In his first year leading the Auburn Tigers, Hugh Freeze’s team went 6-6, but they were just one play away from ending on a very high note. The loss in the Iron Bowl, which let Alabama sneak into the College Football Playoff, hurt the program, but ultimately Auburn is a team on the rise.
Hugh Freeze was very busy in the transfer portal last offseason, but not all his additions paid dividends in 2023. Now, the transfer portal is open and Freeze will be looking to plug the remaining holes on his roster, and replace the five players from his own team who have already hopped in the portal on Day 1.
Competing in the SEC is getting even harder next season, but Freeze, with the No. 11 recruiting class in 2024, has already shown he can get top-tier high school talent. That will ultimately define his success over the long haul, but what improvements he makes in the transfer portal, will make the biggest difference next year.
Let’s take a look at what positions the Tigers should be hunting, and who are the top players and best fits to target at those spots.
SEC size on the defensive line is a clear need for Auburn. You could also point to the linebacker group, but for me, it all starts up front with run defense and pass rush. The Tigers finished the regular season 88th in run defense, allowing 167.2 rushing yards per game and 5.6 yards per rush (77th).
In Auburn’s worst loss of the season, a 31-10 drubbing at Jordan-Hare Stadium by New Mexico State, the Aggies ran for 213 yards and gained 6.4 yards per play. In that game, and most of the season, the Auburn interior pass rush had a negligible impact.
For the season, the Tigers ranked 46th in sacks per game, and only linebacker Jalen McLeod ranked in the top 20 in the SEC in pressures. McLeod had 35 and their top defensive lineman Marcus Harris had 24. Behind Harris, Jayson Jones and Justin Rogers finished tied with seven pressures, ranking 125th in the SEC among all defensive players, and were the second-highest defensive lineman on Auburn’s roster.
Walter Nolen was the crown jewel of Texas A&M’s legendary 2022 recruiting class. He was the No. 2 overall player and is now rated as the No. 1 overall transfer. In two seasons, Nolen has racked up five sacks and in 2023 generated 16 total pressures.
He, like much of Texas A&M’s stacked roster, has been underwhelming in terms of his on-field production, but everyone knows there is more to unlock in Nolen’s 6-foot-4 290 290-pound frame. Nolen is more of a three-technique interior player, but he did lineup over the tackle for 89 of his snaps and on the edge for 110. That not only shows versatility but is similar to how Auburn utilized Marcus Harris this season, only with slightly fewer reps on the edge.
At 6-foot-4 298 pounds, Cook provides a bit more heft to the interior defensive line. He had six tackles for loss and one sack this year at MTSU. His 15 pressures, only rank 134th among defensive linemen, but are much more than Jones and Rogers, who he would be playing over.
In 2022, Cook was a dominant pass-rusher with 6.5 sacks and a staggering 49 total pressures. Whatever team ultimately signs Cook is hoping to get that version of him. He already has offers from plenty of P5 schools.
Mike Elko is off to Texas A&M, so most of the Duke roster is off to the transfer portal. That’s good news for teams who need defensive talent because Elko was excellent at developing it. Aeneas Peebles is a finished product as a graduate transfer who is coming off a season with a career-high four sacks.
Peebles ranked 20th among defensive linemen in the country with his 27 pressures, and the 6-foot-1 286-pound interior lineman also registered 19 stops. A stop is a PFF stat that refers to a tackle that results in a “failure” for the offense.
He would be a true interior pass-rusher, who may not be as helpful against the run but would terrify opposing guards.