After Scare, Tiger LB Getting Ready for WSU

Auburn sophomore Merrill Johnson talks about his preseason and the Auburn football team's defense.

Auburn, Ala.--After giving his coaches a scare with an injury in Auburn's second major scrimmage of the preseason last Friday, sophomore Merrill Johnson is back in action as the first team middle linebacker.

Johnson was held out of two practices with an ankle problem, but fortunately for the Tigers the problem was not serious and he was back on the practice field on Tuesday after the team took a day off on Monday.

"I am back to full speed," says Johnson, who was in on 21 tackles last season. "It wasn't a serious injury or anything like that. It was just a little sprain."

That is very good news for linebacker coach James Willis, who will go into the first game without two potential starters, senior Kevin Sears and redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon, who are suspended indefinitely by Tommy Tuberville. Another key player, Steve Gandy, is out indefinitely after having leg surgery for an unusual compartment syndrome injury.

Because of that situation, Willis challenged AU's inexperienced linebackers like Craig Stevens, Patrick Trahan, Chris Evans, Courtney Harden and Hendrick Leverette to step up and show the coaching staff their skills.

Merrill Johnson puts a big hit on an Ole Miss Rebel in Auburn's victory last season.

"All of our young linebackers are doing pretty good," says Johnson, who is known as one of Auburn's most physical players. "They learn quickly. Coach Willis is a great teacher and he is a great coach. They pick up on it real fast."

Willis made the move inside to the middle linebacker spot in preseason. He entered spring practice number one on the depth chart at weakside linebacker where Antarrious Williams, a 2005 senior, was the starter. However, he missed spring drills with an injury and Blackmon finished spring on the first string.

"If they need me to move around I can move around, but right now I am at mike (middle)," he says. "At first I didn't want to move to mike, but now since I moved I love it. Going back to high school I played mike. I like playing it a whole lot."

With opening night just a week and a half away, Johnson sees the defense making progress. "We are steadily getting better," he says. "We still have to improve on the little things. I think when the time comes we are going to be ready.

"We are going to be an aggressive out there," the redshirt sophomore adds. "We have a very aggressive defense. Coach Muschamp (defensive coordinator Will Muschamp) is very intense and it carries over to the players. I think that has a lot to do with it."

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