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Auburn Football Defensive Preview
Tale of two defenses
photo credit to Zach Bland of the Auburn Tigers
4-2-5 base defense
Led by DC Ron Roberts
Roberts most recent success came with the Baylor Bears, where in 2021 his defense gave up less than 350 yards per game
hit the transfer portal hard in an effort to revamp their defense
several players listed on their two deep for this week’s game vs Cal are transfers, in an attempt to rid of the Bryan Harsin era
NT Justin Rogers (Kentucky), LB Austin Keys (Ole Miss, Keys has been ruled out of this game with a thumb injury), JACK Stephen Sings V (Liberty), JACK Jalen McLeod (App State), DT Lawrence Johnson (Purdue)
4-2-5 is a good balance in attempting to coral both spread and pro style attacks at the same time, with blitzers coming off the edge while linebackers commit to coverage
Cal OC Jake Spavital and Auburn DC Ron Roberts have some history with Texas State playing Baylor twice in 2021 and 2022 (29-20 Baylor and 42-7 Baylor)
2022 Defense in Review
Points per game: 29.5 points per game given up last season
Yards/Play: 5.5 yards per play/10th in the SEC
FEI Ratings: 28th on Defense
There isn’t much to glean from last year’s Auburn defense since they restocked their talent in the transfer portal. With the addition of Ron Roberts, it’s been a total revamp especially along the front 7. They were the group that suffered from mediocre offensive play, simply leaving them out to dry on several occasions.
In terms of who they brought back, the secondary has quite a few familiar faces back there. Oregon transfer corner DJ James lined up on the outside for the Tigers last season and ended up 2nd team all SEC. We’ve seen bits and pieces of him before when he was with the Ducks but not a whole lot in terms of matchups with present Bears. When Cal last visited Eugene in 2021, Jeremiah Hunter had 3 receptions for 78 yards while James recorded 2 tackles. Nehemiah Pritchett is the other corner who returns from last years defense and considering how effective Ron Roberts is with defensive backs, this looks to be a strength for 2023.
The Provisional Starters
DE Mosiah Nasili-Kite, NT Jayson Jones, DT Marcus Harris, JACK Elijah Mcallister
LB Cam Riley, LB Larry Nixon III (starter Austin Keys out as mentioned earlier)
CB DJ James, STAR Keionte Scott, FS Jaylin Simpson, SS Zion Puckett, CB Nehemiah Pritchett
Players to Watch
The aforementioned DJ James and Nehemiah Pritchett will be the strength of this Auburn defense. What Jeremiah Hunter, Brian Hightower, Taj Davis among other do in their 1 on 1 matchups will be crucial. Despite both James and Pritchett being listed at 6’1, they will plaster on the Cal receivers like an annoying rash. Jaylin Simpson will also be a name to watch at safety, as the senior already has a pick six to his name vs Umass. This is a very experienced group, as only STAR Keionte Scott isn’t a senior in the starting secondary. If Cal stays balanced, the plays that are made in the backend between Golden Bear receivers and Tigers defensive backs may be the difference in the game.
Up front, DT Marcus Harris will look to plug the interior line and chop down the running lanes for Jaydn Ott. Should Matthew Cindric be unavailable to play, it will be an interior of LG Matthew Wykoff, C Brian Driscoll (Pac 12 offensive lineman of the week), and RG Sioape Vatikani. Their ability to keep the versatile Harris at bay will be crucial. If his presence becomes too much, then that opens up an avalanche of avenues that Sam Jackson V or Ben Finley will need to navigate. Contributors that can benefit from the attention on Harris are Larry Nixon III, who is a proven LB from North Texas and Eugene Asante, who was all over the field vs Umass.
Take a look below to see how Auburn’s defense fared vs Umass and how Ron Roberts like to call games, both here and at Baylor.
How Cal can win this game
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before; but Cal needs to establish Jaydn Ott early and often. I expect the Auburn defense to come out with a chip on their shoulder after Ott’s confidence about Saturday’s game during his press conference. After surrendering 76 rushing yards on the opening series vs Umass, they only amassed 64 more the rest of the game. Despite that, the ability to control the run and imperatively the QB run/zone read game was something that Umass took a swing at and succeeded. Should Sam Jackson V play, this is something that the Bears could also counter with, with Jackson and Ott on split zone/inside zone reads. One could argue that Auburn faces that in practice with Robby Ashford and Jarquez Hunter, but it’s one thing to see it and another to consistently be on your assignment with it. The Tigers improved on their assignments in the run game as the Umass contest played out, but seeing 5.2 yards per rush (6.8 after sack adjusting) has to get the Cal coaches thinking.
In the same vein, Cal can’t be overly reliant on the run and needs to be ready to pass. I believe that there isn’t enough respect being given to the Cal passing attacks, namely its receivers of which there are many jump ball candidates. The spread attack that Jake Spavital brings to the table can force defenders to commit to a call thinking pass and then run it straight up the middle, which is why the chess match between him and Ron Roberts is so intriguing. The Bears can’t assume that every 3rd and short is going to be a run, despite it being a strength for them and a weakness for Auburn. Cal needs an balanced call sheet if they intend to continuously put up points like I expect them to on Saturday. Anything else invites too much variance both in the trenches and out wide.
This is the benchmark test for the Bears offense before conference play starts. Players understand the significance of the game, coaches understand it, and fans understand it, which is why we will be glued to our seats as kick off commences on Pac 12 after dark.
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