2007 Auburn Preview - Defense

Posted Jul 30, 2007

Preview 2007 Auburn Tigers Defense

Auburn Tigers

Preview 2007
- Defense

- 2007 Auburn Preview | 2007 Auburn Offense Preview
2007 Auburn Depth Chart | 2006 CFN Auburn Preview 

What you need to know: The whole will likely be better than the parts. Auburn's defensive front has the potential to be excellent thanks to the return of star end Quentin Groves for his senior year and with the emergence of Sen'Derrick Marks on the inside. Getting into the backfield won't be an issue, and coming up with sacks had better not be with a secondary that'll be shaky despite getting three starters back. The loss of corner David Irons will hurt. The linebacking corps isn't experienced, but it should be better than last year's group as the season goes on. 

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Aairon Savage, 53,
Sacks: Quentin Groves, 9.5
Interceptions: Eric Brock. 2

Star of the defense: Senior DE Quentin Groves
Player that has to step up and become a star: Senior CB Jonathan Wilhite
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore DT Sen'Derrick Marks
Best pro prospect: Groves
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Groves, 2) LB Tray Blackmon*, 3) Marks
Strength of the defense: Pass rushing, defensive line
Weakness of the defense: Secondary

*Assuming Blackmon is back on the team by fall

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: The Auburn line was going to be good, and then it got a big boost with the slightly unexpected return of pass rushing terror Quentin Groves for another year. The 6-4, 254-pound senior rebounded nicely from a good, but not great sophomore campaign cranking out 9.5 sacks and 12 tackles for loss along with 37 tackles, all career highs. He finally became more consistent and he started to shine against the top teams, something he didn't do in his first two seasons, with three sacks against Florida, two against Alabama, and six tackles against South Carolina. Now he has to start producing in the post-season with only one tackle in three bowl appearances (coming against Virginia Tech in the 2005 Sugar Bowl).

Certain to benefit on the other side will be sophomore Sen'Derrick Marks, a Freshman All-SEC performer who turned into a whale of an interior pass rusher making 10.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and 38 tackles. He's an athletic 287 pounds who isn't the most consistent rock against the run, but he makes more than his share of plays. Still considered a bit raw going into last season, now he's on the verge of All-SEC stardom inside or out with a little more experience.

Returning to his spot on the nose is senior Josh Thompson, who overcame an injury plagued sophomore season to make 44 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss. Perfectly suited for the nose, he's 6-0, 295 pounds and quick with tremendous strength. T
he three-time Georgia state high school weightlifting champion doesn't get pushed around. 

The real beef will come from 6-4, 304-pound junior Pat Sims, a run-clogger who can play on the nose or at tackle. While he's not nearly as quick or as strong as Thompson, he can get into the backfield with three sacks and five tackles for loss along with 16 tackles in a backup role

Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Antonio Coleman, a 6-2, 250-pound bulked up linebacker, made an impact in his first season with 18 tackles and six quarterback hurries. He started coming on at the end of the year as he got more involved in the rotation, and now he has to start putting up big numbers either on the other side of Groves, or behind him.

6-3, 258-pound redshirt freshman Michael Goggins needs some work, but he showed enough in spring ball to get him a spot behind Marks at end. The former tight end is quick off the ball with a world of potential.

The projected star of the future is redshirt freshman Bryant Miller, a 6-3, 258-pound linebacker with enough strength to shine right away on the defensive line. He'll play behind Groves this season and should see plenty of time in the rotation on the other side with his speed and skills too good to keep off the field.

6-3, 274-pound redshirt freshman Mike Blanc will back up Sims at tackle. A good talent, he's going to have to grow into the position and fight through the mistakes. Not huge, he'll have to use his athleticism to make plays.

