Coming into the 2018 college football season, there was considerable hype for an Auburn defense that ended the season among the top 15 in the country in yards allowed per game.
The strength of that defense was often seen as the group of talented defensive linemen on the roster.
Unfortunately for Tiger fans, Defensive Coordinator Kevin Steele’s unit didn’t quite live up to expectations this past season. Despite showing flashes of the dominance that was expected, the Tigers defense allowed over 400 yards in five games this season and fell to No. 38 in the country in yards allowed per game (355.8).
But after a blowout 63-14 Music City Bowl victory against Purdue to end the season, Auburn fans regained hope for the future.
This confidence was boosted when three starters on the defensive line, senior tackle Derrick Brown, senior end Marlon Davidson and redshirt junior Nick Coe, all announced they would be returning to the Plains in 2019 and forgoing the NFL Draft.
Brown prepared to become a leader
A two-year starter at defensive tackle, Brown, a former five-star recruit, has been a mismatch for opposing defenses since he arrived on The Plains. In 2018, the 6-foot-5, 325-pound Sugar Hill, Georgia, native recorded 45 total tackles (which led all linemen on the team) as well as 10.5 tackles for loss (TFLs) and 4.5 sacks.
This production led to Brown being named to the All-SEC second team as well as being touted as a late first-round draft prospect by many experts. Despite this, Brown decided to return for his senior season for a variety of reasons.
“With my degree in my hands, I’m going to be so much more powerful than what could have had happened because I could’ve been in the league, I could’ve been hurt and I could’ve been just going through certain things … also, being able to have my son here when I graduate in December, it’s a memory I won’t ever forget,” Brown said.
Along with finishing his degree, Brown is also focused on improving on his strong 2018 season and becoming the best football player he can be.
“I’ve got to step up and be a leader. I mean, the guys that left before me, they were the leaders of the team. I did my part, but I feel like I’m kind of the guy who does his work, doesn’t say much and I try to give the team the best I got, and I don’t say much about anything. But now, I’ve got to step out of that and be comfortable with being a leader,” he said.
Davidson returns to fulfill a promise to his late mother
Davidson, a three-year starter on the defensive line, has been an impact player for the Tigers since he first stepped on the field in 2016, when he became the first true freshman lineman in more than three decades to start a season-opener. He tallied 38 tackles (six for a loss) and 2.5 sacks in his freshman campaign, which earned him All-SEC freshman team honors.
His output and impact has only increased since then — in 2018 he finished with 46 tackles, 3.5 sacks and three blocked kicks.
The 6-foot-3, 278-pound senior really excelled at defending kicks. Davidson was a pest all season for opposing kickers as his three blocked kicks ranked first in the SEC and second in the nation.
Projected as a fourth- to sixth-round draft selection before his decision, Davidson wanted to return to Auburn not only to improve his draft stock, but to also fulfill a promise.
“I didn’t feel like I played to the Marlon Davidson standard this year. I left a lot of plays on the field and I’m coming back and trying to reach every goal that I can,” he said. “I want to make sure I fulfill a promise I made in seventh grade to my mother and just making sure I do everything right and of course, to finish school.”
His promise to his mother, Cynthia Carter, who passed away in 2015, was simple: “The promise was that she wouldn’t have to stress no more. She would never have to worry about money ever again in her life, she would not have to go back to work, she would have everything taken care of, she would have a house right beside me. I was a mother’s boy, so I mean, everything I did, I did it for my mom.”
Coe ready to dominate in 2019
A state wrestling champion in high school, Coe has used his combination of size and speed to excel at the buck position and become the Tigers’ most fearsome pass rusher.
As a redshirt sophomore in 2018, Coe led Auburn in sacks with seven while registering 26 tackles and 13.5 TFLs, which ranked second on the team.
Although Coe technically has two more years of eligibility left, his elite pass-rushing skills catapulted him up 2019 draft boards, and looking a year ahead, many experts have Coe as one of the top pass rushers in the 2020 draft class.
In 2019, Coe has aspirations of a national championship — a driving factor in his decision to wait on the NFL.
“It was pretty easy to decide if I wanted to stay or go. I still want to win a national championship, so that’s still one of my goals … I want to achieve that goal really bad,” he said.
With the trio of Davidson, Brown and himself returning for another season, Coe believes the Tigers’ defensive line can be truly dominant.
“We can be really great, that’s what I think,” Coe said. “From our past couple years of playing with each other and everything, we can show more time, more focus, more communication and more skill level and performance that everybody can see and see who we truly are.”
Rather than having to rebuild its talented core, the Auburn defense will go into 2019 with an experienced and highly touted group. Despite all three players garnering major NFL interest, the D-Line trio returns — all for various reasons — in order to help Auburn get back to the national stage.
The trio will lead an Auburn defensive line group that also returns tackles Tyrone Truesdell, Daquan Newkirk, Alec Jackson and Coynis Miller Jr., buck ends Big Kat Bryant, T.D. Moultry and Richard Jibunor and redshirt freshman end Caleb Johnson, as well as welcome incoming freshmen Derick Hall, Charles Moore, Jaren Handy and Colby Wooden.
Brown, Davidson, Coe and the rest of the Tigers will hit the field for the start of spring practice March 18.