Spring practice begins in earnest in just a couple of days, so it’s time we learned about what to expect from the Auburn Tigers as a nearly-entirely new coaching staff tries to navigate a team that’ll also experience a good bit of turnover from 2020 to 2021.
One area that won’t have much in the way of change will be the guys in the middle of the defense. Auburn’s linebackers were supposed to be the best in the SEC last season, but the injury of K.J. Britt and the sitting out of Chandler Wooten really put a damper on the depth. In addition, having to play behind a defensive line that doesn’t contain Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson made things a little bit more difficult for the two main backers for Auburn’s front four.
Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe finished first and second respectively in the SEC in solo tackles in 2020, while McClain snagged the top spot for total tackles with 113. Pappoe finished eighth with 93 total tackles, and the two combine to form maybe the best linebacker duo in the SEC, if not the country.
Still, Auburn is going to need to find a little help to be able to capitalize on their talent and have similar defensive success to what we saw in 2019. Can the defensive line stand up a bit better than they did last season? Will there be a little more depth in the middle of the defense? One of the main questions will come with the switch to Derek Mason’s 3-4 defense, where the Tigers will now have two linebacker coaches in Bert Watts and Jeff Schmedding. Who’ll accompany the two stars? Let’s see.
Projected Starters: Zakoby McClain - 113 total tackles, 5.5 TFLs, 3 sacks; Owen Pappoe - 93 tackles, 6 TFLs, 4 sacks, 1 INT; T.D. Moultry - 9 tackles, 1 sack, Chandler Wooten - DNP 2020
Biggest Question: Who fills out the starting lineup around McClain and Pappoe and what kind of a formation will be the Tigers’ bread and butter?
So, we’re not exactly sure what kind of a lineup the Tigers will be playing with. While we anticipate a bit of the 3-4 with Mason coming in to take over the defense, the Tigers could still be playing some two or three linebacker sets. With the way that most teams are throwing the ball these days, having too many linebackers is a bit archaic. As it stands with Auburn, they’ve got maybe the top two backers in the league, and then some guys that either will finally be able to provide depth or fill out an extended linebacker unit.
There’s really not much to say about McClain/Pappoe. They’ve proven themselves and made huge plays in big games. What’ll be more interesting is how things form around them. Let’s pretend that Auburn runs with the four linebacker unit, and we need to find two more guys to sit on the field. Both McClain and Pappoe would fill an inside backer role, and former five-star recruit T.D. Moultry would be an outside linebacker. That leaves us with a slew of guys who might be able to take that final spot.
Auburn has bodies at linebacker, with some really highly-rated recruits waiting in the wings. Cam Riley, Desmond Tisdol, and Wesley Steiner will be three guys that should emerge as larger contributors after appearing in mostly every game in 2020. The only issues is that only Riley really seems to be set as more of an outside linebacker, and that leaves a ton of meat in the middle. Does that force Auburn to run more of a 4-3 set or a 3-3-5 type of set? It may depend on what happens in the spring, or even early fall.
In the fall, Auburn should be getting Dylan Brooks on campus, after Brooks left his Tennessee commitment and chose the Tigers in the end of the recruiting game. A four-star defensive end/outside linebacker hybrid type of player, he could end up being the pass rushing specialist that Auburn might want as one of the outside linebackers. If he’s not ready, it may force Mason to go with different lineups.
Ideally, you’d love to see this be the year that Moultry puts it all together as a senior. Word is that he didn’t quite jive with Rodney Garner’s coaching style, so maybe with a more deft touch on the practice field he’ll get the light to flick on and become the contributor that we’ve wanted him to be for a couple of seasons now. if he can do that, then our upperclassmen trio will be special.
Another interesting cog in this is Chandler Wooten. While he opted out of the 2020 season, he decided to come back for 2021 and his senior year. During the social issues of the spring and summer last year, Wooten was outspoken, eloquent, and strong, and certainly a role model and influencing presence on the rest of the team. Wooten finished 2019 with 25 tackles, 4.5 TFLs, and an interception, and he’s not just an emotional leader in the locker room. He can play, and he’ll be a huge addition to the depth and overall talent in this entire unit.
The bottom line is that Auburn will have much more depth than last year, even with the departure of K.J. Britt. With the added experience and a full complement of spring practice, then I would expect the Tiger linebackers to be one of the best units in the SEC yet again. Like we mentioned above, a ton will depend on the defensive line’s progress to keep the big guards off of our backers, and we’ll have to see how things develop with the different defensive configurations. Overall, we’ll be able to see the talent on this group, but we might not have the puzzle pieces in the right order until closer to the start of the season.