AUBURN — On Sunday, Rodney Garner did what Rodney Garner does. He picked up a commitment from yet another highly rated recruit to play on an Auburn defensive line that rarely, if ever, lacks for talent.
The newest one came from Deandre Butler, four-star defensive end out of Covington, Ga., (by way of Independence Community College in Kansas) who ranks as the No. 7 overall junior college prospect and No. 1 player at his position in the 2020 class.
"I love this place. Everything was good. You know, the coaches — I just love the vibes with the coaches. That stood out a lot," Butler told reporters after an official visit to campus. "Coach (Gus) Malzahn, he's real genuine. Everything was up front. He kept it real with me the whole trip. He didn't show any flaws. Everything was just genuine, and I respected that lot."
The 6-foot-5, 300-pound prospect totaled 40 tackles, 11½ sacks and two forced fumbles in his lone season playing for the Pirates and will have three years of eligibility remaining. Butler becomes the 24th member of the Tigers’ 2020 class (23 of whom have already signed) and fifth on the defensive line, joining fellow defensive ends Zykeivous Walker and Daniel Foster-Allen, defensive tackle Jay Hardy, and buck Romello Height.
That group is just the latest example of why Auburn doesn’t expect there to be a drop-off on its defensive line in 2020, even as it moves on without four-year standouts Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson.
Both will obviously be incredibly difficult to replace. Brown was the SEC Defensive Player of the Year as a senior. Davidson started 51 of 54 games in his career, which is the second-most in program history.
Together, the two roommates totaled 103 tackles, 25 tackles for loss, 11½ sacks, five pass breakups, four forced fumbles and seven SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for a defense that ranked top-25 nationally holding opponents to 3.5 yards a carry and fewer than 20 points a game.
“I really love Marlon and I really love Derrick,” rising senior linebacker K.J. Britt said after Auburn’s loss to the Minnesota in the Outback Bowl. “I’m really going to miss Marlon. It hurt me, man, just watching him walk out right now. We got to go our separate ways. But it is what it is. Next man up.”
Auburn is prepared for that. As defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said going into his second season with the program in 2017, “you’re always thinking two, three, four years ahead."
"We don’t sign contracts here as players," he added. "You can’t keep ‘em six, seven years. You know the day you get them that some of them are going to be gone in three years, some of them are going to be gone in four, some of them are going to be gone in five, but they’re all going to be gone. So you better replace them and you better have somebody ready.”
The Tigers have done that time and time again during Steele’s four-year tenure, so there’s no reason to doubt they will continue to for as long as he stays on staff — the veteran defensive coordinator agreed to a new three-year contract Wednesday that will make him the highest-paid assistant in college football.
Davidson expects next year’s group — led by Tyrone Truesdell, Big Kat Bryant, Derick Hall, Jaren Handy, Coynis Miller Jr., T.D. Moultry and Daquan Newkirk, as well as the five newcomers — to pick up the slack.
“I think the defensive line is still going to be strong, to be honest,” Davidson said last month. “I feel like it’s not going to be a drop-off anywhere.
“You can just see those guys working and how work together, it’s amazing. It’s like, ‘Dang, that was us a long time ago.’ You see yourself in those guys. They’re going to be the next best thing.”
Davidson sees some of himself in Bryant, who led Auburn with nine quarterback hurries as a junior in 2019 but got home for only 1½ sacks. He played that way for most of his career, averaging only 3½ sacks per season as a sophomore and junior before breaking through for a career-high 7½ as a senior.
“I think Big Kat is going to do that next year,” Davidson said. “I feel like he’s going to be that dominant guy in the SEC.”
Hall could start alongside Bryant. He's a four-star signee in 2019 who started in place of Davidson when an injury held him out Week 10 against Ole Miss.
If those are the starters on the outside, Moultry and Wooden could be among the player who rotate in behind them.
At defensive tackle, Auburn will likely turn to one of Miller or Newkirk as the starter next to Truesdell. Handy, a highly regarded former four-star recruit, should also factor into that mix after seeing his playing time increase as the season wore on. Sophomore Caleb Johnson could as well.
Then there are those newcomers. All five of them rank top-30 nationally at their position. Three are four-stars. Two, Walker and Height, enrolled early and will go through spring practice with the team. Malzahn said Walker “reminds us of Marlon and Derrick at that age. I know that’s big shoes to fill but at this point, he’s got the skill set.” The head coach described Height, who recorded 16 sacks as a senior in Dublin, Ga., as “an excellent pass-rusher off the edge.”