Projecting Auburn's 2021 defensive depth chart is a real challenge. But here it is.
Good luck trying to sort out where the Tigers will fit together on a new defense. One thing's for sure: This offseason won't be boring.
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LB Owen Pappoe (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
When trying to map out how Auburn could line up on the defensive side of the ball in 2021, there are several major factors to consider.
New defensive coordinator Derek Mason doesn’t like to be put in a box when it comes to scheme. But he’s best known for his 3-4 defense at Stanford, which he ran the vast majority of his time as Vanderbilt’s head coach.
New head coach Bryan Harsin had defenses at Boise State that looked like some sort of hybrid between a 3-3-5 and a 4-2-5 on the depth chart. The Broncos were known for their STUD — “stand up defensive end” — edge rusher who could switch back and forth between being a lineman and a linebacker, depending on the situation.
Then, of course, there’s the defense the new staff is inheriting. Auburn’s defense wasn’t perfect, but it definitely wasn’t the problem over the last few seasons on the Plains. Kevin Steele brought the Tigers back into national prominence on defense, running a 4-2-5 base defense that wanted to antagonize quarterbacks with just four rushing linemen and a lot of man coverage on the outside.
How will all that come together? The first steps toward that answer will come later this month, when Auburn opens its first spring practices under Harsin and Mason.
In terms of a depth chart projection, it’s tough to break down just who will go where when switching from a 4-man front to a 3-man front. Both Vanderbilt and Boise State had a defensive end and two defensive tackles, one of them playing the nose, on their depth charts in 2020. Boise State used a STUD with two other linebackers in a nickel-base depth chart, while Vanderbilt had four linebackers and four defensive backs.
There’s going to be a ton of movement this offseason. Returning players will have to adapt to new roles, and the defense has — at the moment — 10 different players who will arrive on campus after spring practices. This projection could be ripped apart rather quickly once the Tigers return to the field.
But, after projecting the offense Monday, let’s take a stab at the defense today. Again, this is a projection of where the Tigers are right now, not a prediction of what will be on the depth chart come September. Using 2020 snap counts and other forward-looking pieces of analysis, here’s how things might shake out for this transitioning defense.
DE Colby Wooden (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Colby Wooden: No defensive lineman played more last season than Wooden, who nearly hit double-digits in tackles for loss by season’s end. He did it as a redshirt freshman, coming off a first year where he had to battle back from a summer bout with mono. Wooden was Mr. Versatility for the Tigers in 2020, lining up virtually everywhere on the defensive line. With a traditional defensive end build and an explosive first step, playing on the end in a 3-man front feels like the best bet for Wooden. He won’t sneak up on anybody this season, and new defensive line coach Nick Eason is inheriting quite the young playmaker.
Dre Butler: Another defensive lineman who can do some of everything, Butler will be one of the more intriguing names to track when it comes to where he lines up in a new-look front. Most of his snaps came at defensive tackle, but he has the athleticism to be a problem off the edge — which he did some in 2020. It took a while for Butler to get on the field last season, and there’s still plenty of room for this JUCO transfer to reach his ceiling. Keep a close eye on him this spring.
Daniel Foster-Allen: Foster-Allen didn’t see the field as a true freshman in 2020. He was a project for the future when he signed with the Tigers as a 3-star from Mobile. Auburn listed him at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds last year, and he should continue to grow with the more work he gets in a college strength and conditioning program. DFA wasn’t a sack master in high school, but he was highly productive in doing some of everything up front. Let’s see what he can do under a new staff in Year 2.
Tyrone Truesdell: One of the biggest possible returns for Auburn this offseason was Truesdell, the impressive success story who went from last-minute Signing Day Special to multi-year starter at defensive tackle on the Plains. Like Dontavius Russell before him, Truesdell’s stats won’t leap off the page, but that’s not his job. He’s a massive gap-filler, and he will most likely be asked to do that a lot in this new scheme. Having a fifth-year senior to lead the way at the point of attack should be huge for the Tigers. He’ll provide plenty of value in leadership alone.
Marquis Burks: Another massive veteran on the interior — he was listed at 312 pounds last season — Burks saw the field in several SEC games after arriving from JUCO last year. The Chicago native got his first career sack against LSU and put in some good work in games against Mississippi State and Northwestern to end the season. Only time will tell how well he transitions to the new way of doing things up front, but he has the physical tools to plug gaps and affect traffic.
