‘Wreck anything that I see’: What to expect from Auburn football’s new Edge position
Derek Mason has felt “like a kid in a candy shop” this spring.
The new Auburn football defensive coordinator signed one blue-chip defensive lineman in seven seasons as Vanderbilt’s coach. With the Tigers, he inherited six, with two more on the way this summer.
Four of them – Derick Hall, T.D. Moultry, Jaren Handy and incoming signee Dylan Brooks – are listed as playing "Edge" on Auburn’s roster. It’s a new position for the Tigers this season, replacing the Buck used by Kevin Steele the past five seasons.
Hall described what they’re doing now as being “completely different.” The Buck was used almost exclusively as a standup, rush defensive end in Steele’s 4-2-5 base. The Edge is more of a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker that could have any number of different responsibilities depending on alignment and situation.
“We're able to put a lot more stuff on film that we're not used to – well, that we haven't had a chance to [have] exposure to,” Hall said. “I think it's pretty significant for us and the defense as a whole with what we've got planned.”
How will edge players be used?
The way Mason described it, edges do a little bit of everything.
Hall, Moultry and Handy have played defensive end extensively for the Tigers, and can do that in a four-man front. But they’re also going to line up as outside linebackers in three-man fronts. From there, they could rush the quarterback, have responsibilities in the run game or drop into pass coverage.
“As an edge guy in this defense, you better be ready to drop, you better be ready to match, you better be able to go from run to pass,” Mason said. “I think of these guys like they play right and left, so they’re never going to be in the same spot more than, like, two consecutive plays.
“It makes them smarter. They’re much more versatile, in terms of what’s being asked of them.”
Who is playing Edge?
The players there along with Hall, Moultry and Handy this spring are Caleb Johnson, Nick Curtis and Romello Height. Brooks and Northwestern transfer Eku Leota will join them this summer.
Hall is perhaps the face of that position. The junior ranked second in sacks last season behind leaders Owen Pappoe and Colby Wooden and has packed 13 pounds onto his 6-foot-3 frame during the offseason.
Moulry, who is using the fifth year of eligibility the NCAA granted all players due to COVID-19, lined up opposite Hall with the first-team defense during Saturday’s open practice. The Edge position could be the perfect fit for his combination of skills – he spent the past four seasons playing Buck for Auburn, but he signed as the No. 3-ranked inside linebacker in the 2017 class.
“He got a different mindset this year. He wants to be a better player and make it to the league and he’s got a good pass-rushing ability, he likes to play the run,” linebacker Zakoby McClain said. “And he got bigger and stronger and really fast, so he’s going to be really good at the position.”
Johnson and Handy lined up with the second team Saturday. Leota and Brooks should be significant factors once they arrive. Leota recorded more sacks in two seasons at Northwestern (6 ½) than any Tiger has at the FBS level. Brooks is the program’s highest-rated weakside defensive end signee since Carl Lawson in 2013.
“(He) can be an elite pass-rusher and player on the edge,” coach Bryan Harsin said of Brooks. “He understands the expectations – you've got to work, you've got to develop, you've got to do it every single day because the position that he plays is one of extreme importance.”
What impact will Edge players have on defense?
Potentially a significant one. Those players’ ability to play both defensive end and outside linebacker is key to unlocking Auburn’s desire to be multiple in the types of defensive fronts it uses.
It also creates new possibilities when it comes to pressuring the quarterback, which was something the Tigers struggled to do consistently last season. That prompted more middle blitzes from inside linebackers Pappoe and McClain, which worked sometimes – they combined for seven of the team’s 26 sacks – but left a hole in the middle of the defense at others. In Mason’s scheme, edge players could fill that gap.
Learning those new responsibilities will be a challenge, but so far, Hall said, the experience has been “lovely” – “just being able to move around, move from place to place, not being stagnant in one spot for most of the time …. it's great.”
“They like showing their skillsets,” Mason said. “That’s one of the things about these guys – everybody wants to do everything, and I told them, ‘As long as you give us the effort in terms of what we’re doing, I don’t care about the mistakes right now.’
"I think that’s the mantra of the outside group right now: Wreck anything that I see – run, pass, it doesn’t matter. If there’s movement, I’m going to hit it, so let’s go.”