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Previewing the Auburn Defense.

By on February 21st, 2013 in Football 18 Comments »
Retread Defense

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!

18 Comments

  1. DBAU81 says:

    I wish I could be optimistic about the defense, but I think this is where it’s going to take at least a couple of years for us to get back to playing SEC caliber football. We have been so bad for so long on this side of the ball that it’s hard to see a quick turnaround. People expected a quick fix last year when we hired a big name DC, and the result was the worst defense in anyone’s memory. I was very happy to see Gus and the staff focus on the D-line in the recent recruiting class. Hopefully next year we can finally bring in some help at linebacker. In the meantime, maybe McKinzy can continue to develop (he showed flashes of being a very good player last year) and perhaps the new staff can fix whatever’s been keeping Frost off the field. For the foreseeable future, though, we’re just going to have to outscore people.

  2. bornatiger says:

    I agree l will be happy just to see the d get litle nasty back no given up

  3. buddy Ro shaka4244 says:

    a long time ago I used to comment on this TET and maintained that Chizik’s biggest mistake on D was moving Darren Bates (an All-Star Safety as a FR) to LB. We haven’t had a hard hitting Safety in the AU secondary since.

    I consider CB to be the most difficult position to play in football, and I also consider Safety to be the most important on Defense. I was really hoping that the hype surrounding Jermaine Whitehead would produce at Safety last season, but our guys got embarassed all year especially with no pass rush from our seemingly deep 2012 DE position. I have to say that this Dline last year was the biggest disapointment of all our units… I didn’t see any leadership on that side of the ball from those who I considered the most well-equipped: Whitaker, Bell, Lemonier, Bates… With 3 of the 4 gone, who is going to pick up the torch? BTW, it seems Whitaker gained all the weight back. Last preseason he was excited to lose a bunch of weight and now it seems he is looking to gain. Those DTs have got to anchor the middle better this year.

    IMO,… Auburn doesn’t win a National Championship 2 years ago if Demond Washington and Zach Etheridge don’t get convenient INTs in Arizona. We badly need some playmakers to step up on this Defense.

  4. buddy Ro shaka4244 says:

    Who do you think will be the 2013 AU D playmakers?

  5. KoolBell KoolBell says:

    Reading an Acid Reign post is like a transfusion of glorious energy. Can’t say enough about how much I enjoy your insights Acid.

    I think next year, we can expect a lot of bend but don’t break defense. I can’t see Auburn’s defensive line woes being cured in one season, but the red zone defense should be much better. Mainly because of the smaller space in which opposing offenses have to operate.

    Our linebacker play will be improved but not great. The defensive backs will be much better. I mean night and day better, at the safety position especially.

    WAR EAGLE!

    • buddy Ro shaka4244 says:

      yeah… I have always loved Acid’s breakdowns. So much that I am forced to come up with my own word to describe their brilliance….SCRUMTRULESCENT. Acid’s breakdowns are simply Scrumtrulescent.

      Remind me so much of that skit Inside the Actor’s Studio on Saturday Night Live.
      Check Out Saturday Night Live: Inside the Actors Studio on Hulu.
      ( http://www.hulu.com/watch/3524 )

      He knows how to piece the holes together between AU personnel and game strategy.

  6. buddy Ro shaka4244 says:

    Khari Harding, Mackenro Alexander, Brandon King… all listed safeties in 2013 class.

    I want a guy at safety that closes quick and everytime he is going to try and knock you out.

    If we can combine that with a couple guys having outstanding years at DE, we’ll be in business.

    LB will likely be by committee this year. Until we can find a guy to lead at MLB like Bynes we’re going to get hurt by the quick passing games (Ark St., ULM, etc. the past couple years).

    • sullivan013 sullivan013 says:

      There certainly has been a gap in MLB production since Josh Bynes graduated. In my review of the 2010 USC games, I noticed he was an instrumental part of the second half adjustments on defense. Nick Fairley got the bulk of the credit, but I believe a great deal of our defensive resurgence in later quarters of 2009 and 2010 games was due to Bynes getting 15 mins to talk with his coaches.

      That’s just a guess on my part, but we haven’t had solid play at that position since he left.

      • buddy Ro shaka4244 says:

        yep yep. Auburn as a team was incredible at making adjustments at half in 2010,… also good at raising their NRG level between the 3rd and 4th quarters (Cam had something to do with that).

        Bynes was an insanely underrated player for Auburn. You never know how important those guys are until they’re gone. He was tough and filling holes on run D and could drop back in coverage and cause all kinds of problems.

