AUBURN — Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson aren’t just two standout teammates on a vaunted Auburn defensive line.
They’re two fourth-year seniors who came in together with the Class of 2016, each of whom considered entering the NFL draft after last season before ultimately deciding to return. They’re close friends and roommates who worked together to change their diets for the better this past offseason.
They’re also fierce competitors. Not just with the offensive players lined up on the other side of the line of scrimmage, but with each other and the rest of their teammates in coach Rodney Garner’s defensive line room. They’re in the middle of a season-long race to see who can win the most SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors.
It’s a friendly rivalry, but it is still a rivalry. Davidson jumped out to an early lead when he took home the award after wins over Tulane and Kent State in Weeks 2 and 3, respectively, but Brown charged back to tie him with standout performances at Texas A&M and Florida in Weeks 4 and 6.
“When I got the first two, he was like, 'Oh, I just can't let Marlon get all of them like that,'” Davidson said. “It just started to build competition.”
That deadlock was short-lived, though — Davidson made it a hat trick after totaling five tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery in a 51-10 rout of Arkansas on Saturday. He’s the first Auburn player to record multiple sacks and tackles for loss and cause/recover a fumble in a game since Nick Fairley in 2010.
“Whatever. He’s fat,” Brown joked Saturday, with his roommate within earshot. “He would have more sacks if he wasn’t so fat. He called me fat last week.”
Yes Davidson did, after Brown tripped over his own feet as he tried to return a Florida fumble for a touchdown.
“Me and him, we have that different bond,” Davidson said.
Together, they have been a force for the Tigers through a 6-1 start to the season. Davidson leads the team (and ranks second in the SEC) with 8 ½ tackles for loss and 5 ½ sacks this season. Brown isn’t far behind with five and three, respectively. Combined, they have forced four fumbles and recovered three of them.
The bulk of the production in that latter category has come during Auburn’s past two games. Brown forced one of quarterback Kyle Trask’s three fumbles and recovered two of them on his way to SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors during the loss to the Gators.
Davidson strip-sacked Arkansas quarterback Ben Hicks and recovered the loose ball on the third play, setting up Auburn’s first touchdown. The Tigers finished with nine tackles for loss, three sacks, three quarterback hurries and two interceptions.
“They set the tone right off the bat, and they harassed the quarterback consistently,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He was throwing off his back foot a whole lot, and any time from a quarterback standpoint that you get hit a couple times early — especially a strip-sack and all that — it can give you a doubt moving forward.”
Auburn will need that again from Davidson, Brown, and line mates Big Kat Bryant, Tyrone Truesdell, T.D. Moultry, Coynis Miller Jr., Daquan Newkirk, Derick Hall and Nick Coe Saturday against No. 3 LSU and its SEC-leading offense.
Quarterback Joe Burrow has been nearly unstoppable. He’s completing 79.4 percent of his throws (first nationally), averaging 354.9 passing yards per game (second) and has thrown 29 touchdowns (already a single-season program record, and it has only been seven games).
His 2,484 passing yards are 401 more than Trask and Hicks, who have thrown for a combined 2,083.
The junior completed 21 of 24 passes for 293 yards and three touchdowns against the Florida defense that stymied Auburn’s offense two weeks ago. And that was his least productive game this season.
“It's going to be hard to stop a guy like him. You can try to contain him a little bit, but that guy right there, he's the real deal,” Davidson said. “I feel like we're going to try to get after him. But I mean, at the end of the day, it's kind of hard to do that against a guy like that.”
LSU’s opponents can attest. Burrow attempted 186 passes through his first six games this season. According to SEC StatCat, he was pressured on only 37 of those throws. He completed 25 (or 67.6 percent) for 410 yards (11.1 yards per attempt) and five touchdowns. All those totals rank either first or second among SEC quarterbacks.
According to Sports Info Solutions, Burrow leads the nation in on-target percentage both when he's not pressured (91.9) and under pressure (82.5). His 150.4 NFL passer rating when under pressure leads all other quarterbacks by 19 points.
Look at one of the throws he made during a 25-of-32, 327-yard, four-touchdown day in Starkville on Saturday: Mississippi State rushed four and sent a delayed blitzer, the pocket disintegrated, and Burrow still managed to evade the pressure and find Derrick Dillon for a 37-yard touchdown.
Burrow has been sacked only 12 times through seven games, hasn’t lost a fumble, and has completed 69 of 87 passes since he last threw an interception three weeks ago against Utah State. But Auburn has by far the best defensive line he has faced this season, especially when you consider both of Florida's top rusheres, Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, left that game with injury — the Tigers are tied for 28th nationally with 20 sacks this season and third with 10 forced fumbles.
“We go in, week in, week out, trying to be able to take on that challenge, trying to be able to disrupt quarterbacks,” Brown said. “Joe Burrow, obviously, is a great player. LSU is doing great things.”
If the pattern holds, it will be Brown’s turn to win SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week. Auburn might need both of its standout senior defensive linemen to play at that level if it’s going to have a chance to slow down an offense that ranks second nationally averaging 50.1 points per game.