Auburn cracks top 10 in ESPN’s future defense power rankings

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There’s a new man in charge on the Plains of Auburn’s defense as Derek Mason has taken the throne after Kevin Steele made the Tigers one of the most fierce defenses in his six years and the expectations for Mason’s first defense is quite high.

While the defensive front has to work itself out, Auburn is more than loaded at the linebacker and secondary positions with Owen Pappoe, Zakoby McClain, Smoke Monday, Roger McCreary and the crew leading the way.

ESPN’s Adam Rittenberg thinks highly of the Tigers defense, ranking them No. 10 in his future power rankings.

Scouting the Tigers: Auburn didn’t fire head coach Gus Malzahn because of the defense, a unit that should continue to thrive under new coordinator Derek Mason. The Tigers lose some key parts — do-it-all safety Christian Tutt and linemen DaQuan Newkirk and Big Kat Bryant — but bring back one of the nation’s top linebacker groups and more than enough talent elsewhere. Junior Owen Pappoe and senior Zakoby McClain will lead the unit in 2021 after combining for 206 tackles, including seven sacks, last fall. Senior Chandler Wooten, who opted out in 2020, is back, and linebackers such as Cam Riley and Wesley Steiner should take over in 2022, along with sophomore edge rusher Derick Hall (3.5 sacks in 2020). Senior cornerback Roger McCreary (three interceptions, seven tackles for loss in 2020) is a nationally elite player and could pair with West Virginia transfer Dreshun Miller. Veteran safety Smoke Monday also returns. The long-term outlook is solid at cornerback (junior Nehemiah Pritchett, sophomore Jaylin Simpson) and at safety (sophomores Ladarius Tennison and Chris Thompson Jr.).

Mason’s development of the line is worth watching. Auburn will miss its departing players but returns sophomore end Colby Wooden, who earned SEC All-Freshman honors after recording 9.5 tackles for loss (four sacks) in 2020. Zykeivous Walker also saw playing time as a freshman end, and Auburn adds Dylan Brooks, ESPN’s No. 5 end and No. 18 overall recruit for 2021. The Tigers also pick up two coveted interior line recruits in Lee Hunter, a top-60 overall prospect, and Marquis Robinson. They join tackles such as senior Marquis Burks, junior Dre Butler and sophomore Jay Hardy. Auburn’s overall line depth looks very good through 2023.

It will be interesting to see how the defense comes along in Mason’s first season in charge.