburn will use different designations this spring I will adjust but this makes the most sense for now.
Here’s a first pass at what could be a very good defense this fall.
- #25 Colby Wooden | 6’4” | 268 lbs | Sophomore
- #3 Zykeivous Walker | 6’4” | 266 lbs | Sophomore
- #96 Jaren Handy | 6’5” | 252 lbs | Junior
- #90 Daniel Foster-Allen | 6’4” | 250 lbs | Freshman (RS)
- Tobechi Okoli | 6’5” | 255 lbs | Freshman
Wooden very quietly had one of the best seasons for a freshman defensive line in Auburn history. Here’s a quick comparison between Wooden’s numbers and those of some other recent well known AU defensive ends who played as a true or redshirt freshman:
- Colby Wooden (2020) - 41 tackles 9.0 TFL 3.5 sacks PD
- Marlon Davidson (2016) - 38 tackles 6.0 TFL 2.5 sacks 4 PD FR FF
- Carl Lawson (2013) - 20 tackles 7.5 TFL 4.0 sacks 2 FF
Wooden’s numbers also came against an SEC only schedule. Not bad eh?
Behind Wooden are two guys who I wasn’t quite sure where to place. Walker is versatile enough to play defensive tackle or end but I thought performed better on the edge. Jaren Handy did the opposite of what I expected last off-season and slimmed down to improve as a pass rusher. He didn’t see a ton of snaps but he flashed often when he did. Might he be a better fit at STUD?
Either way, I expect both to be important pieces to Auburn’s rotation up front.
- #94 Tyrone Truesdell | 6’2” | 326 lbs | Senior (5th Yr)
- Lee Hunter | 6’5” | 300 lbs | Freshman
- #92 Marquis Burks | 6’3” | 312 lbs | Junior
- #76 Jeremiah Wright | 6’5” | 340 lbs | Sophomore
AuburnUndercover’s Nate King broke some pretty big news last week when he reported that Tyrone Truesdell would be using his extra year of eligibility. Truesdell is the most experienced member of this Auburn defense and while he didn’t perform at as high a level as hoped last fall, his skillset is a perfect fit for what Mason likes to do up front. It also takes some pressure off some other Tigers to be ready for 30+ snaps a game this season.
I have Hunter at #2 because I think he’s that good. He’s going to need to improve his conditioning and build a stronger base but he’s a force in the interior and already on campus. I think you will see him in the rotation plenty this fall.
Wright is intriguing given his massive frame. He’s the prototype of what you want in a gap plugging nose tackle. He initially was brought in to play offensive tackle but moved to defense last fall. I think he’s got a bright future ahead of him as that guy that does all the dirty work allowing his teammates to put up big numbers. Just not sure if he’s ready yet.
- #49 Dre Butler | 6’5” | 304 lbs | Junior — OR —
- #4 Jay Hardy | 6’4” | 299 lbs | Freshman (RS)
- Marquis Robinson | 6’4” | 300 lbs | Freshman
- Ian Mathews | 6’5” | 270 lbs | Freshman
This position was the toughest. I thought about having Walker start here but decided against it as I think his future is on the outside. I also considered having Hunter here just because I am that high on his ability to make an impact early. Instead, I decided to have Butler and Hardy share the starting spot.
I was very high on Butler coming out of JUCO given his incredibly productive 2019 campaign. Unfortunately, injuries limited him early in the season and I don’t think he was ever at 100%. He struggled mightily holding up in the run game against some of the top offensive lines. I still think he’s a tremendous athlete and hopefully when back at 100% with a full off-season he can reach his full potential.
When you are drawing comparisons to one of the best defensive lineman in Auburn history in Derrick Brown like Jay Hardy was this past pre-season, fans are going to be pretty excited to see you take the field. Unfortunately, he also battled injuries that greatly limited his snaps in 2020. If there’s a player though that could emerge as one of the stars this spring, Hardy is definitely a top candidate.
- #29 Derick Hall | 6’3” | 238 lbs | Junior — OR —
- Eku Leota | 6’4” | 250 lbs | Junior
- #45 Caleb Johnson | 6’2” | 248 lbs | Junior
- #37 Romello Height | 6’3” | 215 lbs | Freshman (RS)
Auburn has been searching for an elite edge rusher since Jeff Holland’s early departure in 2017. Derick Hall has had his moments, he finished last season especially strong but has yet to shown the consistent ability to harass quarterbacks, especially on critical 3rd downs.
Enter Eku Leota.
