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As Auburn searches for a coordinator, defense remains in good hands

Justin Garrett and Auburn's senior leaders are stepping up at the right time on defense. AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

HOOVER, Ala. -- It’s been 24 days since Will Muschamp accepted the head-coaching position at South Carolina, and Auburn has yet to find a replacement at defensive coordinator.

Both Charles Kelly of Florida State and Bob Shoop at Penn State were reportedly offered the job and turned it down. But head coach Gus Malzahn remains confident. After Sunday's bowl practice, he said Auburn should have someone hired “in the near future.”

In the meantime, Malzahn has turned the keys to the defense over to linebackers coach Lance Thompson. It hasn’t been easy losing both Muschamp and Travaris Robinson, but Thompson, along with fellow defensive coaches Rodney Garner and Travis Williams, have been responsible for getting that unit ready to face a good Memphis team in the Birmingham Bowl on Wednesday.

And credit the senior leaders for stepping up when all they have left is one game.

“Any time you lose defensive coaches, you need some leadership to step up,” Malzahn said. “We really have had that happen, and our guys have really responded well. Coach Thompson, Coach Garner, along with Travis, they’ve done a super job.

“Really, we’re just trying to give our guys a good plan to play fast. But a lot of it has to do with our seniors, and a lot of it has to do with our experienced guys on defense.”

Those seniors have been through a lot. For players like Cassanova McKinzy, Kris Frost, Justin Garrett and Jonathan Jones, they have been through the highest of highs and the lowest of lows during their time at Auburn.

In the case of Garrett, he has played for four different defensive coordinators.

“Defense is defense,” Garrett said Sunday. “You line up and play. Coaches don’t make the calls. The players have to go out there and execute the calls. It doesn’t matter what defense a coach calls, you’ve got to go out there and execute it. You can have the best defensive coach come in, and if the players don’t execute, the calls, it doesn’t matter.

“We just have to go out there and play hard, play physical, keep that same intensity each and every play, and we’ll be good.”

Before he left, Garrett said Muschamp challenged the seniors. He challenged the defensive leaders. “This is your team,” he told them. “When you leave here, what legacy do you want to leave?”

Those players have risen to that challenge. Not only in the final month of the regular season when the defense stepped up and played much better than it did in September, but also during the bowl preparation, long after Muschamp had moved on from the program.

And there is no resentment towards their former defensive coordinator for leaving after just one year.

“I was happy for him,” Auburn defensive lineman DaVonte Lambert said. “It’s kind of hard getting a head-coaching job. I was happy for him, and the guys on the team were happy for him as well.”

Sometime ‘in the near future,’ Auburn will hire a new defensive coordinator. Those seniors will have played their final game for the Tigers, and their sights will be focused on the NFL draft and trying to continue their playing careers.

But if you think they’ve already moved on, you’re wrong.

This bowl game means something to that group. They want to go out on top. They want to leave a legacy behind.

“It’s a big deal,” Garrett said. “Most of the seniors haven’t won a bowl game. I happen to be on the team my freshman year when we won the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but most of the seniors haven’t won a bowl game. Just to end with a winning season, 7-6 sounds a whole lot better than 6-7."