Auburn, Ala.--Having already passed tests against Arkansas and Kansas State on defense, Coach Ellis Johnson and the Auburn defense will once again have a big challenge this weekend when LSU comes to town for a huge SEC West showdown.
With freshman quarterback Brandon Harris igniting the offense each of the last two weekends for LSU, Auburn will have its hands full when you combine his mobility with a strong running game led by another talented freshman Leonard Fournette. The good news for Auburn is that the strength of the defense so far has been the play against the run.
Giving up just 90.8 yards per game on the ground and five rushing touchdowns, Auburn has gotten good play out of its front seven so far, but that was challenged in a big way in the victory over Louisiana Tech. With linebackers Cassanova McKinzy (head) and Kris Frost (knee) both banged up, Auburn had to turn to Anthony Swain and Tre Williams to get the job done. Both stepped up to the plate on Saturday, but Johnson said they made some mistakes along the way as well.
“They played pretty well,” Johnson said. “We did two of those missed checks where we got messed up on a check-defense, was when they were gone. Maybe they would have busted it too, but the back-ups didn’t handle it well. They played overall pretty well, but in the quarterbacking of the defense there were some issues. If the other guys don’t practice at least the younger guys get more of the reps. They will be more prepared next time.”
With McKinzy sitting out of Sunday’s practice and Frost only doing some light work, Johnson said both remain day-to-day as the Tigers take Monday off before getting back on the practice field. Because of the switch during the game on Saturday with injuries to both, he said it threw the defense off somewhat, but that’s to be expected in a situation like they saw against the Bulldogs.
“I think all of our backers will be fine,” Johnson said of the depth they have. “What happens to you is when you work a rotation in practice, and you lose your starters right at the beginning of a game or right before the game, that’s hard on a backup to come in there and perform at the same level, because he didn’t get the same preparation. But I think if they’re out a couple of days, that will help the backups get more repetition and be ready to play. More well prepared and ready to play.”
Because of the score in Saturday’s game and the injuries to both starters, Johnson was able to go deeper on his bench at the linebacker position than he has all season. That meant some snaps for JaViere Mitchell in the middle as well as Khari Harding on the weak side. Johnson said both did some good things and he’s pleased with their progression.
“I’m really pleased with Khari Harding,” Johnson said. “I haven’t been able to get him in the lineup because some of the games we’ve played have been really tough, close games. He shows things when he gets on the field, he’s still got that skill set that some of our guys don’t have. He’s got great mobility, he’s great in coverage.
“I really think all those of those guys can play. I don’t have any lack of confidence in them; it’s just the way we’ve been in some tight ballgames. We haven’t really played a lot of kids and they haven’t been able to break in the rotation. JaViere played the other night. He had some really good plays. He ended up taking over the Mike linebacker when Kris was out on the Dime package and graded out 100. Had no errors and made every play he’s supposed to make.”
Injuries aren’t only a concern at linebacker as Auburn is facing the same situation on the offensive line with right tackle Patrick Miller going down during Saturday’s game because of a bad ankle. He remained on the sidelines for the rest of the game, but was wearing a protective boot. Without him the Tigers moved Avery Young back to right tackle and Chad Slade back to right guard. Junior Devonte Danzey was inserted into the left guard spot in Slade’s place. Even with all of the moving parts, Auburn Offensive Coordinator Rhett Lashlee said the line play was solid overall.
“We had to play some musical chairs there with Pat going down in the middle of the game, and some other things, so overall, they did well,” Lashlee said. “Physically, we did well when we were locked on. When you move a guy, like Avery started the game and he popped out to tackle real quick, I thought Devonte Danzey did a good job of stepping in there and playing well for us."