Any successful defense begins up front and that is where the Tigers have the most question marks with the loss of five veterans including All-American Nick Fairley. One of the players that will be counted on to carry the torch for the defense is sophomore Jeffrey Whitaker. Playing in 13 of the 14 games last season the big sophomore said as much as anything in his development, watching departed senior Zach Clayton taught him about what it takes to be successful in the SEC.
"I love Zach," Whitaker said. "Zach taught me so much on how to approach things. We know how to do things because we've been playing for a while and that's why we're here. He taught me how to understand the game and when it's time to play the game then play it 100 percent. You're going to mess up. You're never going to play a perfect game. If you have any competitive nature in you then you're not always going to do right. I think it was a blessing to play behind someone like a Zach Clayton.
"I always tell the joke that I came in saying I wanted to start as a true freshman. Then I watched Zach Clayton for one practice and I said well I'm not going to start this year, I'm going to start next year. It was a big deal to have somebody like Zach there. We didn't know we were going to have the Lombardi winner on the other side. I really look at Zach a lot for my growing up and development as a player."
Helping in that development was getting experience on the road and in big games. Players like Whitaker, Jake Holland, Corey Lemonier, and Chris Davis all got big minutes throughout the 2010 season and Whitaker said that will pay dividends this year.
"It was very important," Whitaker said. "I think I did well in some aspects and I didn't do so well in other aspects. The biggest thing was being on the road. That was probably the most important thing as a freshman coming in. My first road game I was scared. We're playing Mississippi State and it's only like 50,000 or so, but they've got the cowbells. It was just a scary environment.
"Then we go to Alabama and it's not even scary it's like whoa, but it makes you hate them even more. Now the animosity is there in that rivalry. Coming from Georgia I didn't really know how serious the rivalry was. It's a grind. The thing I took from last year is that you really have to get ready mentally and get your body ready physically. You've got to have a full tank of gas going into the season because it's a tough grind."
Like Whitaker, Holland got plenty of valuable experience as a true freshman last season and it must make it pay off right away as he's expected to come in and take over for the departed Josh Bynes at perhaps the most difficult position on that side of the ball, middle linebacker. He said while they didn't get to take part in the entire run of the defense last season, just being a part of the team and seeing how the defense finished off the year is big for them heading into a new year.
"It's a huge part of the development of the team," Holland said. "It showed us what it takes to win. I think if you get to see that firsthand it's very valuable. Being able to see those guys go out there and play lights out and give everything they've got, I think it gives us a good visual. They were good role models for us."
With just a few weeks left until the team begins practicing for the 2011 season many have already written off the Tigers saying they lost too much. Holland said the team hears about the guys that are gone and how the schedule is too tough, but all he knows is that once again Auburn will field a team shooting for the top.
"I think what is going through fans' and other peoples' minds is that we're young," Holland said. "I think our athletic ability takes over the fact that we're young. I think we're athletic enough and have a large amount of experience even though we were freshmen last year. I don't think it's a rebuilding year at all. Next year might not be a national championship year, but the goals are always the same. There is that definite luck factor in getting to those championships. The goals are always the same and like Coach Trooper (Taylor) always says, we're trying to win championships."