Watch Out For ... Marks to grow into the best player on the line no matter where he plays. All the focus and all the accolades will be on Groves, but the sophomore tackle is the bigger talent with greater overall upside. That doesn't mean Groves is bad by any means; Marks can be special.
Overall quickness. By design, the line is fast and athletic, but this year's group doesn't sacrifice on the size. Getting into the backfield won't be a problem.
Experienced reserves. There's no questioning the talent among the backups; there's just no experience. Three redshirt freshmen will have to play prominent roles in the rotation.
Outlook: Considering all the quickness, and a talent like Groves, the front four didn't get to the quarterback as much as it should've. That should change this year with the expected emergence of Coleman and Marks into top-tier players and with Groves almost certain to crank out ten sacks. With Thompson leading the way, this will be a good group against the run, too.
Rating: 8


Projected Starters: Junior Merrill Johnson is the only returning starter, and now he has to start producing a bit more. While he was fine at times finishing with 33 tackles and three tackles for loss, he disappeared over the second half of the season failing to make a tackle in the final two games against Alabama and Wisconsin. He'll move from the outside to the middle taking over Karibi Dede's old spot, but at only 213 pounds, he'll have to prove he can hold up against the power teams and not just be a speed defender.

Sophomore Patrick Trahan will take over for Will Herring, who led the team with 72 tackles. While Herring's heart and toughness will be missed, the 220-pound Trahan might turn out to be an upgrade. Speedy enough to be a safety and tough enough to be a small defensive end, he's a good tweener who'll make a lot of tackles if this spring was any indication.

On the other side, for the foreseeable future, will be junior Steve Gandy, a 6-3, 201-pound safety playing weakside linebacker. A backup and special teamer last season, Gandy made 12 tackles despite being hurt for the first part of the year.

Projected Top Reserves: Gandy was banged up in spring ball and might just be keeping the seat warm for Tray Blackmon. The most talented linebacker in the mix, Blackmon has had problems staying on the team getting suspended over the second half of last season and not even being enrolled in school this spring. One of the nation's top linebacker recruits, the weakside starting job is his if and when he returns to the team after dealing with personal issues. 

Until Blackmon is back, 6-3, 210-pound redshirt freshman Craig Stevens will play a key role. The main man this spring when Gandy was hurt, he played well in the spring game on the weakside and showed he deserves more time after making just five tackles as a reserve last year.

The most productive linebacker in spring ball was 220-pound sophomore Chris Evans, who was a tackling machine despite playing with an injured wrist. He only made two tackles last season in a limited role, but he'll work his way into the rotation behind Johnson in the middle, if he doesn't take over the starting job outright.

Junior Courtney Harden will back up Trahan on the strongside after spending the last two seasons as a little used reserve with 11 career tackles.

Watch Out For ... the corps to be better than expected. There aren't any flashy big-time playmakers, outside of Blackmon, whenever he returns, but there's plenty of speed and athleticism, as always, and decent backups ready to make their mark.
Options. With or without Blackmon, there are several above-average players that aren't necessarily interchangeable, but are all good enough to form a good rotation. The coaching staff will have plenty of options to play with. The backups are almost as good as the starters, however ...
The backups are almost as good as the starters. Again, taking Blackmon out of the equation, this is a good corps, but not an elite one. As always with Auburn, size is going to be a factor against the power running teams.
Outlook: It's a typical Auburn linebacking corps with trumped up safeties manning the spots with an emphasis on speed, athleticism, and more speed. The rotation will be good and the production will more than be there once the season gets underway. If Blackmon is back, the linebackers go from a plus to a major strength.
Rating: 8 (assuming Blackmon returns by the start of the year)

Defensive Backs

Projected Starters: With David Irons gone, it's up to junior Jonathan Wilhite to be the new number one man. While hardly an elite talent, the former JUCO transfer is experienced and reliable making 71 tackles over the last two seasons with 13 broken up passes. However, he only has one interception despite being picked on by teams trying to stay away from Irons. Even at only 5-11 and 182 pounds, he's a tough tackler.

On the other side, replacing Irons, will be senior Patrick Lee, who was a spot starter last year finishing with 25 tackles and six broken up passes. While he's a veteran with a nine career starts, and has good size and tremendous athleticism, he's not Irons. The coaching staff likes him and he should be a reliable, if not elite, starter.

The real question mark could turn out to be senior strong safety Eric Brock, who despite starting 18 career games and making 91 career tackles, is not a lock by any means to start. While he's a big hitter in the team's most experienced defensive back, he's not a special type of player you can revolve an entire secondary around.

