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No Let Up From Auburn

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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Auburn's incredible front seven could be even better in the new year.

All season long, the story of the 2017 Auburn Tigers started on defense, particularly in the front seven, just as it looked like it would again today, midway through the third quarter, against UCF in the Peach Bowl.

At that point, Kevin Steele’s group was on pace to hold the unbeaten Knights, the nation’s scoring leader, to season lows in points, total offense, and yards per play -- just as they’d done to College Football Playoff semi finalists Clemson and Georgia (the first time). The other CFP contender they faced this season, Alabama, did escape the Tigers’ clutches with more than their season low in yards and yards per play, but were less fortunate as far as points.

Ultimately, UCF did find its rhythm and hang onto a 34-27 victory.

However, barring an unforeseen mass exodus of juniors to the NFL Draft, Auburn could be even better up front, on that side of the ball, next season.

There’s a case to be made that junior edge defender Jeff Holland was among the best two or three pass rushers in college football. He finished the regular season with the sixth highest pass rush productivity, according to Pro Football Focus, and was one of five players to register upwards of 50 pressures. No one to reach the 50 pressure mark did so as efficiently as he did, either. Consistently gameplanned against, he still managed ten sacks on the year, just outside the national top ten, across all positions.

Opposite Holland, sophomore Marlon Davidson and freshman Nick Coe have each been highly effective in their own rights. The pair combined for 5.5 sacks, 11 tackles for loss, and 15 run stuffs, with allowed success rates of 30.8% and 6.9%, respectively.

Along the interior of the line, sophomore Derrick Brown has been revelatory. He entered the Peach Bowl with 3.5 sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss, and 12 run stuffs, on a 12.2% allowed success rate, and added seven tackles and half of a TFL in the bowl matchup. Dontavius Russell, too, was especially productive for an interior defender. The junior tallied 3 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, and ten run stuffs with a 24.4% allowed success rate. Both he and rotational lineman Andrew Brown finished the regular season in the top 30 of run stop percentage, nationally, among draft eligible interior defenders.

With regards to significant senior contributors, within the front seven, the lone sure loss is Tre’ Williams. The weakside linebacker will, no doubt, be missed, although the presumed incumbent starter there, Montavious Atkinson, showed real flashes, albeit in a more limited sample size.

Yet another Auburn defender that burst onto the scene in 2017 was Deshaun Davis, who racked up seven tackles and recovered a fumble against UCF, this afternoon. Yet, even prior to the bowl, the junior middle linebacker boasted 3.5 sacks, 6.5 tackles for loss, eleven run stuffs, and a sub-30% allowed success rate, whilst finishing fourth amongst draft eligible SEC linebackers in run stop percentage.

Not to be outdone, strongside linebacker, junior Darrell Williams, established himself as one of the nation’s most sure tacklers, missing just two all season.

As a unit, Auburn’s front seven finished in the top 20 in the nation in adjusted sack rate -- top five on standard downs -- and top ten in allowed adjusted line yards. So, this wasn’t just a great pass rushing unit or an elite run stopping group, this was just an all-around force of nature.

Granted, on the backend of the defense, in the secondary, there will be a little more personnel attrition to overcome, in the new year. However, with a front seven that’s as strong, and perhaps more importantly, as deep as Auburn’s, that learning curve becomes markedly less steep.

All things considered, relative to the potential outcomes of this season just a month or so ago, this was not the way Auburn fans wanted to see their season end.

Take solace, though, in the reality that come next August, there’s no reason to think Auburn can’t have one of the five best defenses in college football… again.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP