2007 Auburn Preview - Defense
Auburn Tigers Defense
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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.
Tackles: Aairon Savage,
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
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
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. The 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
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
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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.
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.
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.
Strength: 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 ...
Weakness: 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)
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
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
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.
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.
Strength: 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.
Weakness: 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.