Auburn’s offense returns a lot of production from last season. A 3,000-yard passer in Jarrett Stidham, an 84-catch wide receiver in Ryan Davis and three offensive linemen who started at least six games last season, just to name a few.
The Tigers’ defense, though, returns even more players from a group that ranked 14th nationally in total defense and 11th in scoring, surrendering fewer than 19 points per game.
Nowhere on that defense is that strength more exemplified than up front, where Auburn will feature three multi-year starters and an impressive amount of depth behind them.
Here’s a look at what we know and don’t know about the Tigers’ vaunted defensive line:
Dontavius Russell (Sr.), Andrew Williams (Sr.), Marlon Davidson (Jr.), Derrick Brown (Jr.), Nick Coe (So.), T.D. Moultry (So.), Big Kat Bryant (So.), Tyrone Truesdell (So.), Daquan Newkirk (So.), Alec Jackson (R-Fr.), Richard Jibunor (Fr.), Caleb Johnson (Fr.), Kaoyde Oladele (Fr.), Coynis Miller (Fr.)
WHAT WE KNOW
What we know is that the right ¾ of Auburn’s defensive line — two defensive tackles and a defensive end — has the potential to be as dominant as any other group in the country. Brown is entering his second year as a starter, Davidson his third and Russell his fourth. Coe didn’t start a game last season and might not this year, but the SEC All-Freshman team selection and A-Day MVP is a physically imposing backup at defensive tackle, defensive end and even buck.
Combined, those four players racked up 174 tackles, 26 ½ tackles for loss, 12 sacks and four forced fumbles last season. They did so as anchors for a run defense that ranked 29th nationally allowing just 3.63 yards per carry.
The expectations for those players have risen, too: Asked what he was looking for from his returning starters, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele simply said “more.”
Clemson is widely believed to have the best defensive line in the country after returning four standouts in Clelin Farrell, Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Austin Bryant, but Brown, Davidson, Russell and Coe should have Auburn not far behind.
“We do have one of the best defensive lines in college football,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What we don’t know yet is how well Moultry and Bryant will be able to make up for the loss of Jeff Holland, who accounted for 27 percent of Auburn’s sacks (10), 33.8 percent of its quarterback hurries (22) and 28.5 percent of its forced fumbles (four) from the buck position as a junior before entering the NFL Draft.
Holland, though, was once a little-impact backup waiting his turn behind Carl Lawson. When Lawson left early following a standout 2016 season, Holland ascended to the starting role and ran with it. The hope is that Moultry and Bryant can make a similar leap in their second seasons at Auburn.
Moultry, a converted former four-star inside linebacker, wowed coaches with his pass-rush ability as soon as he arrived on campus last year and quickly became Holland’s primary backup. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound Birmingham native came on strong late in the season and finished his debut campaign with 15 tackles, 2 ½ tackles for loss and 1 ½ sacks.
Bryant came in as a buck but spent his freshman season playing both that spot and defensive end behind Davidson. He finished the season with just five tackles to go along with 2 ½ tackles for loss and two sacks as a reserve, but he added bulk to his 6-foot-5, 253-pound frame during the offseason and was among the most talked-about players on the Tigers’ defense this spring.
“If you wait for Carl Lawson, to replace him when he graduates, you’re a little bit far behind. Somebody else will probably coach them,” Steele said during the spring. “T.D. has a tremendous skill set and can affect others, on his side of the ball and the other side of the ball. And then Big Kat, probably the last two days, has really made a — his ascension has been rapid over the last two days. The light switch came on.”
THEY SAID IT
“This is Auburn University. We’re in the SEC. You’re big, you’re strong, you’re fast, you’re developed, you’re getting toward the end of your career here. You should be better. Now, it’s a team game, so they can only play one gap. But we have good depth in the defensive line, there’s good competition there, so hopefully they feel like they should be better. That’s just the way we’re built. We’re trying to improve every day. I told somebody the other day, this is not a ‘try’ league. This is a ‘do’ league.” — Kevin Steele
If defensive line is the deepest position on Auburn’s roster, then Tuesday we’ll look at what we know and don’t know about the most experienced: A senior-laden linebacking corps.