Newcomers Win Praise From AU's Johnson

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson talks about newcomers and others who are off to a good start and a position move from the first week of preseason football pracice.

Raashad Kennion above is a 6-6, 230-pound freshman defensive end from First Coast High in Jacksonville, Fla.

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn’s midweek scrimmage was set up to identify newcomers who could help the 2014 football team. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said after Thursday evening’s practice that a variety of players on his side of the line of scrimmage have the potential to contribute this year.

With graduation losses combined with injuries to Carl Lawson and Keymiya Harrell, the Tigers are looking for help at defensive end from newcomers. “We all know Carl could have been a big factor, but we have got to move on,” Johnson said.

Two freshmen who are off to a good start are Raashad Kennion and Andrew Williams, Johnson noted. “Some of those guys are making steady improvement every day,” Johnson said.

Johnson pointed out that middle linebacker Cassanova continues to get practice as a defensive end who would play in obvious pass situations.

“Cassanova has got a lot of natural skills for that, but he needed the development of the fundamentals,” the coach said. “He is spending about 10 to 20 minutes a day with Rodney (Garner) over there with the defensive line. We may find somebody else to do that, but right now it looks like we have got that shored up.”

Cassanova McKinzy led the Tigers in tackles last season at weakside linebacker. This year he has moved to the middle linebacker spot.

A pair of junior college transfers from Georgia Military College, Devonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence, are trying to break into the playing rotation at end. “I think Devaroe got hurt the other day so he missed a couple of practices so he has fallen behind a little bit,” the defensive coordinator said. “Lambert has had a much better camp so far just because he has been able to practice every practice.

“Both of them physically during the summer looked as good as our older kids just moving around doing drills in t-shirts, in agility drills, in pass rush drills. They have got great skill, they have got great talent for their position. As they learn what they are doing and can handle the package, the whole scheme, I think both of them will be rotating in there quite frequently. We like to play a lot of people up front.”

Lawrence returned to practice on Friday and wasn’t full speed yet, but Johnson said he should be soon.

A couple of returning defensive ends are off to a good start in preseason, the defensive coordinator pointed out. “Elijah (sophomore end Elijah Daniel) is doing a good job on the edge and he could move inside, too. LaDarius (senior end LaDarius Owens) is doing a good job out on the edge so we are not completely depleted there. We just wanted to make sure if we had another injury, or had to go something if we lost a guy for a couple of weeks or something, we would have something else we could go to.”

One of the options the Tigers are looking at is a package featuring four defensive linemen, one linebacker, five defensive backs and one “star” rover to give the Tigers more options in their pass rushing alignments.

Tre Williams is a freshman from St. Paul's in Mobile.

Johnson, who coaches the linebackers, said that Tre Williams performed well in the first scrimmage. “In my position in particular I thought Tre’ had a really good day for a freshman. He made some typical freshman mistakes. I was overall pleased with all of them.

“Our number one offensive line took almost zero reps in the scrimmage,” Johnson said. “Still, I was pleased with them being in the right place, doing the right things, the right run fits, drops in coverage were pretty doggone good, man coverage pickups, etc. We didn’t bust a lot of pressures, we didn’t run many, but in the blitz drill we did a good job. That was the thing for the most part.

"Javiie (Mitchell) has improved a little bit from missing spring practice," Johnson said on the linebacker. "I’m pleased at where he is right now. I thought the two starters (Kris Frost and McKinzy) looked very good--had a great day, didn’t get many reps.

“Khari (Harding) was doing fine. He got an injury on his wrist. He’s back out there full-speed now, but he only got like nine plays in the scrimmage so I didn’t get a good look at him. Anthony Swain did a good job, had about four or five tackles, caused a fumble. Overall, it’s hard to separate them (backup linebackers), they’re all still in the hunt.

“Then I thought Melvin (Smith) was pleased with the progress of his corners that have come back, but he also thinks the young kids look real good. There’s new kids out there.”

One of the new corners, Nick Ruffin, is currently working at the “star” rover spot along with Robenson Therezie, Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander.

“Right now it’s a good depth situation there with both Therezie and Garrett,” Johnson said. “We need to make sure we get a full season out of Justin Garrett, that’s the main thing. Mackenro’s had a good camp. He’s well behind those guys, but he’s given us some decent plays there. I think he’s made some progress. You got to remember, he’s a freshman heading into his sophomore year, but he’s had a pretty good camp. That’s where we’d line them up right now.”

Johnson said that Ruffin is off to a good start and mentioned two more true freshmen on the back line of the defense, Markell Boston and Stephen Roberts.

“He’s playing some dime in the dime package,” the coach said about Ruffin, a star at St. Pius X in Atlanta last year. “He has not gotten any work yet at corner or at deep safety. I think he’s starting to feel comfortable there and we just don’t want to move him too quick. We’re really pleased with where Nick is right now.

“He’s a normal star,” Johnson said of Ruffin. “He’s got a lot of the same skills that Therezie has. He’s a natural DB. The biggest thing he’s had to improve on right now is the big receivers stock blocking him out in space or coming off the edge and having to take on a running back on a blitz or an outside run play when a big blocker gets out on the edge. That’s the thing he has to get better at, which Therezie did, too. He’s kind of got DB skill sets and he’s looked very comfortable out there.”

Boston is from East Coweta High School in Georgia while Roberts is from Opelika High. “Boston and Roberts have had a really good six days,” he said of the safeties. “They’re not ready to play on Saturday yet, but we got three more weeks and I'll tell you those guys keep showing up and making a lot of plays and look like they can fit in the mix out there physically.”

Stephen Roberts fields a punt in practice.

Johnson termed Thursday’s full pads workout “really good” and said the team got a lot done as the Tigers wrapped up their sixth day of preseason drills and seventh overall practice before taking the day off on Friday.

“We kind of rotate inside and outside with the offense and defense,” the coach said. “Defensively, we were outside today for one of the hotter days we have had. It has really been an extremely mild preseason with the weather. We don’t want to strip them out, but we want them to get used to the heat. It is more mental than anything.

“We had a really good day--I was pleased with the way they came out and got after it early, mentally and physically. We had a lot more crossover where we worked against the offense in some special situations.

“We are about at the tail end of our new installations,”?he noted. “Today we got some work done on two-minute, we got a lot work done in what I call the score zone, which is inside the 12 (yard line), our red zone, score zone. The offense was working across the 50-yard line coming in and we got some good field position and down and distance things there so overall it was a really good practice. Tomorrow is a day off for them. I think they can use it mentally.”

The defensive coordinator said the next part of camp is an important one for the new guys to prove to the coaches they are ready to contribute.

“It’s very important,” he said. “We’ve got another scrimmage, I think, in three days. We don’t practice tomorrow, then will go another two-a-day and then a scrimmage.

“I think at the end of that scrimmage we’ll be a little more able to talk clarity on our personnel,” Johnson added. “We’re going to have a big discussion tomorrow as a staff and the head coach as got 51 percent of the vote. He’ll voice what he says. We’ve got plenty of time. We’re not up against the wall. We’ve got at least another three or four days of physical work to evaluate them.”

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