The Northwestern graduate transfer won’t arrive to the Plains until the summer but he’s already the career sack leader on the team. Leota was a pass rushing specialist for the Wildcats and will have a chance to push Hall early for playing time. I suspect on 3rd downs you will see both on the field.
Also don’t sleep on one of my favorite players from the 2020 class Romello Height. I have him at the bottom of the list because there’s more proven veteran talent ahead of him but I still believe what I wrote last off-season. This kid can be very good for the Tigers some day.
New AU Commit Eku Leota..— Cole Pinkston (@CoachPink7259) January 31, 2021
No. 55 here at Left DE: I believe this will give AU’s pass rush a major boost. He’s a good edge bender right now. He can dip the shoulder and uses good quickness.
Add some more moves to the repertoire and he could be extremely effective. pic.twitter.com/YdjVG62Hos
MIKE (Middle Linebacker)
- #31 Chandler Wooten | 6’2” | 229 lbs | Senior (5th Yr)
- #99 T.D. Moultry | 6’2” | 253 lbs | Senior (5th Yr)
- #30 Desmond Tisdol | 6’0” | 231 lbs | Freshman (RS)
- #43 Kameron Brown | 6’0” | 237 lbs | Sophomore
This might be the most intriguing position on the depth chart. K.J. Britt is off to the NFL leaving a massive hole at middle linebacker that neither Zakoby McClain nor Owen Pappoe could truly fill. Both are elite athletes who play better in space. They aren’t really the guys you want coming down hill in the A-gap to take on fullbacks or interior offensive lineman like Britt or Deshaun Davis.
However, Chandler Wooten is back and although he’s not the same caliber player as Britt, he’s a veteran backer with more size and proven production at this critical position. Worst case, he returns to his #2 spot in the depth chart and gives Auburn an experienced backup in that room.
The biggest wildcard is former top 100 player T.D. Moultry. 247 ranked him as a 5-star and the #1 ILB in the 2017 class. When you turned on his tape you saw a lot of Reuben Foster in his game. But not long after he arrived on campus Auburn moved him to BUCK in hopes of turning him into the next Jeff Holland. There were moments where it looked like that move made sense but overall the experiment failed.
Now Moultry is back at his natural position but how much can be expected of a kid who hasn’t played inside linebacker since high school? He’s also going to need to drop some weight to get the explosiveness needed to play sideline to sideline. I think he will do it and make an impact. Will he start or be an All-SEC performer? Probably not but he will give Auburn a thumper again in the middle of its defense.
Also don’t sleep on Desmond Tisdol. Kevin Steele hinted in the preseason he was dealing with some COVID-19 issues which hurt his chances of seeing the field early. I think he’s Auburn’s starting MLB in that not to distant future.
WILL (Weakside Linebacker)
- #9 Zakoby McClain | 6’0” | 211 lbs | Senior
- #35 Cam Riley | 6’4” | 209 lbs | Sophomore — OR —
- #32 Wesley Steiner | 6’0” | 227 lbs | Sophomore
- Joko Willis | 6’3” | 215 lbs | Freshman (RS)
With Wooten back and Moultry returning to his natural position, Auburn can keep one of the best linebackers in the nation at his better spot on the outside. He was snubbed from All-SEC consideration despite leading the conference in tackles. If Auburn can find two middle linebackers they trust, McClain can stay at the WILL and feast this fall.
Behind him are two of the highest upside backers on the roster. Cam Riley saw more action than I expected him too in 2020 including playing the SAM in Auburn’s goal line package. He’s bigger than many linebackers Travis Williams recruited but he’s got great range. If he keeps putting weight on, Auburn could slide him inside.
Another player that could also play the MIKE is Wesley Steiner. A former top 100 player, Steiner is one of the most athletically gifted players on the roster and one of the smartest too. It’s just about putting it together consistently. When that happens he will be hard to keep off the field.
Auburn's Zakoby McClain (@RicochetRabbit) is coming off a stellar year and will be one of the top returning defenders in the SEC in 2021. pic.twitter.com/hYyYpXwM9V— CFB Film Room (@CFBFilmRoom) January 28, 2021
SLB (Strongside Linebacker)/Nickel
- #0 Owen Pappoe | 6’1” | 222 lbs | Junior
- #13 Ladarius Tennison | 5’10” | 197 lbs | Sophomore
- Juwon Gaston | 5’11” | 187 lbs | Freshman
Up until 2019, Bryan Harsin listed this position as both the strongside linebacker and the nickel. The past 2 seasons it’s just been the nickel. However, I decided to bring back the pre 2019 designation simply so I could list both Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain as starters. Given Pappoe’s elite athleticism and Mason’s history of getting creative with versatile personnel (looking at you Owen Burks), I think it’s also very likely you see Auburn run more 3 linebacker sets than they have recently just to keep their best 11 on the field.
