AU Camp Confidential: An Inside Look – Defense

August 26, 2018 By Skye Underwood

Darius Slayton makes a catch over Jamel Dean in drills – Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

‘An Inside Look’ is a three-part series focused on Auburn’s three main units – special teams, offense, and defense. Skye Underwood will pull back the curtain and unveil the details and players that you need to know as Auburn’s primetime non-conference top-ten matchup with Washington in Atlanta for the CFA Kickoff Game on Labor Day weekend draws near.

‘An Inside Look’ – Defense

With the conclusion of 2018 fall camp, the No. 9 Auburn Tigers are now in the midst of game preparations for No. 6 Washington, so we’re turning our attention to the Auburn defense after highlighting the camp stars of both the special teams and offense in the previous articles of this series.

Besides, the Auburn defense is the strength of the team, especially considering the ridiculous front-seven Auburn boasts. The Tigers elite defensive front still have another week before they meet the Washington Huskies in the Chik-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium at 2:30 p.m. central on Saturday, September 1st of Labor Day weekend. ABC will televise the top-10, non-conference matchup, which happens to be the only one of its kind on the 2018 college football calendar.

I can’t even imagine how motivated Auburn’s defense is. After all, the Tigers were completely ignored by the SEC media and its coaches after tallying their votes for ALL-SEC 1st-team defense. Actually, not one single Auburn Tiger, offense nor defense, was selected on the league’s media and coaches 1st-team ALL-SEC.

Again, a top-ten ranked SEC team who many predict will compete for a spot in the CFB Playoff this season did not have one single player voted on the ALL-SEC 1st-team by the media or coaches. Quite honestly, I still can’t wrap my mind around that idiocy.

That’s especially surprising considering ESPN college football analysts David Pollack, Greg McElroy and Cole Cubelic all proclaimed during the summer that they believe Auburn has the SEC’s best defense along with the league’s most outstanding front-seven, which has an impressive 9 of its top 10 players returning from last season.

All three analysts had successful careers in the SEC as players and now the trio are considered the brightest and best young college football analysts in the game, so they know what they’re talking about.

Not to mention, Pollack was a three-time All-American defensive tackle at Georgia and McElroy was a national championship winning quarterback at Alabama, Auburn’s two bitter rivals, so kudos to them for shooting it straight and speaking their minds even if the fanbases of their alma-maters consider it sacrilege to give the “enemy” any type of positive recognition.

Considering the uber-talented depth along Auburn’s front-seven, the Tigers cup runneth over. That’s the thing that separates Auburn’s defensive front from all the others sans Clemson, Ohio State and Michigan, is the Tigers not only have elite starters, but they have guys on the 2nd-string who would start at a lot of programs.

Guys like fifth-year senior, 6-foot-4, 290-pound Andrew Williams, who has been a fixture on the Tiger defensive line the last couple seasons and is the top backup option on the interior. Defensive line coach Rodney Garner likes to categorize Williams as a starter, especially considering just how often Coach G likes to rotate his guys in and out.

Or studs like sophomores Nick Coe (6-5, 282), T.D. Moultry (6-2, 245), or Big Kat Bryant (6-5, 253), who all three were highly sought after prospects in high school, coveted by high-caliber programs all over the country. And all three are competing to be the starting buck in Auburn’s 2018 defense. Not to mention, the trio could likely start at almost any big-time school across the nation.

The uber-athletic Coe, Moultry and Bryant might be competing to be the starter at one specific position, but no matter who walks out on the field first, all three of these guys will play important roles for the Tigers defense this season.

Auburn’s trend of elite recruiting under Malzahn might not be more evident than when you focus on the defensive line where player after player after player has the potential to play in the National Football League.

Perhaps no player on the defensive side of the ball is more highly thought of on NFL scouting radars than 6-foot-5, 325-pound junior defensive tackle Derrick Brown. The former five-star’s stock has been on the rise after a breakout sophomore season.

Could Brown be Auburn’s next Nick Fairley, the last Tiger defensive lineman to take home some hardware after the 2010 national championship winning season saw the Mobile, Alabama native win the Lombardi Award given annually to the country’s best lineman or linebacker?

Another stalemate on that front, who actually had the chance to enter the NFL Draft after last season before deciding to return to the Plains as a fifth-year senior and four-year starter is defensive tackle Dontavius Russell (6-3, 320). The former four-star is the anchor of the defensive front and a team leader.

We certainly can’t talk about the defensive front without mentioning former rivals five-star defensive end Marlon Davidson, who is another veteran three-year starter. Coach G recently revealed the junior only played at about 75% last season due to injuries, but still had impressive numbers that mirrored his outstanding first season at Auburn after Davidson became the first true-freshman to start on Auburn’s defensive front in thirty years.

If Gus learned anything from Auburn’s 2010 national championship season, it’s that you win championships with an elite quarterback and a monster defensive line, two qualities that happen to be the featured strengths of the 2018 Auburn Tigers.