Jeremiah Wright: Wright was one of the biggest surprises on the team last season, switching from offensive line to defensive tackle as a true freshman and seeing the field rather early. At 6-foot-5 and 340 pounds, there’s no question where Wright will be in this defense. He played a lot of snaps in the Citrus Bowl due to several absences up front and held his own. Like Elijah Canion on offense, the challenge will be for Wright to follow up his postseason surge with good progression in spring practices.
Zykeivous Walker: Walker, like Wooden, is another talented young defensive lineman who could realistically play anywhere up front. Although he was listed on the depth chart as a defensive end as a true freshman last fall, most of his snaps actually came in the interior. Walker played in all but one game last season and saw a good bit of action in most of those contests. He finished his first year on a high note, and he should be in for a major role in 2021, especially following the departures of Big Kat Bryant and Daquan Newkirk.
Jay Hardy: Injuries kept Hardy from having the true freshman campaign he would’ve wanted, as he didn’t take the field until the regular-season finale against Mississippi State. Hardy was a prized recruit in the class of 2020, landing just outside the top-100 nationally in the 247Sports Composite. Quick for his size, Hardy might see his stock explode with a fully healthy offseason under a new staff. If you’re looking for a potential breakout player, Hardy is one to watch.
Lee Hunter: Now the second highest-rated signee of the Tigers’ 2021 class, Hunter comes to the Plains with plenty of fanfare. He was a top-100 player nationally, and he totaled 43 tackles for loss across his final two seasons at Blount High in Mobile. Hunter is pure power, and being an early enrollee should help his chances at becoming an instant-impact player. With the likes of Dylan Brooks and Eku Leota arriving later this offseason, Hunter might get the most attention of the newcomers during spring practices.
Post-Spring Arrivals: Marquis Robinson, Ian Mathews
BUCK Derick Hall (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Derick Hall: Whether Auburn goes with a Buck, a STUD or a traditional outside linebacker in its new scheme, Hall feels like a safe bet to play the role. The Tigers’ leader in quarterback pressures from a season ago, Hall has all the tools to become a top-notch speed rusher. He just needs to unleash them on a more consistent basis, which could come with more time and training. Hall was listed at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds last season, which means he could put on more weight and still be right in the wheelhouse for a pass-rushing outside linebacker.
Cam Riley: Call this an educated guess. Call this a hunch. Call it a complete shot in the dark. Whichever one it turns out to be, Riley feels like someone who could really benefit from a switch to a 3-4 style. He played nearly as much edge rusher as he did box linebacker last season, and the inside linebacker group — as you’ll see momentarily — is well-stocked. Riley’s size will be something to track this offseason as he hits Year 2 of his college career, as he was listed at a wiry 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds last fall. He might end up staying down the middle, but there’s a lot to like about Riley’s potential on the outside.
Romello Height: Another freshman who didn’t see the field outside of the LSU blowout, Height is all upside. The Georgia native is a natural pass rusher who might have a better shot at seeing the field now that the Tigers are presumably switching up how they line up on the edges. Height will have plenty of competition this offseason, with more big-name pickups coming after spring practices. But he has an opportunity to turn some heads over the next several months.
Jaren Handy: Handy was another young Auburn defensive lineman with plenty of versatility among positions. After playing mostly at defensive tackle as a true freshman in 2019, he was an edge rusher first and foremost in 2020. Handy was productive with his chances, getting after the quarterback at a solid rate for a backup underclassman. Listed at 252 pounds last offseason, Handy has the athleticism to play more of an outside linebacker role for the Tigers moving forward. That’s where he’ll be initially projected, but no one should be surprised if he carves out serious time at another position this season.
Caleb Johnson: Johnson might have been an overlooked man for many Auburn fans heading into last season, as he redshirted in 2018 and didn’t see much playing time in 2019. But Johnson started hot last season and earned a decent amount of snaps in the second half of the campaign. Like Handy, his pass-rushing numbers weren’t bad at all for someone with limited chances. Johnson just might have been a late bloomer up front, and it will be interesting to see how he follows up a solid Year 3 with his first opportunity under a new staff.
