2009 Auburn Preview - Defense
Auburn's Antonio Coleman & Mike Blanc
CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Auburn Tiger Defense
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What you need to know:
The defense did a good job last year considering there
wasn't any help from the offense. However, while the D allowed a
mere 318 yards and 18 points per game, it didn't help out the
struggling O with turnovers. That'll change in a big hurry with
Ted Roof running the defensive and with a head coach like Gene
Chizik. The defense will be even more aggressive with a no-name,
veteran linebacking corps that will be all over the place
against the run, and a defensive front that'll be ordered to get
into the backfield more now that the scheme will be a true 4-3.
The secondary will be the team's strength if it's fully healthy,
but it's not likely to be the case with top safety Mike McNeil
trying to come back from a broken leg, corner Aarion Savage
recovering from a knee injury, and leading tackler Zac Etheridge
Tackles: Zac Etheridge,
Antonio Coleman, 6
Interceptions: Josh Bynes, 3
Star of the defense:
Senior DE Antonio Coleman
Player who has to step up and become a star: Sophomore CB
Unsung star on the rise: Sophomore LB Adam Herring
Best pro prospect: Coleman
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Coleman, 2) LB Josh
Bynes, 3) CB Aairon Savage (if healthy)
Strength of the defense: Athleticism, Linebacker
Weakness of the defense: Pass rush, Secondary health
Senior end Antonio Coleman
suffered a frightening cervical sprain in a practice before last
year, forcing him to be carted off the field, and after
returning healthy he put a big hurt on the SEC finishing with
six sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss along with 46 tackles and 13
quarterback pressures. The 6-3, 257-pound All-SEC star is a
consistent pass rusher with a great first step and good
toughness against the run. A former linebacker, he has the
athleticism to blow past most tackles on the outside, and the
creativity to mix thing up a bit to get into the backfield.
6-4, 296-pound senior Jake Ricks was
supposed to take over for Pat Sims, who departed early for the
NFL, and be a key presence, but it didn't happen. Instead, he
was a little-used backup for yet another year making just seven
tackles with two tackles for loss. Originally considered an
offensive tackle prospect, he hasn't quite been able to put it
together. Now he'll take over for Sen'Derrick Marks at one
After starting six times, junior
Mike Blanc will be a full-time starter on the inside.
At 6-4 and 288 pounds, he's a bit tall for the nose, where he'll
play, but he's strong enough to handle himself against the run
and quick enough to be a regular in the backfield. He made 27
tackles with only 1.5 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss, and now
he'll be expected to shine with the full-time job all to
Junior Michael Goggans wasn't a
breakout star last year, even though he stepped in for Quentin
Groves and made 27 tackles with four tackles for loss, but he
should be a key playmaker on the defensive front this year after
a fantastic spring. The light appears to have gone on for the
6-3, 257-pound former tight end, and now he should be a steady
pass rusher who makes things happen all over the field. A
12-game starter last year, he has the experience to go along
with a world of talent.
Projected Top Reserves: Junior Zach
Clayton turned into a nice backup for the inside,
making 22 tackles with 4.5 sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss, and
now he'll be a part of the rotation on the nose along with
Blanc. He has a little bit of starting experience, getting the
call against UT Martin, and he should use that, along with his
quickness, to be one of the team's most important reserves.
6-4, 255-pound junior Antoine Carter will
play in a rotation behind Goggans after making 16 tackles with
2.5 sacks and 6.5 tackles for loss. He has bulked up over the
last few years to get to this weight, but he has maintained his
quickness and athleticism. While he's not going to get a
starting job unless there's an injury, he'll get a lot more work
this year. He's too good a pass rusher not to be on the field.
freshman Cameron Henderson was one of the
team's top recruits last season and spent the year hitting the
weights to be ready to be a part of the equation. He'll be the
understudy behind Coleman, and while he still has room on his
6-5 frame to add more weight, the 230-pounder is a tremendous
athlete who should grow into a specialist who could provide a
spark from time to time.
Watch Out For ... Goggans ... again. Last year he
was supposed to be the star to watch out for, and he struggled
to find a niche. Now he's a veteran leader who needs to produce
and be a key pass rusher on the other side of Coleman.
Strength: Pass rushers. This was supposed to be an issue last
year, and it was after losing some key parts, but there's the
athleticism, the experience, and the coaches to force more
production into the backfield. This might not be the SEC's best
pass rushing line, but there will be plenty of tackles for loss
and lots of hurries.
