Spring Football Preview: New Look On Defense

An in-depth look at the Auburn defense is featured as the Tigers prepare to open spring drills on Wednesday.

Auburn, Ala.--As the Auburn Tigers prepare to open spring football practice on Wednesday morning the 2010 national champions have major rebuilding to do defensively.

That project begins up front where the Tigers must replace three of their starters on the front four.

Coach Ted Roof, who doubles as linebacker coach and defensive coordinator, must replace two of his three starters at the three linebacker spots.

In the secondary Neiko Thorpe is the only returning starter and the cornerback is going to open the spring at safety in attempt to bolster the depth on the final line of defense.

Roof notes that after the Tigers wrapped up recruiting in early February the coaches turned their attention to preparations for spring training while the players participated in winter workouts.

"We have got a lot of work to do," Roof says. "It is an on-going process and it is full speed ahead. We want to make sure we have our players in the right places and we want to be able to put our best 11 players on the field."

The best player on the field for the defense last year, consensus All-American and Lombardi Trophy winner Nick Fairley, is expected to be selected early in the first round of the National Football League Draft on April 28th after the junior elected to skip his final year of college eligibility. If the Tigers were only replacing Fairley they would be in good shape at defensive tackle, but that is not the case.

The other starter at tackle, Zach Clayton, is also hoping to hear his name called in the NFL?Draft and the same is true of fellow 2010 senior Mike Blanc, who saw a significant amount of playing time as the first defensive tackle reserve into the game.

Roof says he was very impressed how that trio of tackles performed for the 14-0 Tigers calling them the "guts" of the 2010 defense.

In addition to replacing Fairley, Clayton and Blanc, the Tigers had to bring in a new assistant to coach the position when Tracy Rocker accepted a job with the NFL's Tennessee Titans.

Head coach Gene Chizik chose a familiar name to Auburn fans for the assignment. Mike Pelton, a 1990s star for the Tigers, was asked to return home from Louisiana-LaFayette and he says he is thrilled to be back at Auburn and with Chizik, who he coached for during Chizik's two seasons in charge at Iowa State in 2007 and 2008.

Rocker and Roof made it a point of emphasis to play 2010 true freshmen tackles Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter whenever possible. "I think once spring practice starts they will be a lot better not only because they played last year, but because they prepared to play, a process that takes a lot of time and effort," Roof says.

Jeffrey Whitaker played in all 14 games last season.

Roof says that little-used backups Jamar Travis and Derrick Lykes will get plenty of chances this spring to show what they can do. If they aren't ready to play the Tigers will look to the 2011 signee class for depth at tackle.

Ladarious Phillips, who had a good preseason at fullback last fall as a true freshman, was injured in the final August scrimmage and redshirted. He worked at both fullback and defensive tackle in bowl practices, but is expected to open spring practices at fullback.

Despite losing starting end Antoine Carter and part-time starter Michael Goggans, Auburn's cupboard is much closer to full at those spots.

Nosa Eguae finished his redshirt freshman season as a starter and a considerably improved player, Rocker noted after the Tigers finished their perfect season with a victory over Oregon in the BCS Championship Game. The former Auburn coach had the same thing to say about 2010 true freshman Corey Lemonier, who played well in the title game.

Nosa Eguae is shown at bowl practice in Scottsdale, Arizona.

Lemonier is expected to fill Carter's shoes as speed pass rusher, something that rising junior Dee Ford has the potential to be also.

Other possibilities at end include Craig Sanders, a standout on special teams last fall as a true freshman, along with a pair of players who were redshirted. Joel Bonomolo was signed out of junior college and expected to play immediately, but an injury issue sidelined him and he was held out along with 2010 signee Justin Delaine. Roof says that all three of those ends will have great opportunities this spring to prove to the coaches they are ready to see significant playing time this fall.

Multi-year starters Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens were seniors last year so there are plenty of opportunities for a mixed group of experienced and inexperienced linebackers to make pushes for starting jobs.

The two players back with significant starting experience are rising senior Eltoro Freeman, who has a dozen Auburn starts, and Daren Bates, a starter at safety as a true freshman in 2009 and a starter at outside linebacker last season. Freeman could end up playing at any of the three linebacker spots.

Roof says that Bates got better as the season progressed and became more comfortable with his new assignments. The coach predicts that Freeman will be "in the mix" for a starting job, but at what position is still to be determined because the coach plans to move the linebackers around looking for the best combination.

Jonathan Evans, a rising junior, has looked good in offseason workouts, Roof says, and should be able to make a push for a starting spot as either a weakside or strongside linebacker.

