2008 Auburn Preview - Defense
Auburn DT Sen'Derrick Marks
CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Auburn Tiger Defense
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What you need to know: Auburn
always comes up with productive defenses no matter what the
talent level is like, but this year, unlike last season when the
coaching staff had to play around with several different
combinations, new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, who's
taking over for new Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp, has a loaded
group with seven returning starters. The right players appear to
be in the right spots with future NFL millionaire Sen'Derrick
Marks in his more natural tackle spot after spending last year
on the end, LB Tray Blackmon finally ready to be counted on in
the middle after a slew of off-the-field issues marring the
first part of his career, and the secondary ready to be among
the best in the nation again. The linebacking corps is steady,
but needs to prove it can be spectacular. The defensive
backfield might not have a bunch of household names, but that
should change with Jerraud Powers on the verge of being
recognized as one of the SEC's best all-around corners and the
safety tandem of Mike McNeil and Zac Etheridge ready to blow up.
The one concern is depth on the line and the secondary; it needs
time to develop.
Tackles: Zac Etheridge,
Antonio Coleman, 8.5
Interceptions: Jerraud Powers, 4
Star of the defense: Junior DT Sen'Derrick Marks
Player who has to step up and become a star: Junior DT
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore FS Mike McNeil
Best pro prospect: Marks
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Marks, 2) DE Antonio
Coleman, 3) LB Tray Blackmon
Strength of the defense: Secondary, overall production
Weakness of the defense: Pass rush, making plays in the
Projected Starters: How
healthy will junior Antonio Coleman be? In one of the scariest
moments in spring ball, Coleman suffered a cervical sprain and had to be
carted off the field, but he's expected to be just fine for the start of
the season and if everything is okay, he'll be the team's best pass
rusher for the second year in a row after making 48 tackles, 8.5 sacks
and 18.5 tackles for loss. The 6-2, 250-pounder isn't as good as Quentin
Groves was, but the former linebacker isn't far off.
The star of the line is end/tackle Sen'Derrick Marks, likely to
be used on the inside at the next level where he's projected to be a top
ten pick whenever he comes out. While he's not all that bulky at 6-1 and
288 pounds, he's tremendously athletic and a fantastic interior pass
rusher making two sacks and nine tackles for loss to go along with 43
tackles. Able to play inside or out, he's versatile, nasty against the
run, and he's still improving. His best days are well in front of him.
It'll be up to 6-4, 289-pound junior Jake Ricks to take over for
Pat Sims, who departed early for the NFL, at the tackle slot next to
Marks. A little used backup last season with eight tackles and two
tackles for loss, his emergence could be the key to the team's defense.
If he's a rock, it'll allow Marks to move where needed inside and out.
Stepping in to Quentin Groves' old spot is sophomore Michael Goggans,
a good-looking prospect who had a hard time getting in the rotation and
made just nine tackles and a sack with two tackles for loss. At 6-3 and
254 pounds, the former tight end has decent size to go along with his
quickness. He has the look of yet another great Auburn pass rusher, and
the more he's able to produce, the more Marks can play on
Projected Top Reserves: Sophomore Antoine
Carter will find time at one of the end spots as a key backup. After
showing tremendous promise making 16 tackles, 1.5 sacks and four tackles
for loss as a true freshman, and after bilking up almost 30 pounds to
get to a stronger 6-4, 253, he should be able to handle himself better
again the run to go along with his ability to get into the backfield. He
has all the makings of a star and he should end up pushing for a
starting spot if he doesn't spend the season as the main reserve behind Coleman.
With depth an issue, 6-4, 287-pound sophomore Mike Blanc needs to
grow into a top tackle. A good talent with excellent athleticism, he has
the make up to be a force on the inside behind Marks. He
needs to become a number three man in the rotation and he needs more
6-3, 286-pound sophomore Zach Clayton got his feet wet last year
with eight tackles in a limited backup role. He has the strength to grow
into an anchor against the run, and he's quick enough off the ball to
get into the backfield on a regular basis once he figures out what he's
doing. He'll start out behind Ricks.
Watch Out For ... Goggins. With all the
attention paid to Marks and Coleman, Goggins should
be able to roam free on the outside. He has the tools and potential to
be the team's breakout defensive star.
Strength: Marks. He's a terrific all-around player in a salary
drive. 288-pound playmakers who can star inside and out are rare, and
he's a special talent to build around. There's plenty of good young
talent that just needs a little bit of time to emerge, and Marks will be
a good star to keep it all together.
Weakness: Pass rush. This has been an issue for a few years.
