Auburn has an extremely talented defense in 2016. The defensive line is expected to be among the best in the country. The linebackers are green, but all presumptive starters were highly sought-after recruits. The defensive backfield returns three starters, including the leading tackler over the past two seasons, Rudy Ford, at nickel. Carl Lawson, when healthy, could well be one of the best pass rushers in the country. He’s athletic enough to play a bit in space, occasionally dropping into pass coverage during blitzes. His backup, Jeff Holland, is probably mobile enough to do the same at 240 lbs. Rudy Ford will likely be on the field the majority of the game, meaning Auburn will be playing a 4-2-5. The existence of versatile end/linebacker hybrids will allow Steele to work into some one gap 3-3 fronts as well by dropping the weak side ends into coverage. This defense might be good, but it definitely will be multiple.
The defensive tackle two deep isn’t massive, and the strong side ends are coming in at 275-280. Outside of the weak side ends, this will be a pretty large defensive line. I’d expect a lot of defensive linemen trying to penetrate in one-gap schemes. Clemson’s offensive line handled stunts and blitzes well, but Kevin Steele is known to go for broke on passing downs.
There are two new starters on Clemson’s offensive line this year. Auburn’s defensive line coach, Rodney Garner, wants to have a rotation of ten defensive linemen and there’s definitely enough talent for at least eight. Lawson is the most dangerous pass rusher of the group, but DT Montravius Adams may be the most well rounded. Dontavius Russell and Marlon Davidson’s starting spots are not guaranteed, but both will at least rotate onto the field and the backups, including star recruit Derrick Brown, are more than capable of keeping the pressure on offenses.
Clemson’s ability to play faster than almost everyone in the country is most advantageous when it gets defensive lines tired. Auburn is deep enough it probably won’t get tired on the defensive line unless Clemson racks up a ridiculous snap count. Mix in Steele’s love for blitzing from outside and I’d expect to see presumptive starting WLB Darrell Williams and guaranteed starting Nickel ($ in the diagram) Rudy Ford coming off the edge quite a bit as well.
Clemson rarely tries to drive teams off the ball, even smaller teams, so a lot will come down to which line is quicker. If the offensive line is quick enough to avoid giving up penetration (or at least push linemen sideways once they get into the backfield) then Auburn will have problems. Quickness is Tyrone Crowder’s weakness, and probably not Jay Guillermo’s strength either. How those two perform will determine a lot of how Clemson is able to run the ball. Leggett should be able to come across formation and give Lawson problems as well.
Linebacker is a lot murkier for Auburn. For all intents and purposes it looks like Illinois transfer T.J. Neal has will earn playing time at Sam and as someone who has fled as fast as possible from central Illinois more than a few times, I wish him the best. He’s legitimately good, racking up 255 tackles over the last two years, never missing a start. He is also in his first year in the scheme and the only known quantity.
Tre Williams flashed potential in limited time last year. That it took the loss of all three starters for the senior to get a shot at starting is not an encouraging sign. Darrell Williams is definitely talented, but he probably got more non-special team snaps in the spring game than he did his entire freshman year. Montavious Atkinson, a converted safety, is lightning fast, but it remains to be seen how he will fare against the run. Throw in the fact that Atkinson is still learning the position and Auburn has to hope Deshaun Davis is ready to out-perform the three star ranking with which he enrolled. He was a special teamer last year, but as a redshirt sophomore he’s also the most experienced Will candidate.
Clemson did show quite a few two tight end looks in the spring game and doing that would likely force whichever of Deshaun Davis or Tre Williams doesn’t start onto the field. I’m not sure we have enough data on Garrett Williams to know for sure yet, but if he’s advanced as a pass catcher that could be a mismatch. Even as is, with nobody in the mix coming in above 6’2” I don’t see anyone able to run and jump with Leggett.
With the exception of Montavious Atkinson everyone weighs in above 230 pounds, and this linebacker group should be able to hold up against the run. Should only gets you so far, and with so little experience and Kevin Steele’s penchant for misfiring linebackers I think we have reason to be skeptical this will go off without a hitch in the first game of the season. No, Wayne Gallman is not always able to turn a crease into a touchdown. He will almost always turn it into ten yards, and he is able and willing to sustain his violent running style 25 times a game. Tavien Feaster might be fast enough to turn a sliver into sixty yards should he earn carries in game 1. Watson definitely is, and will be stronger after his first healthy off-season. To say nothing of needing to cover, say, Hunter Renfrow coming across the middle or tackle Artavis Scott in space.
