2011 Auburn Preview – Defense
Auburn DE Nosa Eguae
CollegeFootballNews.com 2011 Preview - Auburn Tiger Defense
Preview 2011 - Defense
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What You Need To Know:
The defense was phenomenal against the run and stunk it up against the pass, and now eight starters and lots of leadership must be replaced. Nick Fairley is irreplaceable on the interior, while playmakers are gone throughout the back seven. While there’s a lot to worry about, overall the talent level might be upgraded with tremendous recruiting classes about to kick n. Neiko Thorpe is the only returning player in the secondary, and former defensive back Daren Bates is now a leader of the green linebacker. The line has issues with so many replacements, but from Gabe Wright to Kenneth Carter to Jeffrey Whitaker, the tackles should eventually be phenomenal, while end Nosa Equae is on the verge of blowing up as a top-shelf pass rusher. The secondary might need an overhaul, but it can’t be much worse after finishing last in the SEC in pass defense.
Star of the defense: Sophomore DE Nosa Eguae
Tackles: S Neiko Thorpe, 64 tackles (45 solo)
Sacks: DE Nosa Eguae, 3
Interceptions: LB Daren Bates, CB T’Sharvan Bell, 1
Player who has to step up and be a star: Senior LB Eltoro Freeman
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Jeffrey Whitaker
Best pro prospect: Eguae
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Eguae, 2) Sophomore DE Corey Lemonier, 3) Freeman
Strength of the defense: Highly-touted recruits
Weakness of the defense: Secondary and experience
State of the Unit: The potential was there to be good last year, but no one expected an all-timer of a season in the interior. Nick Fairley was a monster, but seniors Zach Clayton, Michael Goggans, Antoine Carter and Mike Blanc were also major keys to the success of the defensive line. With so many players to replace, the line is obviously a big time question mark, but there’s talent to get excited about.
The star of the defense should be sophomore defensive end Nosa Equae after making 22 tackles with 3.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He emerged last season as a key contributor, overtaking Goggans for the starting spot and finishing the season strong. At 6-2, 255, he’s not huge, but he has the quickness to get off the ball and the athleticism to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks on a regular basis. Consistency will be his key, but while he wasn’t an elite prospect, the line is his to anchor.
Opposite Eguae at the other end will be sophomore defensive end Corey Lemonier, who saw limited action recording 17 tackles and two sacks. He became more involved in Ted Roof’s gameplan as the season progressed, and made a couple of key tackles during the key goal line stand in the third quarter of the BCS National Championship Game. At 6-4 and 229-pounds he’s not all that big, but he can move.
Sophomore Jeffery Whitaker will get the first crack at taking over Fairley’s spot on the inside, and while he’s not anywhere near the same player, and doesn’t have the same style, he should be able to gum up the works At 6-3, 310 pounds, he’s bigger than Fairley, but not nearly as a quick. The No. 11 defensive tackle recruit in the country in 2010, he was part of a monster recruiting class and now needs to show why after coming up with seven tackles in his first year.
Lining up next to Whitaker at tackle will be fellow sophomore Kenneth Carter, who made six tackles with a tackle for loss in limited time. The 6-5, 287-pounder, like Whitaker, was another big-time four-star recruit from the 2010 class, and he has big-time upside. An ideal 3-4 end in the right scheme, he has the burst and the potential to be a dangerous interior pass rusher.
Backing up the projected starters are plenty of unproven but talented prospects. 6-4, 233-pound sophomore end
Dee Ford was the defensive MVP of the spring game, racking up two sacks and two tackles for loss, and making 11 tackles with two sacks last year. His counterpart, 6-3, 237-pound Joel Bonomolo, tallied seven tackles in the spring game, and also looked like a force.
Craig Sanders, a 6-4, 254 pound defensive end, made a name for himself covering kickoffs last season, and has a ton of speed off the edge. The potential is there to become a dangerous situational pass rusher.
Gabe Wright will be coming in late this summer and will be in the rotation right away at defensive tackle. Wright might not be the best player on the 2011 Auburn defense, but he might be the most talented; even if he doesn’t show it right away. The 6-4, 310-pound star defensive tackle recruit has the quickness to become a big-time interior pass rusher and the raw bulk to quickly turn into an anchor for the run defense.
Watch Out For … Equae. His production went largely unnoticed last season. That’ll change in 2011 if he gets enough help from the other three spots. The burst is too impressive and the athleticism is too much to not be a dangerous playmaker in the backfield on a regular basis.
Strength: Defensive ends. Eguae, Lemonier, Ford and Bonomolo are all supremely talented, and the four of them will form a solid end rotation. They’ll keep each other fresh, and they’ll have their moments wreaking havoc into the backfield.
