VanGorder Sees Defense Taking Shape

Auburn, Ala.—With just over two weeks left until the Auburn Tigers take on Clemson in the Georgia Dome, plenty of questions still remain for coach Brian VanGorder's first defense on the Plains.

While some spots such as defensive tackle and linebacker are beginning to take shape, Brian VanGorder said others still remain much too close to call with the competition at a high level.

A player that has made a change in his body shape and fitness since last season, junior Jeffrey Whitaker was a force in Wednesday's scrimmage and VanGorder said at the moment he's the only defensive tackle that has separated himself.

"I thought Jeff Whitaker stepped it up yesterday. I thought he kind of separated himself from the rest of the guys. Outside of him, I would say no. I think we'll go into the first game, and we'll play a bunch of guys there. If somebody gets hot and is playing well, then he'll get more plays. But they're showing up here every day to compete for playing time.

"It just hasn't sorted itself out like we maybe had hoped it would, but again you've got a lot of players there who are in developmental stages. We're trying to move the process quickly through good training in the classroom and on the field, and then certainly hoping that the competition part of it shows up in respects to their competitive nature. But it's still cloudy right now."

One of the key spots for the Tigers is at linebacker where Jake Holland has made some strides in the last week according to VanGorder. Playing the most difficult position on that side of the ball in a very complex defense, the former linebacker coach said Holland has shown a lot of good signs this week.

"Jake is the middle linebacker, so he's under pressure every day," VanGorder said. "There's been no let-up with that. He's beginning to adjust to that. I think he understands it. He's done better. I've seen improvement with him. It's important that he creates an environment that the other 10 guys recognize. He is out in front of the huddle. He is making the calls. Everybody trusts and feels comfortable with that. I think he took a step forward.

"He has moved in the right direction here in the last five, six days," he added. "But still a work in progress. I think he's starting to get that. It's very important to him. He's a hard worker. He loves Auburn. It's important to him to do well. I think he's been focused on that without the realization that: Hey, I'm the middle linebacker and I'm responsible to 10 other guys. He's growing in that area."

In addition to Holland, VanGorder said that senior Jonathan Evans has also come on strong after missing spring practice with an injury. Working on the weak side to open preseason camp, Evans has moved to the strong side where he's working along with sophomore Justin Garrett. VanGorder said that even with the missed time Evans has done some good things on the defense.

"He's really coming on," VanGorder said. "e's starting to play the game of football. Jonathan's always had the ability to run at the ball. He's aggressive by nature. He's doing some things with respect to some good discipline in our defense right now. I see some real good progress with Johnathan right now."

In the secondary Erique Florence continues to be sidelined with bumps and bruises, keeping the door wide open for junior Ryan Smith and sophomore Jermaine Whitehead to step through. VanGorder said the duo has impressed him with their play and understanding of the defense so far, making it tough for returning starter Demetruce McNeal to make a move.

"I think that Ryan and Jermaine have kind of separated themselves in respect to being able to function the entire defense," VanGorder said. "There's a lot on their plate. A lot of communication involved. A lot of recognition invoked that leads to communication. Both of them have been ahead of the other guys. It's still competitive. I think the separation of those two to the others isn't significant enough that those other guys -- they're going to expect a lot of playing time."

At cornerback there is also a battle going on with both Chris Davis and Robenson Therezie banged up the last week. That has allowed players such as Ryan White and Jonathan Mincy to make a move into the playing rotation and also given true freshmen Jonathan Jones and Josh Holsey more reps. VanGorder said the two young guys have responded to their opportunity.

"Both Josh and Jonathan Jones have done a good job," VanGorder said. "Both made some very good plays yesterday. Jonathan, in particular, in a play where we came back and broke up a pass in a physical way. Some of the things you won't notice is that their overall execution of the defense -- they've grabbed ahold of it and they're improving. We need to keep looking at them.

"They're freshmen, so we've got to have a plan as we enter the first game (about) what we want to do with them in respect to a full season. I'm talking about the whole redshirt deal versus playing time. We've got a couple more practices here and early next week to kind of look at it and see what kind of comfort level they have."

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