Weakness: Filling in the gaps. Coleman will be Coleman no matter
what the rest of the line does, but if Goggans doesn't come
through, and if there isn't a big push from the interior on a
steady basis, it's going to take a lot of creativity from Chizik
and Roof to manufacture some production.
Outlook: While this won't be a dominant front four
and there's a lot of work to be done, this is an athletic group
of potential playmakers who should be great at times. It's not
going to be consistent, and there are a lot of question marks,
like the play of Goggans, the reserves, and the needed emergence
of a steady force on the inside, but there will be times when
this group blows up a mediocre offensive front.
Projected Starters: Back at his starting spot on the
weakside is Craig Stevens, a 6-3, 227-pound
junior who had a nice season, finishing fourth on the team with
54 tackles, but he wasn't much of a disruptive force. He was
nice, but not special. That should change. He was supposed to be
turned loose last year as a pass rusher, but instead he spent
his time working against the run. Now, under the new coaching
staff, he should be more disruptive and he should be able to do
more to come up with big hits and force turnovers.
to get a full-time job on the inside if Josh Bynes,
a key force last season after taking over for Tray Blackmon. He
made 53 tackles with three interceptions, and now the 6-3,
233-pound junior should do even more. Able to play outside or
in, he'll go where needed and he'll be solid. One of the biggest
linebackers on the team and a sure tackler, he's a potential
all-star who'll come up with a big statistical season. He can
handle having everything funneled to him.
5-11, 222-pound sophomore Eltoro Freeman is
ready to roll after coming over from Mississippi Gulf Coast CC
last year. A big-time athlete, he makes up for his average size
with great quickness and a nose for the ball. After working as a
redshirt, he's ready to shine on the outside where it'll be a
stunner if he's not one of the team's leading tacklers. He's an
elite outside linebacker prospect who can play inside if needed.
Projected Top Reserves: No matter what Josh Bynes
does, Adam Herring will be a bigger factor this
year. The 6-1, 211-pound sophomore might not be big, but he had
a great spring and will be expected to shine as a run stopper
and an occasional pass rusher. A special teamer last year, he
made two tackles. Now he should be one of the team's surest
Battling with Freeman for time will
be 6-0, 216-pound sophomore Spencer Pybus after
making 14 tackles with a tackle for loss. While he's undersized,
he's a promising playmaker who can be used at either outside
spot and should be good against the pass.
A top safety prospect coming out of high school last year, 6-2,
222-pound redshirt freshman Da'Shaun Barnes
spent last year converting to linebacker, hit the weights, and
now will play behind Stevens. Athletic enough to get to the
Alabama state high school championships as a high jumper, he's
an interesting prospect who could become a key part of the
rotation on the outside.
Watch Out For ... Herring. While he wasn't able to
come up with a starting spot out of spring ball, he showed
enough talent and enough of a playmaking streak in practices to
get a long look in a variety of ways.
Strength: Tacklers. There might not be any sure-thing all-stars,
at least not yet, but there's a lot of experience, plenty of
good reserves, and great tacklers. While there might not have
been too many big plays last year, there weren't a lot of big
plays allowed against the run.
Weakness: Takeaways. This should change under Roof. The
linebackers didn't do nearly enough to force turnovers with the
corps coming up with a mere two forced fumbles. Considering how
well everyone can hit, there should be a lot more game-changing
Outlook: Unlike past Auburn linebacking corps,
this isn't just a beefed up group of safeties. While going small
and quick has worked well, this is a good-sized group that can
still move. The starting threesome is strong and should be
steady throughout the year; the whole is better than the sum of
the parts. The new aggressive style should bring a lot more big
plays, and this group can handle the workload.
Projected Starters: With Jerraud Powers leaving early for
the NFL, senior Aairon Savage should eventually
take over the starting corner job on the left side. The 5-11,
173-pound senior suffered a bad knee injury just before the
season started. The knee is expected to be 100% by the start of
the season, and if he's back to his previous form, he'll be one
of the team's top defensive stars after making 53 tackles in his
first year. He didn't quite play as well when moved over to
safety with knee and ankle problems, and now, with his corner
speed along with his experience, he should be excellent.
Working on the other side of Savage will be Walt
McFadden after starting every game last year and making
29 tackles with two interceptions and eight broken up passes. A
nice veteran and a leader to work around, he already has his
degree and he can handle the weight of being on an island
whenever he needs to be. At 6-0 and 176 pounds, he's a tall
defender with excellent speed to go along with his size. He's
one of the team's faster corners.