However, it’s hard not to have five defensive backs on the field these days and when that’s the case Ladarius Tennison will likely be in the nickel role. He could slide back to either safety position if needed but he’s a perfect fit for the nickel given his combination of speed and physicality.
- #23 Roger McCreary | 6’0” | 188 lbs | Senior
- #22 Marco Domio | 6’1” | 180 lbs | Senior
- A.D. Diamond | 5’11” | 170 lbs | Freshman
McCreary returning is huge for this Auburn defense. Sure it will end Auburn’s streak of having a cornerback drafted in the first three rounds but it means the Tigers get back their best cover corner on the roster. He didn’t necessarily reach the level of Carlton Davis, Jamel Dean or Noah Igbinoghene last season but he’s a proven SEC caliber #1 CB who can give many of the best wideouts trouble.
Behind him I have former top JUCO prospect Marco Domio. Like seemingly every JUCO signee from the 2020 class, Domio battled injuries for much of the first half of the season. As such, he was mostly used as the 4th cornerback. With the emergence of Pritchett and Simpson along with the return of McCreary, it’s probably going to be hard for Domio to see a ton of snaps this fall but that’s a testament to the depth the Tigers have built at this position. I also wouldn’t be surprised if he slid to Nickel or moved back to safety so the Auburn can get him on the field some way.
I plan to dive deeper later this spring but don’t sleep on A.D. Diamond. I finally started diving into his tape recently and it’s incredibly impressive. The Tigers have had a ton of success signing instate DB talent late. Diamond looks to be the next in line.
- #18 Nehemiah Pritchett | 6’1” | 177 lbs | Junior — OR —
- #26 Jaylin Simpson | 6’0” | 171 lbs | Sophomore
- Kamal Hadden | 6’1” | 185 lbs | Junior
One of the most pleasant surprises for this Auburn defense this past fall was the emergence of Jaylin Simpson and Nehemiah Pritchett. Both were impressive in their first meaningful action as Tigers and will likely be the Tigers starting corners in 2022 when McCreary heads off to the NFL.
Which of the two gets the starting nod is very much in the air. Simpson initially won the job, dazzled in his debut against UK but battled injuries the rest of the season. Those injuries allowed Pritchett to take over the position and develop into one of the better corners in the SEC. Both will play plenty for the Tigers this fall.
Fewest yards per coverage snap allowed this season:— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) February 5, 2021
1. Josh Jobe, Bama - 0.40
2. Eric Stoke, Georgia - 0.51
3. Patrick Surtain II, Bama - 0.52
4. Nehemiah Pritchett, Auburn - 0.53 pic.twitter.com/8OHKQCLXtl
- #21 Smoke Monday | 6’2” | 196 lbs | Senior
- #24 Eric Reed Jr | 6’0” | 187 lbs | Freshman (RS) — OR —
- Ahmari Harvey | 6’0” | 175 lbs | Freshman
The return of Smoke Monday was a massive addition for Derek Mason’s secondary. The former blue chip prospect wasn’t perfect in 2020 but he was far from terrible as some internet fans want you to believe. Being the last line of defense means that when you mess up EVERYONE knows it but when you do your job it’s rarely noticed. If he can continue to develop, Monday has a chance to be one of the top safeties in the SEC this fall.
I don’t really know who will be the 2nd guy at this spot. Reed was signed as a corner out of high school but is versatile enough to slide back to safety. Harvey is already on campus and has a very good chance to see the field early for the Tigers. The big question for him is going to be whether or not he’s strong enough as a true freshman to be effective in the run game. If he is, don’t be surprised if he sees the most action behind Smoke.
- #5 Chris Thompson Jr | 6’1” | 202 lbs | Sophomore
- #11 Zion Puckett | 5’11” | 205 lbs | Sophomore
- Cayden Bridges | 6’2” | 190 lbs | Freshman
Sherwood’s departure hurts but the Tigers have some intriguing talent back here starting with rising sophomore Chris Thompson Jr. Auburn stole him out of the Longhorn state from the Horns last cycle and by the end of the year he was seeing pretty regular playing time. I have some questions about his coverage ability but he will undoubtedly be a force in the run game.
I am not quite sure where Zion Puckett lands in this new scheme but given the lack of proven production on the backend of this defense, Puckett could see more snaps at safety in 2021. He could also stay at the nickel where he played much of 2020.