Auburn Preview 2006 - Defense
Auburn Eagles
Posted Aug 8, 2006

Auburn Tigers Preview 2006 - Auburn Tiger Defense

What you need to know ... If you liked last year's Auburn defense, you'll enjoy more of the same. The key move is the position switch of star safety Will Herring to linebacker, but there are players to fill in on the weakside if the experiment doesn't work out. The D is stronger on the outside than the middle with tremendous tackling corners David Irons and Jonathan Wilhite returning, and defensive ends Marquies Gunn and Quentin Groves sure to be among the league's best pass rushers. There's not a lot of size in the linebacking corps, but that's by design going with smaller, more athletic players. There could be big problems if there are any early injuries at tackle.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Will Herring, 69
Sacks: Quentin Groves, 6
Interceptions: several at 1

Star of the defense: Senior LB Will Herring
Player that has to step up and become a star: Junior NG Josh Thompson
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman LB Tray Blackmon
Best pro prospect: Senior DE Marquies Gunn
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Herring, 2) CB David Irons, 3) Gunn
Strength of the defense: Cornerback, pass rushing
Weakness of the defense:
Tackle, experience at free safety

Defensive Line
Few teams can come up with 39 sacks and have a slightly disappointing season, but Auburn didn't quite live up to the high expectations set after 2004. Getting into the backfield won't be a problem with too many pass rushers to get on the field at the same time, but the tackles could be an issue. End Chris Browder is moving inside, while anchor Josh Thompson on the nose has to hold up all year. The line relies more on quickness than strength holding teams to a mere 116 rushing yards per game last year, but there will be huge problems if injuries hit at tackle.
The key to the unit: Find more run stopping tackles and getting more consistency out of the ends.
Defensive Line Rating: 8

Projected Starters
- DE Marquies Gunn, Sr. - 40 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 12.5 TFL, 16 quarterback hurries
Gunn came into the season as a pure pass rusher and great into the team's best all-around defensive end. He was a terror in the backfield, and it wasn't just because defenses were paying attention to Quentin Groves and Stanley McClover. At 6-4 and 254 pounds, he's a good-sized end who's physical as well as quick. Most importantly for last year's line, he was consistent. The coaching staff thought about moving him to tackle, but he's just not big enough.

- NG Josh Thompson, Jr. - 4 tackles
After a good 2004 playing as a quality reserve in the tackle rotation, Thompson suffered an ankle injury early in the season after coming off a knee problem and didn't do much the rest of the way. He's a bowling ball at 6-0 and 302 pounds, but he's also a perfect-sized anchor for the nose. The three-time Georgia state high school weightlifting champion in obviously tremendously strong.

- DT Chris Browder, Sr. -
12 tackles, 3.5 sacks, 1 forced fumble
A defensive end by trade, a bulked up Browder is being tried out on the inside to not only add more quickness to the interior pass rush, but also to simply find a spot for him on the field with all the talent the team has at end. The 260-pounder is a good tackler and a natural pass rusher who should be able to roam free if Josh Thompson is the rock he's supposed to be on the nose, but he might have to be part of a steady rotation against power running teams.

- DE Quentin Groves, Jr. - 21 tackles, 6 sacks, 8 TFL, 4 quarterback hurries
Groves didn't have a bad year by any measure, but he didn't do much to expand on a breakout freshman season. He has good size and a great nose for getting into the backfield, but he's not consistent. He has a thing for Kentucky making six of his career 13.5 sacks against the Wildcats, but disappears against most of the better teams. The coaching staff will try him out on the strongside to start out.

Top Backups
- DE Octavious Balcom, Soph. - 4 tackles, 2 quarterback hurries
After coming to Auburn as a linebacker, the 6-4, 247-pound sophomore will be used for his speed and quickness on the outside playing behind Marquies Gunn. He has good strength for an end and should quickly become a playmaker in the rotation.
- NG Tez Doolittle, Jr. - 7 tackles, 1.5 sacks
Considering Josh Thompson's injury problems, Doolittle has to be ready to be a major factor coming off a dislocated knee. He was used sparingly in eight games last year and showed good interior pass rushing skills, but he has to show he can hold up against the run on a consistent basis. He'll play on the nose, but he could be moved to tackle.
- DT Sen'Derrick Marks, RFr.
With the move of the 260-pound Chris Browder from end to tackle, the 287-pound Marks will be an important reserve adding more size if he doesn't end up beating out Browder for a starting spot. He's raw and isn't a clog-up run defender for the nose, but he should be an active interior pass rusher.

