Photo: Jason Caldwell

Auburn 2016 Spring Football Preview: Defense

The Auburn football team will be back on the practice field on Tuesday with three new defensive coaches and some holes to fill during spring drills.

Tre Williams (above) is the team's most experienced returning player at linebacker.

Key Losses: LB Kris Frost, LB Justin Garrett, LB/Buck Cassanova McKinzy, CB Jonathan Jones, CB/S Blake Countess

Key Returners: CB Carlton Davis, LB Tre Williams, DE/Buck Carl Lawson, DT Montravius Adams, DT Dontavius Russell, DT Devaroe Lawrence, DB Rudy Ford

Spring Newcomers Of Note: DE Paul James, DT Antwuan Jackson, DL Marlon Davidson, LB Tre Threat, CB Jamel Dean

Auburn, Ala.--With a new coordinator along with a change in position coaches for the linebackers and secondary, the Auburn Tigers head into spring football drills under new defensive management, but they are not expected to make major changes in style of play.

Kevin Steele, who replaced Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator, likes to run multiple fronts, something Auburn’s previous defensive boss did during the 2015 season prior to checking out in December to become head coach at South Carolina.

Muschamp took Travaris Robinson and Lance Thompson with him to the Palmetto State to coach the Gamecocks. Robinson, who was Muschamp’s secondary coach at Florida and Auburn, was promoted to defensive coordinator for the 2016 season. Thompson coached the “buck” position for the Tigers last year, an assignment that Steele is planning to handle this year.

Muschamp coached the inside linebackers last fall. Replacing him is Travis Williams, who handled that assignment in Auburn’s bowl victory over Memphis. After that game Williams was promoted to a full-time, on-the-field assistant after previously working as an analyst for the defensive coaches.

Replacing Robinson as the secondary coach is Wesley McGriff, who made the move to Auburn from the NFL’s New Orleans Saints. Before that McGriff, who is known as “Coach Crimedog,” picked up experience coaching in the SEC with Ole Miss.

The only defensive coaching assignment that is unchanged from last year is up front where Rodney Garner will continue to work with the tackles and ends.

Steele said to look for the Tigers to run both 4-3 and 3-4 fronts like they did last year with variations of both formations. No matter how the Tigers line up, the priorities will remain the same, according to the coach.

“You have to stop the run, you have to be physical, and you have to eliminate big plays in this league now because it is a big-play league now in a lot of ways,”?he said.

Steele made the move to Auburn from LSU where he was defensive coordinator last season. “It is not so much what you can do as a coach, it is what the players can do and what they can execute,”?he said about how the Tigers will set up their defense this year.

Kevin Steele will be the third different Auburn defensive coordinator for Gus Malzahn, who is headed into his fourth season in charge of the Tigers.

“There will always be tweaks,” he said. “I don’t think in this day and age you can just go in with a playbook and say, ‘This is what we do and this is how we do it and conform to it.’ You have to find the strengths and the weaknesses of your players and improve on the weaknesses and build on the strengths. Sometimes that means doing some things different than you have before.”

Something different from 2015 to 2016 will be the starting inside linebackers because the three guys who handled those assignments last year were seniors. Tre Williams, a junior, is the top returnee in the group. He made 27 solo tackles with 28 assists last year.

Other possibilities at linebacker spots include sophomores DeShaun Davis and Darrell Williams along with redshirt freshmen Montavious Atkinson and Richard McBryde.

Javiere Mitchell was expected to come back as a fifth-year senior, but Malzahn said he has decided to move on with his life after graduating and won't use his final year of eligibility. He was at the top of the depth chart as the strongside linebacker last fall, but the Tigers often played with extra defensive backs so the guys at that position didn’t get a lot of playing time.

Cameron Toney, a junior who lined up at the “buck” position in 2015, has also played linebacker. A newcomer in the mix is early high school graduate Tre Threat. The Tigers are expected to add a graduate transfer at the position this summer, T.J. Neal, who is scheduled to move to Auburn from the University of Illinois where he started the previous two seasons.

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Carl Lawson is shown in action in Auburn's 2015 victory at Texas A&M.

Returnees at the “buck” position include junior Carl Lawson and sophomore Jeff Holland, players who can also line up at end where the Tigers return junior Raashed Kennion, sophomores Byron Cowart and Justin Thornton along with redshirt freshman Prince Tega Wanogho.

Juco transfer Paul James enrolled in January and will be competing for playing time at end. He was signed to contribute immediately and boost the pass rush.

A pair of early high school graduates should help strengthen the defensive front with Marlon Davidson and Antwuan Jackson getting a head start. Jackson is a tackle while Davidson can play end or tackle.

The only key player the Tigers must replace on the front four is DaVonte Lambert, a player who didn’t have a big senior year after struggling to recover from a knee injury. Gimel President, who was in on a dozen tackles last season as a redshirt junior, is planning to transfer to the University of Illinois as a graduate student who will be eligible to play there this fall.

At tackle the Tigers return starters Montravius Adams and Dontavius Russell plus backups Devaore Lawrence, Maurice Swain and Andrew Williams. Jauntavius Johnson will be a redshirt freshman this year. 

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Devaroe Lawrence helped the Tigers finish last season with a strong defensive performance in the Birmingham Bowl victory vs. Memphis.

With McGriff in charge of the secondary he will inherit a group that features a variety of players who have lined up at multiple positions. To close the 2015 season Carlton Davis and Jonathan Jones were the starting cornerbacks, Stephen Roberts and Blake Countess were the starting safeties and Rudy Ford, who began the season as a starting safety, finished it as the No. 1 guy in the nickel role. Roberts has played also played cornerback.

Countess and Jones were seniors, but the rest of those players will be back along with juniors Nick Ruffin and Michael Sherwood and seniors T.J. Davis and Josh Holsey. Ruffin, Davis and Holsey have played both cornerback and safety.

Jeremiah Dinson, who was injured last season at Texas A&M, is still recovering from knee surgery and it is not known when the sophomore cornerback will be cleared to play. Tray Matthews, a part-time starter at safety last year, is recovering from shoulder surgery and is expected to be limited in what he can do this spring.

The Tigers have other defensive backs for McGriff to work with such as sophomore safeties Tim Irvin and Markell Boston plus redshirt freshmen cornerbacks Jamel Dean and Javaris Davis along with early high school graduate John Broussard, who is also a cornerback.

The 2015 team gave up 27.3 points and 421.8 yards per game, numbers that need to improve if Auburn is going to make a significant improve on last season’s 7-6 record.

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