Keep in mind that Auburn has a senior-laden front-seven, so there wasn’t as much talk of new guys stepping up and showing out because of the many veterans on defense that make up the first and second-teams. However, there were a handful of newcomers on the defensive side of the ball who turned heads and likely earned themselves a role on this 2018 Auburn football team.

Perhaps no defensive player helped himself more than true-freshman Christian Tutt, who was an early enrollee. The former four-star, U.S. Army All-American starred at Thomson High School (GA) and actually announced his commitment to Auburn the same day he accepted his Army All-American jersey.

Tutt has been some what of a football prodigy after receiving his first scholarship offer when he was in just ninth-grade. After that the flood gates opened and every big-time school from around the country was extending a scholarship offer to Tutt. Auburn got in early on the recruitment of the 5-foot-11, 195-pound cornerback, extending their offer between Tutt’s freshman and sophomore years.

Tutt’s recruitment is a perfect example of what recruiting is all about nowadays – longterm relationships, which is something that Gus Malzahn has been preaching for quite some time now. However, the evidence is supporting his claims, which has resulted in Auburn becoming one of the hottest teams on the recruiting trail for the 2019 and 2020 classes.

You have to recognize the stars very early in their careers and begin immediately to cultivate a relationship with the top prospects; that’s how you’re able to get an upper-tier, blue-chip cornerback to choose Auburn over perennial powers like Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Georgia, Notre Dame, and the list goes on and on.

Auburn defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson has been impressed with Tutt after the early enrollee arrived to the Plains with purpose. “He came in and he didn’t look like a freshman early on,” Woodson said. “He’s got the skill set and he’s got a really bright future. He’s super competitive, and football, he loves it. You can really tell the guys that like football and love it, and he’s one of those guys who loves it as well.”

You’re probably wondering why I’m going in-depth about a backup cornerback. This backup cornerback has quickly risen up the depth chart as the top backup cornerback along with junior John Broussard.

Besides, sometimes starters sustain injuries. Sometimes they’re major. Sometimes they’re minor.

For example, if a starting Auburn cornerback sustains a minor injury that forces him to miss 1-3 weeks, you could see the true-freshman start at cornerback for the Tigers this season, but Auburn seems to be bringing in more highly recruited defensive backs nowadays compared to years past, so over time that will most assuredly improve the play on the back end.

Tutt also moonlights at punt returner behind Ryan Davis, but you could also see him or fellow true-freshman Matthew Hill take over starting duties there to give Davis a break.

Keeping our focus on the secondary, Smoke Monday and Jamien Sherwood are a couple more true-freshmen who were former four-stars and highly coveted prospects in high school. The duo participated in Auburn’s spring training both earning top backup roles at the two safety spots and that has continued throughout the duration of camp.

While Tutt might have the best hair on the team, Smoke Monday has all but wrapped up the best name on the squad, though Big Kat Bryant would beg to differ.

At six-foot-two, 190-pounds, Monday is another one of those highly regarded prospects out of the Peach State, who is an old school football player that simply loves the game. He’ll back up Daniel Thomas at boundary safety and will give Thomas legit competition for the starting spot as the season evolves.

Like Monday, Sherwood’s another highly regarded young safety with nice size at 6-foot-2, 207-pounds. The Jensen Beach, Florida freshman picked Auburn over Clemson and the home state Gators among many others. Sherwood is the top backup to Jeremiah Dinson at field safety.

Sophomore Noah Igbinoghene continued his impressive switch from offense to defense after moving over from receiver to cornerback in the spring as the former four-star is the likely starter at field corner. The 5-foot-11, 196-pound Trussville, Alabama native donned an orange non-contact jersey for a small portion of camp, but bounced back and will be depended upon greatly this fall for an Auburn defense replacing three starters in the secondary.

Auburn’s projected starting two cornerback spots will be manned by 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt junior Jamel Dean and the aforementioned Igbinoghene while Broussard and Tutt will be listed as their top backups, but if either starter goes down, don’t be surprised if Auburn moves over starting nickelback Javaris Davis back to his old spot where he developed a reputation as one of the best cover corners in the country.

If that happens, look for sophomore Jordyn Peters (6-1, 185) to take over the starting nickelback spot after a strong true-freshman season at the position that saw the Muscle Shoals, Alabama native make big-time plays in big-time games i.e. 2017 Iron Bowl.

While we’re on the subject of the secondary, I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge Jeremiah Dinson’s dedication to this Auburn program and to the game of football in general. The Auburn starting free safety played immediately as a true-freshman for the Tigers in 2015, but during his rookie season in a game vs. Texas A&M, Dinson got blindsided with a cheap shot so bad that it would have ruined most players careers. Not Dinson. But it wasn’t easy. The junior Miami native missed the entire 2016 season before returning last year as the Tigers starting nickelback when he collected 47 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack, 4 passes defended and a fumble recovery.

In the spring, Dinson shifted over from Auburn’s starting nickelback to Auburn’s starting free safety. Apparently he really impressed his coaches by essentially becoming another coach on the field for Kevin Steele’s defense.

