Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes rarely leave the field when the No. 22 Auburn Tigers are playing.

Last year the two linebackers played all 115 defensive snaps plus special teams during Auburn's overtime win against Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

Stevens had to take minute, lie down on the field and catch his breath before joining the celebration.

"It just felt so good for it to be over," he said. "I did every snap, covered every punt and ran down on a couple of the kickoffs. Once you go back and think about it, it kind of amazes me."

Stevens and Bynes are the iron men of No. 22 Auburn's defense.

They played virtually every snap on the season, which defensive coordinator Ted Roof estimates at more than 900 overall.

"I've never had two guys play as many snaps as they played last year," said Roof, who also coaches the linebackers. "They played a lot more snaps last year than I've had teams play defensive snaps some seasons.

"That's what we needed to do to give us the best chance to win. Those guys are both team-first guys and that's why I have so much respect for them."

They seldom got any relief on defense last season and aren't really assured of all that much when the Tigers open next Saturday against Arkansas State despite an influx of young linebackers.

The Outback Bowl, a 38-35 marathon, just took matters to the extremes. Auburn's defenders had to deal with a stamina-sapping double-whammy: A fast-paced offense that tries to score quickly and take minimal time between plays, and little depth.

None shouldered more of that burden than Bynes and Stevens. They have never aired a complaint about the heavy workload, though. In fact, Stevens said the bowl game was the only time he was truly worn out.

"It's a big deal, but you're so used to it," said Bynes, a first-team preseason All-SEC pick. "This'll be my third year starting in a row. For two years, I haven't had a backup and I've played every down, every snap. You get to a point where you get used to do it and you just go out there and don't even worry about it and just play. You're playing for your teammates. It's not about me. It's not about Craig.

"We realize we've got to do it in order for our team to be successful and in order for us to win games."

Auburn has brought in four linebacker signees and switched starting safety Daren Bates to outside linebacker. The numbers look better but only Bynes and Stevens are proven commodities at the position.

Stevens, a three-year starter, is shifting from strongside, or Sam, linebacker, to weakside (Will).

"I just have to get used to thinking of myself as a Will, because a lot of times even coach gets confused sometimes," Stevens said. "I've played Sam for so many years, he'll start talking about what the Sam's supposed to do and he's looking at me the whole time. So I just have to remind him sometimes I play Will. I get confused sometimes, too, and find myself in my playbook looking at what the Sam does and I'm the Will. Other than that, it's been a smooth transition."

And he's hoping the move will help win a friendly bet with Bynes, since he expects to line up between the tackles more. They plan to put a little money in the pot each week that will go to the top tackler at season's end.

Bynes wound up with 104 tackles in 2009, nine more than Stevens.

"It's harder for me," Stevens said. "Being an outside linebacker, people just run away from me. He's in the middle so he has a chance to make plays on both sides. I don't know if I want to take that bet. I think I'll still end up in the lead, though, no matter what."

Both Bynes and Stevens think they belong in any conversation of the Southeastern Conference's top linebacking duos. They also think alike in what it will take to get that kind of recognition: Winning.

"I'm not a very arrogant or cocky person," Bynes said, "but I feel like we're the best 1-2 combo in the SEC."

Bynes is the defensive signal caller, a film rat who Roof calls "one of the most aware football players that I've ever coached." He often impresses Stevens, too.

"Josh lives in between the tackles," Stevens said. "He can dissect a play quickly. Sometimes you'll see him on film, before a play, maybe he'll think it's going to the right. You'll see before the ball's snapped, he'll take a step that way. Most of the time he ends up being right. He plays a lot on instincts."

Bynes, meanwhile, praises Stevens' ability to take on much bigger offensive linemen.

"He has some big arms so he knows how to get that punch when you hit a lineman," he said. "I do the same thing but he does it almost every time consistently."

Now, if they can just catch an occasional break. Roof said a little rest could help them be stronger players, and that typically the quality of snaps starts to be affected somewhere between 50-70 snaps.

Auburn's defense was on the field for 945 plays last season, most in the SEC and 73 a game. The Tigers' linebacking duo weren't on the sidelines for many of them.

"We're in a position where we don't have to do that this year," Roof said, "but they're still going to have to carry the load."