Linebackers Take A Step Forward

Coach James Willis talks about the performance of his linebackers in the season opener and the challenge of facing Mississippi State.

Auburn, Ala.--It's hard to imagine a better start for Auburn's linebackers under new Coach James Willis after both Will Herring and Karibi Dede were solid in the opening night win over Washington State.

Both were praised by Willis and defensive coordinator Will Muschamp for their play and Willis says that it was well earned.

"I was very pleased," Willis says. "Will and Karibi both came out and played pretty good. Karibi had like nine tackles and a sack. Will had an interception, which was a big play, and a couple of third down stops. That was huge for the defense and the team.

"It was huge for Will especially coming out and being able to prove to himself that he could play linebacker after making that change. He did well. They both did a good job of seeing the formations and recognizing plays and reacting. That's all you can ask for."

The only negative to come from the first game was several missed assignments and missed tackles by the defense. Some of that was confusion by the defense because of a variety of offensive sets by the veteran Cougars. Willis says that they also schemed in a way that kept middle linebacker Merrill Johnson off the field for much of the game.

"We thought we would have more of a chance to come out with our regular package and match up with that," Willis says. "The way things happened we had to stay with our nickel group and our sub personnel. Some of the guys didn't get to play. That's part of the game because that's how the game was called."

Facing a team that failed to score a point last weekend and will be starting a redshirt freshman quarterback in his first start, Willis says that playing more than two linebackers won't be a problem this week facing SEC foe Mississippi State.

"I think this week will be the big test for our defense in that can we step up and stop the run," Willis says. "This team is really talented as far as running the football. They have two good running backs and the freshman is outstanding.

"Their offensive line is big and physical and they're going to come off the ball. We've got to work really hard this week on stopping the run and seeing the formations and understanding what they are trying to do to us."

The chance to play more this week should be big for Johnson after playing sparingly as a redshirt freshman last season. Despite playing for just a few snaps Saturday night the sophomore was around the football, but came up empty of a few of the plays. Willis says that's part of the learning curve with a young linebacker and especially one as fast as Johnson plays.

"He didn't get in there too much because of what they are doing," Willis notes. "In a game you only have so many reps and of course you're going to miss some tackles. He's so full speed, which is what you want. I think this week he's going to settle down a little bit. That's really his first time playing if you think about it. He got a chance to get that under his belt. Hopefully, this week he'll come out and settle down a little bit and make some plays."

With one game down the Tigers will hit the road this weekend to face a team coming off a horrendous offensive performance. That could lead to some of Auburn's younger defensive players looking past the Bulldogs and towards a battle with LSU the next week. Willis says that's not even a concern with this coaching staff though because they'll be pounding into the player's heads all week just how tough this game is going to be.

"A lot of the young guys don't understand what happens in the SEC," Willis says. "It's our job as coaches to really stress that and make them understand that this week is totally different than it was last week. The stakes are much higher week in and week out when you play in the SEC. They've got to understand that."

Will Muschamp works with Johnson during Monday's practice.

Auburn and Mississippi State will kick it off at 11:30 a.m. on Saturday in Starkville.

, "Hopefully our guys can keep, week in and week out, getting better," Willis says. "That's what we've got to stress to our guys. Every week you've got to get better than the last one. That's what we try to stress. And if you think about it, come the third or fourth game we'll start getting some players back. We'll be able to do more things and have more packages."

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