For a defense that “really got whipped” in Athens, Saturday’s home contest versus Arkansas offers a shot at redemption.
Auburn’s defensive struggles began early last weekend in Sanford Stadium. Junior safety Smoke Monday was ejected for targeting in the first quarter—Auburn’s second ejection as a team in as many games—leaving a secondary unit that was already missing starter Jaylin Simpson even more depleted.
Ball-hawk cornerback Roger McCreary was burned on a backbreaking touchdown pass to George Pickens in the second quarter. The defensive line was pushed around all night in the trenches, an unfamiliar sight for fans that have grown accustomed to nightmarish duos such as Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.
The Razorbacks will bring their own set of challenges this weekend. Feleipe Franks is a bona-fide SEC-caliber quarterback and has a solid highlight reel—look no further than his perfect Hail Mary to beat Tennessee in 2017 to see the damage he can do when given the opportunity.
Auburn’s secondary will need to make life difficult for him when they return to full strength on Saturday. If a replenished Auburn secondary can lock down Franks’ receivers and drive him into an interception or two, they’ll already be much better off than they were against Georgia.
Rakeem Boyd is another Razorback player that could create problems in the right situations. His numbers have been lackluster so far in 2020, but in the anemic Arkansas offenses of the last two years, Boyd totaled just short of 2,000 rushing yards and regularly ripped off 6 yards per carry. After allowing 202 rushing yards to Georgia and 145 to Kentucky, the defensive line will need to find ways to stop Boyd before he can get into the second level and set up play-action passes.
The linebackers remain possibly the only tried-and-true strength after two games. For all the defense’s struggles last Saturday, upperclassmen K.J. Britt and Zakoby McClain posted career-high showings with 12 and 11 tackles, respectively. With K.J. Britt reportedly undergoing thumb surgery on Friday, look to McClain as well as sophomore standout Owen Pappoe (13 tackles, 1 sack, 1 fumble recovery) to lead the defense in an improved performance.
Having players return from injury will be equally as important. Freshman cornerback Jaylin Simpson, who earned a starting spot in fall camp, has been injured since the end of a promising performance against Kentucky. Another cornerback—junior college transfer Marco Domio—has yet to play a down for the Tigers. Head coach Gus Malzahn said the coaching staff hoped Domio would be healthy “in a couple weeks.”
Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has made a habit of fielding excellent defensive units since his arrival on the Plains in 2016. His defenses have allowed less than 20 points per game across the last four seasons, and Steele signed an extension in the offseason that has made him the highest-paid assistant coach in college football, so Auburn fans should be able to rest easy putting their trust in Coach Steele.