Post-Spring Arrivals: Eku Leota, Dylan Brooks, Tobechi Okoli
LB Zakoby McClain (Justin Ford/USA Today Sports)
Zakoby McClain: Ricochet Rabbit, the SEC’s leading tackler from a season ago, is back and under new management. McClain stepped up when K.J. Britt went down with an early season-ending injury and brought plenty of thump over the middle of the defense. He’ll be a key part of the Tigers’ defense again in 2021, strengthening the spine of a new-look unit. Like Britt, McClain could stand to get better in coverage as he builds toward an NFL future — and the spring might be the start of a busy offseason of accolades for him.
Chandler Wooten: Wooten opted out of the 2020 season during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic and became a new father. He announced he would return to the program for 2021, making the Tigers even stronger down the middle. Wooten has never been a star attraction among Auburn’s linebackers, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t a valuable playmaker and teammate. How quickly he gets back into playing shape will be something to keep an eye on this spring.
Desmond Tisdol: Another “only played defense against LSU” freshman last season, Tisdol looked impressive in his snaps against the Bayou Bengals. Tisdol got on the field a decent bit on special teams, which is usually a good sign for future opportunities. Coming out of high school, Tisdol was known for his ability to make plays in space, and he might be able to turn some more heads in that capacity as the Tigers switch up what they do at linebacker in 2021.
Owen Pappoe: Only Smoke Monday played more snaps for Auburn last season than Pappoe, the former 5-star linebacker who is the definition of a do-it-all leader on defense. Pappoe has the speed and agility to be a weapon in coverage, yet he’s also one of Auburn’s better pass rushers when he gets sent on blitzes. The new scheme should add new dimensions to his game, as he’ll be asked to do quite a bit for the Tigers next to McClain. What Mason and his assistants draw up for him should be a lot of fun to watch this offseason.
T.D. Moultry: Moultry came back to the Plains for one more season, and he’s reportedly on the move to his old position at middle linebacker. He never fully caught on at Buck defensive end under the previous staff, as injuries, inconsistencies and more than a few penalties limited his production there. Getting back to his old stomping grounds should be quite the sight in the spring. Even though Auburn has a lot of talented inside linebackers coming back — and he could potentially be back on the outside — there’s a reason why Moultry decided to stay at Auburn for another year.
Wesley Steiner: Billed as another version of Pappoe on the Plains, Steiner played in all but two games for the Tigers last season and had defensive snaps in three different contests. He has the look of a sure tackler in space, and he has the athleticism to be a great playmaker in time at Auburn. There’s just a lot of competition around him at the moment, so getting a free true freshman season should be a positive for him. He’s flying under the radar at the moment, but that could change with a strong spring.
Kameron Brown: Harsin made a name for himself at Boise State in taking underrated recruits and turning them into big-time playmakers. Brown might be the ultimate one of those — a former low 3-star recruit who is undersized but had an insane amount of production in high school. Derrick Brown’s younger brother was a special teams player as a redshirt freshman last season, and his push toward becoming a part of the defensive puzzle will be something to monitor.
Post-Spring Arrival: Joko Willis
CB Roger McCreary (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
Roger McCreary: As expected, McCreary took to being Auburn’s new CB1 after a run of early-round NFL Draft picks quite well in 2020. He was one of the highest-graded cover corners in college football, and he showed some real decisiveness in jumping routes for interceptions when quarterbacks tried to go his way. McCreary is now a bonafide leader on this defense, and there might not be a more secure position on the entire roster. He should be a lock to start, and he should do it out wide in 2021.
Marco Domio: Domio didn’t make his Auburn debut on defense until the Ole Miss game last fall, and he played just a handful of snaps in most games — with the exception of the LSU blowout. Domio had his first extended run in the loss against Northwestern in the Citrus Bowl, where he showcased a solid physical game despite the Tigers’ tough day in coverage. The former JUCO standout will be in an even more-crowded cornerback room this season, so spring practices will be important for his push to greater playing time.
Eric Reed Jr.: Reed didn’t play until the Citrus Bowl, where he got a handful of snaps — mostly against Northwestern’s clock-eating rushing attack. Reed was a coveted pickup in the 2020 class, as the Tigers snatched him from the state of Louisiana, where they haven’t had a ton of success in recent years. He’s another young player who should benefit from that free first year, as he’ll be one to watch under former Tigers cornerback Zac Etheridge in 2021.
