Tigers Making Strides On the Defensive Front

The play from Auburn's noseguards, defensive tackles and defensive ends is making a positive difference for the 2004 football Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.--Entering the 2004 season, the front seven of the Auburn defense had holes to fill after losing three players to NFL draft and two other starters. However, through eight games the group is playing well enough to have the Tigers ranked as one of the nation's top defensive teams.

"Our defensive line has come light years from where they were in the spring and two-a-days--just as far as lining up in a four man rush and getting pressure on the quarterback," says safety Will Herring. "We can't even ask for anymore as a secondary. That makes us so much better and you can't even describe how much that helps out the secondary."

The defensive line has been just as big in Auburn's 8-0 start as any other part of the team. Statistically, the Tigers rank among the nation's best across the board.

"I think (defensive coordinator) Gene Chizik has done an excellent job of game planning," says defensive tackles coach Don Dunn. "I think our defensive end position has really stepped up. Our linebackers are playing solid, we're getting good play out of the secondary and our offense is helping our defense.

"When you have an offense that goes out and can score, it keeps you off the field and makes your defense better," he adds. "It's a combination of all the positions playing pretty well. We don't have any real stars, but they all play together and work together."

Defensively, the Tigers are ranked second in the country in points allowed (9.1 per game), 11th in rushing defense (96 yards per game), fifth in pass defense (147.6 yards per game) and fourth in total defense (243.6 yards per game).

"I think as a whole, all 11 across the board have made tremendous improvements," Herring says. "But the defensive line particularly with the pass rush helps us so much as a secondary. When you can rush four, cover with seven and still get pressure on the quarterback like they've been doing, it's going to keep the points down for sure."

Senior Jay Ratliff is in his first season as a starter at defensive tackle. He moved from end during spring drills.

Auburn's depth at defensive end is much better than it has been in recent seasons. Reserve freshman end Quentin Groves, who had four quarterback sacks against Kentucky, leads the Tigers with 6 1/2 for the season. Sophomore Stanley McClover with five sacks and sophomore Marquies Gunn with three sacks are in the SEC Top 10 in that statistic.

"We have a lot of depth and we've played a lot of people," Dunn says. "From the first game on we've been rolling the rotation. (Defensive ends) Coach (Terry) Price is playing just about every end he has. I've played pretty much a four-man rotation at the two inside positions. Depth is a tremendous help and it keeps them fresh.

"The thing it does is keep them competitive and keeps them into the game," he adds. "During the week of game preparation, in practice they know they're going to play so they're not just sitting back there and not paying attention. They're getting better and that makes it great for everybody when there's competition. They know they're going to get to play."

Groves, McClover and Gunn aren't the only ends roughing up opposing quarterbacks. Chris Browder is adding even more depth behind the senior starters Bret Eddins and Doug Langenfeld. All of the ends have at least two sacks.

Saturday's road trip to Ole Miss will be the ninth consecutive game for the Tigers without an off week. During such a stretch, it is important to keep players healthy and rested, something that the coaches have been fortunate enough to do. While the two inside spots on the line aren't as deep as at the ends, Dunn has two quality backups that he feels comfortable playing at any time.

"Josh Thompson and Wayne Dickens have done a great job," Dunn says. "They've played at times as good or better than the starters. They've done a nice job. It helps when you go into the fourth quarter and one kid hasn't had all of the reps. Everybody is fresh and ready to go. We played Neil Brown 18 snaps Saturday so it let the other guys rest more. The more the better."

Brown is a true freshman who has played in three games behind Jay Ratliff and Wayne Dickens at the three-technique position, and Dunn says he likes what he sees in Brown.

"I think what he has to do right now is to continue to gain weight," Dunn says. "He needs to be about 280 and he's 254 right now. He'll stay at the three-technique. He's a real smart kid, football smart, great work ethic and just a good young player. He's a good young player with a lot of potential."

Another young player who the coaches are hoping will come along and continue to develop is true freshman, Pat Sims. "Right now he's going to have to work a lot harder in practice," Dunn notes. "He's not working at the level we need him to work. He's young, he'll get better, and he just needs to grow up and work a lot harder on the practice field. When he learns to work hard at our level then he'll see more playing time. No doubt he has a lot of potential."

Auburn's game against Ole Miss is scheduled for a 6:45 p.m. kickoff on ESPN. With a win against the Rebels, the Tigers will assure will earn a berth in the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 4 in Atlanta.

"They're a very physical offensive line," Dunn says of the Rebels. "I would imagine they're going to try to run the football at us. It's going go be a very physical contest and we're going to have to stop the run like we've had to every week. This team is more of a power football team so we're going to have really do a good job up front. It's going to be a lot to put on the shoulders of the D-line."

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