That might seem strange considering all the quickness and athleticism up
front, but the Tigers struggled to get into the backfield on a regular
basis last season and didn't get enough help for Coleman. This
year's group should do more, especially with Marks at tackle, but it
would be nice if there were more hits on the passer.
Outlook: The front four will be good in time, but
it'll need a little bit of work and a few games to become a killer.
Having a star like Marks who can do anything inside and out
is a great start, and Coleman is a special pass rusher who also
has NFL skills. The backup ends have more immediate promise than the
tackles, but all-around depth will be a bit of an issue early on.
There's a lot of potential, but few who've done it.
Projected Starters: Is this the year Tray Blackmon
lives up to his promise? The ultra-talented 6-0, 220-pound junior has
more talent than anyone in the Auburn linebacking corps with All-SEC
potential, but his career hasn't taken off like it should with
suspensions, an ankle injury, and personal issues keeping him from
shining. He had a decent year making 45 tackles in nine game, but
outside of a great performance against Arkansas, he didn't do much. When
he's right, he's a sideline-to-sideline playmaker who can be the leader
in the middle.
Sophomore Craig Stevens will once again hold down one of the
starting outside jobs after making 35 tackles as a redshirt freshman. At
6-2 and 218 pounds he's a speedy weakside defender who needs to be
turned loose in the backfield. Serviceable last season, he didn't do
enough to force big plays but was decent against the run.
It'll be an ongoing battle for the second outside linebacker spot with
senior Chris Evans likely to get the start and be part
of a rotation. The 6-0, 221-pound senior is a decent-sized option, for
Auburn, making 64 tackles and an interception. He was the talk of spring
ball last season and came through as a steady run defender, but he
didn't do anything to get into the backfield and he wasn't a disruptive
force. He needs to be a bigger hitter and he has to make more big plays.
Projected Top Reserves: If Chris Evans is the
starter at one of the outside spots, then 6-0, 204-pound senior
Merrill Johnson is No. 1A on the depth chart. A talented veteran who
made 19 tackles in a spot-starter role, he missed time with a bad
shoulder and never found a groove he could get into. He's a reliable
hitter who can't play a full-time role, he's too small, he's quick. He
needs be around the ball more than he is.
6-2, 234-pound sophomore Josh Bynes isn't going to get much
playing time with Tray Blackmon in the middle, but he had a tremendous
spring and showed he'll be a force for the future. One of the biggest
linebackers in the mix, he could be used for his size from time to time
if Blackmon ever moves to the outside for a play or three. He'll
eventually grow into one of the team's top tacklers, but it might not be
until next year.
6-2, 244-pound sophomore Bo Harris is a big, tough option on the
outside behind Craig Stevens. He made 18 tackles as a true freshman
reserve showing flashes of his immense potential. Very fast, very
athletic, and very promising for his size, now he has to get on the
field after missing spring ball recovering from shoulder surgery.
Watch Out For ... the backups. Outside of Blackmon in the middle there isn't a sure-thing starter in the bunch,
and that's not necessarily a knock. The Tigers have five good options to rotate
around, and that's a must considering it's a smallish corps that needs
to keep everyone fresh.
Strength: Quickness. By design, Auburn's linebackers are
generally smaller than most as the coaching staff looks for speed and
athleticism over raw bulk. This year there's more size than normal, with
players like Bo Harris, Courtney Harden, and Josh Bynes all bigger
bodies who can hold up against the run, and everyone can move.
Weakness: Big plays. The linebackers held up well against the
run and it did a good job in pass coverage, but it didn't take the ball
away enough and it didn't come up with enough difference makers. With
the returning experience everyone needs to be more disruptive.
Outlook: It's a great situation with several
experienced players who can all start. There are up-and-coming stars,
like Bynes and Harris who'll be the future of the corps, while
Evans, Johnson and Blackmon can play. This is a good
group, but it's not an elite one. Even so, the linebackers should be
Projected Starters: 5-9, 188-pound junior Jerraud
Powers built on a strong freshman season with a tremendous sophomore
campaign finishing fourth on the team with 63 tackles to go along with a
team-leading four interceptions and four tackles for loss. He did a
little of everything as a lockdown corner who started every game. Now
he's on the verge of being an all-star with the reputation starting to
build. The spotlight will be on, and he needs to once again play like a
No. 1 who can stop the top receivers.
