In-Depth Preview: AU Defense vs. UF Offense

Mark Murphy of Inside the Auburn Tigers and Mark McLeod of Gatorcountry analyze the big SEC showdown as the Florida Gators visit Auburn.

By Mark Murphy

Inside the Auburn Tigers/

Auburn, Ala.--In what could be the biggest challenge of the season for Auburn's defense, the Tigers are preparing for a Saturday night test against the Southeastern Conference's hottest team.

Florida comes to Jordan-Hare Stadium riding an eight-game winning streak, including six-in-a-row this year, and should offer the Tigers all they can handle. Auburn's new defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp, says he is impressed with the Florida personnel. Muschamp also notes that his defense needs to step up its level of play after an embarrassing setback at home last Saturday against the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Auburn came into that game better than a two-touchdown favorite and left it worse than a two-touchdown loser to a team the Tigers overpowered a year earlier in Fayetteville. However, the rematch in 2006 was a victory on the line of scrimmage by the Razorbacks, who turned loose tailbacks Darren McFadden and Felix Jones. They ran over and around the Tiger defense for big yardage.

When the final whistle blew, McFadden had carried the football 28 times for 145 yards and the first rushing touchdown allowed by the Tigers this season. Speedster Jones added insult to injury with his 104 yards and one touchdown on just 13 carries. The final tally was 279 yards rushing for the Razorbacks against a team that had only been allowing 88.2 rushing yards per contest.

For Auburn to prevent that from happening again, the front seven will need to slow an offense that is averaging a very respectable 155.5 rushing yards per contest. Defensive ends Marquies Gunn (6-4, 268, senior, 18 tackles, three sacks), Quentin Groves (6-4, 254, junior, 15 tackles, three sacks), Christopher Browder (6-4, 270, Sr., 12 tackles, two sacks) and Antonio Coleman (6-2, 250, RFr., six tackles) had a disappointing performance against a big and physical Arkansas offensive line. The Tigers gave up yardage with the Razorbacks running straight ahead and too often allowed the speedy tailbacks to make big gainers on the corners.

Giving up 279 yards was a group effort, however. The interior linemen--Josh Thompson (6-0, 295, Jr., 21 tackles, one sack), Sen'Derrick Marks (6-2, 291, RFr., 17 tackles, 3 1/2 sacks), Pat Sims (6-4, 304, So., nine tackles, two sacks) and Tez Doolittle (6-3, 292, Jr., five tackles)--didn't have a day to remember either vs. the Razorbacks. However, no changes are expected up front at the tackle, noseguard or end positions. That is not the case at the linebacker spots.

Karibi Dede, a 6-0, 222 fifth-year senior who was one of the few players who earned praise from his coaches for his play last week, is moving to middle linebacker from the weakside spot. A smart and aggressive performer, Dede will replace sophomore Merrill Johnson (6-0, 213, 23 tackles) in the starting lineup. Dede played middle linebacker in the spring and some in preseason so he should be comfortable at the position in Muschamp's system. He is third on the team in tackles with 29.

Johnson moves outside to the weakside linebacker spot, where he is expected to share playing time vs. the Gators with 6-0, 205 redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon. Johnson had been an outside linebacker until making the move to the middle in preseason so Auburn coaches are hoping he will be an immediate factor back in his comfort zone.

Blackmon finished spring drills number one on the depth chart with Johnson out of action with an injury, but Saturday's game will be his first appearance this year. He received a six-game suspension from Coach Tommy Tuberville after being arrested in his hometown of LaGrange, Ga., in May on underage alcohol-related charges. Blackmon is very quick and very aggressive and has practiced with his teammates throughout the suspension. How well he plays will be closely watched by Auburn's coaches and fans.

The other linebacker spot will be handled by 6-3, 221 Will Herring, a four-year starter who moved to strongside linebacker in spring training after playing free safety throughout his collegiate career. He was the leading tackler last season and is the current leader for the Tigers with 33. Like Dede, Herring is a smart player and has two of Auburn's three interceptions.

Will Herring has been a fixture in the starting lineup going back to the 2003 season.

Another experienced linebacker to watch is 6-3, 237 senior Kevin Sears, a former starter who can play both the middle and outside. Steve Gandy (6-2, 201, So.), a former starter at safety, may also see action at linebacker. He missed the first four games due to a leg injury.