        You know,… ILB Toney & JUCO Flowers each at 230lbs could really help this year. I hate to say it, but I think Jake Holland’s chance to run the show came and went last year. I would be surprised if McKinzy isn’t our starte @ MLB.

  7. DCWarEagle says:

    Until our secondary (re-)learns to tackle – i.e. use their arms instead of launching themselves at the ball carrier with arms at sides – our defense will continue to struggle. Tackling was always the pride of Auburn’s defense – just watch Carlos Rogers work his magic – but lately tackling beyond the line of scrimmage has really suffered. Hopefully, this collection of coaches can bring back this lost “art”.
    WDE

  8. buddy Ro shaka4244 says:

    One thing I think we should be talking about more with the AU D heading to 2013 is the required ‘harmony’ of Malzahn’s Offense and Defense…from an overall game strategy standpoint.

    I recall the TET gang having much to discuss about this relationship heading into 2009, 2010.

    The question of “What type of Defensive scheme or “posture” makes sense as it relates to the Malzahn no-huddle spread O?” is just as much a concern/ challenge for AU heading into 2013 as all these personnel issues are.

    We have had the chance now to understand the Malzahn Offense like never before and it is reasonable to head into 2013 with some optimism regarding production there, but what about the pressure it will put on this AU D unit coming off such a really pitiful 2012?

    This is where it is easy to really get worried about that LB unit (as Acid points out).

  9. buddy Ro shaka4244 says:

    I am hopeful that the AU D working against the Malzahn O will benefit in the way of tackling, fighting off blocks, blowing up the point of attack, etc. Is it reasonable to assume this AU D and LB corp will benefit practicing against a more sophisticated O everyday? I think so. I think it could expose some personnel issues, speed to the ball issues, etc.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re looking at a drastically different starting group on D as a result.

  10. dabble says:

    AU will do better than we should on paper. The ‘new broom sweeps clean’ will really help a lot of players that were drifting. I will use the Terry Bowden after Dye year as example. The players just wanted to believe that they could win again. And Terry showed them how. (side: he could not sustain it, but this is due more to ego as Terry and his staff were great game day coaches.) There are some deficiencies yet we do not know how they will be reflected in new assignments, new coaches, new fresh start……

  11. Wombat Wombat says:

    Since we seem to be lacking LBs, I wonder if the staff will consider moving LaDarius Owens from DE to LB.

    I’m also looking for a breakout year from Kris Frost – I’ve just got this feeling that something has finally ‘clicked’ with him.

  12. Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

    …..Thanks for the kind words, everyone! I think when you’re generating offensive success and scoring points, you attack on defense. Press, blitz, try to rip the ball out, take chances. Force a couple of early turnovers or 3 ‘n’ outs, and hand it back to the offense and let ‘em gas the opposition!

    …..You get up on a team early, and break their will. If you can do this in at least half your league games, it will GREATLY help the fatigue factor in November. You’re going to give up a big play or two doing that, but it beats getting nickeled and dimed to death, AND keeping a potent offense on the sideline. Now last season, we could not afford to give up an easy TD. Heck, the offense was only going to score 10 points!

    …..Josh Bynes wasn’t a perfect player, but he was cerebral, and could really direct things. When he first became a starter, I thought his run defense was terrible. Guys got loose up the gut right and left. He kept grinding and got better and better. Man, his last two years he and Craig Stevens played nearly every meaningful snap. Those guys won’t go on any all-time great Auburn teams, but they were TOUGH! They had to play 80-100 snaps, and were still making plays late in those games. That takes uncommon guts and determination!

    …..As to the arm tackles and whiffed dives at opponents… You fix that in March and August. Man, I hated reading the injury reports during Tuberville’s tenure during those months. He ground ‘em and ground ‘em! But there’s no substitute for full-speed practice, and I think we’ve avoided doing that the last four years for the most part. We got to the season mostly healthy, but not tuned up for physical play. With the Malzhan/Johnson plan, we may see more guys beat up in the preseason, unfortunately. That’s the only way we’re going to quit giving up 25-30 points per game.

  13. KoolBell KoolBell says:

    You guys & dolls need to go watch this video http://www.auburntigers.com/allaccess/?media=373808

    • Acid Reign Acid Reign says:

      …..Nice link! I’m so fired up!

    • DBAU81 says:

      That is a nice video. I will share this anecdote. Two weeks before the 2010 season began I was able to attend a scrimmage. Although Gene Chizik was nominally the head coach, there was absolutely no doubt who was running things that day – it was Gus Malzahn. He was far more vocal and visible than any of the other coaches. This guy knows how to build a winning program and has won championships everywhere he’s been. He has inherited a train wreck and it will take some time, but given the right support he will get us back where we belong.