Auburn football: How Jeff Holland became a dominant pass rusher

October 7, 2017 GMT

AUBURN – There was never an “ah, ha” moment for Jeff Holland.

Instead, he can credit constant work, watching a former Auburn great, and some martial arts work for his development into a productive Auburn defensive end.

For his first two seasons on Auburn’s campus, Holland had to only look at his teammate, Carl Lawson, ahead of him on the depth chart and see what a good pass rusher should look like. Holland did every drill right behind Lawson and tried to duplicate all the basics he was rarely taught in high school.

“He loves to practice,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “He loves to compete, so he’s the consummate football player from that regard. We always tell them, you’re either getting better or you’re getting worse. You never stay the same. And he works every day to get better.”

Lawson accumulated 10 sacks over the last 20 games, and Holland realized he had a long way to go before being a dominant pass rusher in the Southeastern Conference.

When Lawson was drafted by the Cincinnati Bengals this spring, Holland knew the presence would no longer be there but the memory and game tape was Therefore, Holland, who had spent two seasons transforming his body by gained 15 to 20 pounds of muscle, nearly lived in the Auburn film room. He spent much of that time watching Lawson.

“He constantly looked at his tape, he played behind him and now y’all see he’s become one of those great players,” Auburn safety Tray Matthews said.

In addition, Holland did offseason martial arts training with Ben Creamer in Ohio at Ignition Athletic Performance Group. After a win, Holland has showcased an orange and blue Auburn headband with the Chinese symbol for “Mud.” After every sack and big play, Holland will perform the ceremonial bow of respect that is normally seen before two martial artists compete in a training circle.

“I trained with a martial arts hands guy and got kind of good with it so guys on this team started calling me ‘Sensei Mud,’ and this my nickname now,” Holland said. “I guess I’ll just roll with it.”

Through five games into the 2017 season, Holland has been nearly impossible to block. Last week in Auburn’s 49-10 win over Mississippi State, redshirt freshman Stewart Reese, a 333-pound tackle, was called for three false starts and was completely beat on a sack in the second half. Eventually, MSU had to bring a running back and a tight end to help slow down Holland.

“He’s taking his game to the next level. He did that in the spring, and it’s carried over here in games,” Malzahn said. “He’s a weapon, and I think he caused a couple of those false starts along with the noise when he widened out. He’s such a good edge speed rusher.”

While fans expected big things immediately from the former four-star prospect, Holland needed to adjust to a new position and the speed of college football. He and his coaches say he wasn’t prepared to make a huge impact right away.

Through five games, Holland has compiled a team-high 3.5 sacks and 10 quarterback hurries. Holland has achieved a point where his own head coach acknowledged “it’s fair to say” his play has exceeded expectations, which is an overwhelming statement not normally uttered by Malzahn.

“Jeff is a guy that always played with a high motor,” Malzahn said. “He played as a true freshman. (As a) sophomore, he got better last year taking on the run, his physicality, and then this year he’s really taken the next step as far as pass rushing and his motor is really a factor.”

Now opposing offenses must realize where No. 4 in an Auburn jersey is on the field. Suddenly, players such as freshmen T.D. Moultry and Markaviest “Big Cat” Bryant are following Holland in drills in practices. The circle of potential continues at Auburn, but Holland’s goal is to continue making plays in opposing backfields.

“Teams expect me to get off that edge now,” Holland said. “There’s a lot of momentum that happens with they start bringing extra people to block me. It’s just another challenge.”