2008 Auburn Preview - Defense
Auburn DT Sen'Derrick Marks
Auburn DT Sen'Derrick Marks
Posted Apr 11, 2008

CollegeFootballNews.com 2008 Preview - Auburn Tiger Defense

Auburn Tigers

Preview 2008
- Defense

- 2008 CFN Auburn Preview | 2008 Auburn Offense Preview
2008 Auburn Defense Preview | 2008 Auburn Depth Chart
- 2007 CFN Auburn Preview | 2006 CFN Auburn Preview 

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.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Zac Etheridge, 67
Sacks: 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 Jake Ricks
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 backfield

Defensive Line

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 the inside.

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 playing time.

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.
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.
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.
Rating: 8


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.
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.
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 excellent.
Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

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 from Powers.

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 the secondary.

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.  
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.
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 emergency.
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.

Special Teams

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.

Sophomore Ryan 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.
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.
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 excellent.
Rating: 8