Injuries to linemen DeMarco McNeil, Spencer Johnson, Dante Booker, Reggie Torbor and Jay Ratliff have depleted an already thin group, making it tougher for the defense to gel this spring.
The problems on the defensive front also make it more difficult to get the rebuilding offensive line ready to face other SEC teams and non-confernce opponents like the Southern Cal Trojans, Auburn's opening day assignment this coming September.
However, not all of the news had been bad. Although it is still early in the spring and for his tenure as an Auburn coach, Chizik says he has seen enough to have positive expectations for the 2002 defense.
"I think we have a lot of room for improvement," the former University of Central Florida defensive coordinator says. "I think they're really making strides because I think they're really trying to do what we ask them to do.
"Up to this point there has just been so much thrown at them that it takes a while to accumulate enough reps to be able to play everything the way I envision it to be played and the way we as a staff envision it to be played. We've got a long way to go, but they are making progress."
Among the players who have made a big impact on Chizik already are defensive tackle Johnson as well as linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas. All three will be juniors this season.
Another player who has captured the attention of his new coordinator and new position coach is free safety Travaris Robinson. Seeing his first action at safety after playing cornerback last fall, the senior who has also played wide receiver in his Auburn career appears to have finally found a home.
Spencer Johnson has been a force this spring on the defensive line.
"I think there are certain people within every group," Chizik notes when asked who is playing good football. "On the D-line right now certainly Spencer Johnson is a little beat up, but he's really tried to come on and play well. The linebacking corps as a group is very impressive. The move of Karlos Dansby is, up to this point, a very successful one. T. Robinson has really come on in the secondary. We moved him to safety and that has proven to be a good move at this point, too. We're still shuffling some personnel around trying to find the right fits. To me right now is about learning the base defense and getting the right people in the right spots. Those are the ultimate goals."
Karlos Dansby is adjusting to his new home at strong side linebacker.
"He understands, he's very football intelligent," Chizik says of Robinson. "He understands the game and he's a guy that I think can take charge back there simply because he's been around long enough to know college football at this level. He's also been around the game long enough to know the game itself. Provided that he continues to improve and learn at the rate that he's done it up to date, I think he can be really good for us."
Travaris Robinson is one of 14 scholarship seniors on the Auburn team for 2002.
With just under four weeks remaining until the annual A-Day game, which will be played on April 6 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Chizik says he has several things in mind for his defense in order to be the unit he expects to see when the Tigers take the field against USC September 1 in Los Angeles.
"We're trying to put in a lot of things," he says. "But mostly what we want to concentrate on is the base defense with the base blitzes out of it. I just want to make sure everybody understands alignments and assignments. I want to really, really concentrate and hunker down on their technique. That's the key. They have to be techinque-sound all the way from the defensive lineman in the three-point stance, to the linebacker taking on the block, to the secondary backpedaling and coming out of their breaks. All that stuff right now, that's how you win football games."
The Tigers return to practice Wednesday after position meetings earlier in the afternoon. The workout is scheduled to begin at 3:15 p.m. The Tigers are also scheduled to practice Friday at 3 p.m. before taking part in the second scrimmage of the spring on Saturday morning at 9:30 inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.