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.
Tackles: Will Herring,
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
Unsung star on the rise: Redshirt freshman LB Tray
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
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
- 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
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.
- DE Octavious Balcom, Soph. - 4 tackles, 2
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
- 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.
- 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
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
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
- 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
- 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
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
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.
- 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
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.
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
- 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.