Based on the his previous stops at the University of Georgia and the Atlanta Falcons, Auburn's new defensive coordinator, Brian VanGorder, was a "home run" hire for Coach Gene Chizik. VanGorder has built a reputation for building his defenses around being physical and relentless, which happens to match his personality as a football coach.
During Auburn's now completed spring practice, players quickly discovered just how intense and a what perfectionist for details VanGorder could be. Not only does he demand the most from his players, he expects the same from the position coaches working under him. His unrelenting approach to coaching is a reason for his success and why the 2012 Auburn defense should improve.
Before Auburn can improve defensively, however, it was important for the new defensive coordinator to identify the team's shortcomings from 2011. Three key factors VanGorder has stressed have been communication, recognition and responsibility.
He wants his personnel to be on the same page at every snap, which will make recognition of the opposing offense, and understanding where the defensive players need to be, a much smoother transition.
Through film study of the 2011 season, VanGorder quickly recognized Auburn's defense struggled getting off the field and allowed too many explosive plays. Though changes in schemes can improve these issues, VanGorder has to know the Tigers must become a more physical unit to compete as one of the best defenses in the best football conference in the country. If Auburn's defense is to improve in 2012, the Tigers must set the tone early and often, which includes winning the battles on first down.
Last season Auburn allowed 6.08 yards per play on first down, 10th best in the conference. The top five defenses on first down within the Southeastern Conference all finished ranked in the nation's Top 10 of total defense. This is a strong indicator of why it is so important to win on first down because everything after is predicated on the success and failures on first down.
The 2011 Auburn defense also allowed 5.25 yards per rush on first down, last in the conference. The pass defense allowed 7.90 yards per pass attempt, ninth best in the Southeastern Conference. Auburn's inability to get off the field defensively began with the first play of the series. Odds are if a defense is struggling on first down, it will also struggle on third down, making it a never-ending cycle. The opponent's ability to establish the run on first down opened the floodgates in defending the pass. Auburn's 6.08 yards average allowed on first down was the worst average for an Auburn team during the past 20 seasons.
Auburn was ranked No. 107 nationally in third down defense during the 2011 campaign, which was dead last in the conference. While Southeastern Conference teams allowed a 35.6 percent conversion rate on third down, Auburn's opponents were converting at 48.4 percent. Once again, the top five defenses on third down within the Southeastern Conference also finished with Top 10 defenses nationally.
Auburn and Ole Miss were the only two SEC teams to allow more than 20 first downs per game during 2011. The conference average was 17.3 first downs allowed per game while Auburn's defense was allowing 22.4. Auburn allowed more first downs on the ground and more first downs through the air than any other team in the conference. When you consider a first down equates to approximately 19 yards of offense, Auburn allowed an extra 95 yards per game to its opponents because of the extra five first downs surrendered compared to the other defenses in the league.
The return to good health of end Dee Ford should be a boost to the 2012 defense.
Pass defense has been an ongoing issue for the Tigers over the past three seasons. Auburn's 2011 team finished at No. 86 nationally in pass efficiency defense, which was last in the conference. Auburn was the only defense in the SEC to allow 20 or more touchdown passes. The top five rated pass defenses in the Southeastern Conference also finished in the nation's Top 20 of total defense, with four in the Top 10.
Auburn's defense allowed 62 pass plays of 15 yards or more in 2011, the most in the conference. The remaining teams in the conference allowed an average of 49. This was a primary issue when it came to third down situations when opponents need to gain 10 or more yards to convert the third down situation into a first down. While SEC defenses allowed a pass efficiency rating of 105 during third and long situations, Auburn's defense allowed a rating of 183, by far the worst in the conference.
Auburn's defensive struggles on third down explain why the Tigers led the conference in defending 50 red zone opportunities. The remainder of the conference defended an average of 35 possessions.
Because the 2011 defense performed so poorly it almost guarantees improvement for 2012 with nowhere to go but up. However, there are legitimate reasons to expect improvement this season. The combination of a ball-control offense and a more aggressive scheme on defense should certainly provide more favorable results than in 2011.
Over the past three seasons Auburn has defended an extra eight plays per game than the three-year period before Gus Malzahn's arrived as Auburn's offensive coordinator. VanGorder believes in attacking the gaps with his defensive line rather than controlling the gaps. Ted Roof's defense allowed the opponent to score 30 or more points in 18 games while VanGorder's defense at Georgia allowed only one 30-point game during four seasons.
VanGorder's defenses at Georgia allowed four games of 200 yards rushing over four years while Roof's defenses at Auburn allowed 11 of those games during three seasons. Overall, VanGorder's defenses at Georgia allowed 3.06 yards per rush compared to Auburn's 4.09 yards allowed under Roof.
In terms of talent and experience, the 2012 defense should have an edge over last year's group. The starting 11 for the defense on opening day of 2011 had an average Scout.com rating of 3.27 stars and an average of 18 games of experience under their belts. The projected 2012 starting lineup will have an average star rating of 3.45 and an average experience of 25 games.
Last season Auburn had eight defensive players with at least 20 games of experience, but only five were starters. This season Auburn will have 12 defensive players with at least 20 games of experience and nine are probable starters.
Last season's defensive line consisted of 14 scholarship linemen with an average of 13.5 games of experience, which included seven with no college game experience at all. The 2012 defensive line will have 17 on scholarship, which will include seven players with at least 20 games of experience. Though more than 70 percent of the scholarship roster will be underclassmen in 2012, Auburn will field a more experienced and more physically developed defense in comparison to last year.
Auburn's experience, talent and depth on the defensive line should become a team strength this year with a more aggressive scheme. The Tigers went from No. 16 in tackles for loss during 2010 to No. 63 in 2011. Auburn was ninth in the Southeastern Conference in tackles for loss, a stat in which five SEC teams finished in the national Top 10.
During the 2011 season Auburn defended 68 possessions in which the Tigers recorded a tackle for loss. The opponent scored a touchdown on 13.2 percent of those possessions. During the 92 possessions in which Auburn failed to record a tackle for loss, the opponent scored a touchdown 30.4 percent of the time.
In the game of football, it all starts up front on both sides of the line of scrimmage, which is why Auburn fans should be encouraged about the potential of this year's defense. If the Tigers can avoid major injuries, the 2012 defense has a high ceiling for improvement.