It'll be a battle for the starting spot on the other side of Powers with
5-11, 190-pound junior Aairon Savage likely to get the opening
day start. He started off 2007 as one of the team's hottest young
defensive stars after making 53 stops as a freshman, but he never lived
up to his hype making just 26 tackles at free safety thanks to knee and
ankle injuries. A bit out of position before, he has cornerback speed
and will get a shot to become a playmaker with teams likely to stay away
The emergence of sophomore Mike McNeil at free safety allowed
Savage to move to corner. At 6-2 and 201 pounds, last year's top recruit
is too good to keep off the field making 35 tackles as a true freshman
and displaying a big hitting ability. Mostly a special teamer last
season, and a great one, he'll grow into an All-SEC star as a regular in
Sophomore Zac Ethridge turned in a nice, surprising season
spending most of his time at strong safety finishing second on the team
with 65 tackles along with five broken up passes. Fast enough to play
corner, he was expected to be a key reserve at free safety at the
beginning of last year before turning into a whale of a strong safety.
He's a 5-11, 206-pound hitter who doesn't miss many stops.
Projected Top Reserves: If Aarion Savage gets the
starting right cornerback job, junior Walter McFadden will be in
the rotation in a hurry. Nearly neck and neck for the gig, the 6-0, 180
pounder is the slightly taller option with excellent speed to go along
with his size. The fastest corner in the mix, he just needs more playing
time after making ten tackles with an interception. He took that one
pick 93 yards against Tennessee Tech.
6-2, 189-pound redshirt freshman Ryan Slade is a rising star for
either safety spot. He'll start out behind Zac Etheridge at strong
safety but could end up being the first man off the bench at free
safety, too. With his combination of size and skills, and after a good
off-season, he has the potential to be an instant factor.
Sophomore Ryan Williams saw a little bit of action last season
making four tackles, but he's still learning on the fly. At 5-11 and 204
pounds he has good size and great upside at corner behind
Powers, but he'll need playing time.
Watch Out For ... McNeil. There's a reason he
was such a big-time recruit two years ago. With the size, speed and
skills the NFL types love, he's going to grow into a major playmaker for
the Tigers over the next few years.
Strength: The starting foursome. No matter who's playing at the
corner spot opposite from Powers, the Tigers will have one the
nation's most productive secondaries. The right combination is in place.
Weakness: Safety reserves. There's no question Slade is an
up-and-coming playmaker, but Jonathan Vickers isn't a strong backup at
free safety and the team might be relying on the recruiting class for
help. There's a chance Aarion Savage moves back to safety in an
Outlook: In one of the biggest shockers of the SEC
season, the Tiger secondary that looked like it had the potential to
struggled turned into the nation's sixth best pass defense even without
the help of a steady pass rush. Now the defensive backfield should shine
with a strong starting foursome, with either Savage or McFadden serving as a great second
corner option. More interceptions
would be nice with the Tigers taking away 14 last year, but that's
nitpicking. This should be one of the team's biggest strengths.
Projected Starters: Sophomore Wes Byrum turned into
a real find as a true freshman easing the team's worries with a great
season hitting 17 of 23 field goals going 14 of his 15 attempts inside
the 40. While he doesn't have a monster leg, it's decent enough to ask
for a 45-yarder. He didn't get any attempts from beyond 50 after going
just three of ten from beyond 40 and failing to hit one longer than 38
over the final eight games of the year.
Shoemaker had the unenviable task of replacing Kody Bliss, and while
he didn't equal Bliss's 45.7 yards per kick, he averaged an excellent
42.4 yards per try while putting 16 inside the 20 and forcing 13 fair
catches. The second team All-SEC performer has a consistently steady leg
and will be an all-star for the next three seasons.
Robert Dunn was fine on punt returns averaging 9.4 yards per try,
but the kickoff return team struggled way too much averaging 19.2 yards
per attempt. RB Tristan Davis, now healthy, will return to his
old job and should provide more pop.
Watch Out For ... Davis to make a
night-and-day difference in the kick return game. The Tigers finished
11th in the SEC and 101st in the nation in kickoff returns, but that was
partly because Davis was hurt. In 2006 he averaged 27 yards per try and
should be explosive again.
Strength: Short accuracy. Byrum will hit just about
everything inside 40 yards, while Shoemaker is one of the nation's
best young directional punters. He's fantastic at pinning teams deep.
Weakness: Byrum's deep leg. Can the team count on him if it
needs a game-winner from 44 yards away? It wouldn't be a bad idea to
give him a couple of 50-yard attempts early on to see if he can air it
out a bit.
Outlook: The kicking game should be excellent for
the next three years with Byrum and Shoemaker entrenched
in their jobs. It would be nice if Byrum could hit more from deep, but
he'll be automatic again inside the 40. If Davis can return
to his 2006 form, the Tigers will have a huge advantage in the return
game. The kickoff coverage could stand to be better, but mainly because
of Shoemaker's accuracy and consistency, the punt coverage team was