The battle of the trenches is often overlooked. It is not as sexy as 75-yard touchdown pass or a running back making an elusive cut on an impending defender.
It is nasty and not for the faint of heart.
For Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, the return of key players will look to carry the Tigers to a successful 2019 season.
“We have a lot of experience coming back,” Malzahn said. “We had eight of our juniors that seriously considered leaving early to NFL that chose to come back. I really think that’s where the core heartbeat of our team is, with those guys. They are very hungry. I feel like they’ve got something to prove, and we have very good leadership.”
One of the returners who is poised for a big season in 2019 is senior defensive end Marlon Davidson. The Greenville, Alabama, native recorded 46 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and 11 quarterback hurries in 2018. His 11 hurries led Auburn last season but despite having continued success getting to the quarterback, he finished tied for third on the team in sacks.
“I have been tackling a dummy every day. That’s crazy,” Davidson joked. “I’ve been tackling a dummy every day, just trying to wrap up on the quarterback. I missed at least 12 sacks last year, it was heartbreaking. But you just have to bounce back and say it is a better opportunity for this year. Leave a legacy now, leave it like you were supposed to.”
Although Davidson did not have as productive of a season as he may have hoped, the return of the senior will give Malzahn the flexibility to move the 6-foot-3 lineman around. Davidson primarily plays as a 5-technique defensive end, meaning he is matched up against offensive tackles, but he’s not limited to that spot.
“Marlon Davidson on the defensive end of ours, a very versatile player,” Malzahn said. “He’s capable of playing inside, too. And I believe Marlon is one of the best overall football players that we’ve had come through Auburn in my time there. He’ll be a four-year starter, which is very, very up front at Auburn. He’s a vocal leader, not just defense, offense, but really one of our team leaders.”
On the same side of the ball, the Tigers also return senior defensive lineman Derrick Brown who is projected to go in the top-10 in the 2020 NFL Draft.
“Derrick Brown, our defensive tackle — some project him as a first round pick — chose to come back,” Malzahn said. “When he chose to come back, it really started the rest of them to do the same.”
Brown’s return means the Tigers regain a player who finished sixth on the team in total tackles with 48, third on the team in tackles for loss with 10.5 and second on the team in sacks with 4.5.
“With Derrick Brown you are talking about legitimately a once in a decade type player,” said SEC Network analyst and former Auburn offensive lineman Cole Cubelic. “When you see how big he is, how well he moves laterally, he can win with quickness, he can win with power, he can win with technique and then he has a big enough body to be able to take up space. You just don’t find all of those things in one guy very often.”
Despite the Iron Bowl being four months away, a meeting between Alabama’s offensive line and Auburn’s defensive line is setting up to be a classic matchup that could be the key to victory for both teams. In all four of Alabama’s losses to its in-state rival during the Nick Saban era, the Crimson Tide converted under 30% on third down.
“Alabama is Alabama, they’re great,” Davidson said. “Every time Alabama steps on the field, I’m pretty sure they think they are going to win, but everybody thinks they are going to win.”