Despite a disappointing 8-5 season that fell under expectations, spirits among the Auburn players returning and head coach Gus Malzahn radiate optimism.
At Monday afternoon’s press conference, players who decided to forgo the NFL Draft and return to school gathered to talk with the media about expectations for next year and what made them come back for one last ride.
The most notable returnees are the “Big 3” of defensive linemen Marlon Davidson, Derrick Brown and Nick Coe. All three boasted NFL draft buzz after being a part of one of the more dominant defensive line units in the country the last couple of seasons.
Their decision to all return was a surprising one for many Auburn faithful and NFL scouts. But with three out of the four starting defensive linemen from last year’s squad – minus graduated senior Dontavius Russell – coming back, this year’s unit is poised to match the success of Clemson’s defensive unit that returned its whole unit before leading the way on a dominant run to the national championship.
Or at least they think so.
“That there changed the game, what Clemson did last year,” Davidson said. “What we just did this year changed a lot.
“We just said, ‘Let’s do it together.’ This year is going to be fun. I keep telling everyone else, ‘It’s going to be a party.’ It really is. I just can’t wait for y’all to see it, because what I see is different.”
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With the trio of Coe, Brown and Davidson returning, Auburn brings a force on the defensive line that has an impact in almost every category for the Tigers. The three ranked No. 1 (Coe), No. 2 (Brown) and No. 5 (Davidson) on the team’s sack list last season while accounting for nearly a third of Auburn’s tackles for loss production.
Davidson led the team in quarterback hurries and field goal blocks, while Coe was tied for the team lead in forced fumbles. Brown’s position does not usually offer the flashy stats, but he still doubled his career sack total in 2018.
An emphasis on making a lasting impact on Auburn and unfinished business was a reoccurring statement from the three as a driving force for their decisions to return.
“Our class can change Auburn, future and now,” Davidson said. “We are going to take care of business. This year, we are going to put it up. We are going to do it well for Auburn, we are going to be real Auburn men.”
The return of Brown, Davidson and Coe offers Auburn a chance to maintain its level of excellence on defense but there still is a big hole to fill with the departure of Dontavius Russell. Returning contributors Coynis Miller, Tyrone Truesdell and Daquan Newkirk will likely step into the role but as it is looking right now, it will likely be a rotation and not one taking majority of the snaps.
“I think they are going to be great,” Brown said. “Those are guys that have kind of tampered with the surface, but I mean just everyone’s mindset this year is crazy. When we sit down in meetings and stuff, everything is so much more business.”
Another reason for returning was the talk of improving on their already elite repertoire.
“Communicating with others, so we will all be on the same page and not making as many mistakes,” Coe said when asked about what he could improve on going into next season. “For my skill set, I could get better on my pass rush. From a pass rush standpoint, I need to get more sacks and more pressures.”
Despite being graded as a first-round prospect in the upcoming draft, Brown will be working on his game, as well.
"Since I've been here, coach G has talked to me about my pad level and stuff like that,” Brown said. “Those are things I want to be better at. I want to be better. I want to take care of all the little things now, so I when I get to the next level it won't be a problem. Also, just putting myself in position to win national awards. I also know that, in doing that, I can only be beneficial in improving myself by helping all these other guys out, being one on defense and being one as a team."
Leading the team in quarterback hurries with 11 is something most defensive linemen would be proud of, but Davidson sees it as a big point of emphasis to improve on in the offseason.
“I gotta finish on the quarterback this year,” Davidson said. “I mean, I got there. I took all my work last year to get there, I got there, but now I gotta finish. I can’t miss him in my arms anymore.”
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