If there was any question about how the Auburn defense would play in Saturday’s A-Day spring game, Auburn safety Smoke Monday answered it as quickly as he could.
Monday made the most of the first play from scrimmage Saturday, as he immediately recognized a screen pass to wide receiver Malcolm Johnson, bolted toward the ball and pummeled Johnson for a one-yard loss.
That tackle, which was the start of a three-play, minus-13 yard drive for the second-team offense, set the tone for what the Tigers’ defenders did the rest of the afternoon.
The Tigers’ defense – and specifically the first-team squad – got the upper hand throughout A-Day and further demonstrated the growth that side of the ball has made under first-year coordinator Derek Mason. The defense had several players step up Saturday and offered the fans plenty of reasons to be excited about what it’s capable of accomplishing come the fall.
“The defense did a good job today,” Monday said. “The d-line looked really good. The linebackers look good all the time, so that’s nothing new. I feel like we’ve got a lot of things that we can work on, but at the end of the day I feel like we had a good day and a really good spring. We didn’t get spring last year, but it’s really going to help a lot of guys out going into the fall.”
Scoring was hard to come by for the better part of Saturday’s scrimmage, which saw the first-team offense and defense play as the Auburn team and take on the second-teamers on the Tigers team. Some of Auburn’s usual suspects like linebacker Zakoby McClain and defensive lineman Colby Wooden shined against the backup offense, with McClain recording a team-high five tackles with one tackle for loss and one pass break-up and Wooden notching two tackles and one sack.
On the whole, the first-team defense limited the second-team offense to 122 offensive yards and seven first downs. Per the Auburn Observer’s Justin Ferguson, the second-team offense only had 1.8 yards per play and three points through the first three quarters before the lineups saw significant changes leading into the final eight minutes of action.
“I thought the [first-team] Blue defense played well,” Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin said. “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.”
It was no surprise to see some of the Tigers’ proven defenders make plays Saturday. It was, however, a promising sight that some of the team’s backups and newcomers demonstrated their abilities, too.
Former junior college cornerback Kamal Hadden got in the mix early in the game by forcing running back Tank Bigsby to fumble, and Hadden ended the game with three tackles. Walk-on safety and Auburn High alum Trey Elston earned Defensive MVP honors after notching six tackles and a crucial pass break-up for the second-team defense, and true freshman defensive tackle Lee Hunter recorded a devastating tackle for loss that ended one drive for the Auburn squad.
The play of Hunter and the entire defensive line, which across the board had three sacks Saturday, drew high praise from junior linebacker Owen Pappoe.
“Yeah, Lee did a really good job today. He made a really good play in the backfield on Tank. As far as the other guys go, everybody throughout the whole spring, you just saw their progress,” Pappoe said. “It’s just exciting to see, and I think they can do a lot of special things this year. So [defensive line coach Nick] Eason has been doing a really good job.”
The Tigers brought back a handful of proven players from its 2020 defense, and their experience combined with the addition of Mason made it a safe bet that they would be ahead of the offense by the time spring practice ended. That much was evident in Saturday’s spring game, but those defenders are hoping it’s only the start for a defense they hope stands out in the SEC.
Now, the objective for those defenders is to keep growing their games this summer in preparation for the season opener on Sept. 4.
“It’s been a really productive spring for us, man,” Pappoe said. “I think everybody came out and did their best today. The future’s going to be bright for us. Everybody did their job. There wasn’t too many busts out there, so I’m proud of what we did today.”