AUBURN — LSU is looking forward to facing its former defensive coordinator Kevin Steele just about as much as it was interested in watching him walk out of the program.
While stating his surprise for Steele’s departure last offseason, LSU head coach Les Miles has repeatedly stated his concern for being forced to face his former assistant in a critical Western Division game this Saturday night (5 p.m., ESPN).
“I think he’s certainly a challenge,” Miles said in his weekly media conference Monday. “I think the players that play defense for them are talented. Again, I think, you know, Kevin Steele has a very good knack with defense.”
Miles said Monday he found out about Steele’s departure just hours after LSU had defeated Texas Tech 56-27 in the Texas Bowl and just several hours before Auburn was slated to face Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl.
“As I walked in, I walked through what was a common area and Kevin called me over and said, ‘I need to visit with you,’” Miles said Monday. “And he said, ‘I’m going to Auburn.’ And I said, ‘Huh?’”
Steele was immediately announced by Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn as the program’s next defensive coordinator after Auburn’s 31-10 victory over Memphis at Legion Field and a media conference was scheduled for the following week.
When introducing Steele’s replacement at LSU, Dave Aranda, this offseason, Miles said Malzahn contacted him on Dec. 29, the night of LSU’s Texas Bowl win, for permission to speak with Kevin Steele. Around 12 hours later, Malzahn had his third defensive coordinator.
“I was relatively shocked,” Miles said Monday. “I understood, and I really wish him well.”
That “knack” for coaching defense that Miles initially speaks of has revealed itself in Auburn’s first three games. The Auburn (1-2, 0-1 in SEC) defense has improved by nearly six points per game (26.0 in 2015 to 20.7 this season) and been more efficient in the run game by nearly 32 yards (182.54 yards per game in 2015 to 149.33 this season).
“It is a work in progress, but I think probably the thing is that their attitude has been and is very good,” Steele said Sunday. “As long as we’ve got that as coaches we’ve got to help them get better.”
LSU (2-1, 1-0), which made a quarterback change from Brandon Harris to Purdue transfer Danny Etling in week two of the 2016 season, has struggled to throw the football and sits 13th in the league in passing offense at 157.7 yards per game.
Steele’s inside knowledge of the LSU program includes him being able to scout Etling for an entire season. Etling was the scout team quarterback preparing Steele’s first-team defense throughout the 2015 campaign.
“He was the scout team quarterback last year (at LSU) so I was around him every day. I do know him but I don’t think that has any bearing on how he’ll play or how we’ll defend him.”
Steele will have to guard against his players taking a personal stake in slowing down LSU’s run game led by Leonard Fournette, who ran around, through and over a cavalcade of missed tackles last season for 228 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-21 victory against Auburn. Several Auburn players have already admitted to being motivated by revenge against the junior tailback, who is coming off a severe preseason ankle injury.
“He played a good game (but) really, I feel like we didn’t do our assignments, we weren’t in the right place, we didn’t make tackles,” Auburn defensive tackle Montravius Adams said. “So really, when it comes down to it, yes he played good, but we also helped him out.”