Auburn football depth chart: Here's our first defense projection for 2021

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Auburn football’s defense is coming off its worst season since 2015, allowing 406 yards and nearly 25 points per game in 11 games against only Power Five foes. But the cupboard is far from bare.

New defensive coordinator Derek Mason and the rest of the assistants coach Bryan Harsin hired to work on that side of the ball inherit a talented foundation left behind by Kevin Steele, who is now the acting coach at Tennessee.

There is work to do, though, and it’s not limited to Harsin hiring his final assistant. The Tigers lost multiple key contributors from the 2020 unit and may have to replace three of four starters along the defensive line.

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With that in mind, here is an early projection of Auburn’s 2021 defensive depth chart and a look at the strengths and needs at each position:


Auburn defensive lineman Colby Wooden reacts during a game at Mississippi State on Dec. 12, 2020, in Starkville, MS.

Defensive end

  1. Colby Wooden (So.)
  2. Jaren Handy (Jr.)
  3. Daniel Foster-Allen (R-Fr.) OR Tobechi Okoli (Fr.)

Defensive tackle

  1. Zykeivous Walker (So.)
  2. Jay Hardy (R-Fr.)
  3. Lee Hunter (Fr.)
  4. Ian Mathews (Fr.)

Defensive tackle

  1. Dre Butler (Jr.)
  2. Marquis Burks (Sr.)
  3. Jeremiah Wright (So.) OR Marquis Robinson (Fr.)


  1. Derick Hall (Jr.)
  2. Caleb Johnson (Jr.)
  3. Romello Height (R-Fr.)

Strength: Depth. Auburn lost senior starters Big Kat Bryant and Daquan Newkirk to the transfer portal, and Tyrone Truesdell could move on (the senior has not announced a decision about his future). New position coach Tracy Rocker is not inheriting a rebuild at his alma mater. Rodney Garner left him plenty of players to mold, only one of whom is a senior.

Need: More consistent production. Talent and depth are great only if you can use it to win at the line of scrimmage, and Auburn struggled to do that consistently in 2020. It made only 14 tackles for loss in four games against ranked opponents (10th in the SEC) and allowed 206 yards rushing in those games (11th).


Auburn linebacker Zakoby McClain (9) celebrates after a play made against Ole Miss at Vaught-Hemingway Stadium on Oct. 24, 2020.


  1. Owen Pappoe (Jr.)
  2. Chandler Wooten (Sr.)
  3. Wesley Steiner (So.)
  4. Kameron Brown (So.)


  1. Zakoby McClain (Sr.)
  2. Cam Riley (So.)
  3. T.D. Moultry (Sr.)
  4. Desmond Tisdol (So.)

Strength: Pappoe and McClain. They were pressed into much larger roles when Wooten opted out and captain K.J. Britt got injured, and they both answered the bell, combining for 206 tackles and seven sacks.

Need: A more even rotation. Part of the reason Pappoe and McClain produced so much is they hardly came off the field. New inside linebackers coach Jeff Schmedding and whoever joins him to coach outside linebackers need to do a much better job of getting them breathers. Wooten’s return should help, but the most interesting name to watch may be Moultry. After playing four seasons of Buck, he reportedly is using his NCAA-granted extra year of eligibility to move back to linebacker, the position in which he was the No. 3-ranked recruit nationally in 2017. 


Auburn cornerback Roger McCreary (23) intercepts a throw by Terry Wilson (3) during the game between Auburn and Kentucky at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 26, 2020.


  1. Roger McCreary (Sr.)
  2. Kamal Hadden (Jr.)
  3. Armani Diamond (Fr.)


  1. Nehemiah Pritchett (Jr.) OR Jaylin Simpson (So.)
  2. Marco Domio (Sr.)


  1. Ladarius Tennison (So.)
  2. Zion Puckett (So.)

Strong safety

  1. Chris Thompson Jr. (So.)
  2. Eric Reed Jr. (R-Fr.)

Free safety

  1. Smoke Monday (Sr.)
  2. Ahmari Harvey (Fr.)

Strength: Experience at cornerback. McCreary’s decision to return for his senior season (he had a legitimate NFL Draft opportunity) means Auburn is bringing back its top four players at the position. McCreary, Pritchett, Simpson and Domio combined for 22 starts, 19 pass breakups and four interceptions in 2020. A great starting point for new cornerbacks coach Zac Etheridge.

Need: Young players at safety to grow up fast. Auburn received good news when Monday announced that he would return for his senior season, but it lost two-thirds of its primary rotation on the back end when Jamien Sherwood and Jordyn Peters declared for the draft. A lot might be asked of Thompson and Harvey, who have talent – both are former four-star recruits – but are light on experience.



  1. Anders Carlson (Sr.)
  2. Ben Patton (So.)
  3. Evan McGuire (R-Fr.)


  1. Oscar Chapman (So.)
  2. Aidan Marshall (Sr.)

Kick returner

  1. Tank Bigsby (So.)
  2. Shaun Shivers (Sr.)

Punt returner

  1. Ja’Varrius Johnson (So.) OR Kobe Hudson (So.)

Strength: Those specialists. Carlson is coming off the best season of his career, having made 20 of 22 field goals. Chapman showed tremendous improvement in his first season playing American football, going from 40 yards per punt in his first two games to 47.4 in his last game.

Need: A new punt returner. Two of the three players who returned punts last season (Eli Stove and Mark-Anthony Richards) are gone, and the other (Christian Tutt) may move on, as well. Johnson and Hudson were the other players who received practice reps prior to last season, but the competition could be wide open with a new coaching staff in place. Harsin hasn’t named a special teams coordinator yet.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.