"This won't be an extremely total makeover," Johnson says. "You're transitioning from a 4-3 to a 4-2. We're not re-inventing the wheel here. What I think in some small areas is that we'll find some inside linebackers, there are a couple of them we want to look at as our star safety or star-backer. There will be some guys who played the sam (strongside) linebacker that will move inside. It's a little bit of a transition there."
One of the players who will get a long look in the middle spot is senior Jake Holland. Finishing with 73 tackles as a junior, Holland has 128 stops in his career and has a chance to improve those numbers as a senior under Johnson's guidance. Also with a pair of interceptions to his credit, Holland's experience will be important for the defense learning a new scheme this spring.
Expected to battle Holland for one spot is sophomore Cassanova McKinzy. Playing in eight games last season as a true freshman, McKinzy made 23 total tackles and recorded 12 in a start against Vanderbilt on the road and also finished with seven tackles in a loss to Georgia. With Johnson looking for physical players in the middle, McKinzy will be one to keep an eye on for the Tigers.
While Holland and McKinzy look to battle it out at one position, the other inside linebacker position looks to be up for grabs as the coaches look at that position as well as give players such as Justin Garrett, Anthony Swain, and even Javiie Mitchell a shot at the star position as well.
Perhaps the player who will benefit the most from the coaching change is sophomore Kris Frost. A talented and athletic linebacker, Frost played in nine games last season for the Tigers, but made just five total tackles. In his most extensive playing time he finished with three stops against Alabama and showed some promise at the position.
A true junior, Garrett played in just six games last season and only had 12 total tackles for the Tigers after totaling nine stops as a true freshman . At 6-1, 215, Garrett doesn't have the ideal size to play inside in this system, but could get a look at linebacker and star this spring.
The same is true of Swain. A redshirt freshman last season, Swain played in 10 games for the Tigers, primarily on special teams, and did not record a tackle. While he has the size (6-2, 235) to handle the action inside at linebacker, he was a safety at Gadsden City and that makes him an interesting player at the hybrid position for the Tigers.
With the physical tools to play the hybrid spot because of his speed, Mitchell's development will be worth keeping a close watch on after playing mostly defensive line in high school at Leeds. The 6-2, 210 Mitchell redshirted last season following shoulder surgery.
Getting prepared for his first look at the Auburn linebackers in spring practice, Johnson says that he is excited to see what he has got to work with this first season. He adds that it will be a time of experimentation for him and the staff as they try to figure out the best spots and players for the Tigers moving forward.
Kris Frost has a chance to earn significant playing time for the Tigers
"My feeling about spring ball as we go into the first spring practice is that we're evaluating where players belong as well as how good players are and what positions they may fit," Johnson says. "The year I first went to South Carolina we took Eric Norwood and Cliff Matthews, two really good football players for us that year..they actually went through spring practice and then switched positions afterwards. Our evaluation told us we needed to move them. Things like that could happen. Spring practice is not a time where we're going to necessarily have our team in place, we're going to be evaluating where they belong."
Auburn will open spring practice on March 27 with the A-Day Game scheduled for April 20 at Jordan-Hare Stadium.