By Jeff Shearer
AUBURN, Ala. - Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele, whose unit ranked seventh nationally in scoring last year, made it clear the Tigers are starting over this season, albeit with a head start.
"Last year was last year," Steele said Tuesday after Auburn's second preseason practice. "It has very little to do with this year in terms of the process. Experience? Yes. You don't have to cover things they've seen before very much because they've got it.
"From the intellectual part, there is some carryover. But from the team chemistry part, building the nucleus of a sound group, and those expectations that we're relentless in the pursuit of, that's yearly. We're in the process of doing that, but we don't play tomorrow."
After two practices in shorts, Auburn will work in shells Wednesday and Friday before Saturday's first full pads practice.
"When we get pads on, it becomes real defensive football. We're pretty excited about that," he said.
Auburn allowed only 17.1 points per game in 2016, despite generating just 17 turnovers, a number Steele is determined to increase.
"The one that is glaring. The one that is way off base is takeaways," Steele said. "We've got to generate more takeaways."
To achieve more interceptions and fumble recoveries, Steele and Auburn's defensive coaches constantly stress their importance while working on drills designed to create turnovers.
"We just keep harping on it," said Steele. "We created an award for 'turnover of the day,' and they're pretty fired up about that. We're making a big deal about that."
As an incentive, Steele says players who make interceptions, and cause and recover fumbles in practice can be exempt from some post-practice conditioning.
Pass rush, he says, is a key component to creating turnovers.
"You've got to affect the quarterback, because if he's not affected, and he can set his feet, and the receivers in this league, they're going to put the ball where they need to put it," Steele said.
"The talent in the room of the defensive linemen, the success that they had last year, and what that felt like and tasted like," Steele said. "The work ethic we have, and the new guys we've added to that, we better be able to stop the run in this league."
Defensive tackle Dontavius Russell performs at the run-stopping level Steele desires, making plays that don't always show up on the stat sheet.
"When you line up and you've got 300 pounds on this ear and 300 pounds on this ear, and they're both coming at you, there's susceptibility to get knocked back, get out of your gap," Steele said. "He is relentless in his effort. He has a high skill set.
"I have a hard time picking out a specific play that the result was his problem, in that he was out of his gap, or out of his responsibility. He is probably as accountable a guy as we've got, in just doing his job."
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer