By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN, Ala. — Of course Kevin Steele has his own defensive style, his own plan, his own calls. But Auburn's defensive coordinator also brings continuity to his new school.
The SEC veteran has the same defensive roots as Auburn's most recent defensive coordinators, and that has helped the Tigers make the transition from one coordinator to another heading into Saturday's season-opener against Clemson at 8 p.m. in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
"Obviously, learning a complete and total new playbook in any system, whether it's NFL, high school or college, is a challenge," says Steele. But, he adds, "the playbook that they were in, and the playbook we have now, is from the same family tree and so there are a lot of similarities."
Also helping is experience across the defensive line and the return of top tackler Rudy Ford in the secondary. Auburn will have new linebackers, but one of them is Tre' Williams, who has won accolades for his leadership skills.
Auburn's defense improved in the second half of last season after the splash hire of Will Muschamp, and now Steele, who came from LSU, looks for another defensive jump. The players, and the assistant coaches, are learning the new way, but it's not a new defense, giving Auburn a leg up on the season.
Steele certainly talks an Auburn game.
"We want to be physically and mentally very, very tough," he said. "Probably the biggest challenge we've got right now is developing the mental toughness. They want to, but we've got to get them to where nothing fazes them. Play the next play. Don't worry about the score, just play the next play and play it with a physically-dominating mental toughness. Have a bad play? Play the next play. Developing that has been our focus since we've been here."
Defensive end Carl Lawson, on watch lists for national awards, says the Tigers have bought in.
"We have great leadership and a lot of good character guys on the team that want to work and not let any distractions get to this team. Each and every day we want to work hard and earn it every day, that's our team motto for the season," he said.
Coach Gus Malzahn has endorsed his coaching additions that include Steele, secondary coach Wesley McGriff and former Auburn linebacker Travis Williams. The holdover on defense is line coach Rodney Garner. Steele says he and Malzahn have the same blueprint in "terms of developing players."
"Also, there's a thing that as an assistant coach: You have to please the head coach and so, that is just something we’re going to do."
The defensive line and secondary have familiar names. Lawson likes the new guys, too.
"We don't have to instill too many values into them. They have the effort. Each and every day they are trying to get better just like I am."
Lawson and Montravius Adams are the veterans. Lawson is looking for a full season after injuries have limited him to just six games the last two years. Adams is looking for more of the same, of harassing quarterbacks and knocking down running backs.
Sophomore Dontavius Russell is one of the defensive tackles. True freshman Marlon Davidson so impressed in preseason camp that he'll start as the other defensive tackle for the Clemson game.
"It says a lot about him, and his development in a hurry," Malzahn said. "He earned his teammates and coaches' respect in the spring, and he's carried that over in fall camp. He's been very impressive."
The rest of the defensive line brings promise with the mix of Devaroe Lawrence, Maurice Swain, Byron Cowart, Jeff Holland and Derrick Brown.
Williams is first up to replace departed veteran linebackers Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy and Justin Garrett. He says he's ready.
"I knew after the seniors left, I knew I had to take on that role," Williams said. "Just knowing my linebackers got my back and it's not just me as the leader. Someday I may mess up and one of the young guys may pick me up. It’s just about managing it through some hard times."
T.J. Neal, a transfer from Illinois, could be a mainstay as well. The linebacker corps also includes Deshaun Davis, Darrell Williams, Montavious Atkinson and Richard McBryde.
"Deshaun Davis is really stepping into a leadership role," Malzahn said. "Tre' Williams is a guy is one of our overall team leaders. He has experience. I feel very comfortable with those guys. Darrell Williams is a guy who's coming on. He just needs experience. Montavious Atkinson we've been impressed with a really good skill set."
Ford returns to the secondary after leading the team in tackles the last two years. Feel-good story Josh Holsey is also back after returning from two ACL surgeries in his knees.
Carlton Davis, an impact player as a freshman last season, also returns. Tray Matthews, who played with two bad shoulders last season, says he's healthy and ready to go.
Javaris Davis has won a starting job at cornerback. Also in the mix in the secondary are T.J. Davis, Nick Ruffin, Michael Sherwood, Markell Boston, Jeremiah Dinson and John Broussard.
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine