Auburn Spring Football Preview: Linebackers

This is the ninth in a series of articles previewing Auburn's spring football practice, which opens Feb. 28.

Auburn, Ala.--The job for James Willis hasn't been an easy one this spring. In addition to re-introducing himself to the Auburn defense and its terminology while taking over for long time coach Joe Whitt, Willis has also had to learn the new things brought to the table by new coordinator Will Muschamp in just a month's time.

Throw in the fact that he's trying to learn many of the players who are now under his tutelage and you have the makings of a busy schedule for the former Tiger linebacker turned coach. Despite that fact that Auburn is preparing to hit the field for the first practice of the spring on Tuesday, Willis says he already knows that he's missing two key players from last season's defense that he'll have to try to replace quickly.

"That's always an issue when you come in," Willis says. "You have seniors leaving and you're replacing guys who played key roles. Travis Williams and Antarrious Williams both played key roles in this defense. Travis Williams called the signals and set the front. Anytime you lose people you have to find people to step up and replace them.

"Right now that's what we're looking for. We still have Kevin Sears and Karibi Dede, who were here last year, to provide some leadership. At the same time the young guys are going to have to step up and start being leaders themselves."

Dede has played in 38 games in his Auburn career, starting 19.

The starter going into the spring at middle linebacker, Dede is a senior who has plenty of playing experience in games. The starter for much of the season last year on the strong side, the 216-pounder has already made quite an impression on Willis during the meetings they've had to get ready for spring practice.

"Karibi is very smart," Willis says. "He's also a very intelligent player. He gives great effort, he can get guys lined up and can do the things we need from a middle linebacker. That's what I'm going to lean on him for right now, to get us lined up and get the calls in. He'll keep the defense poised and keep us confident. He's got a lot of games under his belt and you've got to have that on the field. You've got to have some guys with experience on the field and he gives us that along with Kevin Sears."

Auburn's most experienced linebacker, the 6-4, 233 Sears is coming off a very disappointing season both on and off the field in 2005. On the field he played mostly as a backup to Dede on the strong side and finished with just 27 tackles in 10 games. That wasn't as troubling as a suspension for after being charged for Driving Under the Influence last fall, an issue that cost him two games and eventually led to him not playing in the bowl loss to Wisconsin.

Since that time Sears has worked hard to get back into the groove with the team and Willis says he needs to keep at it if he hopes to get back on the field this fall.

"The biggest thing he has to do right now is stay into it mentally," Willis says. "He's got to get into the playbook and really study. That's going to be the big thing for him. When you don't get the same amount of reps everybody gets and you also miss some game time, you really have to get in the book to pick things up."

Sears brings the added dimension of size to Auburn's linebacker corps.

Sears may have trouble getting back on the field even if he performs well in the spring because he has experienced competition for his job on the strong side in former safety Will Herring. Moved to linebacker for spring practice to see how well he fits at the position and also give several young safeties a chance to shine, the 6-3, 220 Herring has all the tools to be successful and Willis says he expects the change to be a good one for Herring and the defense.

"We were probably biggest hit on the defensive line and at linebacker," Willis says. "When you lose players you have to replace them with good people. Will is a good player. I was here with Will when he was a freshman. He's a tough guy. I don't think it will be a big deal for him at all moving to sam linebacker.

"He's athletic, he's big, he can run, and he can tackle," Willis adds. "Getting him close to the line of scrimmage now enables him to probably make more plays. We're excited about that."

Herring, who will be redshirt senior this fall, should bring an added dimension to Auburn's defense.

When talking about freshman linebacker Tray Blackmon, the excitement surrounding the 6-0, 210-pounder is evident. Despite the fact that he redshirted last season, Blackmon made a name for himself on the scout team and in bowl practices in Orlando. Starting spring practice as the backup to sophomore Merrill Johnson on the weak side, who himself made that same noise two seasons ago in New Orleans at bolw practices, Johnson already has his coach anxious to see him in action.

"I'm hearing a lot of the same things," Willis says. "I really can't wait to see Tray Blackmon in pads. I'm hearing that over and over again. We've got a lot of athletic linebackers right now. It's going to be interesting seeing those guys on the field and in between the hashes trying to make plays."

Blackmon is perhaps the fastest and hardest hitter among the linebackers on the team.

Despite all the talk about Blackmon, Johnson is the man to beat going into the spring because he sits at the top of the depth chart. A 6-0, 199 speedster, the sophomore played in 11 games and finished the season with 21 tackles. Fellow sophomores Chris Evans (6-0, 217) and Courtney Harden (6-0, 230) should also have a chance to battle it out for a job as they back up Dede in the middle to open the spring.

Merrill Johnson will have a tough job holding off freshman linebacker Tray Blackmon this spring.

Joining them behind Dede is solid walk-on Mark Pickett (6-2, 212, So.). On the strong side freshman Patrick Trahan (6-2, 210) is behind Herring and Sears. Willis says that group has a chance to be special down the road and he's anxious to see them perform this spring.

"I didn't recruit these guys and I really don't know much about them," Willis says. "It is still yet to be seen as far as when we get out on the field. That really determines everything. You can't really tell a lot about a player by talking to them or watching film with them, you have to see what he does on the green inside the hashes. I'm looking forward to that.

"At the same time having a lot of young guys brings an element to your group that is incomparable, and that is competition. These guys are going to be hungry because everybody wants to play. That's what you want to have. You want to create competition within your unit because that just makes you better. I'm looking forward to that."

Harden's size could give him an edge in trying to win the middle linebacker spot behind Dede.

The Tigers open spring practice Tuesday with a workout in shorts scheduled to begin at 4:15.

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