Ted Roof, who coordinates the defense in addition to coaching the linebackers, does have one full-time returning starter to put on the field with Daren Bates back for his second season as an outside linebacker after starting at safety two years ago as a true freshman.
Two other linebackers, senior Eltoro Freeman and junior Jonathan Evans, have also started for the Tigers. Combine those linebackers with other returning players plus help from freshmen and redshirt freshmen and Roof has more options on who to play than he did during his previous two seasons at Auburn.
Roof says the Tigers improved as a defense down the stretch of the 2010 season that ended with a strong performance in holding high-scoring Oregon to just 19 points in Auburn's BCS Championship Game victory.
"I thought we got better as the year went along and we were playing at a very high level at the end of the season," Roof says. "I think what happened is that we got more physical as the season went along. I think that showed up on tape and certainly the more physical you are the more it helps you as a defense."
Coach Ted Roof
When the Tigers start preseason practice on August 3rd, Roof says he will be looking for players who want to be part of a physical defense even though the Tigers are going to be young with eight starters missing from the 2010 defensive unit.
"We are going to be a sophomore-dominated defense and we knew last year that was going to be the case," says Roof, who points out that the Tigers used a lot of players on defense to give the backups much-needed experience. That was certainly the case at linebacker.
In terms of starts at Auburn, the most experienced linebacker on the 2011 team is Bates, a 5-11, 207 junior who made 31 solo tackles with 17 assists and one interception during the national championship season.
After starting in all 13 games as a true freshman at safety, Bates started the first eight games of the 2010 season before being sidelined with an injury prior to the Ole Miss game. He also was held out the following week as the Tigers cruised past Chattanooga for Homecoming before returning for Auburn's victory over Georgia.
Roof says he liked the amount of improvement he saw from Bates in spring training and is expecting that trend to continue throughout the fall now that Bates is more comfortable with his assignments.
The coach says that he really likes the versatility Bates provides the defense. With his background as a safety, the junior gives the Tigers another experienced pass defender.
Jake Holland, a 6-1, 234 sophomore, is the favorite to start at middle linebacker after coming on strong in bowl practices last year and following that with a good performance in spring training. "Jake has made some great strides and he is really working hard at it," Roof says.
Holland, a former Under Armour All-American from Pelham High School, played in nine games last year and made seven tackles with five assists.
Jake Holland is shown in action as a freshman.
The coach has other options at middle linebacker including Freeman, who was Holland's backup in spring training. Freeman can play both of the outside positions and the 5-11, 226 senior is also a candidate to start on either the strongside or weakside this fall.
"I am looking forward to seeing Eltoro in preseason camp," Roof says. "He made strides in the spring."
Freeman made 22 solo tackles with 15 assists last year while playing in 12 games and starting five. He had seven starts in 2009 after transferring to Auburn from junior college.
Eltoro Freeman will be in his third season for the Tigers.
Another possibility at middle linebacker is 6-1, 241 redshirt sophomore Harris Gaston. "Harris had a good spring," Roof says. "He is another guy I am looking forward to gauging how far he has come once we start camp."
Roof believes in cross-training his linebackers at more than one position and Gaston could end up playing on the outside, too. "We don't like to pigeon-hole our guys into one spot," the defensive coordinator says.
Jonathan Evans is shown in action in his only collegiate start vs. Alabama in 2009.
Evans, a 5-11, 232 junior, improved in the spring, Roof says. Evans, who had one start in 2009 as a true freshman, made 16 solo tackles with 11 assists last year. "He is another guy I am anxious to see in camp," says Roof, who notes that Evans has a solid chance to earn a full-time starting spot this year.
The Tigers signed linebackers LaDarius Owens and Jawara White in their 2010 class and redshirted them. White has had a back/neck problem that has limited him, but the coaches are hoping the former Charles Henderson High star from Troy will be able to contribute this fall. Owens, who is 6-2, 247 pounds, was more of a defensive end than linebacker in high school and the Tigers are expected to use him as an end this season as well as an outside linebacker.
More depth will come from one of the top walk-ons on the team, 6-0, 212 senior Ashton Richardson, who has bounced back nicely from an injury that sidelined him most of the 2010 season. The son of LSU All-American Al Richardson is a player who Roof enjoys coaching. "He has a great work ethic and attitude," the defensive coordinator notes.
More help is on the way from the 2011 signee class with speedy Justin Garrett from Tucker, Ga., High expected to compete for playing time as an outside linebacker and Chris Landrum from Sweetwater is a newcomer who could play in the middle or the outside spots.
Kris Frost, who played linebacker and wide receiver at Butler High in Matthews, N.C., is a high school All-American who could get a look on either defense or offense if he is ready to compete after suffering a summer shoulder injury.
Garrett earned a reputation as a physical performer with plenty of quickness. Landrum was a two-way star for Class A state champion Sweet Water and Roof notes that Landrum was also a physical player in high school.