Overview: Fortunately for the Auburn defense the Tigers won't be facing Florida backs with the speed of the Arkansas duo of McFadden and Jones, but there is obviously concern on the AU front with Muschamp moving Dede to middle linebacker. One of the bright spots on the defense early in the season was the play of new starters Thompson at noseguard and Marks at tackle. They took over for a pair of 2005 seniors, Tommy Jackson and Wayne Dickens, who were very experienced and effective throughout the season. Sims, from Dillard High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., can play both inside spots and will likely play nearly as much as the starters. Doolittle, who has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, is the fourth man in the rotation, but normally doesn't play a lot.

Prior to the Arkansas game, Auburn's rushing defense looked like a winning matchup against any offense in the SEC. That is now in doubt as the Tigers have plenty to prove Saturday night. Auburn's rush vs. the Florida running game: even

Passing Game

Based on Florida's first six games, stopping the Gator passing attack looks to be more of a challenge than dealing with the UF runners. Playmakers like Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell and Jermalle Cornelius will offer serious tests to the Tiger secondary.

At one corner Auburn features 5-11, 190 senior David Irons, who is having an impressive season with 26 tackles and one interception. The senior NFL prospect has not allowed opponents to have much success throwing the ball on his side of the field this year and has been excellent in run support. He stood up well to challenges from good receivers he faced in victories over Washington State and LSU.

At the other cornerback, underrated junior Jonathan Wilhite normally plays bigger than his 5-11, 182 frame. However, he may still be trying to shake off the rust from a hamstring injury suffered in the first half of the LSU game. Wilhite has five tackles.

Wilhite returned to action last week vs. Arkansas and was the cornerback on the play in which freshman QB Mitch Mustain's prayer of a pass to beat a blitz was answered with a catch and a touchdown run by six-foot-six receiver Marcus Monk, who bumped Wilhite off the play. It's difficult to know if Wilhite's lack of playing time and practice time contributed to the key touchdown for the Razorbacks, but it was not the type of problem Wilhite normally has.

The Tigers have a solid number three cornerback in 6-0, 195 junior Patrick Lee, who can play on either side. Lee has seven career starts for the Tigers. Lee has 14 tackles.

The safety position was a concern heading into the season with 5-11, 191 redshirt freshman Aairon Savage moving into the vacated free safety spot where Herring had started for three years. Eric Brock, retaking his strong safety spot he had lost last year to Gandy, was also a question. Brock, who is 6-1, 204, is having by far his best season and Savage has steadily improved. He has 30 tackles. Savage played well against the Razorbacks, finishing that game with 11 tackles. He has 27 for the season.

Depth at safety comes from speedster Tristan Davis, who is also a kickoff returner for the Tigers. Jerraud Powers, a 5-9, 177 redshirt freshman, could see action when the Tigers go to nickel or dime coverage packages. Auburn often drops Herring and Dede, another former starter at safety, into deep pass coverage from their linebacker spots.

A big part of the pass defense is how much pressure the Tigers can get on quarterbacks Chris Leak and Tim Tebow. The Tigers didn't have a sack last week against an Arkansas team that threw just 10 passes, but are still second in the SEC in that category with 17 this season.

Overview: Auburn generally played very well against the best passer it has faced this year, LSU's JaMarcus Ricks. However, the Tigers struggled two games ago at South Carolina with scrambling QB Syvelle Newton, who gave Auburn fits with no-huddle, five-receiver sets out of the shotgun formation. He used his nimbleness to buy extra seconds for his receivers to get open and because of that the Gamecocks nearly pulled off the upset. With Leak's experience and the quality of his receivers, this will be a tough matchup even for an Auburn defense ranked sixth nationally in points allowed. Auburn's pass defense vs. Florida's pass offense: slight advantage Florida.

Florida Offensive Preview

By Mark McLeod, Senior Columnist

The Florida offensive staff has done a tremendous job assessing the strengths of their players and putting them in position to make plays that they have demonstrated in practice the ability to make. While there are times when you must throw a player out there and see what works and doesn't work, this staff clearly has a handle on things and makes the right decisions.

