It has been nearly a decade since Auburn had what would be considered a dominant linebacker, which is disappointing for a program that has a rich tradition of great players at that position. Travis Williams in 2004 was Auburn's last linebacker to be named All-Southeastern Conference and Karlos Dansby in 2003 was the last Tiger to be named an All-American at that position.
During the decade of the 1980s, Auburn placed 10 linebackers on All-SEC teams and five were all-league the following decade. However, since 1997 only four have made All-SEC despite the fact that a linebacker has led Auburn in tackles in 27 of the last 32 seasons (1981-2012).
During a 25-year stretch beginning with Pat Dye's arrival in the 1980s which featured Frank Orgel, Reggie Herring and Joe Whitt coaching linebackers, 14 different players earned All-SEC honors at those positions. There were six All-Americans and 20 linebackers who moved on to play in the NFL.
Looking at the 2013 Auburn defense, the linebackers, in particular, will get plenty of attention from Ellis Johnson, the new coordinator who doubles as position coach for the linebackers. His assignment will be to rekindle Auburn's proud tradition of producing physical and effective defenses Tiger fans expect from their team.
During the past four seasons Auburn's average ranking in total defense nationally has been No. 72 and its average ranking in scoring defense has been 69. From 1990-2006 Auburn's leading tackler during a game was a linebacker 73 percent of the time. From 2007-2012 a linebacker has led Auburn in tackles during a game only 49 percent of the time.
"My linebacker depth chart is very fluid right now," says Johnson, who notes that overall the group as a whole improved in spring drills. He adds, "I wouldn't rule out anybody right now."
Jake Holland returns as the most experienced linebacker on the roster having played in 31 games with 16 starts. Johnson notes that Holland is running slightly behind Kris Frost at middle linebacker, but primarily because Holland missed several spring practices due to class scheduling conflicts.
Commenting on Frost, Johnson says, "He's big enough, he's fast enough, he likes contact, he's got good cover space--he's a good space player. The thing he is lacking right now is consistency."
Justin Garrett garnered more attention this spring than any other defensive player. He certainly has caught the attention of his defensive coordinator, who says, "Justin Garrett is probably the best football player we have had from day one until now at his position."
Garrett is playing the "star" in Johnson's 4-2-5, which calls for both linebacker and safety skills. "I tried to learn as much as possible about the position," says Garrett, who was named the A-Day Game Most Valuable Player on defense. "I went in and watched film, and watched South Carolina, how their star played--what they called the ‘spur' there."
Robenson Therezie,a 5-9, 202 junior who made the move from cornerback, emerged from spring drills as the No. 2 "star" on the depth chart. "We move him up to ‘star' and all of a sudden we're blitzing him off the edge and he is covering underneath instead of deep zones," Johnson points out. "The things you see with your eyes, the techniques, the reads and reactions, are different. He's a speed player. He's a contact player. You like to have a 6-1, 215-pound star, but right now he fits it perfectly and I have really been tickled to death with his progress."
Cassanova McKinzy, who came out of spring at the top of the depth chart at the weakside linebacker spot, made two starts at middle linebacker last season as a true freshman. That means that the first string linebackers from spring go into preseason practice with a combined experience level of just 17 collegiate games and two starts.
Young Javiie Mitchell is looking to get into the playing rotation this fall.
Javiie Mitchell, who got a look at "star" in the spring, finished drills as the No. 2 weakside linebacker. However, the redshirt freshman missed practice time due to a concussion that forced him to sit out a week of workouts. "That was the only thing that frustrated me with my entire linebacker picture," notes Johnson, who says that Mitchell has the potential to be a starter and needed all the work he could get.
Junior LaDarius Owens, who made the move from defensive end to weakside linebacker, is also competing for playing time as is sophomore Anthony Swain. Juco transfer Kenny Flowers is another possibility at linebacker.
The Tigers have potential to be better at the linebacker position this season even though the lack of experience is a concern. In order for those players to be able to effectively carry out the assignments, they are going to need more help than they got last year from the front four, which needs to put more pressure on opponents than they did in 2012 when the Tigers ranked 67th nationally in tackles-for-loss ratio.
The linebackers can't be expected to make plays consistently if they are constantly having to fight off blocks from the offensive line so improving the defensive tackles and ends is a major point of emphasis as the Tigers prepare for the new season. If that happens look for more production from the linebackers this fall. That doesn't mean this year's team will produce any All-SEC players at the position, but if Johnson can get an all-conference type of effort from his guys the Auburn defense should be better than it was last fall.