The Tigers don't have a lot of size, but they choose to go with smaller, more athletic linebackers. You can't argue with the production over the last few years. Now they're tying a bold move taking top tackling safety Will Herring and moving him to outside linebacker. It's just an experiment and he could end up moving back to the secondary. Expect a good rotation considering the backups have as much talent as the starters, and that'll be important with Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon suspended for the first three games of the season..
The key to the unit: Getting big production out of the young players. Merrill Johnson, Tray Blackmon and Chris Evans are the future of the Tiger linebacking corps, but they have to play well over the first half of the year.
Linebacker Rating: 8

Projected Starters
- Will Herring, Sr. - 69 tackles, 2 tackles for loss, 1 broken up pass, 1 quarterback hurry
One of the team's top defenders over the last three seasons with 178 career tackles and a team-leading 69 stops last year, Herring is being moved from free safety to strongside linebacker to take advantage of his experience and tackling ability. However, don't be stunned if he ends up moving back to defensive back at some point this off-season. He's in a position to set the Auburn record for consecutive starts needing 12 to beat former offensive lineman Jeno James' record of 47.

- Karibi Dede, Sr. - 42 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 4.5 tackles for loss, 1 interception, three broken up passes, 3 recovered fumbles
Dede has been a steady defender over the last three years with 98 career tackles. The former safety grew into the starting role at linebacker showing good speed and nice play against the pass. He also led the team with three recovered fumbles taking one for a score against Georgia. While he's a bit undersized in the middle at only 6-0 and 216 pounds, he's usually able to hold his own against the run.

- Tray Blackmon, RFr.
One of the team's top recruits last year, the 210-pound Blackmon is a bigger option on the weakside behind Merrill Johnson and is expected to be a huge hitter. He was on just about everyone's list of top linebacker prospects coming out of high school cranking out 332 tackles in his final three years. Watch out for him as the season approaches after he ended up this spring seeing most of the time in the starting role.

Top Backups
- Antonio Coleman, RFr.
Coleman could see time at end or at linebacker. He was a high school linebacker with sprinter's speed, and now he'll be used as a 249-pound speed rusher behind Will Herring.
- Merrill Johnson, Soph. - 21 tackles, 1 tackle for loss, 4 quarterback hurries
It'll be Johnson's time to become a top producer after a solid freshman season. He's not all that big at 6-0 and 199 pounds, but he can run and is great at getting into the backfield. He didn't do much over the final few games of the year and didn't get much work in the really big games, but he has more than enough experience to be one of the team's top tacklers right away if he knock off Tray Blackmon for the job.
- Kevin Sears, Sr. - 27 tackles, 3 tackles for loss
Sears adds more size and plenty of experience to the mix with 15 starts under his belt and 70 career tackles. At 6-4 and 233 pounds, he's a strong run defender who got the starting nod in every game in 2004 and found his way back into the starting mix this spring. However, he was suspended this off-season and will miss three games.

- Chris Evans, Soph. - 13 tackles
Evans fits the mold of Auburn linebackers with an emphasis on speed and athleticism more than side. He's only 6-0 and 217 pounds, but he'll be expected to be a key part of the rotation in the middle behind Karibi Dede.

Defensive backs
This could be the SEC's best secondary led by a tremendous pair of corners in David Irons and Jonathan Wilhite, and a great reserve in Montavis Pitts. Everyone in the Tiger secondary can tackle with Irons and Wilhite among the best hitting corners in the country allowing 199 yards per game and a total of eight touchdown passes. The move of Will Herring to linebacker means former running back Tristan Davis has to use his speed to be a steady force at free safety, while Eric Brock and Steve Gandy have to be rocks right away at strong safety. Watch out for Aairon Savage who looked like a natural at safety this spring after moving over from corner.
The key to the unit: Fight through any growing pains Tristan Davis and Lorenzo Ferguson might have at free safety so Will Herring can stay at linebacker.
Secondary Rating: 9

Projected Starters
- CB David Irons, Sr. - 48 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 11 broken up passes
The former JUCO transfer got another year of eligibility thanks to missing 2004 with a knee injury. He recovered to be one of the SEC's best corners last season becoming a solid lock-down coverman to go along while growing into sure tackler highlighted by an 11-stop day against Wisconsin. He's not huge, but he hits like a bigger player and is fast enough to handle any SEC receiver. He's the brother of star RB Kenny Irons.

