Auburn, Ala.--With a first-year defensive coordinator and a new system to learn, Auburn's defense was expected to have some growing pains in 2006 and that has been exactly the case. Because of a tendency to give up the big play at times the unit has been viewed as a weak spot for the Tigers despite giving up just 12.8 points and 287 yards per game.
A perfect example of their play occurred last weekend in a victory over Ole Miss. Despite periods of total domination against the Rebels Auburn also gave up five big plays that accounted for two-thirds of their total offensive output for the game. It's those plays that have the Tigers searching for answers. Linebacker Karibi Dede says that the defense is working hard to correct mistakes that allow big plays and he feels like they are getting better each week.
"They are frustrating because in a game you give up that big play or you give up that reverse or that score on a first drive," Dede says. "Coach (Will) Muschamp does a great job of putting things in perspective. Everything is correctable. We have the talent and this is our first year in the defense. Now that we've made it this far there is no more ‘this is our first year in the defense'. We've got to grow up quickly and I think we're making progress. That's all you can ask is that you get better from week to week."
The week to week improvement has been tougher this year than most because Auburn is currently on its 10th consecutive week of playing games in addition to preseason practices. Except for an occasional off day the Tigers have gone through three months without a break. Dede says that makes for it tough to get better during the week but you have to push through it.
"Physically it's a beast and mentally it's a drain," Dede says. "The hard part is practice. On game day you have so much adrenaline and stuff going through you that you feel 100 percent every game. In practice is where you feel nicks and bruises and bangs. Mentally it's just so tough preparing for opponent after opponent. This year with the diversity in our schedule we're getting so many different things. It's a lot to prepare for."
Dede is third on the Auburn team with 41 tackles and has two fumble recoveries this season.
Helping the defense improve the last three weeks has been the addition of linebacker Tray Blackmon. A redshirt freshman, Blackmon has come in and hit the ground running for the defense and Dede says he's still surprised by how much Blackmon comprehends on the field despite missing so much time.
"He's going to be a special player for years to come," Dede says. "He had not been there for the first half of the season but he makes adjustments. One thing about young guys is that usually when you talk to them you get feedback, words from them to let you know if they get it or they don't get it. Sometimes they'll say something back to you and it's like ‘oh no, he has no idea what I'm talking about'.
"The weird part about Tray is that in the middle of a game I'll tell Tray something and he won't say anything. At first I couldn't read him. ‘Does he really know football early on or is he going to be one of those guys that takes a few years?' This guys he understands but he doesn't say anything. That's the weird part. He won't say anything but he'll go do it…I think he'll be a great player in the years to come."
The Tigers have one last non-conference game this weekend against Arkansas State before finishing the regular season against rivals Georgia and Alabama. With everything to play for in terms of national recognition as well as momentum, Dede says that the team is anxious to put together a total performance against the Indians this weekend.
"I think the major thing with us throughout the year has been consistency, trying to get it done four quarters on every snap," Dede says. "I think we've had a tendency to give up a play or let something hit us like one big play. We just have to tighten up especially in this final stretch. Coach (James) Willis kind of compared this to the playoffs. We've got to win a three-game stretch but you've got to take them one at a time. That's kind of where we're at.
"I think the main thing for me when you play teams that aren't the big SEC schools is that you can't fall asleep and think to yourself ‘we're just a bigger, stronger team and we'll be able to out match them'," he adds. "A lot of time when you look at smaller schools their first string can go toe-to-toe, athlete-to-athlete. A lot of times you've got skill players that probably could have played in the SEC. The second team and special teams are areas that you have an advantage. We've learned that you can't take anyone for granted. You can't just roll out your hat and expect to win."
If the Tigers can get a win Saturday it will improve their record to 9-1 on the season and the senior class would tie the record for wins in a four-year period with 39. Dede says the team is looking forward to playing its best game of the season because now is when it needs to come.
"Every season I've ever played this is the time of year when if you get things clicking and get rolling at this time of year and roll into whatever happens at the end of the season, that's when teams get hot," Dede says. "Right now is when you start to see that momentum build. We need to start clicking and have it all start to come together right now."