With college football fall camp coming within sight, this week’s preview focuses on a position that has been a force to be reckoned with over the past few seasons: the defensive line.
Of Auburn’s defensive lineman from the 2019 season, five will not be returning for 2020. Most notably among this group leaving are the two juggernauts named Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown. The two led the Tigers with a combined 11.5 sacks and 103 tackles last season.
Replacing both of the All-SEC performers will be a challenge for Auburn. Along with Brown and Davidson, the Tigers lost defensive end Gary Walker to graduation, Charles Moore, who is transferring to Oregon State, and Nick Coe.
Replacing two long-time starters along the defensive line will be difficult, but it is a task Auburn has done time and time again.
The Tigers will welcome back sophomores Colby Wooden and Derick Hall, both of whom play the hybrid buck position. Auburn will also bring back T.D. Moultry at the buck position sophomores Caleb Johnson, Reece Mullins, Jaren Handy, Trent Townsend and Gabe Brinson, juniors Coyins Miller Jr. and Payton Nance, and seniors Big Kat Bryant, Daquan Newkirk and Tyrone Truesdell.
At buck, T.D. Moultry is the most likely candidate to get the start in 2020. He is the only one of the returning players labeled “buck” by the Auburn official roster that has had any actual game experience, although Bryant has taken reps there in the past. Barring a superstar freshman or coaches sliding another lineman to buck, which is a possibility, the position is Moultry’s to lose.
Along the line, expect Bryant to start at strongside defensive end. Bryant has grown over four years and started at buck in 2019 at times in place of Nick Coe. If Moultry can hold his own at the buck position, expect Bryant to play opposite of him. With a sack and 16 tackles to his name in 2019, Bryant is expected to play a significant role in to 2020 defensive line.
Expect Truesdell to be one of the two starters at tackle. Truesdell started in 2019 alongside Derrick Brown and earned 31 tackles, third-most along the defensive line.
Truesdell also had the third-most sacks last season, and with Brown and Davidson out of the way, expect him to be the one to step up to the plate.
The real question is who will be tackle opposite of him, where the race is wide open.
Statistically, Jaren Handy seems primed to take the spot, having seven tackles last season — more than any returning lineman not previously mentioned. However, he is a versatile lineman who can play any position along the line, and coaches may want someone more dedicated to the tackle position to get the start.
That could pave the way for senior Daquan Newkirk to get the start in the fall. With both a dedication to the tackle position and only two tackles shy of Handy last season, he seems to be the top candidate for the open line position.
In 2020, Auburn will bring in four incoming freshmen and two junior-college transfers.
Romello Height is the lone player recruited for Auburn’s buck position. Height set a school record for sacks during his junior and senior seasons at Dublin High School and has the potential to be a key contributor in the coming years.
His fellow freshmen include Daniel Foster-Allen, Jay Hardy, and Zykeivous Walker. Foster-Allen hails from Alabama, where he became a top-25 recruit in the state. Hardy was touted as the number one recruit in Tennessee, and Walker, from Georgia, was a top-15 recruit.
Marquis Burks, from Iowa Central Community College, and Dre Butler, from Independence (Kansas) Community College, both enter coem to the Plains from the JUCO ranks. Scouting services ranked them No. 7 and No. 4, respectively, at their positions.
They are both listed as defensive tackles, and with one or possibly both tackle spots in question, there is room for both to make an immediate impact.
Since 2013, coach Rodney Garner has shaped the defensive line for Auburn and will do so again in 2020. Garner has coached some of Auburn’s greatest defensive lines, developing players such as Jeff Holland (free agent), Montravius Adams (Green Bay Packers), Carl Lawson (Cincinnati Bengals), and most recently Derrick Brown (Carolina Panthers) and Marlon Davidson (Atlanta Falcons). Garner has always seemed to have the ability to reload the defensive line, and has the ability to do so once again.
This year, he will have to do it under the most unpredictable of conditions.
The 2020 linemen will be under Kevin Steele, a veteran coach who has had success at both the college and professional level. When Steele came to Auburn in 2016 from LSU, he immediately moved Auburn’s defense from 71st (2015) to 28th overall. Since then, Auburn has had multiple top-15 total defenses and has been a dominant force on the football field.
If there is any position Auburn does not need to worry about it is probably the linebackers. Then it is the defensive line. While Auburn has holes to fill, and no one can replace Davidson or Brown, the Tigers have recruited well enough that they are in a position to fill those holes with experienced players.
Coach Garner likes to have depth and rotate his line, and there is no reason why that should change this season. The success of the line will depend upon how much time the coaches get to teach the newcomers and develop the returners.