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2021 Defensive Depth Chart: Fall Camp Edition

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Auburn’s defense has a chance to be really good this fall

Auburn v South Carolina Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Kevin Steele’s defense finally gave out last fall. After carrying Malzahn’s program for four years, it struggled to rebuild following so many critical losses to the NFL Draft most notably Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.

However, many pieces of the 2021 unit saw critical action for the first time last fall and were able to get their first real taste of what it’s like to play in the SEC. That gives new Auburn defensive coordinator Derek Mason a group with plenty of experience who with a true off-season should be able to take a step forward. Mason was also aggressive in the portal adding a number of potential impact players to every position group sans inside linebacker. Throw in the fact that three of Auburn’s top rated signees in the 2021 class were on defense and it’s easy to see why there’s a lot of excitement around this unit heading into fall camp.

All that experience and talent made it difficult to sort out the depth chart. There are a handful of guys you can confidently write in but there will be plenty of big time position battles over the coming weeks. Here’s my take on things as fall camp kicks off.

Defensive End

  • #25 Colby Wooden | 6’4” | 278 lbs | Sophomore
  • #50 Marcus Harris | 6’2” | 279 lbs | Sophomore
  • #93 Daniel Foster-Allen | 6’4” | 258 lbs | Freshman (RS)
  • #58 Tobechi Okoli | 6’5” | 252 lbs | Freshman

Wooden is one of those handful of players you can confidently expect to have a starting role in this defense. The redshirt sophomore broke out last fall leading the team in tackles for loss. He was stupidly left off the All-SEC team at SEC Media Days which should only add more fuel to his fire. The big area of improvement for Wooden in 2021 will be keeping his level of play at the same level from the 1st quarter to the 4th. He had some dominant 1st quarters last fall but at times faded away as the game went on. I imagine a year of conditioning will help him greatly and allow him to be an even bigger impact player this fall.

Behind him is one of my favorite transfer portal additions. Like Wooden, Marcus Harris had an explosive redshirt freshman season. There weren’t many good players on that Kansas team but Harris was one of them. He will likely compete for the starting position opposite Wooden and it wouldn’t shock me if he won the job. I have him backing up Wooden to form a formidable 1-2 bunch at defensive end.

Nose Tackle

  • #94 Tyrone Truesdell | 6’2” | 335 lbs | Senior (6th Year)
  • #90 Tony Fair | 6’0” | 330 lbs | Senior (6th Year)
  • #44 Lee Hunter | 6’4” | 321 lbs | Freshman
  • #48 Marquis Robinson | 6’3” | 310 lbs | Freshman
  • #76 Jeremiah Wright | 6’5” | 338 lbs | Sophomore (INJURED)

Against physical, run heavy teams such as Texas A&M, South Carolina and maybe Georgia, I expect Auburn to spend a lot of time in their base 3-4 package. That means they need an anchor in the center of the defensive line to stonewall the interior run game. The Tigers have a handful of guys capable of providing that type of impact and will likely need all three to play plenty this fall.

I have the veteran Truesdell earning the starting role at this spot. He didn’t have a great 2020 campaign but I think he was one of the players most affected by the lack of a regular conditioning program over the summer. That’s not the case this season and he’s back up over 330 pounds. I actually think he’ll play less snaps this fall but that’s a good thing as it will keep the big man fresh and hopefully allow him to be more effective when on the field.

A reason he won’t see as many snaps is that he’ll be sharing that nose spot with big ole Tony Fair a massive transfer from UAB. Fair, like Truesdell, has had up and down performances over his career. But when this man is on and locked in he’s the exact type of player you need in the center of your odd fronts. Like Truesdell, playing less snaps will give him a chance to improve his play.

Finally, I think it’s going to be hard to keep Lee Hunter off the field. The big man out of Mobile, AL reportedly had an excellent summer coming off a solid spring. He’s athletic enough that he could slide over and play an end position in Auburn’s 3 man looks or stay on the field in nickel packages. The good news is with Truesdell and Fair on the roster, Auburn doesn’t have to rush him onto the field until he’s ready. Looking toward the future, I am really excited about the duo of Lee Hunter and Jeremiah Wright.

