AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s defense has been relentless each time it has taken the field in 2017 regardless of its location or opponent on the field.
There are a few reasons for that, but one in particular is leading the Tigers to accomplish some truly amazing feats this season — like being the only team in the country to hold all five of its opponents under 14 points.
“I mean, there’s just that drive we have as a whole defense,” senior safety Tray Matthews said. “Everybody’s on the same page. We always want to keep everybody out of the end zone. And if they do get in the red zone we don’t even want them to kick a field goal. We want to stop it or block it. It’s just the Coach Steele factor, man.”
Auburn currently ranks No. 6 in scoring defense, No. 5 in passing defense and No. 9 in total defense. Despite losing three seniors and junior Carl Lawson in the NFL draft earlier this year, Auburn has been even more dominant five games into the season. It probably wouldn’t be unfolding this way if not for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele.
The veteran coach preaches a handful of basics. He continues to raise his expectations. Players respond by executing those fundamentals flawlessly. Each time Steele lifts the bar, his unit rises to the new standards. It’s a cycle that is fun to watch regardless of where your team loyalty lies.
Auburn traveled to Clemson and held the defending national champions to two scores in Death Valley. The Tigers have kept nonconference opponents including Georgia Southern and Mercer from scoring more than 14 points and continue to perform against ranked SEC teams such as No. 24 Mississippi State.
The 49-10 blowout of the Bulldogs was significant considering Auburn is hoping to roll through its SEC schedule before November arrives.
“Our defense played great again,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said. “I believe we had 2 interceptions and 4 fourth-down stops. We answered the bell time and time again.”
Auburn’s defense was sure of itself against Clemson in Week 2. Now that the Tigers are getting further through conference play, different aspects and units of Auburn’s defense are starting to emerge more.
It’s difficult to pick one group that’s leading the way. Of course, it all starts with the defensive front. Jeff Holland, Marlon Davidson, Dontavius Russell and the rest of defensive line coach Rodney Garner’s crew sets the tone.
Move to the linebackers and you have Travis Williams’ group. That rotation moves quick, and everyone is more than capable of playing.
Then there’s Matthews’ secondary unit. Matthews, as well as Javaris Davis, Jamel Dean, Jeremiah Dinson, Carlton Davis and others are all partial reasons why Mississippi State only converted 7 of 21 third downs. Auburn also added 2 interceptions, 12 pass breakups and hurried quarterback Nick Fitzgerald 11 times.
Steele is giving the group an invaluable gift every day.
“Our edge,” junior linebacker Deshaun Davis said. “Coach Steele always stresses flying to the ball and playing with great effort. Tackling and being physical and I think if you can do those two things then you’re bound to have a good defense. We don’t like guys to cross the goal line. We don’t like guys to get yards. We play with a great edge and great fire and that has us where we are now.”
Because Auburn’s starters are doing what’s expected, young players and freshmen are getting a real taste for what it’s like to play in the SEC.
It’s becoming important for players to meet the standards. There’s no time to hesitate or be unsure of yourself. That’s good for the coming months, but more importantly for the coming years.
“It’s great because we’re building for the future,” said defensive back Javaris Davis, who had 1 interception against Mississippi State. “And Coach tries to put freshmen in there so that we can always get better for the future. We have to continue to grow and work hard.”
The work is far from over, though. If anything, it’s just beginning. Matthews describes how the unit gets “down on itself” when it gives up big plays or scores. Those times are rare but they’re crucial.
Communication could be better at times. Auburn could be forcing more turnovers or coming up with more interceptions. But the defense will do whatever it needs to abide by Steele.
“We don’t really care what people think,” Matthews said. “We just want to keep going out there and playing with our best friends and keep playing for Coach Steele, man. We love playing for him.”
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