Auburn, Ala.--There is no question that the strength of the Auburn Tigers so far in the 2016 season has been on defense with Coach Kevin Steele’s unit quickly developing into one of the best in the Southeastern Conference six weeks into the schedule.
One of the reasons for the improved play on that side of the ball has been up front where Rodney Garner’s defensive line has been a force to be reckoned with led by redshirt junior Carl Lawson and senior Montravius Adams along with true freshman Marlon Davidson.
Between those three players they have accounted for 11 of Auburn’s 14 sacks this year and 14 of the 35 total tackles for losses on the roster.
While that’s something to be proud of, Steele said they continue to get quality play from the second group as they continue to show improvement.
Playing a great deal with Garner rotating two groups throughout the game, Byron Cowart, Jeff Holland, Derrick Brown and Andrew Williams have played well when in the game. Steele said the one issue with them is getting to the quarterback and making plays, something that showed again in the win over Mississippi State.
“They got better,” Steele said. “There’s some good teaching moments on there. I don’t think they affected the quarterback quite as much as that first group did, obviously, and up until late, we were pretty good in the run game with them. But there was good video on them. There were good teaching moments in there that they got better, they improved from weeks past.
“And that was our goal, to make sure everybody improves weekly, and they did do that. And there was some good meaningful snaps where they needed to be in there where, ‘OK, we’re calling the whole game plan,’ and we did, and they were having to adjust and play. That’s probably the thing that stuck out the most; that they applied the game plan.”
Being able to provide quality depth and give the starters a rest has been a big plus this season for the second defensive line, but the production has gone down significantly with the first group getting a rest. Williams has been the best of the bunch with two sacks and eight total tackles with the other three guys totaling just 13 tackles and no sacks between them.
Cowart is the guy that so much has been expected from, but to this point it hasn’t happened. Steele said while the numbers aren’t there he’s seen improvement from the sophomore.
“Obviously, you’ve got to kind of see this: Where was the ball run, was it at the point of attack, should he have made the play? And what he’s done is, he’s made the plays, been involved in the plays he’s supposed to be involved in.
“There wasn’t anything where he gave up anything, so that’s a starting point,” Steele added. “And as he gains confidence, then he’ll start to, he’s still learning that position in terms of what we’re asking him to do, so I think as he matures and grows older, it just happens different for different people. I think he’ll be fine.”
For now the job of the guys on the defensive line continues to be making an impact on the offense and in particular the quarterback. Even if the stats aren’t there the entire defensive line is doing its job very well to this point and Steele said the results will happen in the end.
“The sacks will come,” he said. “It doesn't always reflect in sacks, although you want them. But do you affect the quarterback? I think this week with the three sacks, the seven pass deflections, I think he scrambled twice, maybe three times.
“All in all, they called 41 pass plays on 20 of those pass plays we affect the quarterback either with a pass deflection, an interception, a sack or made him in scramble or made him throw it away with quarterback pressure. When you start doing that with 50 percent of the throws, you're making progress. I think that's the third game in a row we've been pretty close to 50 percent on called throws.”
Auburn will need plenty of push from the defensive line with Arkansas coming into Jordan-Hare Stadium this weekend and quarterback Austin Allen, who has multiple touchdown passes in three consecutive games for the Razorbacks.