Dinson’s sensational sophomore campaign was followed up with arguably the top performance of 2018 spring training as people inside the program indicated that Dinson was the most consistent defender in spring ball regardless of position. Unfortunately, the injury-bug rear its ugly head again when in the annual A-Day game, Dinson went down went a bum shoulder that ultimately would require surgery.

The silver-lining for Dinson was the surgery wasn’t major per se and according to the doctors, he would be ready for Auburn’s first game. The redshirt junior has competed throughout fall camp, albeit with an orange non-contact jersey on, but he’s competed nonetheless.

Coach Gus Malzahn seems to trust and have a lot of confidence in his junior safety. “Every really good secondary that I’ve ever seen always had a point guy back there that could make sure and make the calls,” Malzahn said. “Especially nowadays with all the offenses with the motions and different formations, unbalanced formations, it really is critical that you have somebody on the back end that can get everybody on the same page. We believe Dinson can definitely do that.”

Another young cat that had an impressive camp, but I’m not sure how much time he’ll see due to the veterans ahead of him is Richard Jibunor. The former four-star was labeled as an “athlete” and in fact, according to the industry generated 247Sports composite, Jibunor was ranked the No. 13 athlete in the country out of Athens Christian (GA). Despite playing in UGA’s backyard, Jibunor picked Auburn over his other favorite Alabama.

Auburn’s plan all along for Jibunor was its featured defensive position – buck, which usually is manned by Auburn’s most disruptive front-line defender and pass rusher. Word in camp was Jibunor was flying to the football, but I’m sure veteran defensive line coach Rodney Garner would tell you there’s still a lot more molding and sculpting of the clay before its a finished product. Jibunor reminded some on the Plains of former Tiger and current Kansas City pass rusher Dee Ford.

Another new player on the defensive line that will be in the interior rotation for Coach G is a guy who signed with Auburn over a year ago and redshirted last season — 6-foot-5, 298-pounder Alec Jackson. The Montgomery, Alabama native played his high school ball at Jeff Davis in the capital city before committing to Auburn over offers from Southern Cal, Alabama, and Florida among others.

Staying inside, another couple former four-stars that you’ll likely see in Auburn’s defensive front rotation this season are true freshman defensive tackle Coynis Miller (6-2, 305) and JUCO product Daquan Newkirk (6-3, 306), who has just been given the green-light as a full-go participant after being out with an injury he sustained in the spring.

It very well could take both Miller and Newkirk some time to get their bodies acclimated and in shape after Miller was a late summer arrival to the Plains while Newkirk missed time with injury, but Coach G believes that both have what it takes to be apart of a ridiculously talented rotation.

Speaking of the defensive line rotation, one guy on the interior who had a very, very solid fall camp is sophomore defensive tackle Tyrone Truesdell (6-2, 314) out of Augusta, Georgia. Last year as a true-freshman, Truesdell provided immediate depth along the front and has continued to get better and better. Word is that Truesdell is known as a hard worker, so that’s probably why he’s beloved by his coaches and teammates alike.

Former Auburn ALL-SEC linebacker Travis Williams, who was named the Tigers linebacker coach prior to the 2016 season has absolutely changed the culture and expectation of the Auburn linebacker. The linebacker room had grown stagnant before Williams’ arrival, but now it’s one of the strengths of a top-ten ball club and possibly the best group in the SEC.

Former four-star true-freshman linebacker from Valdosta, Georgia, Zakoby McClain has impressed his young coach, which prompted one of the best quotes of the preseason when Williams suggested that McClain would fight a chainsaw. Williams complemented McClain’s toughness and the way he flies to the football, but McClain’s in a similar dilemma facing most newcomers on Auburn’s front-seven — lots of veteran starters.

Veteran starters like the three returning senior linebackers Darrell Williams, Montavious Atkinson and arguably the heartbeat of the Auburn defense, hard-hitting middle linebacker Deshaun Davis.

Behind the senior linebackers are yet some more talented backups who are being groomed by Williams to be the Tigers future starters. Redshirt junior Richard McBryde is a thumper and will be one of the Tigers main backup options at linebacker along with sophomores Chandler Wooten and K.J. Britt in the middle.

At 6-foot-3, 219-pounds, coaches love former four-star true-freshman Michael Harris’ length and agility. The Tucker, Georgia native could see the field this year to gain experience, but LB coach T-Will could also take advantage of the new redshirt rule allowing a player to participate in at least four games during the season and still have the ability to redshirt the player in order to preserve a year of eligibility.

No matter what, learning behind the SEC’s best linebacking corps will pay huge dividends down the road and only make those young cats that much better so they’ll be ready when their name is called.

If Auburn can have a relatively healthy 2018 season and avoid any major injuries, the Tigers could feature one of the best defenses in its storied history. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has been a terrific fit on the Plains and each year his defense has gotten better and better, but then again, Auburn’s recruiting on that side of the ball has gotten better and better.

The SEC media and its coaches chose to ignore the 2018 Auburn defense this pre-season, so expect the Tigers to use that as motivation to propel them to a spot in the postseason.

We are now officially under one week away from Auburn Football, ladies and gentleman. War Damn Eagle!

3-Part Series AU Camp Confidential: ‘An Inside Look

Special Teams: