Grading Harsin’s Auburn Staff, Part 2: Defense

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Auburn Head Coach Bryan Harsin and his wife, Kes, arrive on the Plains. Courtesy of Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics.

By Wil Crews

sportscrews@opelikaobserver.com

As of last Thursday, it appeared that Bryan Harsin had completely filled out his coaching staff. That was before what is probably the shortest coaching tenure in Auburn University history unfolded, when Auburn alum and newly hired Defensive Line Coach Tracy Rocker decided to renege on his alma mater and coach in the NFL.

Now, there remains only one on-field assistant coaching job open. However, Harsin has entered the next phase of expanding Auburn’s staff with the hiring of more specialized assistants and analysts.

Comprising Boise State staffers, familiar coaches of opposing Mountain West teams and guys with Auburn and SEC connections, Harsin’s staff is shaping u to be a good one.

The following is a breakdown of each new hire to Harsin’s defensive staff and what they could bring to The Plains.

Defensive Coordinator — Derek Mason: For the five years that Kevin Steele was at Auburn, the Tigers’ defensive units were consistently ranked among the best in the SEC, sometimes the nation.

When Steele was fired, Harsin was always going to be hard pressed finding a replacement of equal or higher esteem to lead his defense.

Enter former Vanderbilt Head Coach and Stanford Defensive Coordinator Derek Mason.

Before he became the second coach in Vanderbilt history to lead the team to multiple bowl appearances, Mason was the architect of a vaunted Stanford defense that helped the Cardinals dominate the Pac-12 for the better half of a decade.

Stanford’s best defensive season under Mason’s tutelage came in 2013. After facing seven ranked opponents, the Stanford defense ranked third nationally in rushing defense, 10th in scoring defense and fifth in sacks.

Mason’s tactics are proven. His 3-4 system is known for its versatility; it challenges the players with more responsibilities but offers more opportunities in return. He also has connections on both sides of the U.S. that can help facilitate Auburn’s nationwide recruiting ambitions. Slam dunk hire.

Grade: A

Defensive Backs — Zac EtheridgeIt’s always a plus when a former Auburn player returns to The Plains to assume a coaching role. Especially if said player was a captain on the 2010 national championship team, like Etheridge.

A relatively inexperienced coach, he spent the last two years coaching at Houston, where the Cougar defense saw improvements from 2019-20 in passing yards allowed, third down conversion defense percentage and tackles for loss.

I hope his playing experience as a starting college safety will outweigh his inexperience coaching at a power-5 program, but, nevertheless, Ethridge is a rising star in this business, and this was a savvy addition by Harsin to infuse a little more orange and blue blood into his coaching staff.

Grade: B+

Inside Linebackers/Defensive Run Game Coordinator — Jeff Schmedding: A guy who is following Harsin, Schmedding is taking a step down after serving as defensive coordinator the past two seasons in Boise. He coached inside linebackers for them last season too. In 2019, Schmedding coached two First Team Mountain West defenders and five who made second team.

Prior to Boise State, he coached at Eastern Washington for 15 seasons (2015-18 as defensive coordinator).

It may take a while for Auburn fans to get over the loss of fan-favorite (former) Linebackers Coach Travis Williams, but what Schmedding lacks in Auburn allure, he gains in coordinator experience and national connections.

Like a lot of Harsin’s guys, however, recruiting — and how well the Mountain West tactics translate to the SEC — will be the biggest question here.

Grade: B

Outside Linebackers/Special Teams Coordinator — Bert Watts: Watts spent last season as the linebackers coach at Memphis and the previous three seasons in the Mountain West at Fresno State (two as defensive coordinator).

Harsin coached against him in 2018 when Watt’s Bulldog defense ranked in the Top 10 nationally in scoring defense (3rd), red zone defense (1st), passes intercepted (4th), passing efficiency defense (5th) and turnover margin (9th). That same year, Fresno State went 12-2 and won the Mountain West title — besting Harsin’s Boise in the championship game.

The addition of Watts means Harsin has three defensive assistants who have previously served in a defensive coordinator role (Mason, Schmedding and Watts).

Grade: B

Strength & Conditioning — Jeff PittmanOver the past few seasons, Auburn’s offensive line has struggled mightily. A former walk-on offensive lineman turned two-year-starter himself, Pittman specializes in the big boys up front and knowing the kind of work it takes to be successful in the trenches.

Pittman followed Harsin from Boise after spending the last eight seasons on his staff (2014-2020 at Boise and Arkansas State 2013). With three decades of experience and a familiar understanding of what Harsin wants, this is a safe hire that I’d challenge anyone to find a complaint about.

Grade: B

Defensive Line: Is it too late to bring back T-Will and make him defensive line coach? Rocker backed out of the deal and it might be a good thing given the reports about how he loathed recruiting. If his heart wasn’t in it, then his leaving was probably for the best.

Now, Harsin needs to move quickly to fill this position with national singing day fast approaching on Feb. 3. Some names to keep an eye out for: Jimmy Brumbaugh (Auburn alum, Tennessee co-defensive coordinator and D-line coach) and Brick Haley (Missouri’s D-line coach 2017-20).

Overall: B, Offense: B, Defense: B+

This grade could jump to a B+ depending on who is hired to be defensive line coach. I think the better hires are on defense, but that makes sense given the holistic handprint that Harsin will have on the offense. The biggest risk: Bobo. The biggest disappointment: losing Travis Williams. The biggest encouragement: the number of former OC/DC’s who took downgraded roles.

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