AUBURN — In July 2016, Gus Malzahn sat in a suite inside The Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover and claimed that Auburn’s defense had a chance to be “possibly the best since I’ve been here.”
That wasn’t a particularly high bar to clear going into Kevin Steele’s first season as the team’s defensive coordinator. The Tigers had not had a defense rank higher than 60th nationally in yards allowed per game or 48th in points allowed per game in the seven seasons since Malzahn first arrived as offensive coordinator.
So, the head coach ended up being proven correct. A defense led by Carl Lawson, Tre’ Williams and Tray Matthews ranked 28th nationally, allowing 361.9 yards per game and seventh holding teams to just 17.1 points per game. Auburn has upheld that same standard during every season of Steele’s tenure, surrendering fewer than 360 yards and 20 points per game in each of the past two seasons, as well.
And Malzahn believes this year’s defense could be better than all three of those.
“I'd say this right now: I think we've got a chance to be the best defense we've had since I've been here,” Malzahn said last month. “That's really been our challenge to our guys coming back: Really just take that next step. We'll see what happens.”
Auburn has a much higher bar to clear this time. Going into 2016, the defense’s best year-end totals since Malzahn’s arrival were 368.4 yards per game, 5.2 yards per play and 24.1 points per game. Since Steele arrived, the totals to beat have improved to 319.4, 4.7 and 17.1, respectively.
The last time the team did better than that was 2007, when Auburn ranked sixth nationally, allowing just 297.9 yards and 16.9 points per game. This year, they have six teams that finished with top-30 scoring offenses last season on their schedule — Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, Florida, Oregon and Ole Miss.
Still, players share their head coach’s confidence.
“Man, we got a lot of talent. A lot of talent,” junior linebacker K.J. Britt said. “This is probably the most athletic defense I’ve ever seen, really a smart defense too. One thing that’s going to set us apart is that we have leaders in every room. When you got a field full of leaders, and everyone is going to get on the wagon and roll with it, you ain’t got a choice but to be good.”
If you look up and down Auburn’s defense, it is easy to see where Malzahn and Britt are coming from.
The defensive line feels like it should be considered one of the best in the country, if not the best. Derrick Brown could have been a first-round NFL draft pick and Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe mid- to high-round picks. Each returned to Auburn for another season at least partially because they believe they’re capable of being better than they played last year.
The secondary returns four of five starters, and while the loss of top cornerback Jamel Dean is notable — he was a third-round draft pick — it also allows sophomore Christian Tutt (who teammates believe has the potential to be a star) to move into the starting lineup at nickel.
The only position that doesn’t return any starting experience is linebacker, where Britt, fellow junior Chandler Wooten, sophomore Zakoby McClain and true freshman Owen Pappoe have been trusted with the task of replacing Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams and Montavious Atkinson who combined to total 231 tackles last season. But there’s no apprehension about whether that new group can capably fill in for the one that’s gone.
“We’ve got young linebackers, but don’t fool yourself — those guys have been there behind Deshaun, Mon and Darrell. Those guys have been in the system,” Brown said. “I expect them to be able to come out and compete the same way all those guys did last year. We shouldn’t see no difference in play.”
So much of that confidence comes from its athleticism. Davis, a first-team All-SEC performer last season, has tremendous instincts and was a gifted leader, but even he may not have the athletic gifts of a player known to teammates as “Downhill Britt” or another, McClain, who position coach Travis Williams once said would “fight a chainsaw.”
And that’s not even mentioning Pappoe, who once put together the best SPARQ score (speed, power, agility, reaction and quickness) any player ever has at The Opening. Teammates have described the five-star true freshman as a “freakish athlete” and Olympic-caliber weightlifter.
That athleticism is spread across the entire defense, too. Brown, Davidson and Coe can each play all four spots along the defensive line. Igbinoghene competes in the long jump for Auburn’s track and field team and finished top three in three events last season. Javaris Davis went out for the track team as a sprinter, and while he never ended up competing, he’s still one of the fastest players on the entire team.
“We’ve been athletic in the past, but I think when you got experience you can play faster, you know, and be more instinctive,” Malzahn said. “So I think that’s probably the biggest thing that I see; they understand their defense, their role, the responsibility allows them to play faster than having to think through everything.”
That alone isn’t enough to turn “best defense we've had since I've been here” into reality. But at the very least, Auburn feels like it has a chance.
“It can happen. We’ve got a lot of veteran guys back, a lot of D-linemen back, a lot of us on the back end back, so I mean, it’s going to be good,” senior safety Jeremiah Dinson said. “But a lot of talk. Everybody can talk all day … we’ve got to put the work in.”