Weakness: Experience. Eguae - a sophomore with only a few starts - is the unquestioned veteran of the group. That’s about it. The tackles have a world of talent and ton of upside, but they might need a year of season. You don’t immediately replace a Fairley, who came up with 11.5 sacks, 24 tackles for loss, and 21 quarterback hurries.
Outlook: Defensive line isn’t the most difficult spot on the field to replace departed seniors, and there might not be much of a learning curve for all the new stars up front. With the talent coming in, the line will become a strength as the season progresses. Next year, look out, but for now, the line will be better than it’ll originally get credit for
Unit Rating: 7.5
State of the Unit: Linebackers Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes played virtually every snap during Chizik’s first two years at Auburn, and it was their smarts and their experience that worked wonders down the stretch. The Oregon running game was kept in check because the linebackers did their job, and the veterans will be missed. There are plenty of athletes ready to shine, but there will be some big mistakes.
Junior Daren Bates - the only returning starter - enters his second season on the strongside after earning Freshman All-SEC honors as a safety in 2009. Despite making 48 tackles, after making 70 tackles as a defensive back as a true freshman, he admits that he never truly felt comfortable at linebacker and was helped by the veterans around him. Bates is still too small at just 5-11 and 201 pounds, but he can move and he should be more of a leader and more of a playmaker on the outside.
Taking over at weakside linebacker, junior Jonathan Evans is expected to slide into the spot vacated by Stevens, who made 62 tackles. Evans has been a spot starter on both the strong and weak sides over his first few seasons, making 27 tackles as a key reserve. The 5-11, 225-pound native veteran has played in 26 games during his first two years and is a big hitter who should put up big numbers.
Sophomore Jake Holland is the presumptive starter at middle linebacker, but he could end up playing on the strongside. The 6-0, 232 pounder made 12 tackles last season, mostly in mop-up duty playing behind Bynes, and if he’s in the middle, he’ll be as much about quarterbacking the defense as he will be about making tackles. While he has only had a few meaningful snaps with the first team, he’ll have his work cut out with him transitioning into the starting role.
Senior Eltoro Freeman came to Auburn with as much hype as any linebacker in recent Auburn history, but hasn’t lived up to his potential. At 5-11 and 224 pounds, he has the size and speed to play either strong or weak-side linebacker, and will contend for a starting spot if he can remained disciplined and stay within the gameplan. The former JUCO transfer is a big-time athlete who should make big plays when he gets his chance, making 41 tackles two years ago and making 37 stops with a sack and four tackles for loss last year.
Sophomore Harris Gaston impressed coaches during spring practice, and will contend for the starting spot at middle linebacker. At 6-1 and 234 pounds, he has the size the corps desperately needs. Redshirt freshmen
Jawara White and LaDarius Owens
will also compete for playing time, with Owens bringing 6-2, 242-pound size and White checking in at 6-1 and 244 pounds. They’re not just big; they can move.
Watch Out For … Freeman. A big-time recruit, he has shown glimpses of being terrific, but inconsistency has been his problem. It’s all there, though, with decent size and sideline-to-sideline skills, but this is his last chance to prove he can do the job.
Strength: Speed on the outside. Bates, Freeman and Evans can all fly. Auburn linebackers are going to make mistakes, and they might not be consistent, but they’ll be all over the ball.
Weakness: Experience. Bates has the most of it, but he’s still working on the transition from safety to linebacker and was hardly a world-beater. The best options could be redshirt freshmen, and with the concerns with the lack of veterans up front, there could be even more problems with the green linebackers.
Outlook: Depth at linebacker has been a big issue for two years, and most of the key parts this season haven’t done enough and haven’t seen enough playing time to know what they’re doing. On straight talent, this group is better than last year’s, but the time logged in isn’t there.
Unit Rating: 6.5
State of the Unit: The secondary, like most areas for the Tigers, has to undergo an overhaul, but unlike other units, that might not be a bad thing. The Auburn pass defense finished last in the SEC and was 108th in the nation in yards allowed, and more work is done to come up with big plays.
Neiko Thorpe is the only returning starter in the defensive backfield, but he’s moving from cornerback to free safety to be more of a sheriff and a leader. At 6-2, 185, he has the size and knows what it takes physically to be a safety in the SEC, but nailing down the mental side of it is something he’ll have to do in a hurry after making 64 tackles with nine broken up passes.
6-1, 188-pound sophomore Demetruce McNeal will likely take over for Zac Etheridge at strong safety after making a name for himself on special teams. He got a few chances in the defensive backfield, and didn’t seem fazed when he was thrust into the spotlight- including a key spot in the second quarter of the Iron Bowl. McNeal made 24 tackles last season, but he hasn’t done much so far against the pass. Great against the run, he should be one of the team’s top five tacklers.
