AUBURN — Kevin Steele has spent every one of the 40 games he’s been Auburn’s defensive coordinator over the last three seasons overseeing things from the coaches’ booth upstairs.
“That’s by choice,” he said Sept. 5, 2016, two days after the team’s season opener against Clemson. “I just think you see it better. I’ve been down before. I like being down seeing in their eyes, but we have capable guys making adjustments. They can make adjustments through the communication, we go over every drive after the drive, exactly what they did, who did what and we correct it.”
That will change this season, though, at least at the beginning. Head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday that Steele — who is the first fourth-year defensive coordinator Auburn has had since the 1980s — would move from the coaches’ booth to the sideline, starting with Saturday’s opener against No. 11 Oregon at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas (6:30 p.m., ABC)
Defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson will coach from upstairs, as will offensive coordinator Kenny Dillingham.
“I'm excited about that. I think that will be good in a lot of different ways,” said Malzahn, who added that it was Steele’s decision as well as his. “Of course, you know, when I was going against him when he was at Clemson and I was a coordinator here, he was on the sideline and just did a super job with his communication, checks and everything that goes with it, so I think that is going to be a really good move."
Those Clemson defenses Steele coordinated against Malzahn’s Auburn offenses surrendered 27 points in a 2010 loss and 24 points in a 2011 win. Since coming to the Plains in 2016, the Tigers have ranked seventh, 11th and 14th nationally in scoring defense, surrendering fewer than 20 points per game each season, and the belief is that the 2019 unit has a chance to be even better.
“We got a group of guys that are very intelligent, they have a high skill set, we have depth at the right places, our young guys have come along, so we have an opportunity before us to be very good at what we do,” Steele said earlier this month.
Senior safeties Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson agreed that the move would be beneficial for Auburn’s defense.
“It’s going to be something new. We do it everyday in practice, but it’s going to be something new for all of us,” Thomas said. ““Him being in person, we’ll probably be able to get the adjustments faster instead of having to go into the locker room at halftime. We can probably do it quicker on the sidelines, so that will probably be helpful and beneficial to our defense.”
“Like DT said, we don't have to wait to go in to halftime and him drawing up these different adjustments,” Dinson added. “He can just do it on the sideline. He's a smart, smart defensive coordinator, so he'll probably be calling plays out before it even happens. We probably won't hear him, but it's good to have him down there just for the adjustments.”
ANTHONY SCHWARTZ’S STATUS
The speedy sophomore wide receiver’s availability for Saturday’s opener against Oregon has been in doubt ever since he broke a bone in his hand Aug. 4 and underwent surgery to repair it the next day, and it remains that way just five days before kickoff.
Malzahn said Auburn remains “hopeful” that Schwartz will be able to play Saturday, but as of Tuesday, still didn’t know whether he could go. As of last week, he had not yet returned to practice.
“It could be a game-time situation,” Malzahn said.
Schwartz caught 22 passes for 357 yards, rushed 27 times for 211 more and scored seven touchdowns as a true freshman last season. If one of the fastest players in college football is not able to play Saturday, that would mean more of fellow sophomore Seth Williams on the outside (they’re listed as the co-starters at split end on the depth chart) and a lot of Eli Stove and Matthew Hill at flanker.
Oregon has three wide receivers who are expected to be sidelined due to injury, as well — Brenden Schooler, Mycah Pittman and JR Waters.
NICK COE’S ROLE
The most noteworthy sight on the official depth chart Auburn released Tuesday — which included six players listed as the co-starters at running back — was where Nick Coe was listed as a starter.
It wasn’t anywhere on the defensive line, where he is a backup at both tackle spots and defensive end (but not Buck, where he started 10 games last season). No — it was at outside linebacker.
At 6-foot-5 and 291 pounds.
“Nick is going to move around,” Malzahn said in response. “Nick is a starter. With different personnel groupings they give us, he’ll move around. He gives us a lot of flexibility. He can play outside, he can play inside, he can play off the ball. He’s a very versatile player that gives our defense a lot of flexibility. “
It doesn’t come as much surprise that Coe isn’t listed as a starter anywhere on the defensive line. That seemed like a possibility throughout the fall, and it doesn’t impact how big of a weapon he’s going to be for Auburn’s defense. He proved last season that he’s capable of playing Buck (he led the team with seven sacks and had 13 ½ tackles for loss), but also put on weight over the summer and has spent the entire fall training to play at the inside spot vacated by departed four-year starter Dontavius Russell.
Outside linebacker is an interesting twist, though — one that Malzahn declined to provide much detail about on Tuesday. Auburn typically plays only two linebackers at a time in its Nickel defense, and they’re expected to be either K.J. Britt or Chandler Wooten in the middle and Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain on the outside.
The depth chart is something to be taken with a grain of salt — again: six starting running backs — but this is one thing to pay attention to on Saturday.
"It depends on the personnel groupings and all that. After the game, it may make more sense,” Malzahn said of Coe’s potential role at linebacker. “"Hey, you know, you got to wait. Coaches, usually after the first game are a lot more willing to talk about different things and plans and everything that goes with that."