According to players and coaches, Auburn's defense was supposed to be the best part of the Tigers' overall team heading into the annual A-Day scrimmage. By the end of the game, it became clear why the defense has earned that praise.
"I thought the blue defense played well," said Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin. "Our second offense did not move the ball very well or very consistently. I think that’s because the defense had been playing really around the football fast."
The first team for Auburn’s defense consisted of many old faces, with some newer talent sprinkled in. Caleb Johnson, Colby Wooden, Marquis Burks, and Derick Hall got the start on the defensive line.
Wooden and Hall are both returners to the starting defensive line grouping, while Johnson and Burks are newcomers to the starting role. Burks has taken the spot usually reserved for senior EDGE T.D. Moultry, who missed Saturday’s scrimmage.
According to Harsin, Moultry’s absence should not be made “any bigger than it is,” but Moultry has been noted as absent for a few practices this spring.
J.J. Pegues, the former tight end, recorded a tackle from his new position at defensive tackle. Harsin said that Pegues’s presence on the defensive front is a “great addition.”
To no one’s surprise, Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe were the starting linebackers. Sophomore linebacker Cam Riley, who has garnered high praise from coaches and players during spring, did not dress for the game.
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In the secondary, Jaylin Simpson and Roger McCreary started at corner. Smoke Monday and Ladarius Tennison rounded out the group at safety.
“At the end of the day, I think we had a really good day,” Monday said. “We just gotta do what we do best. And that is ball.”
And ball they did. In the defense’s first three times on the field, the unit forced the second-team offense into three straight three-and-outs. Second-team quarterback Grant Loy completed only four of 12 passes against the starters for 29 total yards. The starting defense only allowed three points all day, on an Anders Carlson field goal as time expired in the first half.
“We did really good,” McClain said. “Everybody did their job.”
The MVP for the Auburn defense was not a usual name like McClain or Pappoe, but senior corner Trey Elston. Elston, the Auburn native, transferred to Auburn in 2020 after playing two seasons at West Alabama. As a sophomore, he led West Alabama in pass breakups with 11.
Elston’s ability to make plays on passes was on display Saturday, as the senior recorded a pass breakup and led all defenders with six total tackles.
Elston is a graduate of Auburn High School, where he played both football and basketball.
Another player that had a strong A-Day was sophomore corner Kamal Hadden. Haden, a JUCO transfer from Independence Community College, had three tackles on the day and forced the only turnover all afternoon.
On the starting offense’s second drive, running back, Tank Bigsby had a carry along the right sideline that looked like he might have a score. That was before a fist from Hadden knocked the ball free, where it was recovered by the defense.
“He is a baller,” Monday said about Hadden. “Once he gets that rhythm, it is going to be hard to stop him. Keep your eyes on him.”
While A-Day is fun for fans and players alike, Harsin still thinks his team has a long way to go before they are ready to take on fall.
“There was plenty of things we did do well today,” Harsin said. “Then there are some things we got to work on. There were a couple runs inside, that shouldn’t happen to us on d-line. We should be in the right gap. We should be able to hold that gap. We can’t do that. We will fine-tune some things on Monday, but those guys will have to do the work on their own before we come back in the summer.”
Auburn’s last spring practice is on Monday, as a make-up for a previously canceled practice. As spring winds down and summer camp is nearing, Pappoe says his defensive unit is just getting started.
“It’s only going to get better from here,” Pappoe said.
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