Cougars Play Toward Tiger Weakness

First year Auburn linebacker coach James Willis discusses his successful debut at his alma mater.

Auburn, Ala.--Perhaps the biggest area of concern heading into opening night was at linebacker. The Tigers were breaking in a new position coach in James Willis and also had three players missing from the lineup with suspensions or injuries. Sophomore Merrill Johnson was making his first collegiate start and Will Herring was making his first start at the position after moving from free safety.

Auburn's so-called weakness, however, turned out to be a perfect situation against Washington State.

Playing a wide open offense that used three receivers, one tight end and one running back for most of the game, it called for Auburn to run mostly with a 4-2-5 package. The personnel in the game for the Tigers at the position was also a perfect fit against the pass with two seniors, Karibi Dede and Will Herring, who started their careers at free safety.

"With what they were doing they pretty much demanded that we did that," Willis says. "They came out with one tight end, two tight ends sometimes and sometimes they didn't have a tight end in the game. We had to go with two linebackers and a lot of coverage guys. We had to adjust to what they were doing."

Willis adds that he had planned on using a five or six player rotation, but only three saw a significant amount of time on the field.

Dede seemed to be in the right place at the right time all game and was credited with six solos, two assists for a team-leading eight tackles. Herring was no slouch either with his pass coverage. He had one interception that was returned 16 yards and broke up another pass on a diving attempt at another pick.

"Any time you can get experienced guys on the field it's going to be good for the defense," Willis says of Herring and Dede. "Those guys can get you lined up, help you through tough times and they did that. We're pretty pleased with what they did. Any time you can get linebackers who are flexible and can play all kinds of positions it's better for the defense. We have a few linebackers who are versatile so it helps us out."

Herring also had a 42-yard run on a fake punt after the Cougars pulled to within 12 points in the third quarter. The Tigers didn't score on the drive but it proved to be a momentum changer and helped Auburn with field position.

"He practiced well the entire time and had a good camp," Willis says of Herring. "He had a good attitude about the move as far as position. Those things pay off when you put in the work. You put the time in and do a lot of film study, and those things paid off for him today."

"Everyone rose to the challenge," he adds.

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