Auburn, Ala.--Losing two veteran starters and the top reserve off last year's unit, Auburn linebacker Coach James Willis has a big challenge this spring as he tries to infuse several young and talented players into a group that has little true game experience. Willis says the one good thing about his group this spring is the talent level hasn't dropped off and in fact could be better.
"We did lose a lot of key guys in Will Herring, Karibi Dede and also Kevin Sears," Willis says. "The good thing about our last training camp was that we had to give those young guys a lot of reps to get them ready early so a lot of those guys have seen a lot of practice reps and some game reps too. We don't have the same kind of game experience that those guys had but as far as athleticism goes there won't be any fall off."
One player that would be penciled in to a starting spot at linebacker this spring if he was on campus is sophomore Tray Blackmon. Suspended for the Cotton Bowl at the end of the 2006 season and out of spring practice, Willis says that Blackmon is keeping a positive attitude and is looking forward to getting back on the field next fall.
"We're greatly looking forward to having him back," Willis says. "He's taking care of family matters right now and some personal business but when he gets back, which he will be back, I think he'll pick up right where he left off. His presence on the football field, you felt that every game he was in. When he came back he was a key role in our play. We're looking forward to having him back and can't wait to get him back."
Without the top four linebackers off last year's squad in spring practice the veteran of the group will be junior Merrill Johnson. A starter for almost half of the 2006 season at both middle and weak side linebacker, Willis says Johnson will be back in the middle this spring and will be flanked by two very athletic linebackers to start practice.
"Patrick Trahan showed tremendous improvement from spring ball to training camp and on into the season," Willis says of the strong side linebacker. "We're going to hang a lot on him. Hopefully with his speed and quickness he'll make some plays for us. Merrill Johnson is in the same category. He's a quick hitter that gets downhill and is a good penetrator. Hopefully he can step in at mike linebacker and do some things for us. At will linebacker Steve Gandy will step in and hopefully pick up where he left off before he had the injury. Right now it's kind of an open market so the ones that practice well will play. We're looking forward to it."
Patrick Trahan is a very talented and athletic linebacker that is ready to blossom in a starting role.
Despite not having true middle linebacker size, Johnson plays the position well and is similar to former Tigers standout Travis Williams with his style of play. Willis says Johnson's experience and physical nature makes him perfectly suited to play in the middle.
"He had more game experience than any of the guys that will be on the field right now," Willis says of Johnson. "He played a lot of snaps last year and made some plays. Now with another year under his belt and having a little more maturity I think he can handle the role we're putting on him. Hopefully he can get us lined up and playing some good ball."
Steve Gandy is back to full strength after struggling the entire 2006 after having emergency surgery on his left leg.
Behind the starters heading into the spring the Tigers have two players that have some experience and the biggest of Auburn's group of linebackers. Both Chris Evans and Courtney Harden have seen some limited action in the last two seasons after redshirting in 2004 and will back up the middle and strong side linebacker spots for the Tigers. Willis says both give the team a solid two-deep heading into the spring.
"He has shown great improvement," Willis says of Evans. "He is taking coaching and is a solid student. He's a good kid and one that you can trust. He is one that I put a lot into on the field and I think he can step up and do some good things for us.
"We moved Courtney to the strong side," Willis adds. "He has been that kind of guy for us. With his body style and make up and the kind of person he is, he's willing to do anything for the team. I'm going to start him at sam (strong side) to make us more flexible and give us a balanced depth chart. He's big enough to play over the tight end and athletic enough to play in space."
Craig Stevens is a physical player that has the look of a natural linebacker.
The player that will likely get a lot of attention during the spring is redshirt freshman Craig Stevens. Impressive last season until suffering a minor injury and getting a medical redshirt year, Stevens is now bigger and stronger than last season. Willis says he's looking forward to seeing how his prize pupil has improved since last fall.
"Craig is going to play behind Steve Gandy in the spring," Willis says. "I'm sure Gandy can bring him along and teach him a few things but with a young guy you just don't know. He made good progress last training camp and those first few games before he got injured. He's big, he's athletic and he's physical. The sky is the limit for him. I think he has all the potential and all the tools in the world to be a good player. Now it's time to get on the football field and prove it."