Auburn, Ala.–Veteran Auburn coach Joe Whitt has seen a lot of good linebackers come and go in his two decades on the Tiger staff. When spring training opens on March 1st, the Auburn assistant will have one of his more athletic groups to coach.
"It is a young group with talent," Whitt says. "We have some guys in this group who I really like. And we have guys like Dontarrious (Thomas), Karlos (Dansby) and Mark (Brown) who have a lot of playing experience, plus they are good guys. I really like them and look forward to going into the spring with them.
Karlos Dansby had a solid first season for the Tigers in 2001.
"The main thing now is to get our package in and get them taught in the spring and get them watching film in the offseason, understanding what they are doing," Whitt adds.
Gene Chizik is now calling the shots on defense.
When John Lovett was the coordinator, Whitt coached the two inside linebackers called the middle and jack linebackers. Lovett is gone and has been replaced by Gene Chizik, who is beginning his second full week on the job at Auburn. Among the changes the former University of Central Florida defensive coordinator has brought to the Plains is a three linebacker system with the positions labeled as the mike (middle), sam (strongside) and will (weakside). Whitt will coach all three spots.
"Having a new defensive coordinator, we will make some slight changes in alignment," Whitt notes. "Fortunately, it is something that we have done before and I have been exposed to before. We will move some people around. Will and sam are mirror positions. Players at those positions can play either one."
Dontarrious Thomas is expected to be a leader of the 2002 defense.
At the will, 6-4, 230-pound junior Thomas is back after starting last season at the jack spot. He was a second team All-SEC selection with his 122 tackles, by far the highest total on the 2001 Tiger team. He had a season high 17 stops vs. LSU and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week when he made 15 tackles at Vanderbilt.
The battle for the number two spot at the position should be interesting. The candidates include a pair of redshirt freshman named Williams and a highly regarded true freshman, Lemarcus Rowell, a former Parade All-American. Antarrious Williams, from Columbus, Ga., is making the move from rover and Travis Williams, from Spring Valley, S.C., High, was a redshirt jack linebacker last fall. Both Antarrious and Travis run well and have a nose for the football.
Dontarrious Thomas (left) explains an assignment to Lemarcus Rowell (56) at practice last season.
Rowell, from Opelika, was mistakenly declared academically ineligible by the NCAA Clearinghouse last summer and spent the fall of 2001 watching from the stands. However, the NCAA's blunder was discovered in time to allow Rowell to get in some practice time for the bowl game without having to burn a redshirt year. He has five years to play four seasons and has been participating in winter workouts. Head coach Tommy Tuberville says that Rowell would have been a major contributor to the 2001 Tigers if he had been eligible.
On the strongside, there is a strong candidate for the starting job--junior Karlos Dansby, who was the starting whip last fall. After overcoming early season injury problems, Dansby was third on the team in tackles with 59. He contributed a team-high five interceptions and is expected to be one of the keys to success for the 2002 defense. Whitt says Williams and Williams will also get looks at the sam position.
Tavarreus Pounds, who struggled to play through injuries, was the only senior in last season's linebacker corps.
In the middle, senior Mark Brown is the man to beat. He had moved ahead of senior Tavarreus Pounds for the No. 1 spot last year, but a series of injuries, starting with a broken bone in his hand during two-a-days, limited Brown's playing time. He played in just eight games and started two. He was fifth on the team with 55 tackles.
Challenging Brown for playing time will be sophomore Mayo Sowell, who started three times last fall and finished with 15 solo tackles, 14 assists and one interception. Jake Slaughter, who performed well on the scout team as a redshirt last fall, will try to make a move this spring. He is from Nashville, Tenn. Phillip Pate, who would have been a junior middle linebacker this season, is on medical redshirt after suffering a major knee injury followed by a major shoulder injury. He has officially retired from football. Pate and Pounds are the only linebackers the Tigers will be be replacing.
Phillip Pate made a strong comeback from a knee injury to contribute last fall, but has been permanently sidelined by a shoulder problem.
Pate is a player who Whitt says he respects as an athlete and leader, but notes the team has other leaders in this group of linebackers. "We really have," he says. "Dontarrious Thomas will be an outstanding leader. Mark Brown has shown some leadership in the offseason from talking with Coach Yox. He has done well in class. I expect him to be a leader. Karlos Dansby will be a leader for us. He is just an outstanding young man."
Mayo Sowell will be a redshirt sophomore this season.
Whitt says that coaching three spots instead of two shouldn't be a problem. "I think we have enough people at the position," he says. "Coach Chizik has worked with linebackers and we have GAs (graduate assistants) so it is not a problem at all to coach all three positions."
Whitt says he senses the Tigers are ready to get back on the gridiron. "Our football team is very excited about this spring," he says. "It has been a long time since I have seen this much excitement out of the guys going into the spring. They are looking for an opportunity to get better."
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