Much of the reason for optimism centers around returners Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost in the middle for the Tigers. Even though they are expected to swap positions after experimenting with a different look in the spring, the duo should provide stability for Auburn on that side of the ball.
Starting all 14 games last season, the 6-3, 250 McKinzy had a monster year considering he was on the field for just about half of Auburn's defensive snaps at weakside linebacker. Leading the team with 75 tackles while also adding two sacks and eight tackles for losses (second on the team), McKinzy made a smooth transition to the middle and could be primed for a huge year in year number two of the system.
Frost should be one of the leaders on defense for Auburn this fall.
A more natural weakside linebacker, Frost also had a good spring after playing well as a sophomore. Finishing 2013 with 59 tackles and six tackles for losses, Frost is more comfortable as a full-time defender now with a couple of seasons under his belt playing strictly defense. Completely over the shoulder problems that plagued him early in his career, Frost on the weak side allows him the chance to use his athleticism to make plays in the defense.
Providing depth is a group of players who got plenty of work in the spring along with player who missed spring practice altogether. The defensive MVP of the A-Day Game, junior Kenny Flowers, came on strong for the Tigers after getting his feet wet a year ago. Talented and physical, Flowers provides a solid backup plan for the defense.
The same is true of redshirt freshman Cameron Toney. A big linebacker, he packs a punch and should provide depth on defense as well as on special teams this season. Another player in the mix is sophomore Khari Harding. Signed as a safety out of Oklahoma, Harding is a big hitter who could make some noise the more he becomes accustomed to the position.
The wildcards of the group are Anthony Swain and Javiie Mitchell. Signed as a safety out of Gadsden City High, Swain came into his own last season when he finished with 26 tackles and a fumble recovery. Missing spring practice for off-the-field issues, the now 240-plus Swain provides experience and playmaking ability for the Auburn defense. Coming back from an injury suffered in the SEC Championship Game, the speedy Mitchell (6-2, 210) got playing time last season, but must get his weight back up if he hopes to become an every-down player moving forward.
If more bodies are needed at linebacker the Tigers could also turn to junior Justin Garrett. A versatile defender who was penciled in as Auburn's starter at "star" last year until a preseason injury forced him to take a redshirt, Garrett heads into the year working behind Robenson Therezie at the position but has experience at weak side linebacker and could be used if needed.
Auburn also brings a pair of talented signees into the fold this season in close friends Tre Williams and DeShaun Davis from Mobile. A 6-2, 230-pounder with enough athleticism to play outside the box if needed, Williams was a standout at St. Paul's his entire career and enters Auburn with the skills to play early for the Tigers.
A classic inside linebacker at 6-0, 228, Davis missed his entire senior season at Vigor because of a knee injury, but should be full speed when Auburn hits the field for preseason practice. A talented and physical player, Davis could wind up being the surprise of the class after being the forgotten man last fall.