Safety In Numbers For Auburn Defense

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson talks about the "star" and safety positions for the Tigers this preseason.

Auburn, Ala.--When Ellis Johnson was hired as Auburn's defensive coordinator one of the first orders of business was to find the hybrid player in his 4-2-5 defense. Having Justin Garrett step up and take over that role in spring practice was perhaps the high point for the Tigers heading into the summer, but now the defense is looking to build around Garrett as it points towards the season opener on Aug. 31 against Washington State.

Facing wide open offenses much of the 2013 schedule, Auburn's need to be able to play multiple defenses is a big one. Because of that the Tigers have already started installation of several packages that will feature six defensive backs. Unlike in past years when that meant two extra cornerbacks on the field, Johnson has a different plan for that type of defense this season on the Plains.

With Garrett already playing the role of a defensive back, Auburn will keep him on the field as the fifth defensive back in passing situations and when the offense dictates another defensive back is needed it will likely Garrett's backup Robenson Therezie. Smith said while there are plenty of advantages to having cornerbacks on the field in terms of coverage skills, he likes to have more size on the field with his defense .

"We've asked them to do a lot more from the standpoint of staying in there on first down when people are running the football," Johnson said of the "star" position. "It's a nickel defense on the blackboard in many ways. And probably about 40 percent of the scheme comes from the nickel defense, 40 percent of it comes from the old wide-tackle six that I learned playing for Coach Frank Beamer and then the other little bit of it are things we've stolen from other guys. You know, just ideas you pick up along the way. So it's not much different from an alignment/assignment standpoint, but we can't put a nickel cover guy out there and be an every-down player. He can't hold up against the run."

In an ideal situation Johnson said a player such as Josh Holsey could be a good fit for the extra defensive back role, but right now that's not an option. With senior Demetruce McNeal out of practice after having minor surgery because of an infection, Holsey continues to work with the first team defense at the position while also staying sharp at cornerback. Smith said while the sophomore isn't the biggest player he just gets the job done.

"We're double-teaching Holsey and we got him in there in the spring," Johnson said. "He's doing fine, doing a good job. He's not hardly getting any reps at corner. But he's good. He's probably one of our sharper, smarter players. He's a physical guy and we'd be fine if he had to play. But depth is an issue and we certainly want to get Demetruce back as soon as we can."

Because McNeal is unable to practice it has given Johnson and Coach Charlie Harbison the opportunity to get a closer look at safety signees Brandon King, Khari Harding and Mackenro Alexander.

Mackenro Alexander

While Alexander is currently working at the "star" behind Garrett and Therezie, Johnson said they have all done some good things so far and he wouldn't rule out a position move for one or more of them down the road.

"Brandon, being older and being a junior college player, has been much quicker to pick things up and a little bit better as far as fundamentals and DB skills and those types of things," Johnson said. "He's older, he's got two more years of football. But I think they're both proving we did the right thing in recruiting them. They're going to be really good players.

"Khari has really gotten a lot bigger and stronger before he reported," he added. "He could end up moving to "star," or he could end up at linebacker in a year or two. He's a physical guy and I'm very impressed with him. He's a couple of weeks away. He hasn't learned the scheme because he wasn't here in the spring. I think that really put him behind. I think if he'd been here in the spring, he'd be pushing some guys, especially with our depth situation. And really Mackenro has been really good. We've been pleased with him. The high school will pop out every now and again, but for the fourth day of practice he's come a long way."

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