Transition Time At Linebacker for the Tigers

Auburn's linebackers are busy learning Brian VanGorder's defense this spring.

Auburn, Ala.-- For Tommy Thigpen and the Auburn linebacking corps, spring practice is a time of transition as Thigpen shifts from coaching safeties to linebackers and the Tigers install new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's system.

Thigpen is no stranger to linebacker, though. He finished his playing career at North Carolina as a three-time All-ACC selection at the position and also coached linebackers for the Tar Heels from 2005-2008.

Thigpen said he's comfortable coaching the position, but it has been a process getting used to the verbiage in VanGorder's system, which he noted is essential for the players to master as they try to progress this spring.

Tommy Thigpen is beginning his fourth season at Auburn.

"The verbiage is the key for us because in one coverage you might be in this alignment, then a different call you might be in a different alignment," Thigpen said. "It doesn't seem like much, but you being a step off your alignment determines if you can make a play or not."

Thigpen said he likes VanGorder's intensity and how he holds both players and coaches accountable.

"I enjoy the fact that he'll ask a guy a question and if he doesn't know it, he'll get called out," he noted. "You can't just mumble and bumble. You got to speak football in the classroom."

Brian VanGorder gives instruction to sophomore linebacker Jawara White

Thigpen said he's pleased with the progress senior Daren Bates, who led the Tigers last season with 104 tackles, has made so far this spring because he understands the "big picture" of what they are trying to do on defense.

"Bates is the guy right now," noted Thigpen after Wednesday's practice. "Bates is coming along really fast and kind of getting it."

Thigpen said the trick is to get players with good football IQs to take pride in knowing where everyone is supposed to be on defense.

"Folks just got to keep writing it, practice it, then see it on the board, draw it on the board, execute it and then start the process over again," he said. "For us we have just got to get a lot of reps, a million reps, and just keep talking to these kids about actually working on this when we are not on the football field or in the meeting room."

Daren Bates led the Tigers in tackles last season with 104.

One player who is responding to Thigpen's challenge is sophomore Jawara White, who has been practicing behind Jake Holland at middle linebacker.

"Yesterday, I came to my office and he's on the board just drawing up plays," said Thigpen. "And that's what it's going to take—actually coming in and watching the tape, being comfortable where you can go on the board and draw all 11 people on the football field and feel good about knowing where everybody's at."

After injuring his shoulder and sitting out last season, redshirt freshman Kris Frost is trying to shake off the rust while adjusting to the college game and learning VanGorder's defense.

Frost is getting first-team reps at strongside linebacker with Jonathan Evans out for the spring due to injury.

Frost said transitioning from high school to college where the players have more size, speed and strength is still an ongoing process for him.

"The game being so mental now, everything consisting of where you line up and what's your responsibility," said Frost. "Everything is so much more complex now than high school. That is a transition that I'm making now. And I feel like physically I'm getting there and I'm doing well. I just feel like I need to get the mental part of the game there and I'll be fine."

Thigpen said he thinks Frost is about a year away from learning the mental part of the game and that he needs to learn to play inside of a call and not just rely on natural born ability.

"Every day he's got to come in there and watch tape and do what Ra-Ra (White) was doing yesterday," Thigpen said. "Just take a pen and paper or take a magic marker and go on the board and just start drawing it because, right now, again, he's done it off ability.

"It's easy to do it off ability in high school," added Thigpen. "Now, it's not about ability. You've just got to line up for yourself, get yourself lined up and then execute when it's time for you to make a play."

Frost said the hard work he put in with strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall while his teammates were playing last season has paid off.

"I'm not that far behind physically, and I'm getting there," Frost said. "I felt like it was a good thing because I got my shoulder taken care of and now I can just get after it."

The Tigers will get after it again Friday morning for the fifth of 15 spring practices.


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