The big question mark
going into the season will be the health of Mike McNeil,
the team's second-leading tackler last season and a key last
line of defense against the run. He broke his leg in spring ball
and is questionable at generous best for the start of the
season. While he didn't do nearly enough against the pass, with
just two broken up passes and no interceptions, he made 65
tackles and led the way with 42 solo stops.
missing time this spring was Zac Etheridge, a
nice, reliable strong safety who followed up a 65-tackle
freshman season by making a team-leading 75 stops as a
sophomore. Now he needs to do something when the ball is in the
air. He made one interception, coming against Southern Miss, and
came up with just three broken up passes. Fast enough to play
corner, he has the range and he has the ability to do anything
needed to stop the run. Now he needs to get healthy and he needs
to do even more to come up with takeaways.
Projected Top Reserves: While Savage is trying to
get over his knee injury, he's no sure-thing to instantly take
back his starting spot with sophomore Neiko Thorpe
good enough to be a No. 1 cover-corner. At 6-2 and 182
pounds, he's a big defender who came up with a great first
season as a reserve and a fifth defensive back making 29 tackles
with two interceptions. No matter who's healthy and who's not,
he'll find time somewhere.
With McNeil and Etheridge both
hurting, sophomore Mike Slade, who's banged up
as well, will be asked to see time as a key backup and first man
off the bench. He only made eight tackles in his first season,
but he's a rising star for either safety spot with a tremendous
combination of speed and 6-3, 191-pound size.
Watch Out For ... a lot more interceptions. There
will be more big plays allowed, but more interceptions made. The
defensive coaches will want more big hits from the safeties and
more chances taken by the corners. Essentially, this will be a
more aggressive secondary.
Strength: Experience. If everyone is back, and that's a huge if,
the Tigers should be loaded in the defensive backfield three
starters returning and Thorpe and Savage combining at the open
corner spot. However, there's the issue of ...
Weakness: ... health. Savage has to get back from his major knee
injury, Etheridge needs to return to 100%, and McNeil's broken
leg was a major blow, requiring the emergency teams to get him
off the practice field. It's not a stretch to think the Tigers
will be piecing together what they can in the defensive
backfield for the opener against Louisiana Tech.
Outlook: For two straight seasons, Auburn didn't
have much in the way of a steady pass rush but got good years
out of the secondary. While the defensive backfield was hardly a
rock, allowing five 200+ yard passing days and 19 touchdowns, it
was decent. The safeties have to do more against the pass and
the corners have to pick off more passes, but first, everyone
has to get healthy. This should be a far better unit by
midseason than it's going to be at the start of the year. The
rating assumes everyone is back.
Projected Starters: Junior Wes Byrum followed up a
great freshman season, when he nailed 17-of-23 field goal attempts, by
connecting on 11-of-19 tries. While he doesn't have a consistent deep
leg, he hit a 52-yarder against Southern Miss. It's hit-or-miss on
anything beyond 35 yards, but he's a good veteran who will keep getting
The punting situation was an interesting soap
opera with senior Clinton Durst briefly leaving the
team, and then returning to get a scholarship. He was fantastic last
year averaging 42.1 yards per kick while forcing 22 fair catches and
putting 18 kicks inside the 20. Junior Ryan Shoemaker
is more than just a good backup, earning All-SEC honors two years ago
averaging 42.4 yards per kick.
Mario Fannin will
take over as the team's main kick and punt returner. He averaged 22.5
yards per kickoff return, and now he'll step in for Tristan Davis, who
averaged 27.4 yards per try. Robert Dunn averaged 16 yards per punt
Watch Out For ... Fannin to explode. He's a
gamebreaker who should keep the production going for a return game that
finished 11th in the nation in kickoff returns and 12th in punt returns.
If he struggles at all, there are several excellent options waiting to
Strength: The punting game. It doesn't matter if it's Durst or
Shoemaker, there will be production. Auburn netted 37.6 yards per punt
last year with Durst having a fantastic season. Now he should an
all-star with the punting game likely to be even more of a strength.
Weakness: Byrum's deep leg. While he has a couple of
game-winning kicks on the résumé, he missed a key 33-yarder in the 25-22
loss to Arkansas. He's good, but can he be counted on for a key
44-yarder? Considering the offense isn't likely to be explosive quite
yet, Byrum should be the difference in several games.
Outlook: The special teams were among the best in
the nation last year, with the exception of Byrum's lack of consistency.
Special teams coach Jay Boulware was brought over from Iowa State where
he got great production out of the return teams. The production of last
year should continue.