Defense Getting Ready For Opener

Coach David Gibbs talks about the battle for a starting job at cornerback and how important it was to get two key players back on the practice field.

Auburn, Ala.–-New Auburn defensive coordinator David Gibbs is four days away from his first game as the Tigers' defensive boss and he's just now settled on a rotation heading into the contest against Georgia Tech.

One of the main battles on the field was at the cornerback position as returning starter Montae Pitts got more of a challenge than he could handle from sophomore Patrick Lee. On Monday Lee was named the starter at corner with Pitts backing him up. Jonathan Wilhite, a sophomore juco transfer, could also see playing time at the position on opening night.

Sophomore Patrick Lee has improved greatly since last fall and spring training.

All three players bring a little something to the table for the Tigers as they prepare to head into the season opener against Georgia Tech, a team featuring one of the nation's top receivers in 6-4, 225 sophomore Calvin Johnson. A first-team All-ACC performer as a freshman when he caught 58 passes for 853 yards and seven touchdowns, Johnson's presence on the field will require a lot of attention and that is something Auburn can do with a number of different players to throw his direction.

"Calvin Johnson makes plays on everyone he plays," Gibbs said. "It's not like you're going to go out there and hold him to one catch. You just hope that his great catches don't go for touchdowns and if you do then you've got problems."

At 6-2 and 200 pounds, Pitts is the obvious choice to put on Johnson because of his size and experience in big games, but Lee has been more consistent this preseason. Although he's a little smaller at 6-0, 200, Lee has shown the ability to play tough against Auburn's physical receivers during camp. The smallest of the group by far is junior college transfer Wilhite. At just 5-11, 171, he would have the toughest time with the match-up against Johnson and Tech's other top receiver Damarius Bilbo (6-3, 220), but he makes up for his lack of size with great leaping ability and a sense for playing the football in the air.

On the other side there is no battle as senior David Irons has come back from knee surgery that kept him out of the 2004 season to seize control of things in what could be his last and only year of playing at Auburn. At 6-1, 189 with good speed, he has all the intangibles to be successful for the Tigers this season as they attempt to incorporate a more physical and aggressive attitude in the secondary. Because of that he will likely be called upon to match up with Johnson much of Saturday night's game. Gibbs says that behind Irons there could be a number of players that could see action in the opener when he needs a rest.

Tech receiver Calvin Johnson will be tough to handle for Auburn's cornerbacks.

"To me all those guys (could be Irons' backup)," Gibbs said. ""Whoever doesn't start on the other side could be the backup over there. Jonathan could be the backup over there. Lorenzo Ferguson could be the backup. Zach Gilbert has had a good camp. We've got some depth. We just need one of them to step up and be the starter and the other guys to be the backups."

While there are plenty of bodies to put on Tech's receivers, the best defense against the passing game will be getting pressure on quarterback Reggie Ball. That effort has been helped with the recent return of both Stanley McClover and Marquies Gunn to the practice field after they had been hampered by hamstring strains during two-a-days. Along with Quentin Groves they are Auburn's most experienced and talented pass rushers at defensive end and Gibbs says that having them back on the field makes a big difference for the defense.

"It's the speed factor," Gibbs said. "They have fresh legs. It's not fair. You look at those two and Tre Smith and they are the three fastest guys on the field. It definitely helps. It helps depth because now your twos are your twos and your ones are your ones. Your threes don't have to go out there so you're obviously a better team and a better defense."


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