Defending the run, no doubt, will be a priority for new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. From 2011-2014 (52 games), Auburn has allowed an average of 179.3 yards rushing per game. Muschamp knows the key to a good defense is consistency in stopping the run.
“There is a key to every kid, and we have got to find that key to motivating any young man day in, day out, to consistently perform well, to consistently do it the right way because generally your practice habits carry over to the game,” Muschamp said.
From 2000-2014 Auburn is 89-10 in games in which the Tigers held their opponent under 130 yards rushing. During the past four seasons Auburn has reached this mark only 16 out of 52 games. The Tigers were 16-0 when keeping the offense under 130 rushing yards and just 15-21 when allowing a higher number.
Auburn's average national ranking in run defense during this same period is No. 80. The average national ranking of Muschamp’s run defenses from 2002-2014 is No. 22. The defensive coordinator’s multiple fronts and linebacker play have been essential in establishing a cohesive run defense. Even if the Tigers operate out of a base 4-3 front, look for Muschamp to employ elements of the 3-4 to keep the opposition guessing.
The coach is a firm believer in keeping his defensive line fresh by relying on his depth. Players like ends Davonte Lambert and Elijah Daniel could transition to defensive tackle this year to provide additional quickness between the gaps. “When you talk about another 15 to 18 snaps to a 300-plus pounder, it takes its wear and tear on them,” Muschamp said. "And then you’re also taking on a double-team with their guard and tackle for a combination of 700 pounds for another two to three more power plays. It makes a huge difference.”
Jauntavius Johnson, who was signed in February, may give the Tigers the type of big lineman who can play nose tackle and take up space in the 3-4 alignment. If Auburn can once again control the line of scrimmage, the remainder of the defense will have a higher probability of success.
Another change expected for 2015 is the size of the back-seven, primarily at linebacker and safety. Under former defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, Auburn deployed a 4-2-5 scheme, which often did not match up well against the power running offenses. “In every defense we have a primary run-force player who is in charge of the edge of the defense,” Muschamp said. “In most situations that is a secondary player or a linebacker.”
Auburn’s return to three linebackers on the field and physical safety play will be essential in defending the run. Doing that successfully is as much about attitude as it is physical, which is why Muschamp will be looking for players who possess the mindset of being the first one to lay the lumber.
During bowl practice Auburn’s new coordinator was able to initiate his process of evaluating the personnel he inherited. He knows the level of success on defense has a direct correlation to the availability of talent. “We've been pretty good where we've been, but we've also had a bunch of good players, and that's the bottom line," said Muschamp. "That's what it comes down to--players.”
Run defense begins up front, and the heart of any good defense is the front seven. “I think the front seven is very strong,” Muschamp said. “Just looking at some of the guys up front, I recruited a bunch of them. I'm looking forward to coaching some of them that turned me down.”
The 2015 Auburn defense will also have the luxury of veteran experience from the linebacker position. Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy, JaViere Mitchell and Tre Williams combine for a significant amount of experience in an Auburn uniform. Auburn’s linebackers know the expectation level has ramped up with their new coordinator. “It definitely brings the best out of everybody,” linebacker Kris Frost said. “Running to the ball and the intensity is so much higher. Just really the consistency of how hard everybody works at practice, it's always there because you know you do have that feeling of him kind of watching you.”
Frost and McKinzy both considered departing Auburn early for an opportunity at the NFL draft, but elected to stay and finish out their senior year. Both are coming off their most productive seasons statistically and have the chance to provide experience and leadership in 2015.
Travis Williams is the last Auburn linebacker to be named first-team All-SEC, which came after the 2004 season. Karlos Dansby, in 2003, is the last Tiger linebacker to be named All-American. Muschamp coached three All-SEC selections during his last stint as Auburn defensive coordinator.
If Auburn is to make a major improvement in run defense this year, McKinzy, Frost and the other linebackers will need to lead the charge. From 1990-2006 Auburn’s linebackers were the leading tackler in 72.8 percent of the games. From 2007-2014 the percentage dropped to 54.8 percent, a number to watch with new management running the show on defense this year.