I'll make my point with the big play ability of true freshman quarterback Tim Tebow. Head coach Urban Meyer and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen made it easy for Tebow. In every situation, they have taken his strengths and used them for gain, while breaking down a tendency by the opponent.

The double pump, jump pass was a terrific way to ensure that Tate Casey would be open after Tebow ripped off several good runs. Play action usually affords the tight end time to get open in the back of the end zone regardless whether it is high school, college or the pros. What a great situation to place a true freshman quarterback in, while elevating his confidence level.

Ditto the pass to Louis Murphy. Play action, throwing to a receiver who hasn't caught a pass all season.

More evidence? How about the drag route by Cornelius Ingram against Alabama, who used his greatest asset of running the ball after the catch? The use of Percy Harvin and Jarred Fayson? The rolling pocket by the offensive line? Obviously, this is exactly what coaches are supposed to do. But, it's refreshing to see a group with their fingers on the right buttons this often.

Field position, big plays, turnovers, and special teams play will factor heavily in determining the winner of the game between 11th-ranked Auburn and second-ranked Florida. Both teams play fabulous defense, which usually means the offenses will have to rely on big plays and converting on those opportunities without penalties or other breakdowns--and that especially includes special teams.

Now, turnovers apparently aren't always a necessity. Arkansas is 4-1, 3-0 and has secured one turnover all year. That's right, just one. The Razorbacks are a -9 in turnover margin, yet lead the Western Division standings with an unblemished record after three conference games. Amazing.

The Big Nasties

This will be another huge test for the offensive front. Auburn probably doesn't get its just reward as a hostile environment. The Swamp, Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge at night, and The Horseshoe are seemingly always among the first mentioned and rightfully so. But, Jordan-Hare Stadium is definitely among the top five in the country. It is a trip that every college football fan should take.

I would imagine the Gators will once again go to a silent count, which worked very well in Knoxville. The Tigers will have to come up with packages that will prevent Florida from running the ball down their throats. Arkansas exposed a serious weakness. But, Auburn has a quality coaching staff that certainly worked this week in practice to shore up those deficiencies.

Left tackle Phil Trautwein (6-6 308) entered the season with very limited experience. Six starts later, the junior who is charged with protecting Chris Leak's blind side continues to be singled out for praise by Meyer. Trautwein was named offensive player of the game for his play against LSU where he graded out at 84 percent. He was also named co-offensive player of the game by the Florida coaches for his effort against Tennessee. He graded out at 88 percent with seven knockdowns against Kentucky and also made the champions club for his play against Alabama.

The Gators are finally healthy at offensive guard. Their projected starting guards prior to the season opener were Jim Tartt (6-3, 315) and Ronnie Wilson. Both give Florida a physical, rather punishing presence. However, Tartt has been slow to return from shoulder surgeries. He still does not have the range of motion and seemingly experiences tightness in the shoulder. The sophomore has toughed it out at left guard where he has started every game. Once he regains full motion in that shoulder, the Florida coaches expect him to become one of the leagues dominating guards. He is a real road grader.

Florida lost Wilson (6-3, 312) on August 12th to a broken ankle that required surgery. Wilson had performed very well throughout practice and like Tartt, displayed the nasty attitude that coaches love. Wilson played 44 plays as a reserve against LSU and graded out as a champion. It remains to be seen if he cracks the starting lineup this week or he once again comes off the bench.

Florida's two best linemen are center Steve Rissler (6-3, 306) and right guard Drew Miller (6-5, 305). The pair played together at Sarasota Riverview High School. They were among the most sought after recruits in the state.

Rissler is Florida's elder statesman with 16 starts. The senior moved over from guard where he player last season. Rissler was named co-offensive player of the game after his performance against Tennessee and graded out very high against Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU.

Miller, a junior, made a name for himself as an Olympic lifter at Riverview. He told me that helped him tremendously with the transition to the collegiate level. Miller has started 14 games in his Florida career. He was also named to the champions club for his work against Kentucky, Alabama, and LSU.

The loss of Wilson forced the Gators to move Drew Miller back inside from right tackle. They moved reserve Carlton Medder up to right tackle in an effort to get their five best linemen on the field.

