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SPRING FOOTBALL POSITION PREVIEWS: Defensive Line

This isn’t quite the unit that we had a couple years ago, so let’s make do.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow marks the start of the first spring practice without Gus Malzahn since 2012, and it’s going to be a season full of question marks for the Tigers as they get ready for the 2021 campaign. We’ve covered some of the larger question marks in how the offense (particularly the backfield) will fare with Bryan Harsin and Mike Bobo in control, but something that’ll be a larger unknown comes on the defensive side of the ball.

When we covered linebackers, we talked at length about how having the best group in the conference doesn’t mean a whole lot if the defensive line can’t keep guards and blockers at bay and prevent them from getting to the second level. While Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe are fantastic, they’re not a match for a 300-lb offensive lineman. Auburn’s defensive line took a step back in 2020 due to the departures of some serious talent, and the unrealized potential of others.

Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson graduated, taking one of the most spectacular duos away from the Plains and sending them to the NFL. Nick Coe was gone as well, and so it pretty much left Big Kat Bryant and T.D. Moultry. While both came into Auburn with aplomb to burn, they never reached their full potential as a part of Rodney Garner’s defensive line. Big Kat only played in 9 of 11 games and finished with 17 tackles and 3 sacks. He was a constant “nearly there” type of pass rusher, narrowly avoiding sacks and TFLs like crazy. Now, he’s gone. Transferred to UCF to play with Gus Malzahn.

Auburn will pretty much get back the core of its defensive line from 2020, and with a full spring to go through drills, the cohesion and ability should take an upward trend. Still, there’s a new defensive line coach in Tracy Rocker Nick Eason, who joins the Tigers from the Cincinnati Bengals. He seems to be more of a player’s coach than Garner was, and that may help with a Coach Boone to Coach Yost type of mentality for some guys who couldn’t handle that type of leadership. So, Auburn has some talent, yes. Not nearly what we had a couple of season ago, but it’s there. And now, we’ve got a spring practice to get used to a new staff. How will this improve in 2021?

DEFENSIVE LINE

THE GUYS

Projected Starters: Colby Wooden (DE), Tyrone Truesdell (NT), Derick Hall (Edge/Former Buck)

Biggest Question: Which defense will we actually be running, and does that dictate who becomes a star and who’s left looking for playing time?

This is an interesting question. We’re basically at the whim of an entirely new coaching staff in that we don’t know if Auburn is going to try and line up according to its talent or according to what the coaching staff is most comfortable with doing.

Derek Mason’s definitely more of a 3-4 type of guy, leaving more linebackers to roam around behind a few heavier guys up front, but we’ll have to see if Auburn ends up with the right combination of players to be able to make that switch. With the 4-2-5 that Kevin Steele liked to run, the defensive line was pretty classic with beefy guys in the middle, and big defensive ends that can run on the outside. Auburn went with smaller linebackers for the most part over recent years (having Derrick Brown helps free up a quicker guy to make a ton of tackles), but they may have the horses up front to be able to build the defense top down, so to speak.

With a returning core group of Tyrone Truesdell, Colby Wooden, and Derick Hall, could Derek Mason decide to stick that trio on the field and build around them? If so, that could open up a couple of interesting possibilities. With Hall playing last season at 238 pounds, he could float back to a larger pass rusher/linebacker hybrid (I guess it won’t be called ‘Buck’ anymore), or put a hand on the ground if he’s gained some solid weight. Truesdell will almost certainly be the guy in the middle, returning with a sixth year of eligibility. Colby Wooden was a surprise player starting as a redshirt freshman. He sat at just 268 pounds according to last year’s roster, and earned a starting spot on the inside of the defensive line. He’ll certainly be a part of the picture this season.

With trying to map things out, you have to just take a track and go for it, so let’s assume that the Tigers are going to run with the 3-4. That would leave Truesdell in the middle, Wooden at one of the defensive end spots, and possibly Derick Hall at the other (provided he thickens up a tad). If Hall rotates backward and possibly earns more of a pass rushing role, then I would personally like to see Jaren Handy move up and stick at the other defensive end spot. He’s got some weight advantages there, and is an apparent practice monster. We just need to see him put it together in real time.

If Auburn heads with more of a 4-3 or 4-2-5 lineup, then you’ll add in guys like Zykeivous Walker (14 tackles, 1 sack) and Dre Butler (14 tackles, 1 sack) at the other interior spot. The Tigers should have plenty of skill to work with, the trick this spring will be finding the right combination and making the puzzle pieces fit. As Bobby Hill’s track coach once said “sometimes the funny-lookin’ one is the piece you need). Something that we’re also interested in hearing are the returns on Nick Eason as a defensive line coach. Like we mentioned above, he could be a much more amiable fellow than Rodney Garner was, and a little encouragement can go a long way. Hopefully he turns out to be a T-Will type of coach up front.