NCAA Football: Arkansas at Auburn John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Tackle

  • #3 Zykeivous Walker | 6’4” | 289 lbs | Sophomore
  • #92 Marquis Burks | 6’3” | 314 lbs | Junior
  • #49 Dre Butler | 6’5” | 298 lbs | Junior
  • #89 JJ Pegues | 6’3” | 308 lbs | Sophomore
  • #91 Ian Mathews | 6’5” | 267 lbs | Freshman

This position appears up for grabs as the Tigers kick off camp. Marquis Burks was one of the surprises of spring emerging as the starter opposite Wooden. However, I think with a summer in Auburn’s strength and conditioning program, former top 100 recruit Zykeivous Walker takes a major step forward this month. Either way, both are going to play significant snaps. Marcus Harris will likely be a factor as well in this battle.

Behind those two are intriguing players. I was incredibly high on Dre Butler coming out of JUCO but he struggled at times last fall when he got a chance to see the field. JJ Pegues is undoubtedly one of the most interesting players to follow this fall camp. He flipped positions late during spring practice and it showed in A-Day but there’s no denying he’s a special athlete. I think he’s going to need this fall to get acclimated to his new position before becoming a major factor in 2022.

STUD (Strongside Outside Linebacker)

  • #29 Derick Hall | 6’3” | 251 lbs | Junior — OR —
  • #99 T.D. Moultry | 6’2” | 253 lbs | Senior (5th Year)
  • #37 Romello Height | 6’3” | 214 lbs | Freshman (RS)

Probably the player I am most excited to see this fall is Derick Hall. Hall looks the part and drew rave reviews from his new position coach Bert Watts during the spring. But he’s yet to show he can be a consistent threat off the edge as a pass rusher. I think there’s a very good chance that changes this season. If it does, it’d be a huge boost to Auburn’s defense.

Behind Hall are two big time athletes who are looking to put it together. Moultry has stuck around despite failing to live up to his recruiting hype. He continues to be a leader in the locker room and to put in the work in the weight room. For him, it’s just all about being able to execute on Saturdays. This is his last shot. If there’s a kid on this defense that deserves a strong 2021 season it’s Moultry.

As for Height, he’s still pretty undersized so I am skeptical he sees much action this fall unless its in specific pass rush situations. I still maintain though that he has as high an upside as any pass rusher on Auburn’s roster.

NCAA Football: Wisconsin at Northwestern David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

RUSH (Weakside Outside Linebacker)

  • #55 Eku Leota | 6’4” | 250 lbs | Junior
  • #45 Caleb Johnson | 6’3” | 276 lbs | Junior
  • #39 Dylan Brooks | 6’4” | 227 lbs | Freshman

I think all three of these guys see the field this fall. I have the Northwestern transfer Eku Leota at number one but he will have to beat out Caleb Johnson who had an excellent spring. No one on Auburn’s roster has as many career sacks as Leota and the Wildcats loved using him in clear passing down situations. Johnson is versatile enough he could put his hand in the ground and play defensive end if needed. These two will likely see the bulk of the snaps at the weak side OLB spot.

Auburn’s top rated signee of the 2021 class is hoping to crack the rotation this fall as well. There’s no question that Dylan Brooks has the skillset to be an elite edge rusher in the SEC. However, he’s a little undersized and a little raw. With the addition of Leota and the improvement of Johnson, Brooks won’t be relied on to immediately have to play meaningful snaps. Auburn can bring him along slowly and get him ready to be an impact player in 2022 and beyond.

