Auburn's Defense Handles Change Just Fine

FAYETTEVILLE — If there is one thing that Auburn's defense can do better than sacking the quarterback and stopping the run, it's dealing with change.

Over the last few years, Auburn's players have had to adjust to lineup changes, position changes, and most noticeably, changes at defensive coordinator.

OK, lots of changes at defensive coordinator.

"In three years, we've had three coordinators," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said. "But we keep doing mostly the same thing. We haven't changed much of the fundamentals."

The results have stayed the same, as well. And that could cause problems for Arkansas quarterback Mitch Mustain on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Sometimes, it takes players a little while to get adjusted to a new defensive coordinator, let alone three in as many years.

But over the first month of the season, the second-ranked Tigers (5-0, 3-0 SEC) have had no trouble picking up Will Muschamp's aggressive, sacker-friendly defense. If anything, they have thrived under it.

Auburn's defense held LSU, the Southeastern Conference's top scoring offense, to just three points in a Sept. 16 win. The Tigers rank third nationally in scoring defense, surrounding just 8.2 points per game.

Auburn also leads the SEC in red-zone defense (33.3 percent), is on pace to break the school's single-season sack record and is one of only two teams nationally that has not yet given up a rushing touchdown this season. Michigan is the other.

Sound like fun, Mitch?

"We take a lot of pride in everything we do," Auburn defensive end Quentin Groves said. "We're going to try to play as physical as we can as fast as we can. If (teams) don't score, they can't win."

The change in defensive coordinators hasn't created as much of a problem at Auburn as some might think.

Gene Chizik served as the Tigers' defensive coordinator from 2002 until he left in 2004 to serve in a similar role at Texas. Then, David Gibbs took over the job at Auburn. But he left after one season to be the defensive backs coach for the Kansas City Chiefs.

That left Muschamp to become Tuberville's third defensive coordinator in as many years. So how does he compare to the other two?

"Muschamp is more aggressive," Groves said.

Arkansas coach Houston Nutt said he's not surprised by how quickly Auburn's players have adjusted to Muschamp and his aggressive defensive style.

"I don't think they changed the whole package," Nutt said. "I still think there is a lot of carryover from last year."

One difference that Nutt has noticed, though, is that Auburn's defense has used more "okie" formations — five defensive linemen and two linebackers — this season.

It's all part of Muschamp's philosophy of trying to apply as much pressure on opposing quarterbacks as possible. He places a large emphasis on sacks, and his defenses tend to rank among the top in the nation or the NFL in sacks.

Through five games, Auburn is second in the SEC and tied for 12th nationally with 17 sacks. At that rate, the Tigers have a chance to break their single-season sack record of 45 in 1984.

"The thing (Muschamp) says is, ‘You have to disrupt the quarterback. The team won't function without the quarterback,'" Groves said. "If the quarterback struggles, the whole team struggles."

Muschamp is a Nick Saban protégé. He was LSU's defensive coordinator when the Tigers shared a split of the national championship in 2003, and he followed Saban to the NFL in 2005.

Muschamp served as the Miami Dolphins' assistant head coach in charge of defense last season before returning to Auburn, where he started as a graduate assistant in 1995.

Not surprisingly, much of Muschamp's defensive philosophy can be traced back to Saban. Like his former boss, Muschamp is fond of using safety blitzes to catch quarterbacks off-guard.

That could cause trouble for Mustain and the rest of Arkansas' offense.

"(Auburn's defense) is extremely fast, that's the thing that stands out," Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. "They're very aggressive, they're coached well and they're fast. So we're going to have to earn it."

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