Busy Season for Tiger Linebackers

New linebacker coach James Willis has had a busy year in his return to Auburn.

Auburn, Ala.--When new linebacker coach James Willis returned to Auburn for the 2006 season he says he knew the first fall was going to be one of uncertainty with seniors Travis Williams and Antarrious Williams gone and two new starters taking over.

That proved to be the least of Willis' worries as position moves, injuries and suspensions made for a trying season, but in the end the unit did a more than solid job in the first year under Willis, helping the Tigers to a 10-2 season, he says.

"Overall, I think we did good," Willis says. "If you go back to the beginning of the season we had high hopes. Then you have two big losses with Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon. That forced us to rearrange the positions a little bit and move some people around, but I think it worked out for the best."

Looking back on the season it's hard to imagine the group playing much better than it did considering all the things that went wrong. The suspensions of Sears and Blackmon kept perhaps Auburn's two most instinctive linebackers off the field for half of the season. Throw in the injury to Steve Gandy and things were very tough for Willis in his first year, but the play of converted safety Will Herring and fellow senior Karibi Dede was the glue that held the defense together from game one to the final whistle against Alabama.

"The addition of Will Herring moving to linebacker was big for us," Willis says. "It made us better as a group with his leadership and athletic ability and play-making ability. That helped out a lot. Karibi Dede was a natural leader and made some plays. He was probably one of the most instinctive linebackers we had next to Tray and Kevin. The older guys did really well.

"It's huge because of our situation at linebacker with the lack of experience and depth we had," Willis adds. "That was tremendous for us. I wish there were times in game where we could have gotten Will out earlier and given him a blow, but a lot of times I had to pull him off the field anyway. He would not come off the field, which is a good thing.

"Those guys, Karibi and Will, they were pretty much ironmen throughout the season. They got a few nicks and bruises, but that's a credit to Coach Yox (Kevin Yoxall). Their bodies were ready for war."

Dede played well in his senior season despite a position switch from weakside to middle linebacker during the year.

Out for the first three games of the season because of a suspension and then injured on and off until the Iron Bowl, Sears was a player who Willis had counted on in the offseason to be a major part of the defense. Because of one thing or another it didn't work out that way, but Sears came up big when it mattered most. In his final game against Alabama, Sears had perhaps his best game and Willis says that was great to see after everything the senior went through.

"Kevin Sears came back and did well," Willis says. "If you think about it he only really got to play in three games as far as what we got out of him. That last game against Alabama was a huge game for us and him. I think he set the tempo of the game when he hit LeRon McClain. That was one of the turning points of the game."

Kevin Sears played perhaps the best game of his career in Auburn's win over Alabama.

Herring, Dede and Sears have a chance to add to their legacy when the Tigers head to Dallas to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day.

Part of the winningest class in Auburn history, the trio is down to just a handful of practices left in their time as Tigers. Because of that Willis says that he will begin to work some of the younger linebackers during bowl practices while keeping the veterans in playing shape. That means some interesting times on the practice field and a chance for Willis to mold the next group of leaders out of the linebacker position.

"We're excited about things," Willis says. "I think the season went well. We're looking forward to the offseason and bowl practice as far as getting more reps with these guys. It's like getting an extra spring practice. That's the kind of attitude we'll have as a staff and hopefully that's the attitude my guys will have. We're going to hit this thing head on and full speed."

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