How Auburn's coaching change unlocked Eugene Asante and Donovan Kaufman
Entering camp, it wasn't clear where these two former transfers fit. But, in the first two games, they've been Auburn's top playmakers.
LB Eugene Asante (Auburn Football/Instagram)
Auburn’s defense was on its collective heels early in the fourth quarter Saturday night at Cal. The Golden Bears had marched inside the Tigers’ red zone, looking to finally take advantage of a scoring chance and stretch an uncomfortable 3-point lead.
So, on second-and-10 from the Auburn 16, defensive coordinator Ron Roberts decided his unit needed to play on its front foot again.
Lining up in the base 4-2-5 look, inside linebacker Eugene Asante started slowly cheating down closer to the line of scrimmage. Then, with his eyes firmly locked on the Cal quarterback, he got a head start and sprinted toward the gap between the left tackle and the left guard.
Nobody touched him. With the running back sprinting out to provide a safety valve and the Cal offensive line focused on the Tigers’ front four, Asante had a free lane to the quarterback — who quickly chunked the ball toward his outside receiver in an act of self-preservation more than any real shot at a touchdown.
Asante, the catchphrase-yelling source of energy at the heart of Auburn’s defense, was in the midst of the game of his life. He looked like the best player on the field throughout the night, and he seemed to be in the middle of almost every good moment for the Tigers on that side of the ball.
So Roberts sent Asante after the quarterback again. This time, he wouldn’t be alone. Asante crept down to the outside shoulder of defensive end Mosiah Nasili-Kite, while safety Zion Puckett did the same thing next to Jack linebacker Elijah McAllister on the other end of the formation.
Auburn was showing Cover Zero — that is, man-to-man across from each receiver and zero safety help — while linebacker Wesley Steiner was responsible for the Cal running back. The other six were going to try to overload the Golden Bears’ protection.
And Asante, who was still playing like his hair was on fire, beat everybody to the backfield and dove for a huge shoestring sack. On the next play, Cal missed its third field goal of the game.
Last season, after transferring from North Carolina, Asante only got a handful of defensive snaps in one game before being limited to special teams duty for a few more weeks. He wasn’t a part of the Tigers’ defensive plans past September.
On Saturday, he was a game-changing force down the middle of a new-look defense.
“It was a big thing for me, because I played on scout team last year,” Asante said after his standout performance in Auburn’s 14-10 win at Cal. “That kind of thing fuels me, just being out there. Coach Roberts, (inside linebackers) Coach (Josh) Aldridge, this staff giving me the opportunity to show what I can do — I’m just forever grateful to them.”
Asante was the MVP of a defense that head coach Hugh Freeze said deserved “all of the credit” after Auburn’s win at Cal. The Tigers’ offense had one of their worst performances in a win away from home in nearly 16 years, but the defense made stop after stop with few signs of slowing down.
Asante finished the game with 12 tackles, with two of them happening in the backfield, along with four quarterback pressures and a pass breakup. He was in on the tackle for seven different unsuccessful runs from Cal. He should have a chance to be named SEC Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.
“What a night he had,” Freeze said. “I don't know how many tackles he had, but he was in on a lot. He played really, really hard.”
But Asante wasn’t the only defensive standout shining in a new system Saturday night in California.