Free safety is fine, but not anything to do jumping jacks over with sophomore Aairon Savage returning after a good freshman season when he finished third on the team in tackles with 53, along with four tackles for loss and two sacks. He has the speed to play cornerback, and range isn't an issue, but he has to go from good to fantastic to make the secondary a strength.  

Projected Top Reserves: Despite Brock's experience, he'll have to play better than he did this spring to hang on to his job. it wouldn't be a shock if 6-2, 204-pound junior Jonathan Vickers took over at strong safety, or if 6-0, 191-pound redshirt freshman Zac Etheridge, who spent spring ball backing up Savage at free safety, getting the nod. Vickers is big, but inexperienced, while Etheridge is just an experienced. He has the speed to play corner and the range to be a free safety, but it remains to be seen if he's the type of hitter who can be consistent at strong safety.

Almost certain to be in the mix away will be hotshot freshman recruit Michael McNeil, the star of the 2007 class. When he arrives on campus, he'll get a long, long look at one of the starting safety jobs.

At corner, senior Zach Gilbert has the experience to step in after playing in 34 career games, but he's not a starter. Even so, he has two career interceptions and is savvy enough to see time in key stretches.

Sophomore Walter McFadden is a good young prospect at either corner spot, and will start out behind Lee on the left side. He has the talent to become a key backup and a big part of the rotation with nice size and good speed.

Watch Out For ... the secondary to be the Achilles heel of the defense. The pass defense was excellent last year, and even though three starters return, the one who's missing, Irons, will be sorely missed. 
Experience. Brock, Savage, Wilhite and Lee all have been through the SEC battles and aren't starting from scratch. They know what they're doing, and they need to hope they can form a cohesive unit that doesn't make mistakes.
Talent level. Is Wilhite an SEC caliber number one corner? Can Brock be the steady leader who sets the tone for the secondary? There's not an Irons-type of star in the bunch, at least until McNeil hits campus.
Outlook: Auburn's receiving corps is mediocre, yet it burned this bunch in spring ball. Uh oh. In time, the production will be there and the overall stats aren't going to be as bad as many fear they'll be, but this isn't going to be a lock-down unit unless several young players play well right away.
Rating: 7.5

Special Teams

Projected Starters: Sophomore Zach Kutch is the likely starting placekicker ... for now. He didn't do much this spring to inspire confidence that John Vaughn won't be missed, and his main competition, redshirt freshman Ross Gornall, was a little bit better. By the time September rolls around, true freshman Wes Byram might handle the job. A 6-3, 195-pound bomber, Byrum has the leg to at least get a few shots from long range.

Redshirt freshman Ryan Shoemaker will try to take over for Kody Bliss, who averaged 45.7 yards per kick. Shoemaker doesn't have the biggest leg around, but he was great in spring ball and is versatile enough to be used as a placekicker if things get desperate.

Tristan Davis
averaged a whopping 27 yards per kickoff return and will combine with Patrick Lee to handle the duties again. It'll be up to either Mario Fannin or Robert Dunn to return punts after an awful year. Dunn averaged a mere 5.5 yards per try.

Watch Out For ... the kicking game to cost the Tigers at least one game. Auburn goes from having one of the best kicking situations in the SEC to one of the worst overnight. 
Kickoff returns. Davis is explosive while Lee will be a great option in time. Dunn should be a bit better on punt returns; he can't be much worse.
To beat this into the ground ... placekicking. Shoemaker will be a fine punter as long as he's consistent; Auburn has the athletes to help him out in coverage. There's no one on the roster who'll hit 20 of 24 field goals like Vaughn did.
Outlook: Forgetting that the Tigers won't get six of nine on field goal attempts from 40 yards or more, all they need is someone to hit everything from 40 yards and in. If they find someone who can handle the pressure and do that, the special teams won't be all that bad. The coverage units are decent, the return game is fine, and the punting will eventually be good.
Rating: 5.5


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2007 Auburn Preview - Offense
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 29, 2007
2007 Auburn Preview - Depth Chart
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 29, 2007
2007 Auburn Preview
 -by CollegeFootballNews.com  Jul 29, 2007

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