T’Sharvan Bell emerged as a versatile option at cornerback, coming up with the key sack on Greg McElory late in the fourth quarter of the Iron Bowl, and he had a pick six in the third quarter of the SEC Championship Game that put the game away. The 6-0, 182-pound junior is a bit undersized, appearing smaller than he was listed, but he showed the ability to be a big time player as a third corner making 38 tackles with a sacks, a pick, and 3.5 tackles for loss. Now as a true starter, arguably the best athlete in the secondary should be all over the field.
There’s a good battle brewing among talented young cornerbacks on the other side of Bell. Redshirt freshman Jonathon Mincy impressed coaches this spring and will likely enter 2011 as the starter, but at 5-10 and 186 pounds he’s a bit undersized. Feisty, he’s not afraid to get physical. He’ll combine with 5-10, 192-pound sophomore
Chris Davis, a good reserve who made 19 tackles with three broken up passes. Athletic and able to cut on a dime, he can get all over the field.
The wild card to look out for at corner is true freshman Jonathan Rose, who’s talented enough to start right away. At 6-2, 185 pounds, Rose already has the size of an SEC player, and he has the range and the upside to play a big role as a nickel or dime defender if he doesn’t grab a corner job early on. Ultra-athletic, he could be a punt returner if needed.
Erique Florence is another true freshman to watch out for after being ranked as one of the top five safety prospects in the nation. The 6-2, 185-pound native of nearby Valley, Ala., was drawn to Auburn not only because of location, but because the Tigers provided an opportunity for a starting job. A great hitter with the range to play either safety spot, he’ll get a chance to shine early on.
Watch Out For … Bell. He played a big role on that defense down the stretch last season, and always seems to be around the ball. With his phenomenal athleticism, he has to become a star for a secondary that needs playmakers.
Strength: Cornerback. Bell will great, and the battle between Rose and Mincy is a positive. Both of them can play, and they each bring tremendous athleticism to the spots.
Weakness: Experience … just like almost every other area on the Tigers. While the loss of so many key starters might not be that big a deal considering the problems against anyone who could throw, there are still plenty of concerns that things might get a tad worse before they improve.
Outlook: The secondary has more talent than it did last season, but it won’t be better … at least not right away. The pass defense was torched last season, but it was VERY opportunistic, thanks to the veteran leadership. Statistically, the 2011 secondary will probably be a bit better, but won’t have the ability to force turnovers like last year’s bunch did.
Unit Rating: 7
State of the Unit: One of the biggest losses Auburn suffered in 2011 is the graduation of kicker Wes Byrum - the school’s all-time leading scorer. His spot will be filled by sophomore
Cody Parkey, who was an Under Armor All-American in 2010 and was one of the top kicker recruits. He might not be Byrum, but he has a bigger leg.
Steven Clark, also a sophomore, saw some action at punter last season and he’ll get the full-time role this year after punting was such a big problem last year. Auburn would love for Clark to become a star, but consistency will be enough at this point after the team finished last in the SEC in punting yards.
Running back Onterio McCalebb and wide receiver Trovon Reed will be the likely kick returners, and they should be terrific. McCalebb returned eight kicks averaging 28.4 yards per try, and provided a spark in the Arkansas shootout returning a kick 99 yards down to the one yard line following a Hog touchdown that pulled the game close. Reed redshirted last season after taking only two snaps, but he’s got the speed and athleticism to make a big splash when he gets his chances.
Senior Quindarius Carr will again handle the punt return duties after averaging a paltry 5.7 yards per try. His biggest moment was an error, fumbling a punt late in the third quarter of the Iron Bowl which nearly cost Auburn the game, and did him his job for the rest of the season. He’ll be the guy as long as he can hang on to the ball.
Watch Out For … McCalebb. He’s a Percy Harvin type of player with the speed and gamebreaking quickness to change things around, like he did against Arkansas.
Strength: Speed. One move, and any of Auburn’s returners can run right by you. It didn’t happen on punt returns, but the kickoff return game was terrific. The punt coverage team was strong.
Weakness: Kicking experience. Kickers take a lot of heat on the practice field, but it’s asking a lot to come through in key SEC games. Byrum might not have been special, but he was extremely clutch and got the job done when needed.
Outlook: The return game will be a strength for the Tigers, but the kicking game is a big question mark. On talent, though, there’s an upgrade with Parkey over Byrum. He has to prove himself, though. The coverage teams are great and the return game should be dangerous.
Unit Rating: 6.5
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