Auburn's Defense Needs Improvements, but Tigers Have Talent to Succeed

Barrett SalleeSEC Football Lead WriterApril 21, 2014

Auburn DB Brandon King (29) tackles WR "Duke" Williams (1)
Auburn DB Brandon King (29) tackles WR "Duke" Williams (1)John Bazemore

The dominant storyline exiting Auburn's spring game was the play of the offense and quarterback Nick Marshall in particular, as Marshall lit up the Tigers defense with 236 passing yards and four touchdowns.

But that was against a unit that was littered with second-teamers and, because of various minor injuries on that side of the ball, some third-teamers.

When the first-team defense was on the field, it shined. The No. 1 unit gave up just three points—a 50-yard field goal by Daniel Carlson in the second quarter—against quarterback Jeremy Johnson and the second-team offense, and gave up just 73 yards in the first half.

Auburn DE Carl Lawson
Auburn DE Carl LawsonUSA TODAY Sports

This was without presumed starting defensive ends Carl Lawson and LaDarius Owens, both of whom skipped the game nursing injuries.

The strong play from the "ones" was something head coach Gus Malzahn expected.

"We kind of mixed and matched," he said. "With some guys that played with both groups. I do not read anything into the score. I think it is just a matter of both sides, at least with our 'ones' are better than they were last year at this time. It should be expected.”

So what went well for the Tigers?

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis JohnsonUSA TODAY Sports

The makeshift defensive line that saw defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson utilize his "rhino" package that features defensive tackle Gabe Wright at defensive end seemed to work well. On top of that, sophomore defensive end Elijah Daniel—who can also drop down and play defensive tackle in certain situations—had 2.5 tackles for loss, one sack and got consistent pressure.

Linebacker and defensive MVP of the game Kenny Flowers had seven tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and one sack, proving himself to be a viable backup behind outside linebacker Kris Frost and middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy.

Auburn LB Kris Frost (17) tackles Florida State QB Jameis Winston in the 2014 BCS National Championship Game
Auburn LB Kris Frost (17) tackles Florida State QB Jameis Winston in the 2014 BCS National Championship GameDavid J. Phillip

The rebuilt secondary looked solid, with a converted wide receiver running with the "ones," breaking up two passes and looking very comfortable on the defensive side of the ball. Junior college transfer safety Derrick Moncrief looked comfortable as well, recovering a fumble and breaking up a pass starting at the boundary safety spot.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis JohnsonUSA TODAY Sports

Auburn's starting defense has the chance to be really good in 2014, but the depth should be concerning.

The "twos" looked incredibly lost in the spring game.

Granted, they were facing Marshall and the first-team offense which returns eight of 11 starters from last season, but the second-team defense will have to step up and provide that quality depth this fall.

Luckily for Malzahn and Johnson, help is on the way.

Tre' Williams, a 5-star linebacker from Mobile, Ala., will add even more depth to the linebacking corps. Up front, the Tigers will benefit from the arrival of defensive ends Justin Thornton, DaVonte Lambert and Andrew Williams, as well as defensive tackle Dontavius Russell—all of whom are 4-star prospects. In the back end of the defense, 4-star corners Nick Ruffin, Kalvaraz Bessent and Stephen Roberts will provide quality depth once they arrive on campus.

Defense doesn't win championships anymore, "just enough" defense wins championships. What qualifies as "just enough" varies from team to team based on the offense a team runs. Auburn almost had enough last season and came within 13 seconds of claiming the national title.

It's still a work in progress in 2014, but the foundation is there. The first-teamers look like they've become more consistent, depth has been built along the defensive line thanks to some openings created from nagging injuries and there's help on the way this summer to finish off depth in the two-deep.

"Just enough" defense may become the reality for the Auburn Tigers in 2014.


* Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes and spring game statistics were obtained firsthand, and all recruiting information is courtesy of