MIKE (Middle Linebacker)

  • #0 Owen Pappoe | 6’1” | 226 lbs | Junior
  • #31 Chandler Wooten | 6’3” | 232 lbs | Senior
  • #30 Desmond Tisdol | 6’0” | 236 lbs | Freshman (RS)
  • #43 Kameron Brown | 6’0” | 239 lbs | Sophomore

Owen Pappoe has more than lived up to his lofty ranking coming out of high school. The former 5-star has been a starter day 1 for the Tigers and asked to do pretty much everything. He’s now hoping to close his career out with a big 2021 season and push his stock up even higher for the NFL Draft.

Behind him is veteran Chandler Wooten who returns to the field after missing all of last season due to COVID concerns. I thought he looked slimmer during A-Day and you have to expect he’ll see plenty of action behind Pappoe.

Desmond Tisdol was a big National Signing Day win for former Auburn LB coach Travis Williams but there hasn’t been much buzz on the former blue chip prospect. Given what Auburn has at the top of the depth chart, I don’t expect to see him much on the field but he could be an important impact player on special teams. More importantly, Auburn needs him ready to compete for playing time next fall.

WILL (Weakside Linebacker)

  • #9 Zakoby McClain | 6’0” | 219 lbs | Senior
  • #32 Wesley Steiner | 6’0” | 229 lbs | Sophomore
  • #35 Cam Riley | 6’5” | 219 lbs | Sophomore
  • #3 Joko Willis | 6’3” | 196 lbs | Freshman (RS)

While Owen Pappoe sports the loftier ranking and higher NFL upside, last season Zakoby McClain was Auburn’s best linebacker. He was one of the best in the country and he’s aiming to get revenge for his All-SEC snub last fall. In Mason’s scheme, he has a chance to put up even more insane numbers.

I have three of the best athletes on Auburn’s roster listed behind him. First there’s Wesley Steiner who might be the only player on the roster who can challenge Owen Pappoe for the “Freak” label. He was working with the 2nd team unit during the spring and earned a lot of praise from Pappoe at SEC Media Days. He’s very likely one of Auburn’s starters next fall.

While there’s been hype for Steiner, the 2020 LB signee that saw the most action last fall was Cam Riley. He’s a gifted athlete in a long, thin frame who could slide out and play outside linebacker if needed. Joko Willis is similar. Another really good athlete who can do a lot of different things. Very interested to see how Derek Mason uses both this year and beyond.

Cornerback

  • #23 Roger McCreary | 6’0” | 188 lbs | Senior
  • #18 Nehemiah Pritchett | 6’1” | 179 lbs | Junior
  • #24 Eric Reed Jr. | 6’0” | 200 lbs | Sophomore
  • #15 A.D. Diamond | 6’0” | 153 lbs | Freshman

Honestly, putting together a two deep for the secondary was incredibly difficult. The Tigers have so many players who could see significant action that it’s just guesswork right now. However, there are two players you can 100% pencil in as starters: Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday.

McCreary passed up the opportunity to be a 3rd or 4th round draft pick to return to the Plains. New Auburn secondary coach Zac Etheridge told AuburnUndercover’s Nate King, they plan to match up McCreary against the best wide receiver on the opposing offense every week. That could mean he’s on the outside facing a big framed beast like Treylon Burks one week and sliding inside matched up against a shiftier slot man like Jahan Dotson the next. Doesn’t matter, Auburn’s staff has that type of confidence in McCreary and he’s got a chance to earn a 1st round grade this season.

Last year’s starter opposite McCreary is listed behind him. That right there should show how dang good this Auburn secondary could be this fall. Nehemiah Pritchett broke out in 2020 after Jaylin Simpson went down with an injury. He put together a quietly dominant season as a cover corner. In the spring, Auburn slid him inside to the nickel where he could certainly start this fall. Whether it’s at nickel or cornerback, I fully expect to see plenty of Pritchett this season.

West Virginia v Texas Tech Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images

Cornerback

  • #5 Dreshun Miller | 6’2” | 194 lbs | Senior
  • #36 Jaylin Simpson | 6’1” | 175 lbs | Sophomore
  • #14 Ro Torrence | 6’3” | 195 lbs | Sophomore

One of Auburn’s biggest transfer portal wins was landing Dreshun Miller. The former West Virginia star was one of the top graded returning cornerbacks this season per Pro Football Focus. He’s another long athlete who can matchup with the more physical wideouts in this league. This job won’t be handed to him but the Georgia native has been very honest about the fact he’s coming to AU to be one and done. He wants to win a starting gig and prove to the NFL he’s worth an early round selection.

