The return of defensive linemen Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe, all of whom could have left for the NFL after last season, and an experienced secondary gives the Tigers what could be the best defense fielded on The Plains since Tommy Tuberville roamed the sidelines more than a decade ago.
Brown’s size, explosiveness and ability to disrupt a backfield will give opponents’ offensive lines fits this season. It’s likely that his stats will take a jump up this year after registering 48 tackles, including 10.5 for a loss, 4.5 sacks and six quarterback hurries in 2018.
Brown will play the bulk of snaps when the defense is on the field. He could get spelled some by Coe or sophomore Coynis Miller, who was injured during most of fall camp but will slowly be worked into the rotation.
Davidson will try to have a breakout year at defensive end after focusing on his nutrition and shedding body fat for muscle in the offseason, efforts he hopes will translate into more explosiveness and sacks in 2019.
“I’m trying to get better with my habits, trying to treat my body as a precious tool. This year is going to be the best year I can bring to the table, period,” said Davidson.
Davidson made 46 tackles last season, but only 4.5 for a loss, and finished with just 3.5 sacks despite leading the team in quarterback hurries with 11.
“I improved on my hands last year. I was getting back to the quarterback but I was just one step too slow. Now, I’m trying to get my footwork faster now, so everything should tie into it,” he said.
Junior Big Kat Bryant will serve as Davidson’s primary backup, although true freshman Jaren Handy might figure into the rotation at some point after a strong fall camp. Handy also has the size and skill set to slide inside to tackle, if needed.
“His attitude, his approach to the game, it’s exactly how I did when I first came in,” said Davidson, who was the first true freshman to start for the Tigers since the 1980s.
At 6-5, 291 pounds, Coe might be the Tigers’ most intimidating presence along the defensive line. In his second season as starter at the hybrid Buck end/linebacker position, Coe is poised to become a household name this fall. Last year, 13.5 of his 27 tackles were behind the line of scrimmage. He also led the team in sacks with seven, even though he missed two games, including the Tigers’ bowl win over Purdue.
Coe is also expected to slide inside to defensive tackle at times to help fill the hole left by the departure of Dontavius Russell to the NFL.
When Coe is not at tackle, the position will be filled by a rotation of junior Tyrone Truesdell and Miller.
Coe might end up sliding inside to tackle more often that not because of the potential of backup T.D. Moultry at buck end. After registering 11 tackles and 1.5 sacks in 2018, Moultry seems primed for a breakout year.
“The guy can flat out ball,” said Davidson. “I think he’s going to come into the buck spot and give us a lot of juice, just a lot of dominance by him.”
The defensive line will look to make the linebackers’ jobs easier while they work out the kinks of replacing all of last year’s starters.
The leader of the group and starter at middle, or “Mike,” linebacker appears to be K.J. Britt, although his roommate, junior Chandler Wooten, is neck-and-neck with him in the competition to be the starter. Placing the two talented juniors at the same position is the same strategy linebackers coach Travis Williams took with Deshaun Davis and Tre Williams in 2017.
“You have the ability to have K.J. and Chandler at the same time but right now they’re at the same position. I want to have two quarterbacks at the same time,” said Williams.
Britt made 23 tackles and Wooten 10 in reserve roles last season. Wooten could rotate to strongside linebacker position, too, the position he played last year as a backup.
Redshirt freshman Zakoby McClain might start at weakside linebacker for the Tigers, although true freshman Owen Pappoe might push him for that job early in the season.
McClain’s toughness stands out to Williams, who said he’s “South Georgia tough.”
“If you go into an alley fight, I’m taking Zakoby,” he said. “He can just naturally unlock his hips on tackles — he throws his body all over the place.”
Pappoe, a five-star recruit who enrolled early and went through spring practice, is the biggest newcomer to emerge as a potential impact player on defense. His speed, explosiveness and ability to drop into coverage have him vying for a starting spot at both weakside and strongside linebacker. Even if he doesn’t start, expect Pappoe to get plenty of reps in the linebacker rotation.
Pappoe “hasn’t blinked” while learning multiple positions, said Williams.
“We knew he could run fast, jump high, all of that stuff. That’s why we recruited him. He’s not here because he runs slow. But, what’s impressive is how focused he is and how locked in he is. He’s about his business.”
The Auburn secondary returns veteran starters that should help ease any growing pains that may emerge at linebacker.
Noah Igbinoghene returns to start at cornerback after a breakout 2018 season that saw the converted wide receiver lead the team with 11 passes broken up.
Secondary coach Marcus Woodson thinks Igbinoghene is ready for a special season in his second year at the position.
“He’s progressed in such a short time frame at corner,” he said. “If I didn’t know and someone told me he’d only been playing the position for one year, I would think that wouldn’t be accurate. He’s come a long way. He shows up every day and he’s obsessed with improvement. I really like his progress right now.”
Igbinoghene added 50 tackles and an interception to go along with his quarterback hurries last year.
Joining him as a starter at cornerback is veteran Javaris Davis, who shifted back there after playing nickel back last season, where he racked up 41 tackles, a sack and returned two interceptions for a combined 72 yards.
Sophomore Roger McCreary, Smoke Monday and Christian Tutt will serve as the primary backups at cornerback for the Tigers. Monday will also serve as the main backup for senior free safety Jeremiah Dinson, who joins senior strong safety Daniel Thomas to give the Tigers two veteran starters on the back end. Jamien Sherwood should also see plenty of action backing up both Dinson and Thomas at safety.
With Davis playing mostly at cornerback, Tutt will take over the starting role at nickel back after making 25 tackles and one interceptions in 2018. He will be backed up by Jordyn Peters, although Davis could slide over to nickel, if needed.
On special teams, the Tigers return starting placekicker Anders Carlson and starting punter Arryn Siposs, who worked on his sky punts during fall camp. Sage Ledbetter will serve as the holder on field goals and extra points, while Bill Taylor hold down long-snapper duties.
Punt returning duties will likely be handled by either Javaris Davis or Christian Tutt, while Igbinoghene and Jatarvious Whitlow will serve as the primary returners on kickoffs.