Auburn lost two NFL-caliber defensive backs, but returns every other starter. The aforementioned Rudy Ford is a missile at nickel, and a pretty solid option to run with almost any slot receiver in the country. At 6’1”, 195 and with a year of experience under his belt there is reason to believe All-SEC freshman field corner Carlton Davis is ready to take a step forward this year. He should be a pain in the ass of whomever he’s covering. Jamel Dean’s injury means fellow redshirt freshman Javaris Davis will start. Proven, quality depth at corner is basically nonexistent. There is talent there, but there is at least as much talent in the Clemson WR’s, and more experience, and more time in the same scheme. The guy throwing to them is the face of college football. This does not set up well for Auburn’s pass defense.
Senior corner/safety Josh Holsey may have to be moved to safety for good after a pair of ACL tears, but he’s experienced and capable of backing up every position in the secondary if the athleticism is there. He will find a way onto the field, after the loss of Dean for the season he’s going to get every chance at corner. The final returner, Stephen Roberts, finds himself suspended for the opener after an arrest.
At free safety Nick Ruffin seems to be the starter but his spot could also be manned by Ford. Like most of Auburn’s defense the talent is there but there’s little reason to believe the whole will exceed the sum of its parts in time to slow an outstanding Clemson offense. Kevin Steele is noted for his fondness of aggressive blitzes and man coverage, and this is probably a defensive backfield athletic enough to get away with it against most teams; the problem is that Clemson presents the unquestioned best QB and WR combination in America and will literally beg Steele to send pressure in front of man coverage. We’ll see how often everyone executes correctly, these receivers and Watson are more than good enough to burn any secondary even without a bust.
There’s nobody on the two deep who matches up well with Jordan Leggett, and only one of the projected five starters in the secondary match up well with Cain or Williams. Whichever of the pair isn’t covered by the Greater Davis might be able to put up two touchdowns running nothing but flares for Watson heat checks against the Lesser Davis. The offensive line is pretty excellent, Gallman is a willing if not excellent pass blocker and Watson is blessed with absurd elusiveness and a quick release.
There are ways to see Auburn doing well; you can convince yourself everything will turn out right. A very good and quick defensive front could be able to wreak havoc and stop Gallman in the backfield. Watson could be thrown off with a few well executed blitzes. The athleticism and size at corner could match up with Clemson better than expected. Rudy Ford is Rudy Ford. The safeties are probably going to be competent… and even if everything goes right I don’t think Auburn can score enough to win.
Steele seems like a very intelligent coach who can’t consolidate his knowledge into a coordinated system; he is a former Rivals recruiter of the year and a well regarded linebackers coach. I wonder if that’s where he peaks though. Every defense Steele coordinates seems to run into the issue of being multiple without knowing what they are, putting his defenders a step behind before the ball is even snapped. It’s striking given his reputation as a linebacker coach how often the linebackers in Steele’s defense look like deer in the headlights. Did I mention Auburn is replacing both linebackers? Aggressive blitzing is great when it lands but when the blitzes don’t big plays rain down and this is not the most disciplined secondary.
Auburn is talented — do not forget that their cumulative recruiting ranking is better than Clemson’s the last five years — but it feels less and less like Malzahn was the source of the magic in 2010 or 2013. He’s a hell of an offensive coordinator, but getting Cam Newton was a godsend. Teams do not get #1 pick caliber quarterbacks twice (enjoy Watson). Especially not #1 pick caliber transfer quarterbacks starting in their first year. The 2013 championship appearance required not just one miracle, but two. We all remember the Kick Six, but it was preceded by an absurdly lucky Hail Mary against Georgia. Things haven’t been trending upward in Auburn for a while and this does not look like a defense that will be able to turn things around just yet. Not against an offense this good, probably not with Kevin Steele, and definitely not in their first game in a new scheme.