Auburn at Texas A&M

Auburn linebacker T.D. Moultry (55) sacks A&M's Larry Pryor. Auburn at Texas A&M on Saturday, Nov. 4, 2017 in College Station, TX. Todd Van Emst/AU Athletics

AUBURN — Expectations for T.D. Moultry were high last year. He had “an unbelievable spring,” Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. He was primed to play a key role in the Tigers' rotation up front.

That did not carry over into his sophomore campaign. Moultry committed more penalties during the first game of the 2018 season (two — roughing the passer and offsides) than he made tackles (zero). He didn’t get to the quarterback for the first time until Oct. 13, and that was for only half a sack. He finished the 13-game season with just 11 tackles.

“Really, that first game last year against Washington was a fiasco for him,” Garner said. “It was really indicative of the type of camp he had last year. He was dealing with some stuff personally, and there are just some things he’s got to learn. That’s a sign of maturity, just learning how to put things in the back of his mind and not let one bad play turn into two, turn into three, turn into four.”

Garner said he and Moultry have had some “real honest and frank” conversations about how last season played out. Auburn can’t afford to have the junior pass-rusher go through that same kind of slump in 2019.

With Dontavius Russell and Andrew Williams gone, and Daquan Newkirk expected to miss extended time as he continues to recover from an Achilles injury, the No. 16-ranked Tigers will enter their Aug. 31 opener against No. 13 Oregon with just three healthy defensive tackles — Derrick Brown, Tyrone Truesdell and Coynis Miller Jr.

That probably means that Nick Coe, the returning starter at Buck — the primary pass-rushing position on Auburn’s defensive line — who led the team with seven sacks last season, will have to spend more time inside this year, which is something the 6-foot-5, 291-pound redshirt junior has been training to do throughout the preseason.

That probably means the Tigers will need someone else to step forward at that Buck spot. Enter Moultry, who operated with the first-team defense more often than not during practice viewing periods.

“T.D.’s really had a good camp. He’s had a very, very good camp,” defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “He does things a little bit differently than say a guy that’s a Nick Coe body, but he is powerfully strong, and he is very, very quick, and he’s highly competitive. He has, in fall camp, been very noticeable in play-making.”

This is a player Garner once had to fight to get into his defensive line room. And not just other schools, including Alabama and Ole Miss, but his own colleague, too — Moultry actually signed as the No. 3-ranked inside linebacker in the Class of 2017, so Garner had to poach him from Travis Williams. The 6-foot-2, 243-pound Jackson-Olin product had too much pass-rush potential not to.

Moultry flashed that ability as a true freshman, when he totaled 15 tackles, 2½ tackles for loss, 1½ sacks and a pair of quarterback hurries. He did have some success as a sophomore, too, as nine of his 11 tackles and all of his 2½ tackles for loss came during seven-game stretch in the middle of the year. He just got off to a slow start.

But you have to remember, Steele said, that 2018 was just Moultry’s second year playing on the defensive line. The defensive coordinator said the junior is more mature and has a better understanding of the game going into his third this year.

“T.D., man, he has one gear. Period. Guy can flat-out ball,” senior defensive end Marlon Davidson said. “I think he's gonna come in at the Buck spot and give us a lot of juice, a lot of dominance.”

It wouldn’t be the first time that someone new has emerged at that Buck spot. Auburn hasn’t had the same player lead the team in sacks in back-to-back seasons since Dee Ford in 2012 and 2013.

Carl Lawson recorded only one sack in a lost 2015 season, then nine in 2016. Jeff Holland recorded only two playing behind Lawson in 2016, then 10 in 2017. Coe finished 2017 with two as he played all across the line, then jumped to seven in 2018 as he focused more on one spot.

A strong preseason, as well as some necessary shuffling up front, has Moultry in a position to be next on that list.

“I think T.D.’s gotten back to the old T.D.,” Garner said. “We just got to be guarded that we don’t take that dip again.”

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