Inside Look At The Auburn Defense

Auburn still has battles for playing time raging on the defensive side of the ball as the Tigers prepare for the season opener against Washington State.

Auburn, Ala.--For Auburn first-year defensive coordinator Will Muschamp the 2006 preseason has been anything but smooth.

With key defenders missing practice time there have been changes seemingly every day in practice in terms of who is playing where. Because of that several young players have the chance to break into the playing rotation this fall.

"Obviously linebacker is a situation where we felt like we needed some help," Muschamp says. "Safety is a position where we felt like we needed some help and we need to develop some depth in the defensive line. We've got to make some decisions after our next scrimmage.

"Right now Craig Stevens and Zac Etheridge are going to be two guys that will contribute for us," Muschamp adds. "More than likely one or two defensive linemen will contribute."

Any analysis at Auburn's 2006 defense has to begin up front where Tommy Jackson and Wayne Dickens are gone from last year's team. Also missing is defensive end Stanley McClover. While Marquies Gunn and Quentin Groves have starting experience and fellow end Christopher Browder is experienced as well, the question remains about how tough the Tigers will be in the middle.

Through the first two weeks of practice things appear to be closer to shaking out up front as junior Josh Thompson is clearly the first guy at the noseguard position with both Tez Doolittle and true freshman Mike Blanc expected to be capable backups. At tackle things are a little cloudier, but the emergence of redshirt sophomore Pat Sims has been one of the bright spots of preseason practice.

A talented player, Sims has been up but mostly down his first two seasons at Auburn. The lowest point came last fall as he left the team in frustration with a lack of playing time. He returned for winter workouts and now is one of Auburn's top defensive players at the moment. Showing leadership on the field and improved play, Sims seems poised to be the starter at the tackle position ahead of redshirt freshman Sen'Derrick Marks.

Josh Thompson will be called upon to provide a push in the middle of the Auburn defense.

True freshman Jermarcus Ricks also made some noise there in camp, but missing four days because of a death in the family has put him behind. That absence allowed fellow freshman Bart Eddins to make a move and he's done just that, showing up well in recent practices. It will be a surprise if more than two guys play at tackle because of the ability of Browder to move over and play the position. Also, Gunn is expected to move inside from end and play tackle in pass rushing situations.

At end Gunn has been banged up much of the preseason with a strained hamstring, but that has done little to change his standing as a starter for the Tigers. Behind him on the strongside is fellow senior Browder and sophomore Octavious Balkcom. A physically talented player, Balkcom must become more consistent with his play, but provides solid depth. Behind him true freshman Zach Clayton has played well and could push for playing time even though there is ample depth at the position.

On the weakside Groves is the man and finally appears ready to show his talent isn't reserved just for practices. Despite starting just three career games, Groves has played in 27 career games and has 13 1/2 career sacks. His increased playing time should add big numbers to that total in 2006. Behind him powerful redshirt freshman Antonio Coleman might be Auburn's best pure pass rusher. True freshman Bryant Miller is the third man in line and could see action this fall.

Antonio Coleman was a sack machine in high school and could take on that role as well at Auburn.

At the linebacker positions things have been all too fluid and changing seemingly every day. With the suspensions of both Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon hanging over the group it has been a mixed bag to this point as several players have taken advantage of injuries to make a move up the depth chart.

That begins in the middle where Merrill Johnson moved over from his spot on the weakside and has entrenched himself at the position. With Sears and Karibi Dede both missing time this fall with minor injuries, Johnson has performed well when called upon. The move has given the Tigers added depth as both Sears and Dede can play inside if needed along with Courtney Harden.

On the weakside Blackmon was expected to be the starter for the Tigers, but without him early in the season the job will likley go to Dede. A veteran of the position, Dede looks comfortable on the weakside and should be the starter to open the season.

Shooting up the charts has been true freshman Craig Stevens, who appears to be the backup to Dede early in the season on the weakside. Depth also comes from Chris Evans.

The wildcard on the weakside is Gandy, who missed the majority of two-a-days with a rare compartment syndrome thigh injury that required surgery and a hospital stay to remove fluid from under his quad muscle. If he's able to return early enough this season that would give the Tigers another talented player at linebacker.

Merrill Johnson (55) and Will Herring (35) are expected to be two of Auburn's starters on opening day.

The strongside is perhaps one of Auburn's most loaded positions on defense as Herring has been a mainstay this preseason. Moving from his free safety spot where he started for three seasons, Herring has added weight and looks like he's found a home. Behind him Sears has experience at the position and redshirt freshmen Patrick Trahan and Alonzo Horton provide talented depth.

If strongside linebacker isn't Auburn's deepest position then it's at cornerback where starters David Irons and Jonathan Wilhite return as perhaps the SEC's top tandem. Both were playing well in the preseason until Irons went down with a hamstring strain during two-a-days. That opened the door for big junior Patrick Lee to make a move at the position and he's responded by playing better than he has at any time since arriving at Auburn.

Jonathan Wilhite looks ready to establish himself as one of the SEC's best.

Fellow junior Zach Gilbert provides solid depth as do redshirt freshmen Jerraud Powers and Walter McFadden. Powers is likely at second-teamer along with Lee as the Tigers come out of two-a-days.

While things are solid at cornerback there is still plenty of uncertainty at safety although the starting spots could be locked down by junior Eric Brock and redshirt freshman Aairon Savage if they continue to improve in practice. Auburn's most experienced safety, Brock started seven games and has played in all 25 of Auburn's contests the last two seasons.

Brock has dropped almost 10 pounds since the spring and looks much quicker in the secondary.

A former cornerback, Savage brings intensity and good coverage skills to the free safety spot. One of Auburn's fastest players, Tristan Davis, is pushing to unseat Savage and appears to be more comfortable every day at the position. Behind Brock freshman Zaccheus Etheridge is locked in a battle with Lorenzo Ferguson for the backup job. Depth comes from walk ons Brant Haynie and Josh Hebert. Muschamp says that Savage has a chance to be a very good player for the Tigers once he gets the consistency he needs to be an every down player.

"Aairon is going to be a good player for us he's just a young guy and is going to make the typical mistakes that young guys make," Muschamp says. "He just has to be consistent every down and that's what we're struggling with right now. He's a good physical player and can judge the ball down the field and he's got good instincts in the back end. Right now if we were to start tomorrow he probably would be (a starter). He's still got a long way to go."

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