Willis Content With Youthful, Athletic LBs

Linebacker coach James Willis, in his second year at that post at Auburn, gives an update on his personnel.

Auburn, Ala.--Gone from last year's Auburn linebacker corps are Will Herring, Karibi Dede, Kevin Sears, Patrick Trahan and Steve Gandy.

Those five combined for 161 tackles and 13 1/2 tackles for a loss in 2006. With a new, younger group learning the ins and outs during preseason, linebacker coach James Willis still has reason for optimism this season with a more athletic group of guys.

Middle linebacker Tray Blackmon is expected to be the stalwart of the unit, but he has played in just six games on the college level and has 15 tackles. The other likely starters, Merrill Johnson and Craig Stevens, have some game experience but not the amount you should feel comfortable with in the SEC.

"The biggest thing about our unit is that we're kind of young," Willis explains, "but those guys that have played and have some game experience will help out--any time you get some guys who have been on the field before."

Merrill Johnson (55) is a player James Willis (right) is counting on to have a big season.

Johnson played middle linebacker for the first half of last season before moving to will (weakside) halfway through, only to see Blackmon start at that position up until the Cotton Bowl. Blackmon, who missed spring training, has had a strong camp experience after the move to the middle.

The starting strongside (sam) backer in the spring, Trahan, was ruled academically ineligible, so that meant that Stevens was moved from will to sam for the fall. He played in three games last season before taking a redshirt year with a pulled hamstring.

"Our challenge to him was really being physical," Willis says of Stevens. "He really came out and he stepped up to the challenge. He's doing very, very good. He really is. He's limiting his mistakes everyday, he's getting better everyday. He's big, he's strong, he can run and he's everything you could ask for.

"He's doing so much now we play him on both sides to get some reps," Willis continues. "He's picking up the system that way."

With Johnson, Blackmon and Stevens working as the ones, Willis has a group of physical, raw and explosive players starting at the second level of the defense.

"This season at least we'll be more athletic," he says. "We'll be lacking some game experience, but the guys are much more athletic. They can run, they can hit, they can cover. That's the best thing for linebackers."

Chris Evans was a star in several of the spring scrimmages and is also having a solid preseason.

The second team hasn't been too shabby either. Bo Harris has battled past a mild concussion and has missed the last couple of days of practice with a stinger in the left shoulder, but Willis likes what he has seen from the former Heritage High School (Conyers, Ga.) and Milford Prep running back.

"He's a play-maker," Willis says of the physically impressive true freshman. "His thing is getting healthy, getting on the field and getting reps. He's got to know how to line up and he's got to know how to do his thing. He's going to be bigger, well, he's already bigger than Trahan. He'll be a good player."

Bo Harris was one of the standouts in the first scrimmage of the preseason.

The other two running with the second unit are a pair of veterans who might not be as athletic as the guys in front of them, but they have shown leadership in the offseason as juniors.

"(Courtney Harden) is being our leader right now and that's exactly what we need from him," Willis notes. "He's coming to practice every day, he competes every day, he's the leader in the classroom, he's the leader on the field and that's exactly what we need from him.

"Chris Evans is being Chris Evans for us," Willis adds. "He's consistent every day. Sometimes he might come out and have a bad day here or there, but that's part of football. He always bounces back. Effort is just given with him."

Harden is working at both outside spots and Evans is the backup to Blackmon in the middle.

Willis says he's also liked what he has seen out of Josh Bynes, Adam Herring and Brent Slusher, a trio of true freshmen.

"They're good players," he says. "They definitely weren't misses. They're freshman and we've got to keep them going, keep them moving and see how things develop."

All of the two-deep linebackers are getting looks in the nickel and dime packages when the Tigers go to just two or one linebackers. With Will Muschamp's schemes, defensive ends Quentin Groves and Antonio Coleman also serve in a linebacker-type role when the Tigers show a three-man front.

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