But he’ll be pushed for that spot. Jaylin Simpson faced a similar situation last fall when he beat out Nehemiah Pritchett and Marco Domio to win the starting job opposite McCreary. Unfortunately, following a stellar debut against Kentucky, Simpson went down with a leg injury that hampered him all fall. He’s healthy and hungry to prove why he was Kevin Steele’s top choice last season.

There’s a lot of different mixing and matching Derek Mason can do with this secondary each week depending on the matchups. Someone who could have a role in that game plan is the National JUCO Defensive Player of the Year. Auburn flipped Ro Torrence from Tennessee earlier this summer and the big bodied DB is hoping to crack a loaded rotation. I think it’s safe to say that he’s one of the most physically imposing DBs on the team and his ability to excel in press coverage could make him an option when facing bigger bodied wideouts. Maybe like a former top ranked tight end who transferred to play wide receiver? Just something to think about....

Nickel/Field Safety

  • #13 Ladarius Tennison | 5’10” | 197 lbs | Sophomore
  • #19 Byrdarrius Knighten | 6’1” | 201 lbs | Senior (5th Year)
  • #1 Donovan Kaufman | 5’10” | 200 lbs | RS Freshman
  • #11 Zion Puckett | 6’0” | 209 lbs | RS Sophomore
  • #38 Ahmari Harvey | 6’0” | 172 lbs | Freshman

I decided to combine these two positions as it appears Derek Mason sees them as interchangeable. A lot about who will line up where will be matchup and personnel dependent. When the Tigers are in a 3 down front with a nose tackle, you will likely see whomever the top Nickel player is lined up at field safety. When Auburn goes to their nickel or dime package, that player could rotate down as the Tigers insert one or two more DBs.

I have former blue chip recruit Ladarius Tennison as the top man in this group. He started at nickel for the final couple of games but spent all spring at the field safety spot. However, Zac Etheridge told AuburnUndercover’s Nate King that they like Tennison more at the nickel so I think when Auburn is in their 2-4-5 package you’ll likely see him move down. But in their base 3-4 set, he can move back to safety.

Behind him are the two safety transfers. Both Knighten and Kaufman have the skillset to play either the nickel or field safety spot. I have Knighten ahead of Kaufman because I am higher on the FCS transfer and think he’s someone that could be a surprise impact player for the Tigers. With that said, I have seen at least 3 outlets all report on who were top summer performers and I have only seen two names on all those lists — Jarquez Hunter and Donovan Kaufman. At minimum, Kaufman will likely be one of Auburn’s top kick returners.

Puckett could have easily been listed as Smoke’s backup but I put him here because I believe he will be competing for one of the starting roles. Auburn’s highest ranked defensive back, Puckett has battled injuries thus far in his career but is reportedly 100% ready to go this fall. It’s going to be hard to crack the rotation but there’s been a lot of positive buzz about his summer.

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Boundary Safety

  • #21 Smoke Monday | 6’3” | 199 lbs | Senior
  • #22 Trey Elston | 6’1” | 193 lbs | Senior
  • #16 Malcolm Askew | 5’11” | 186 lbs | Senior
  • #26 Cayden Bridges | 6’2” | 181 lbs | Freshman

While battles rage across Auburn’s secondary, Smoke Monday will return as one of the Tigers most veteran players and leaders. The former 4-star had an up and down season last fall. He unfairly gets overly criticized at times because as the last line of defense when you screw up everyone knows it. At the same time, Monday really needs to improve his range and man coverage. The good news is I think he’ll be asked less to matchup with guys 1 on 1 under Mason. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him lead the team in picks due to Auburn running more zone coverages.

War Eagle!