AUBURN, Ala. — Jeff Holland felt the pressure this offseason. Auburn football needed a Buck defensive end to step up and replace the NFL-bound Carl Lawson, who was the team’s most influential defensive player of the last several seasons.
Holland took that pressure and turned it into a diamond of a first start Saturday night in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The junior defensive end had 5 tackles — including 2 for loss and 1 sack — in a 41-7 rout of Georgia Southern.
“I just knew I had some big shoes to fill,” Holland said afterward. “Had to just come to practice and be a leader throughout the whole program. I just want to be that leader and be that next guy, the next guy up.”
Holland wasted no time in showing he could fill the shoes left by Lawson. He was one of the first Auburn players out of the tunnel as they took the field. On Georgia Southern’s second drive of the game, he forced a three-and-out with a stop near the line of scrimmage and a quarterback takedown on a third-down draw play.
Late in the second quarter, Holland singlehandedly took Georgia Southern out of field-goal range on the Eagles’ first sustained drive of the game. Holland sacked GSU quarterback Shai Werts with a huge hit that prompted a massive celebration from the entire defense.
Holland forced another drive to end early when he took down a scrambling Werts 8 yards in the backfield. That was one of 12 Georgia Southern drives that lasted four or fewer plays.
“I thought he did a super job,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s really taking ownership in that position. He had a very good spring and a very good fall camp. You can just tell he’s playing at a whole other level right now and that was good to see.”
Holland finished third on the team and second among defensive linemen with his 5 tackles. Only linebacker Tre’ Williams had more solo tackles than Holland on Saturday night.
Those numbers were important for Holland, who spent his first two seasons at Auburn as a pure pass rusher, mostly in third-down situations. Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner challenged Holland over the offseason to improve against the run to become an every-down defensive end.
Holland took those words to heart and helped the Tigers hold a usually tricky Georgia Southern triple-option offense to the second-fewest yards in program history.
“I’ve been working hard,” Holland said. “Going against the guys on our offensive line, I think those guys got us as a defensive line better. Going against those guys every day through fall camp, I think it got us better at stopping the run.”
Holland’s teammates said they knew the Jacksonville, Fla., native was capable of creating the consistent havoc he had up front Saturday night. They were just waiting for his opportunity to crack the starting lineup for the first time.
“Jeff does it in practice,” junior cornerback Carlton Davis said. “He had to hide behind Carl Lawson, he never really had his chance. Now he has his chance, and he’s making the most of it.”
The challenge will get tougher for Holland in his second career start as No. 12 Auburn travels to No. 5 Clemson. The defending national champion posted 665 yards of offense in a 56-3 beatdown of Kent State on Saturday afternoon.
Holland will hope the momentum he created with his dominant teammates up front Saturday night will carry over into Death Valley.
“Hard work pays off,” Holland said. “We had some long days [in practice] … Some of our young guys stepped up and played. It was a long, hard camp. It pays off.”
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