3-4 or 4-3? Why Auburn football’s defensive front could look different under Derek Mason

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

One of the hallmarks of Kevin Steele’s Auburn football defense was its simplicity.

The Tigers lined up the same way nearly every snap – four defensive linemen (end, two tackles and a Buck), two linebackers (middle and outside) and five defensive backs (two corners, two safeties and a Star, or nickelback). There were different packages for different situations, as well as the occasional wrinkle (such as the 3-1-7 he surprised eventual national champion LSU with in 2019), but the alignment didn’t change much.

That likely won’t be the case under new defensive coordinator Derek Mason.

Of course, we don’t know for sure what the defense will look like with the former Vanderbilt coach leading it. Auburn hasn’t made Mason available to reporters since coach Bryan Harsin hired him on Jan. 7. The Tigers haven’t practiced yet – the first one of the spring is set for Monday.

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But if Mason’s past is any indication, Auburn will go from lining up mostly in a 4-2-5 to being multiple on defense formation-wise. Harsin suggested as much.

“You got to be able to adjust and adapt to some of the offenses now. You’re going to face tempo offenses, two-back offenses, spread-open, tempo teams. There’s just a lot of variety,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to be multiple.”

Auburn defensive linemen Colby Wooden (25) and Derick Hall (29) tackle Arkansas running back Trelon Smith (22) on Oct. 3, 2020.

What kind of defense does Derek Mason typically run?

Mason is most known for being “the architect of Stanford’s vaunted 3-4 defense,” which was written in the news release announcing his hire. The alignment features two defensive tackles, a defensive end, two inside linebackers and two outside linebackers.

But that’s not the only alignment he’s used. Vanderbilt started four games in a 3-4 during the 2018 season, seven in a 3-3-5 and two in a 4-3, according to The Tennessean’s Adam Sparks. The Commodores actually listed a 4-3 base on their season-opening depth chart in 2019 before reverting to a 3-4 to begin last year.

So it stands to reason that Auburn could use a lot more three-man fronts under Mason. That’s what Harsin is familiar with, too – Boise State ran a 3-3-5 look that featured three defensive linemen (end, tackle and nose), two linebackers (middle and weakside) and a STUD, or stand-up defensive end who can line up with his hand in the dirt or drop into coverage as a linebacker.

Jeff Schmedding coordinated that unit the past two seasons. He’s now Auburn’s inside linebackers coach and defensive run game coordinator.

Does Auburn have the personnel to run a 3-4?

It’s intriguing to think about the possibilities that open up for Auburn’s defense, which is coming off the worst season it had under Steele. On paper, you can see how a lot of the pieces might fit together.

Auburn linebacker Owen Pappoe (0) during the game against Texas A&M on Dec. 5, 2020.

Tyrone Truesdell, Marquis Burks and Jeremiah Wright have the size necessary to play nose tackle. Same goes for four-star 2021 defensive tackle Lee Hunter, who enrolled early and will go through spring practice.

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Dre Butler and Zykeivous Walker were strongside defensive ends at junior college and in high school, respectively, who were starting at defensive tackle for Auburn by the end of their first seasons last year. Playing one of the outside spots in a three-down alignment could be the perfect use of their versatile skill sets. The same might be said four-star 2020 signee Jay Hardy, who was limited due to injury last year.

Colby Wooden, who led the team with 9½ tackles for loss, played every spot along the line last season and has the potential to be a weapon wherever position coach Nick Eason puts him.

Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe emerged as stars at inside linebacker last season when they combined to make 206 tackles, and there should be much more depth behind them. Chandler Wooten is back after opting out last season; T.D. Moultry is reportedly returning to that position (he was the No. 3-ranked recruit there in the 2017 class) after three years playing Buck; and highly-rated 2020 four-star Wesley Steiner could be ready for a larger role.

Where the biggest shift would be, though, is if Auburn adopts Boise State’s STUD position or starts running multiple outside linebackers asked to play more versatile roles in pass rush and coverage than the Buck, which was more defensive end under Steele than it was anything else.

Derick Hall would be a fit at that spot after playing Buck the past two seasons. Defensive ends Jaren Handy and Caleb Johnson and linebacker Cam Riley, who has the size at 6-foot-4 and 209 pounds, could be players to watch. Three-star 2020 outside linebacker signee Romello Height, too, after he missed most of last season due to a shoulder injury.

Northwestern transfer Eku Leota and four-star outside linebacker signee Dylan Brooks, the No. 76 overall recruit in the 2021 class, will give Auburn even more options when they arrive this summer.

After five seasons of consistency under Steele, it will be fascinating to see how Mason and his staff deploy that group up front.

“We want to see the guys that we have here, we want to see where they fit,” Harsin said. “That will help us with the three-down or the four-down, and that will help us with the things we want to do from a schematic standpoint.”

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.