After not having as productive a season as hoped for in 2020, the Auburn defensive line is still one of the big question marks for the Tigers as they enter summer workouts. It will be the job of new defensive line coach Nick Eason to put together the puzzle before the fall.
Eason is a decade-long veteran of the NFL, coaching in the league for the last seven years following his nearly decade-long playing career.
“All great defenses have great defensive lines,” said Eason. “Every time you watch a national championship team, they have great defensive lines. We have a really solid room.”
Eason spent much of the spring evaluating the talent he is inheriting and installing his new procedures and terminology. Throughout the spring, he has been pleased with the effort his players have been putting into each practice.
“A different guy has been flashing every day, but the idea is for all of them to flash everyday,” he said.
One of the main concerns for Eason that will linger throughout the offseason will be the lack of experience along the line. Of the 15 players listed as a defensive lineman, only three — Tyrone Truesdale, Marquis Burks, and T.D. Moultry — are seniors. This will put added pressure on younger players to step up quickly, but also give talented athletes the opportunity for early playing time.
The pass rush has always been an important staple of the Auburn defense. During the Malzahn era, there was always at least one defensive lineman who had the ability to wreak havoc in the backfield, freeing up other linemen as well as linebackers to be more versatile. It will be important for Auburn to find new pass rushers this fall after a lackluster performance last season.
Colby Wooden is the leading candidate to start at defensive end for Auburn. Wooden garnered 41 tackles last season and was third in the SEC in tackles for loss with 9.5.
Sophomore Zykeivous Walker is currently listed as an end, after registering 11 tackles as a freshman last season. Daniel Foster-Allen is the last end listed on the Auburn roster, but he has not seen any game action for the Tigers.
On the other side of the defensive line are players known as ‘edge’ rushers. There players are even more specialized to create a pass rush.
This group is led by Derrick Hall, a junior who had 17 tackles and four sacks last season. With Hall being able to produce more sacks than almost any other returning lineman, it should be no surprise to see him gaining significant playing time and vying for the starting position.
Hall is backed-up by Romello Height, a sophomore who only saw action against LSU last season. T.D. Moultry, who had 39 tackles and a lone sack last season, is also expected to be a significant contributor on the edge, as is Caleb Johnson, who saw extensive action last season, appearing in 11 games but only making four tackles.
The position group took a big hit over the weekend when Jaren Handy entered the transfer portal.
Defensive tackle was arguably the weakest chink in Auburn’s defensive armor last season, so it will be imperative that new players develop quickly and step up to the task.
Lee Hunter is a true freshman who was rated the No. 5 prospect in Alabama and the No. 7 defensive line prospect in the nation. Hunter has the size and talent to vie for immediate playing time instead of watching from the sidelines as a frehsman.
The defensive line got some help when J.J. Pegues, a big-bodied but athletic star at tight end last season, decided to try his hand at defensive line this year, hoping to prove that he is the all-around athlete he appeared to be last year.
With star defensive tackle prospect Jay Hardy electing to transfer just a few days ago, the interior of the line will need all the help it can get, but only time will tell if Pegues is that answer the Tigers are looking for.
Marquis Burks and Dre Butler are both former JUCO transfers who made an impact along the line last season. Burks had a lone sack while Butler had six tackles and a sack of his own, before earning his first start in the Citrus Bowl game against Northwestern.
Jeremiah Wright also had some success against Northwestern, making three tackles after spending most of the season transitioning from offense to defense.
Tyrone Truesdell has the most experience at the defensive tackle position. Truesdell opted to return for the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA after amassing 67 career tackles to date. He will be a key element in leading the young defensive line in 2021.
When asked about developing the inexperienced talent along the defensive line, Eason remarked that he isn’t worried as long as his players build consistency and do what is asked of them.
“It comes down to doing everything the right way,” said Eason.
As the season inches closer, Eason also emphasized that he has always had respect for the Auburn defense and in particular the Auburn defensive line.
“The tradition of great defensive lines goes back way before my time here at Auburn and we want to make sure that continues on,” he said.