Medder (6-5, 315) was seemingly lost last spring. However, he noted that a change had to be made. The redshirt junior worked very hard in the weight room--the result being a stronger, more physical lineman. Medder graded out high against Tennessee, earning membership in the champions club. He had a most pleasant surprise on the front. However, he did not make the champions club the past two weeks against Kentucky and Alabama. His efforts in practice coupled with Ronnie Wilson's availability will determine his status to hold down the right tackle position.

Overview: The availability of Ronnie Wilson should provide the Gators with more flexibility. The Big Uglies did not fare as well opening holes for the backs against the Crimson Tide blitz package. The Gators have rushed for 167.2 yards per game, 4.7 yards per carry. For many years Florida has toiled with the finesse' label. This offensive line should not be confused with that label. There is no question they will try to knock people off the ball.

Running back DeShawn Wynn is scheduled to return for this game. He is the kind of back offensive linemen love to get in front of. Wynn is the workhorse who has no problem with the physical aspects of the game. He rarely ever gets knocked backwards. The offensive line has allowed nine sacks this season. Last season, a Florida offensive line that returned four starters had allowed 20 sacks after just five games.

Auburn has one of the best defensive fronts the Gators have faced. They are well-coached, very athletic, and run well to the ball. However, they lack size. Their speed and aggressive style of play has afforded them 17 sacks, second best in the conference. Florida will definitely have to keep an extra blocker or two in at times.

I believe that fullback Billy Latsko provides one of the keys to this game. Latsko is always a key element in the Gators success and that should not change this weekend. He is a devastating blocker and will be counted on greatly as Florida looks to establish the running game.

Has Auburn not allowed so many yards on the ground last weekend this probably would go down as even. And while Florida doesn't run the ball as well as Arkansas- they are among the best in the conference. SLIGHT ADVANTAGE: Florida

Skill positions

Quarterback Chris Leak (6-0, 207) is 13th in the nation in passing efficiency. He has completed 101-156 for 1,395 yards with 14 touchdown passes, which is second best in the conference. He has not put together a complete game in SEC play though.

Chris Leak has put up big numbers for the Gators.

Leak was sensational in the second half against Alabama and despite struggling a bit throwing the ball in the first half, he brilliantly used the quarterback draw to provide the spark for the Gators. That is something the Tigers will have to watch for. Leak has improved his decision making when running the ball.

Obviously, Meyer took exception to Leak's slide short of the first down marker in the Tennessee game. I doubt that we'll see that once again. In the past, Leak seemingly always chose the wrong time, direction, etc when trying to leg out something positive when receivers weren't open.

True freshman reserve quarterback Tim Tebow (6-3 229) earned the SEC Freshman Player of the Week honor throwing two touchdown passes and running for one of his own vs. LSU. Tebow brings a whole new aspect to the Florida offense that forces defensive coordinators to spend time preparing for him.

Tebow is the Gators' second leading rusher with 228 yards on just 41 carries, a hearty 5.6 yard average. He has progressed nicely in the Florida passing game. The Florida coaching staff has done a terrific job putting him position for some great looks. Tebow has completed 10 of 14 for 152 yards with two touchdowns, and an interception.

DeShawn Wynn (5-11 238) has also been impressive. A senior who not nailed down the starting running back job a few weeks ago is the SEC's fourth leading rusher with 354 yards on 64 carries, a 5.5 yard average. His twisted knee is much improved. Wynn has only lost five yards on 64 rushing attempts this season.

Sophomore Kestahn Moore (5-10 212) will once again be the first one off the bench. Moore has run for 196 yards on 41 carries, an average of 4.9 yards per attempt. Both are also solid receivers out of the backfield.

The unsung hero of this offense is senior fullback Billy Latsko. He is an outstanding blocker who gives Leak additional time to throw, Wynn and Moore the ability to get past the linebacker, and is often spotted downfield knocking around a defensive back to clear a path for the Florida receivers. Latsko (5-10, 232) provided a huge spark to the offense with a key 18-yard reception against Alabama. He provides yet another headache for defensive coordinators.

Florida has a pair of athletic tight ends. Junior Tate Casey (6-7, 240) has several starts under his belt and teams with Cornelius Ingram (6-4, 225) to provide a terrific one-two punch. Casey is a big target who played baseball with the Gators' squad. He made the national highlight circuit with his receptions of Tebow's double-pump, jump pass in the back of the end zone. Ingram played basketball for the Gators and is one of the most athletic tight ends in the nation with speed and running ability galore. Ingram has hauled in eight passes for 100 yards. He picked up 38 yards on a big play against the Vols.

