Having just 15 practices under his belt with his new defensive guys and still not sure what to expect when the Tigers take the field this fall, Johnson said he's looking forward to getting back to work in preparation for Washington State on Aug. 31.
"It's the time when you can get your hands back on them and get on the field and get rolling again," Johnson said. "These are the days I can't stand. I either want to go back on vacation or I want to start practice. That in-between time is hard to hold yourself back. We've heard real good reports on their efforts and work ethic in the summer and all the progress they have been making. We're actually extremely anxious to get with them."
The first order of business for Johnson and company will be to find a consistent pass rush on defense. With Corey Lemonier gone and Dee Ford the only established threat as a pass rusher on the roster, Johnson said he and Coach Rodney Garner are looking for someone to step up in that role whether it's a veteran guy or newcomer such as Carl Lawson or Elijah Daniel.
"One area that we've got to test and find out how good we are is pass rush," Johnson said. "I'm talking about without bringing pressure. How good are we? We didn't have a lot of live, obvious third-down situations other than the ones that occurred in the scrimmages. By the time you get to the end of spring, each player probably had very, very minimal reps in that situation. I don't know that we know that yet. That's an area we've got to work more on and it's an area of concern.
"We're hopeful they're going to make contributions and make them pretty immediate, but we'll just have to see," he added of the newcomers. "You don't want to put too much pressure on a freshman. They're very capable talent-wise, and we do have some areas where we think their ability is going to be key – third down, edge pass rush. Montravius (Adams) has made some great progress, too. Still, until you get them on the field and start working with them in the big picture, you just never know."
Another area of concern for Johnson and the Tigers this fall is going at safety. With second-leading tackler Demetruce McNeal a question mark for the fall after missing part of spring practice, Auburn moved Josh Holsey to boundary safety from cornerback to finish things out and he was impressive enough to earn a starting job following those 15 practice days. With newcomer such as Brandon King trying to make an impact at the position this preseason and McNeal apparently ready to pick up where he left off last year, Johnson is hoping things can get sorted out quickly at safety.
"We're expecting him to come back and play as a returning, starting SEC safety," Johnson said. "(Jermaine) Whitehead had a very good spring. You're talking about two guys that have started a lot of ballgames here. The've got some seasoning to them and we need it -- badly. We'll double-teach Holsey. We'd much rather see Demetruce come back and be ready to go."
Coming off one of the most disappointing defensive seasons in school history, Auburn is hoping for a big turnaround this year under Johnson's guidance. It's something he has done before and quickly, making South Carolina into a formidable defensive unit in a short time. While he's not sure the Tigers will make that big of a jump, one thing Johnson is sure of and that is that Auburn has the talent to be much better and much sooner than people think.
"We're probably deeper than we were at South Carolina and Mississippi State, but I don't know our players well enough yet to know what we'll accomplish," Johnson said. "That first team in inherited there (South Carolina) we had a very physical and deep front and were very thin in the secondary. Until the last game against Clemson and the bowl game we were very fortunate with injuries. We lost a couple of kids late and played poorly in those games. The one thing I will agree on is that it does come back to players for the most part.
"I think we've got good, solid SEC players," he added. "When they play like they did last year, they're going to have to play differently. I don't think we have to have different people, we have to have different performances. At this stage I want to believe we've got enough talent, but it's going to have to be put on the game field."