- FS Tristan Davis, Soph. - 4 tackles
Part running back and part safety last year, Davis ran for 209 yards and two touchdowns with an impressive 162 yards coming against Kentucky. Speed isn't an issue for the lightning fast 5-10, 204-pound sophomore, but he has to prove he can hold his own in a full-time defensive role. If he can't, Will Herring might have to move back to the secondary from his new linebacker spot.

- SS Eric Brock, Jr. - 35 tackles, 1 interception, 2 broken up passes
Brock grew into the safety job last season and now needs to play at an even higher level as the most experienced safety on the team. At 6-1 and 213 pounds, he's the team's biggest defensive back and hits like it. His best game last year was against Arkansas with six unassisted tackles.

- CB Jonathan Wilhite, Jr. - 47 tackles, 1 interception, 7 broken up passes
The former JUCO transfer took a year to take over a starting job, but then he turned into one of the team's most reliable defensive backs even though he takes too many chances. He's a tough tackler and rock-solid in pass coverage finishing fifth on the team in tackles despite only starting in seven games and finishing second in broken up passes behind David Irons.

Top Backups
- CB Montavis Pitts, Sr. - 43 tackles, 1 interception, 2 broken up passes
Pitts was a good starter in 2004, but lost his job last year only getting one start. Even so, he turned in a fine season as a strong defender in run support. At 6-1 and 195 pounds, he has the size, but he's not the pass defender Jonathan Wilhite is on the right side.
- FS Aairon Savage, RFr.
Despite only being  5-11 and 170 pounds, Savage will battle early on for the starting free safety job. He has the speed to play corner, but he's going to have to prove he can be a consistent hitter.
- SS Steve Gandy, Soph. - 31 tackles, 1 interception, 1 broken up pass
One of the team's rising stars, Gandy ended up starting in the second half of the season and more than held his own as a good one-on-one tackler. He'll battle with Eric Brock for the strong safety job and could even be used a bit at free safety even though he's far better against the run than the pass.
- SS Lorenzo Ferguson, Soph. - 3 tackles
While Tristan Davis is getting the first chance to take over Will Herring's former free safety slot, Ferguson will see plenty of playing time and get plenty of chances to show what he can do. At 6-2 and 208 pounds, he's a taller, bigger option than Davis, but he's not as fast. He'll see most of his time on special teams.

Special Teams
The kicking game should be one of the SEC's best highlighted by certain Ray Guy Award contender Kody Bliss. PK John Vaughn is fine from medium range, but has to prove he can connect on long kicks after struggling on longer boots last year. The punt returns need more pop after only averaging 7.5 yards per attempt last year with Tre Smith averaging 7.8. Finding a steady kickoff returner is important after losing the 24.2-yard average of Devin Aromashodu.
The key to the unit: Bigger punt returns, better punt coverage, and more range from PK John Vaughn.
Special Teams Rating: 7.5

Projected Starters
- PK John Vaughn, Sr. - 12-20 FGs, 50-50 PATs
Vaughn hit the game-winner against Georgia with six seconds to play and has hit 30 of 45 career field goals, but all most college football fans can remember is the painful five-miss game against LSU. He's a good kicker with a decent leg, but he showed little range last year missing all six of his shots from beyond 40 yards.
- P Kody Bliss, Sr. - 44 punts, 1,975 yards, 44.9 average, 7 FC, 14 inside the 20
Bliss will be in the hunt for many preseason All-America honors after leading the SEC in punting. He's not all that big, but he gets a ton of blast on his kicks while also showing good accuracy and consistency averaging 43.3 yards per boot in his three years putting 52 kicks inside the 20.

Related Stories
Auburn Preview 2006 - Depth Chart
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Auburn Preview 2006 - Further Analysis
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Auburn Preview 2006 - Offense
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