Dallas Baker is a key member of a talented group of wide receivers.

The Gators have one of the deepest and most talented receiving corps in the country. They can flat torch you when they opt to go four or five wide. The leader of the group is senior Dallas Baker (6-3, 207) who leads the team with 31 receptions for 494 yards (15.9 ypc) and five touchdowns.

Fellow senior Jemalle Cornelius (5-11, 185) has 17 receptions and brings a tremendous 19.1 yards per catch average with him. He has a lot of quickness and wiggle. Cornelius has three touchdowns.

The third starter is junior Andre Caldwell (6-1,203) who was lost for much of the season last year. Caldwell was a little rusty in the season opener against Southern Miss, but is now the Gators second leading receiver with 21 receptions for 188 yards and three touchdowns.

True freshman Percy Harvin (5-11, 180) is expected to see significant playing time after suffering a high ankle sprain against Tennessee. Harvin has blazing speed and has hauled in 10 catches for 163 yards (16.3 ypc), while rushing for 92 yards on just nine carries.

The Gators' reserves don't have the experience, but aren't lacking in speed and talent. True freshmen Jarred Fayson (6-0, 202) and Riley Cooper (6-3, 206) have made an immediate impression and will see playing time. Both are fast, fluid, and usually have good hands.

Senior Kenneth Tookes (6-2, 207) and redshirt freshman David Nelson (6-5, 206) are two other outstanding receivers who the Florida staff have confidence in playing.

Overview: Leak and his receivers combine to make-up a terrific blend of experience, speed, and talent. The running game which had been a big question mark before coming of age is now a question mark once again until Wynn demonstrates that his twisted knee has recovered. Moore and James are hard runners who still must develop. You'll see Percy Harvin line-up at tailback at times this weekend.

The Auburn secondary has only picked off three passes this season, which is among the worst in the conference. LSU had the best secondary the Gators have faced all season. Personally, I don't see Auburn as strong in the defensive backfield as those Tigers. That's not to say they're overrated or bad. They are very good. Florida has a tremendous talent that has significantly improved over last season. It's hard to argue that the Gators don't have the best receiving overall corps in the conference.

Leak missed several open receivers in the first half of last week's game against LSU. He must take what he is given and make the timely throw. Furthermore, the road is no place to start turning the ball over. He must play like a seasoned veteran and take care of the football. ADVANTAGE: Florida

Analysis: The Gators must eliminate costly turnovers, stupid penalties, mental breakdowns, connect on field goal attempts and win the field position battle. They have suffered flaws in each of these areas, but have been able to overcome them. But, this is on the road. And road wins in the SEC are as valuable as that end of the year bonus. The problems are still a source of frustration for Meyer and the staff and must be cut down for the Gators to win at Auburn.

Last weekend, Arkansas decided to fire off the ball and hit Auburn right in the mouth. The Razorbacks used their size to overwhelm the Tigers by getting bodies on them play after play. The Hogs ran the ball on 45 of their 55 total offensive plays. Auburn's defensive line averages just 6-2, 276 pounds. Their linebackers average just 6-1, 219. Is there any doubt the Gators will try to pound the ball and make the Auburn players harken back to those awful memories of last weekend?

Field position and penalties have hurt the Gators too often this year. That must be avoided on the road. Those penalties have placed them into third down situations often. Florida is 35 of 69 (50.7 percent) on third down conversions. That is third best in the conference and 10th nationally.

Auburn has limited opponents to 99 first downs this season. The Gators are third in the conference with 125 first downs, trailing SEC leading Tennessee by just two. The Tigers rank fifth in third down defense allowing 34.6 percent. They are best in the red zone where they've only given up four touchdowns to opponents in 12 trips. Three of those touchdowns have been through the air. However, they have only secured six turnovers all season.

This is yet another great challenge for the Florida offensive line. Auburn has sacked the quarterback 17 times. The Gators have allowed only 10 sacks, an average of one every 17 pass attempts. Last year at this time, Florida had already allowed 23 sacks.

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