Auburn Linebackers Getting Stronger

Auburn Coaches James Willis and Will Muschamp talk about the linebacker position for the Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.--When Tommy Tuberville announced on Sunday that the suspension of senior Kevin Sears was over it automatically made Auburn's linebacker corps stronger. Auburn's most experienced linebacker coming into the season, Sears has played both in the middle and on the strong side in his career.

Coach James Willis says that while he won't start right away Sears will get thrown back into the action. With starting middle linebacker Merrill Johnson playing well, Willis says they can take their time working Sears into game shape.

"We're going to work him right back in," Willis says. "Merrill will still be the first mike mike linebacker, but we'll work Kevin in there and let things happen where they may. Merrill will still be the starting linebacker and we'll work Kevin in behind him."

In addition to his work in the middle, Sears can also play the strong side. Currently starter Will Herring is backed up by redshirt freshmen Patrick Trahan and Alonzo Horton. Sears gives them an experienced guy there as well.

"That's huge for us because of the injuries and suspension (Tray Blackmon)," Willis says. "It's huge for us to add one more play to the mix that is versatile and can play inside and outside. He's going to be a great addition. Our unit is going to be even stronger now."

Sears is a physical linebacker at 6-4, 240.

Saturday the Auburn linebackers held up their end of the bargain without Sears and Blackmon against one of the nation's most physical and explosive offenses. Coming into the game LSU was averaging 45 points per contest. When they left the Tigers had been held to just three points in a game that Willis says showed him a lot about his guys.

"That was an old-fashioned brawl I would say," Willis says. "I think we did pretty good. We had a few mental errors here and there that could have really been costly to us as a team. We've got to pinpoint those things and fix those errors. They can all be fixed.

"They are giving great effort and running to the ball and tackling well and they are pretty physical," the coach adds. "As long as those things stay intact we can fix those minor errors. We just have to make sure those things don't happen at critical times."

A player who shined during Saturday's game was Johnson. Thought to be the weak link of the linebackers by some with Sears and Blackmon out, Johnson played very well against LSU. Currently second on the team with 14 tackles, the sophomore delivered when it was needed most last week.

"One thing about Merrill is that he got a few reps last year, but is still in a position where he should be coming off the bench," Willis says. "He was kind of thrown into it, but he has adjusted well. He's taken the role and accepted it and has become a pretty good leader for us.

"He doesn't have to say much, but when people see him running around and the way he hits they follow him. I think he's doing pretty good in his new role."

Willis isn't the only one impressed with Johnson. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp saw Johnson for the first time in an extended role against LSU and he adds that Saturday's performance could be just the tip of the iceberg for the speedy Johnson.

"He was really active," Muschamp says. "He's really playing at a fast tempo. His reads are getting better at linebacker. He's come along for us. I'm excited where he is and where he's headed more than anything."

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