This unit must be completely rebuilt.
War Eagle, everybody! It’s another chilly, frosty morning in this winter of our discontent. Fortunately, it looks like the Auburn football team has more answers to problems than the awful basketball program does. This week, we’ll take a look at the pieces Gus Malzhan and Ellis Johnson have from which to build a defense. It’s been nearly a decade since Tommy Tuberville and Gene Chizik teamed up to strangle the life out of SEC. In the past five years, Auburn has descended to the ranks of worst in school history. Last season against SEC foes, Auburn gave up 34 points per game, while only scoring 10.
As with the offense, one must start building on the line. The good news here is that Auburn has a plethora of returning linemen with experience. The bad news is that none of these guys has shown any knack for dominating their man up front. If Auburn is to have any real success on defense, we need a return to being nasty in the trenches. When an offense is forced to double team more than one guy on the defensive line, it’s in trouble.
At tackle, seniors Jeffery Whitaker and Kenneth Carter return, along with juniors Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright. All four guys have starting experience, but it’s been on the worst two defenses in Auburn history. It’s a telling thing when a program starts looking at junior college transfers on the interior line, and Auburn has Hutchinson Community College transfer Ben Bradley already in school. The big tackle will take part in spring drills, and could start right out of the gate next fall. The Tigers also have several younger linemen who were highly recruited coming out of high school. These include junior Devaunte Sigler, sophomore JaBrian Niles and redshirt freshman Tyler Nero.
Speedy defensive ends who can rush the passer and stop the run are at a premium in the SEC. Auburn’s been effective at times in recent years rushing the passer, but getting off run blocks has been a problem. Likely starters in 2013 will be a pair of 5th year seniors, Nosa Eguae and Dee Ford. Senior Craig Sanders and junior LaDarius Owens have a good bit of playing time under their belt. Junior Justin Delaine has showed promise at times, but injuries have held him back. Youngsters Keymiya Harrell and Gimel President were highly recruited. It’s also said that incoming true freshman Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel are big enough to play right away, and might be able to crack the playing rotation.
Nowhere does Auburn need immediate help more than at linebacker. The Tigers graduated two starters on a unit that wasn’t very good. Senior starting middle linebacker Jake Holland returns, and he’s generally considered tough enough, but he doesn’t have the speed a lot of SEC linebackers do. Holland’s backup, sophomore Cassanova McKinzy is expected to make a major contribution after going through his first off-season training. Sophomore Kris Frost has showed signs of being a big, fast prototypical linebacker, but has had difficulty getting on the field with previous coaches.
Junior Justin Garrett has playing experience at outside linebacker, but he’s had a good bit of injury trouble. Redshirt freshman JaViere Mitchell was highly recruited. Incoming players Brandon King and Cameron Toney may have to help out immediately, but it’s important to remember that true freshmen linebackers seldom have a major impact at Auburn. You’d have go back to 1995 to find a true freshman Auburn starting linebacker that did well: Takeo Spikes.
The biggest mystery on the Auburn defense is who’ll play Ellis Johnson’s hybrid “spur” position. In the past the coach has used a player with both linebacker and coverage skills, usually someone faster and lighter than a typical linebacker. Who’ll train here at Auburn is still a complete secret. None of Auburn’s returning linebackers really fit the job description. It’s possible that incoming Highland Community College transfer Brandon King will fill that role. He’s listed at 215 pounds. My guess is that several current secondary members will work here, as Auburn has more depth from that group.
It’s said that one starts building a defense with a pair of good defensive tackles, but cornerback is nearly as important. In the modern SEC, if your guys can’t run with the outside receivers, your defense will be quickly shredded by the powerful arms in this league. Auburn is as deep in talented corners as any team in the country. Senior Chris Davis will likely be one starter, and there’s a host of experienced guys that will battle for the other spot. Included on this list in no particular order are junior Robensen Therezie, senior Ryan White, sophomores Jonathan Jones and Joshua Holsey, and junior Jonathan Mincy. My guess is that whomever finishes third in the cornerback race will work at the “spur” position.
Rounding out the defense will be the safeties. Auburn has not been very good at coverage from this position for several years, but the returning guys have had plenty of tackling practice. Seniors Demetruce McNeil and Ryan Smith, as well as junior Jermaine Whitehead all have starting experience. Juniors Erique Florence and Trent Fisher will be in there battling as well. Again, this position could yield a player or two at the spur.
In recent years, it’s seemed like Auburn had the speed and athleticism in the secondary to do a lot of different things with coverages, but mainly sat back with a large cushion up front and played nearly all cover three, with a safety looking to crash down in run support most of the time. Of course, these guys had to cover forever, as the anemic Auburn pass rush failed to get to SEC quarterbacks frequently. So many runners broke into the secondary that they could ill afford to have their back turned in man to man coverage.
I know some folks will worry about the growing number of hurry-up offenses Auburn will face, and what playing opposite Auburn’s own variant will do to defensive numbers. In the SEC West, Texas A&M and Ole Miss both try to run as many plays as possible. In addition, nearly everyone has some sort of no-huddle package they can go to. In the past season, the officials made a concerted effort to allow the defense to substitute when the offense does, so swapping out winded players shouldn’t be as difficult. Auburn should have the numbers to do this on the line and in the secondary, but linebacker is a real concern. Having a pair of linebackers play every snap has given Auburn trouble in recent years, and this may be the case again.
It should be interesting to see how the new Auburn coaching staff pieces the defense together. There’s a lot of good coaching experience in place, so I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t think this year’s edition of the Auburn defense will go out and dominate, but we cannot keep giving up record numbers of points and yards, and expect to climb back in the upper echelon of the league. Here’s hoping Ellis Johnson and crew can stop the bleeding, and help Auburn get back to winning SEC games!