Willis Building A Solid Group at Linebacker

James Willis and Will Herring share their thoughts on how the linebackers are playing this year.

Auburn, Ala.--Since James Willis took over as the linebackers coach at Auburn prior to spring practice, the depth chart has changed often because of injuries, suspensions and personnel changes.

Will Herring, the starter at strongside, was a three-year starter at free safety.

Merrill Johnson, the starter in the middle, was a backup weakside linebacker until this fall.

Karibi Dede, the starter at weakside, came out of the spring in a battle with Kevin Sears for the starting position at middle linebacker.

Tray Blackmon came out of the spring as a first-stringer, but was suspended along with Sears for alcohol-related issues that resulted in arrests. However, despite all of the changes, the lineup of Herring, Johnson and Dede has been a team strength through four games.

Sears played in Auburn's last game against Buffalo, but will have a difficult time taking the job back from Johnson.

Herring says he has been extremely impressed with Johnson's athletic ability in the middle.

"He's still real raw," Herring says. "He's come a long ways ever since spring and two-a-days. Now four games into the season he's getting better every game. He's making a few mistakes here and there mentally.

Will Herring is shown in action as a linebacker.

"Physically, he flies to the ball as well as anybody we've got on defense. He's fast, he plays fast and he plays with everything he's got. When you have a guy with that much heart and that much talent like he's got he's going to be a great player.

"It's kind of odd how it worked out," Herring adds. "They moved him there I think when Dede or somebody got hurt just for a day. He didn't even know what he was doing, but he was flying around and he was a lot more instinctive at the mike position."

While Johnson has been a pleasant surprise, the added depth of Sears to the position should only make the situation better.

"It was good to see him back out there," Willis says of Sears. "He had fun, he ran around and made some plays and he was hitting hard. I think it's going to knock the dust off so he can go out and play some football now. They're all going to play.

"Any time you can have that type of competition for the job it's going to make us better," Willis adds. "We're looking forward to that competition (at middle linebacker)."

With Blackmon not expected to return until later this season, Steve Gandy was moved from strong safety to weakside linebacker this summer and was playing well at the new position. However, Gandy suffered a strange thigh injury called compartment syndrome and was hospitalized for a week after surgery on his leg. That meant that true freshman Craig Stevens was part of the two-deep and he played well in the first three games of the year.

Then Stevens injured his hamstring and will likely be redshirted. Stevens' role in the lineup was just long enough for Gandy to get healthy. Gandy played well against Buffalo in 32 snaps and is now Dede's backup.

Willis, a former Philadelphia Eagle player, still has the look of an NFL linebacker.

Blackmon is expected to return from his suspension sometime during October, finally giving Willis a full stable of players to mix and match as he pleases.

"Pretty soon we'll have the entire group back," Willis says. "Any time the mother hen gets all of her ducks back in the yard then she's okay. I think we're getting to that place now."

Tommy Tuberville says that he plans on rotating the linebackers a bit more in the upcoming weeks. Herring, who leads the team in what the coaches call "production points," says it's just fine for him because he believes his backup, Patrick Trahan, can also get the job done.

"I got a little winded (against Buffalo), but Trahan did a great job when he came in and showed that he's capable of coming in there and giving me a blow," Herring explains. "It's nice to have somebody you trust behind you. I think we'll get more confidence in the other guys as the season progresses."

Also adding depth are Courtney Harden, Chris Evans and Alonzo Horton.

The linebackers played well in holding LSU to just three points and 42 yards rushing, but had a dropoff against the Bulls last weekend. Willis says that there were a lot of errors made, but they are not anything that can't be fixed in practice.

"If we made those mistakes against different opponents then I don't think the outcome would be the same," he says. "The guys played hard and tried to execute the plan. We've got a few things to clean up but other than that we're pretty pleased."

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