Everything's bigger now for the Auburn defense.
When veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson brought his 4-2-5 scheme to Auburn last season, he also brought a new mentality for a unit that was average at best during former head coach Gene Chizik's tenure.
While Auburn did not show much change in basic statistical areas like total yards and points allowed in Johnson's first season, there were other spots where the Tigers showed tremendous improvement:
|2012 Auburn Defense vs. 2013 Auburn Defense|
|Interceptions||2 (123rd in NCAA)||13 (53rd)|
|Sacks||22 (77th)||32 (31st)|
|Opponents' Red-Zone TD Percentage||65.31% (94th)||50.00% (12th)|
The Tigers defense made a name for itself last season on the big play—interceptions, sacks and red-zone stops.
This season, the defense is focused on getting rid of the opposition's big plays.
The first-team defense showed that mentality at the annual A-Day game, where the opposing second-team offense averaged 2.2 yards per play. The second team's biggest offensive play of the day was an 18-yard pass from backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson to Melvin Ray.
"If you look at our first-team defense, they didn’t give up many plays period, much less deep balls," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said after the first team's 58-3 rout of the second team. "That has been an emphasis trying to keep away from the big play. I think our first-team defense has improved greatly this spring from last fall."
The improvement in deep-ball coverage during spring practices was a turnaround from how the defending SEC champions finished the season in Pasadena.
Even with the tremendous leap in the interception count last season, the Tigers finished second to last in the SEC in pass defense, and Johnson wants to see immediate change in the fall. Johnson told the team's official website:
When you are No. 1 in the SEC in third-down defense, you ought to be good in pass defense. But we were terrible. It would be one of these stupid first-down plays a lot of times, turning a guy loose in man coverage, somebody running out of a zone, run-fit on a one-back zone play. We’d do stuff like that and give up a 25-yard play and somehow hang on and make a stop.
Johnson's system of using five defensive backs in the standard set—two cornerbacks, two safeties and one hybrid linebacker/safety known as the "Star"—is both fluid and physical.
In order to prevent opposing offenses from making the big play, Johnson is gradually making a shift toward a bigger secondary.
|Auburn Defensive Back Classes, 2010-2015|
|Average Height||5'11"||6'0 1/2"||5'11"||6'0 1/2"||6'1 1/3"||6'1"|
|247Sports (2015 based on current commitments)|
While Chizik's 4-3 defense usually featured smaller, speed-first defensive backs, Auburn's current staff is recruiting bigger players who can play a more physical game against tall receivers like Florida State title-game hero Kelvin Benjamin and former Missouri standout Dorial Green-Beckham.
"Being stronger and faster in this league, it definitely helps," cornerback Jonathan Jones told AL.com's Joel Erickson last month. "The bigger you can get, the faster you are, flexibility, that all helps. It adds up."
A perfect example of Auburn's new commitment to bigger and more physical defensive backs is newcomer Derrick Moncrief.
Standing at 6'2" and 218 pounds, Moncrief's size would have made him a prototypical linebacker during Chizik's tenure. But now, the former Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College standout is already the first-team boundary safety under Johnson.
"[Moncrief] is high energy, flies around to the ball a lot," safety Jermaine Whitehead. "He’s a big dude. He’s going to help us a lot."
Coaches and teammates have also pointed out the physical nature of more newcomers in the secondary.
Wide receiver-turned-cornerback Trovon Reed and Johnathan "Rudy" Ford, who has moved from running back to cornerback to safety in less than a year at Auburn, stood out with their aggressiveness in what is now a deeper secondary.
“Rudy’s a physical player, one that's got a passion for the game," Whitehead told the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington. "[He] wants to lineup every play and knock someone out."
But Auburn's emphasis on being bigger and more physical goes beyond the secondary.
When an injury crisis struck at defensive end earlier in the spring, Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner created the "Rhino package," a front four made up entirely of Auburn's larger defensive tackles.
The package, which featured 300-pounder Montravius Adams and Ben Bradley, made enough of an impact in practice that the coaching staff wants to implement it in the fall.
"In looking toward next fall, we'll have a big package that we can play four bigger linemen in certain situations," Johnson said. "They've gotten a lot of work at that, and I think that will be something we will utilize."
At the linebacker position, Auburn is looking for another big thing—big hits.
The Tigers coaching staff went into Auburn's depth chart at safety and brought another big body to join the sure-tackling Cassanova McKinzy and agile Kris Frost.
The hard-hitting Khari Harding became a bit of a sensation in his high school days for laying the lumber on wide receivers, and now he will have a chance to make that big impression at linebacker.
"We expect the same things from [Harding] as a linebacker," Frost said of Harding, who disappointingly ended his solid spring with a foot injury. "He's got good body size to play linebacker. He’s fast. He moves well from playing safety."
Big size, big plays, big hits and big potential—exactly what Auburn wants to see out of its entire defense in 2014.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.