HOOVER, Ala. (WSFA) - The Auburn Tigers spoke on the final day of SEC Media Days in Hoover and both head Coach Gus Malzahn and the two defensive players he brought with him fielded tons of questions about....the defense.
Auburn returns seven players on the defensive side of the ball, including a dominant defensive line in Nick Coe, Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson for starters. Both Brown and Davidson were in attendance along with Malzahn in Hoover.
For Malzahn, in order for the defense to remain as dominant as they were a season ago, a season in which they only allowed an average of 19.2 points per game, it starts with up front.
“I think it starts with our defensive line. I mean we got the majority of those guys back. We got some impact players, not just good players,” said Malzahn.
Coe, Brown and Davidson are the three returning sack leaders from a season ago. Coe led all Tigers with 7.0 sacks, while Brown had 4.5 and the Tigers got 3.5 from Davidson. As a team, Auburn combined to sack opposing quarterbacks 38 times in 2018, good enough to tie for 16th in the country.
For Davidson and Brown, they had the chance to leave for the next level as juniors, but chose to return for their senior seasons. To Davidson, the reason for guys like he and Brown returning was simple: losing sucks.
“Our reason is to win. Nobody wants to be a loser. Being a loser hurts. You feel bad, you feel like you let people down. This year we are going to make sure that the Auburn family is happy. I promise that I am going to leave it [the Auburn football program] the best that I can. We are doing what is best for Auburn," said Davidson.
The Tigers did lose key seniors at the linebacker position in DeShaun Davis, Montavious Atkinson and Darrell Williams, Malzahn named off a few players who are returning who will step up and make it seem like those guys never left, he feels.
“KJ Britt, Chandler Wooten, in the spring they just took the next step and we really didn’t see a lot of drop off from that position," said Malzahn. "
Auburn’s head coach then took to his secondary, mentioning the veteran leadership that will guide the Tigers on the back end.
“The secondary, they’re all back but one and really it’s senior leaders back there, so feelin’ really good about our defense,” said Malzahn.
Another thing that may make this Auburn defense so dangerous this season is that they have fun. They get after it and despite knowing they’re good, they still have to show up with the “blue-collar mentality” as Brown put it. It’s those things, but also things that aren’t related to Xs and Os or schemes or film prep. They simply play for one another.
“On Saturdays it’s just kind of like we love celebrating everybody. So when big plays happen it’s not - when we get to the sideline, it’s not, ‘Aw man I didn’t have any tackles today,’ or, ‘I didn’t get a sack.’ It’s talking about what Daniel Thomas did, Jeremiah Dinson did, Nick Coe, KJ Britt, JaVaris Davis, those guys, what they did," said Brown, a senior defensive lineman. "You go through the media and they say like, ‘How do y’all balance other people making big plays?’ Well I mean everybody’s goal is to win, so, I mean you’re putting yourself before the team and I don’t think that’s right in any way.”
When speaking about how good he thinks this defense has the potential to be, Malzahn had some high praise.
"Like I said in the other room, I think we got a chance to be the best defense we’ve had since I’ve been here - at least we’ve got a chance is what I would say with the personnel that we have,” he said.
The Auburn defense will face its first test Aug. 31 against the Oregon Ducks. It’ll be a rematch of the 2011 BCS National Championship game, a game in which the Tigers won giving up just 19 points to a high-powered Ducks offense.
This year the Ducks will be led by Justin Herbert, who also had the chance to leave for the NFL, but chose to return to Oregon. He brings dual-threat ability which should be interesting to watch against an SEC defense.
The Tigers and Ducks kick things off from Arlington, Texas, at 6:30 p.m.