Auburn Football: Five Defensive Questions

A preview of the 2007 Auburn football team's defensive unit is featured.

Auburn, Ala.--Going into his second year as Auburn's defensive coordinator, Will Muschamp has talked about becoming a more consistent defense as the Tigers look to improve on last season's Top 10 national finish in both total and scoring defense.

To do that several questions must be answered during preseason practice before the Tigers take the field against Kansas State in the season opener on Sept. 1.

First and foremost is the question at linebacker. With Will Herring, Karibi Dede and Kevin Sears gone off last year's team, it would have been a rebuilding process anyway, but with projected starter Patrick Trahan out for the season because of academic problems, the linebacker position is one with a lot of question marks heading into the season.

The good thing for Muschamp and position Coach James Willis is the return of several players with at least some limited experience and two, Tray Blackmon and Merrill Johnson, who have started and played extensively last year.

They will give the Tigers some building blocks at the position with Blackmon moving to the middle and Johnson projected to start on the weak side. Other experienced players who could provide depth, or maybe move into the playing rotation, are Steve Gandy, Chris Evans and Courtney Harden.

While the Tigers have five players who have seen game action, the problem is none are particularly suited for the strongide linebacker position left vacant by Herring and then Trahan. The likely starter at the position to open camp will be redshirt freshman Craig Stevens. Impressive last fall as a true freshman until being sidelined by a hamstring problem and taking a medical redshirt year, Stevens moves from the weak side to the strong side, but has the physical ability to get the job done.

Redshirt freshman Craig Stevens is impressive physically.

The wildcards of the entire group may be a pair of incoming freshmen in Josh Bynes and Bo Harris. Both have the size and speed to be a force at linebacker and if they can learn the defense quickly enough, they could make a run at Stevens' hold on the starting spot. Bynes will get his first look in the middle behind Blackmon and Chris Evans but could see action at the weak side if Courtney Harden and Harris provide solid depth on the strong side.

The second question mark is how much consistency Pat Sims can show now that he's the projected starter with Sen'Derrick Marks moving to defensive end. There has never been a question about Sims' talent, and at 314 pounds he has the size to hold his own against even the strongest of blockers. Now the question remains, can he play up to the level he showed late in the year, particularly against Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl, for a full season?

If he does, then look out for the AU defensive front. If not, it would likely mean either a move by Marks back inside or the forced emergence of a younger player such as Mike Blanc, Zach Clayton or Jermarcus Ricks at the position. Either one of those plans would weaken a defensive front that could be one of the strongest in years for the Tigers.

While much of the rest of the defense is set, one position that may feature the best battle of fall camp is at safety where senior Eric Brock will try to hold off talented redshirt freshman Zac Etheridge. A starter since his sophomore season, Brock has been a steady but unspectacular member of the Tigers' secondary.

In spring practice both Brock and Etheridge had their moments with Etheridge actually moving in front of Brock for several days at the end of the spring. A talented defender who has the ability to play cornerback with the size of a safety, Etheridge will present a tough challenge for Brock and may create a must-watch battle as two-a-days get heated up.

Question number four is just how well will starting cornerbacks Jonathan Wilhite and Patrick Lee play this season? While both have been solid and have played well at times, they have also had a tendency to give up the big play more often than Muschamp and Tommy Tuberville would like. That is something the two must address and be more aware of in 2007.

Senior Jonathan Wilhite is in great shape and looking to finish his career on a high note.

Don't be shocked if redshirt sophomore Jerraud Powers works his way into the playing rotation at cornerback early in the season opener against Kansas State and becomes hard to take out. With a knack for making plays on the football while it is in the air, Powers is the kind of player Muschamp likes because he's a turnover waiting to happen for the opposing offense.

Last, but certainly not least, is the question of how Auburn's defense will look in 2007 in its second year under Muschamp? One thing is for sure and that is senior defensive end Quentin Groves will be a major part of everything the Tigers do because of his versatility. Last season the Tigers mixed in some 3-4 alignment with Groves playing an outside linebacker position.

This season will likely see even more of that from Auburn's defense, especially with Marks lining up at end. That would give the Tigers three true interior defensive linemen on the field with Groves moving around as a linebacker. How much that defense will be used remains to be seen, but there is no question you'll see more out of Muschamp's scheme the second time around.

2007 Auburn Football Guide

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