Ted Roof

Jake Holland, who became the second team middle linebacker as a true freshman, steadily improved throughout the season, notes Roof, who says that Holland made major strides in the lengthy preparations in December and January for the game vs. Oregon. If Freeman doesn't play in the middle, Holland's competition for a starting spot could be from Harris Gaston, who will be a redshirt sophomore in 2011.

The Tigers signed three linebackers in 2010 in addition to Holland. Jessel Curry saw limited playing time on the outside last fall and Roof says he has a chance to "figure into the mix" for more action in 2011. LaDarius Owens and Jawara White both redshirted. Roof says they are versatile athletes who will get looks at multiple positions. White could line up at any of the three linebacker spots, and Owens is expected to get looks on the strongside and weakside.

Roof notes that the redshirt year should make a positive difference to Owens, who was a defensive end in high school with his hand on the ground rather than a true linebacker. "That is a major adjustment to make," Roof points out.

Instead of returning one half of the secondary starters, that number is down to one-quarter with Mike McNeil kicked off the team after his arrest by Auburn police. Aairon Savage, a senior last season, started the first seven games before going down with a season-ending injury. Zac Etheridge started all 14 games last year as a senior.

The Tigers look like they have help on the way from the signing class, but there are returning players who will try to prove they are ready to be starters this spring.

At safety the group includes rising sophomores Demetruce McNeal and Ryan Smith, rising junior Ikeem Means and Drew Cole, who will be a senior this year.

McNeal did well on special teams and made progress at safety late in the season, says Roof. who notes that McNeal has a knack for getting to the football.

Means, a walk-on from Wetumpka, is a player safety coach Tommy Thigpen has put on the field in key situations the past two years and it won't be a surprise if his playing time increases in 2011.

It also won't be a surprise if Smith sees a big jump in playing time. Roof says that the former Cordova High two-way star has made progress in offseason workouts.

Cole, who can handle both safety spots, will try to move up the depth chart this spring and the same is true of invited walk-on Trent Fisher, who should get a serious look this spring after redshirting last fall as a freshman.

The wildcard at safety is rising senior Thorpe, who has 28 Auburn starts at cornerback, including every game the past two seasons. Roof says that the key for Thorpe, wherever he plays, is to develop more consistency. As he a junior he showed toughness playing through an arm injury that didn't keep him off the field.

T'Sharvan Bell was a key player for the 2010 Auburn defense.

If Thorpe ends up at safety this fall the Tigers will have two vacant starting spots at cornerback with Demond Washington finishing in 2010 as a senior. A good possibility to step into a full-time starting role is rising junior T'Sharvan Bell, who Roof says was one of the most improved players on the defense last year after making the move from safety to cornerback. The defensive coordinator says it is time for Bell to take the "next step" and that is as a full-time starter who can be counted on to match up against the league's top receivers on an every down basis.

Bell is a talented athlete and so is Chris Davis, who showed his promise last season as a true freshman. Roof notes that he likes the cornerback's competitiveness and that should help him as he battles to win a starting spot this spring.

Chris Davis got playing time last season as a true freshman for the Tigers.

Also a true freshman last season, Ryan White began preseason working at quarterback last August. He moved to defense before the opening game with the plan being a redshirt season, but injuries at cornerback prompted Chizik to pull the redshirt and instruct cornerbacks coach Phillip Lolley to get White ready to play.

Both Lolley and Roof point out that White did a good job in a challenging situation and the defensive coordinator predicts that the cornerback will be much improved as a sophomore.

Another member of the 2010 signee class, Jonathan Mincy, was expected to compete for playing time last year, but got into Chizik's doghouse and did not see action. Lolley notes that Mincy made progress in bowl practices and Roof says the redshirt freshman will get plenty of opportunities to show what he can do during spring drills.

In addition to the returning cornerbacks, the Tigers have a newcomer to work with in the spring. Jonathan Rose, an early high school graduate, has been enrolled at Auburn since January after he led Leeds High School to the state championship in December. Roof says the coaching staff likes what it is seeing from the athletic cornerback in offseason workouts.

Fourteen of the 15 spring practices are scheduled for the morning with the exception the annual A-Day Game that will kick off at 2 p.m. CDT on April 16th at Jordan-Hare Stadium. This week the Tigers will hit the practice field at 9 a.m. on Wednesday and Friday and at 10 a.m. on Saturday.

Due to the construction of the new indoor practice facility that includes redoing the outdoor practice fields, the Tigers will hold most of their practices at the women's soccer field and the Hutsell-Rosen Track and Field, the spots where they practiced for the BCS Championship Game before flying to Arizona. The other practices will be held at the stadium.

Construction is in high gear on the new indoor practice facility that is scheduled to be completed in time for preseason practice in August.

Additional practices are scheduled for March 28th and 30th and in April on the 1st, 2nd, 4th, 6th, 9th, 11th, 13th, 15th and the 18th.


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