2009 Auburn Preview - Defense
Auburn's Antonio Coleman & Mike Blanc
Auburn's Antonio Coleman & Mike Blanc
Posted May 25, 2009

CollegeFootballNews.com 2009 Preview - Auburn Tiger Defense

Auburn Tigers

Preview 2009
- Defense

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2009 Auburn Defense Preview | 2009 Auburn Depth Chart
- 2008 Auburn Preview | 2007 Auburn Preview | 2006 Auburn Preview 

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 also hurting.

Returning Leaders
Tackles: Zac Etheridge, 75
Sacks: 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 Neiko Thorpe
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

Defensive Line

Projected Starters: 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 tackle spot.

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 himself.

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.

Redshirt 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.
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.
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.
Rating: 7


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.

Ready 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 open-field tacklers.

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.
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.
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 moments.
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.
Rating: 8

Defensive Backs

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. 

Also 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.  
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 ...
... 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.

Special Teams

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 his opportinuties.

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 return.

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 step in.
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.
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.
Rating: 8