Traivon Leonard: Leonard announced earlier this year that he would return to the program in 2021 after opting out the 2020 season. He’s a peculiar case in terms of where he fits on a depth chart, as he played the most snaps on defense when he was a true freshman back in 2017. In 2019, he didn’t appear in a single game. Still, the Tigers can’t have enough depth at cornerback, and Leonard should provide that as he works his way back to full speed.
Nehemiah Pritchett: As subscribers read last month, Pritchett is ahead of the curve in terms of the usual breakout pattern for former underrated cornerback prospects at Auburn. Pritchett was one of the most disruptive corners in the country last year, as he made the most of his chance to jump to the top of the depth chart. What does he have for an encore? He still could develop quite a bit across from McCreary, and that starts this spring.
Jaylin Simpson: While Simpson’s early-season injury led to Pritchett’s impressive campaign as a starter, Simpson still played quite a bit in a number of roles for the Tigers’ defense last year. While Simpson has primarily been an outside cornerback, he’s shown an ability to even slide inside to the box and play a safety role, which could come in handy this offseason. With Auburn bringing in a lot of new blood at cornerback, the versatile Simpson could be on the move in this defense.
Kamal Hadden: Speaking of new blood at cornerback, Hadden enrolled early as a JUCO pickup from Independence in Kansas — the Last Chance U program that has produced a number of Tigers in recent seasons. The Michigan native has great size for a cornerback at 6-foot-2 and garnered interest from a number of Power 5 schools in the last cycle. Watch out for him in spring ball.
Post-Spring Arrivals: Dreshun Miller, A.D. Diamond
Ladarius Tennison: If Auburn opts for a normal nickel back in its new defense, Tennison is the man to beat by a considerable margin. He was the primary backup to Christian Tutt at the position last fall and logged some heavy minutes toward the end of the season. Tennison is an explosive young player who should only get better with age, and he has a skill set that separates him from some of the other defensive backs competing for playing time behind the likes of McCreary and Pritchett. He’ll have a lot of eyes on him this preseason.
Zion Puckett: Like Simpson, Puckett moved all over the place this past season, going from wide cornerback to slot corner to the box on defense — in addition to a heavy workload in special teams. The majority of his 2020 snaps came at nickel, where he should provide some value as the new staff figures out where to put everyone on this side of the ball. He came to Auburn as a safety, so there might be a role for him there moving forward.
Smoke Monday: Both Vanderbilt and Boise State didn’t differentiate between their two safeties on the depth chart, which fits right into what Auburn did under Steele. Monday was a constant presence on Auburn’s defense alongside Jamien Sherwood, and now he’s the lone veteran at safety. Monday can be a punishing playmaker in a number of areas, but he could benefit from getting some more consistency. Mason and his scheme should be perfect for that development in a talented safety who makes Auburn’s defensive core even stronger.
Ahmari Harvey: For a blue-chip signee, Harvey didn’t get quite the same amount of buzz as others in Auburn’s 2021 class — he might be flying under the radar some right now. Harvey lined up in several positions during his high school days, and that versatility could come in handy as early as his true freshman campaign. Look for him to settle into a role early, particularly at a safety spot that doesn’t have a ton of depth at the moment.
Chris Thompson Jr.: On defense, there might not be a better breakout Year 2 candidate than Thompson. The Texan played in six games last season and was quietly impressive whenever he saw action on the defensive side of the ball. With Sherwood now off to the NFL, this might be Thompson’s time to take over a starting job. He’s a headhunter with great speed, and Mason’s defense should be perfect for his skill set. Auburn fans might want to buy stock in him right now.
Ahmari Harvey: Like previously stated, the safety depth is thin at the moment. Two more newcomers are set to arrive after spring ball, and some of the corners and nickels could slide back here. But Harvey should be an important piece as an early enrollee as the Tigers make their way through practices.
Post-Spring Arrivals: Cayden Bridges, Juwon Gaston
Up next on The Auburn Observer: Bruce Pearl’s Tigers will look to follow up their surprise upset victory over Tennessee by pulling off an even bigger win — a road trip to newly crowned SEC champion Alabama on Tuesday night. Postgame Observations from Auburn’s matchup in Tuscaloosa will be sent Wednesday morning.
You can go ahead and send in your questions for this Friday’s Aubserver Mailbag by tweeting them @JFergusonAU on Twitter or emailing them to the1andonlyJF@gmail.com.