Johnson Expected to Regain Starting Role

A report is featured on Merrill Johnson and the Tiger linebackers as Auburn prepares for the bowl game.

Auburn, Ala.--It's been an up and down season for linebacker Merrill Johnson. The redshirt sophomore and his coaches are hoping it ends on a high as he is expected to take over the starting role at weakside linebacker for Auburn's Cotton Bowl game vs. Nebraska.

"Basically it is just like it was to start the season," notes Johnson, who moves back to first string on the depth chart with Tray Blackmon suspended from the bowl game for violating team rules. Blackmon was also suspended to start the season.

A 6-0, 208-pounder from Butler, Ala., Johnson has started five games this year and played as a reserve in the others for the 10-2 Tigers. He has 17 solo tackles, 15 assists and one quarterback sack.

With the Tigers having depth issues at linebacker in preseason, position coach James Willis moved Johnson from weakside to the middle as Steve Gandy moved from safety to weakside linebacker to bolster the depth at the position.

Johnson made five tackles in Auburn's victory over LSU.

Johnson had been a backup to 2005 senior Antarrious Williams at the weakside spot as a redshirt freshman and moved up to first team in the middle after the position change. However, the decision was made to go with senior Karibi Dede as the starter in the middle with help from true freshman Craig Stevens, moving Johnson back outside to take over on the weakside after Gandy went down with a preseason leg injury that required surgery.

Johnson says he likes both linebacker positions and doesn't have a preference. He notes the key to his personal success is to make sure he is comfortable with his assignments going into a game. He notes that the key to success for the defense as a group is to keep Nebraska from being able to run the football.

Johnson's role for Auburn's bowl game against the Cornhuskers will be to play steady football and provide some big plays from the weakside spot where Blackmon played well enough to earn 2006 Freshman All-SEC honors, something Johnson received last season.

"I am excited about the chance to be the starter again," Johnson says. "Having more experience than I did to start the season, I feel more comfortable."

The sophomore adds that first-year Auburn linebacker coach James Willis has been a big help in giving him a comfort zone. "Coach Willis has taught me a lot," he says of the former Auburn and NFL player. "He has played in the league and he knows what it takes to play on this level. He played on this level and he was a very good player and he is good at teaching you the things that you need to know to be successful."

In addition to playing in the bowl game without Blackmon, the Tigers will miss senior Kevin Sears, who played well against Alabama to close the regular season. Sears is also suspended. True freshman Stevens went down early in the year with a hamstring injury and is expected to receive a medical hardship redshirt and won't be playing in the Cotton Bowl.

Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp says the Tigers should be okay despite the sizable group of missing linebackers.

"Merrill Johnson has been a guy who has played a lot for us," Muschamp says. "Steve Gandy, I think the time off helped him tremendously, getting his leg back up underneath him and getting some weight back and strength back more than anything. Chris Evans has done some good things for us. Of course, Patrick Trahan is playing behind Will Herring at sam (strongside) linebacker so we feel good about our two-deep."

The Tigers and Cornhuskers will meet on New Year's Day in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl. Kickoff is set for 10:40 a.m. and the game will be televised by Fox.


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