Defensive Roundup With Two Weeks To Kickoff

Will Muschamp gives an update on the progress of his defense halfway through preseason practice.

Auburn, Ala.--Coming into preseason camp, the offense had unmet needs at several positions and special teams were expected to be a work in progress all the way up to the kickoff against Kansas State on Sept. 1. The defense on the other hand, returned seven starters and looked to be much improved in year two of Will Muschamp's system.

After more than two weeks of drills and two scrimmages, the 2007 version of the Auburn defense has started to take form.

The defensive line, returning almost all of its personnel, lost Tez Doolittle to Achilles injury early in camp, but tackle was a position the Tigers were loaded with depth. Jermarcus Ricks missed spring practice and some of two-a-days with assorted injuries, but Muschamp liked what he saw from the sophomore during Friday night's scrimmage.

"He showed a lot of quickness off the ball," Muschamp says. "He's got a little fresher legs because he's missed some practice time. He showed some change of direction, some bend in the lower body, some power and explosion up front and he got into the backfield several times. I was just really pleased to see that. Zach Clayton did some good things, and of course Mike Blanc, Pat Sims and Josh Thompson. We've got five guys inside we feel good about playing."

Tackles coach Don Dunn usually runs a five-man rotation inside, and those five are the top candidates to be lining up against the Wildcats on opening night. Sen'Derrick Marks was part of that mix last year, but with the depth in the middle he is the starting strongside end with Quentin Groves on the weakside.

Behind Marks and Groves, Antonio Coleman and Michael Goggans were the top two players coming into camp to compete for playing time, but a new face has stepped into the mix.

"Antoine Carter continues to be a productive player," Muschamp says of the true freshman from Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale. "He's just got natural pass-rush skills. The kid can rush the passer. Antonio Coleman has played well at the point of attack. He's got his weight down from the spring and he's improved a lot.

"Right now we plan on playing Carter," Muschamp adds. "He's a guy that can give us a boost on third down. In time he will become a more physical player. He runs really well and he's got natural pass-rush skills."

Carter hasn't been a friend to Auburn offensive tackles.

When the Tigers show a three-man front, Groves and Coleman are often times playing a linebacker role, a position that is the wild card of the defense. The Tigers have exceptional athletes across the board, but after losing Patrick Trahan to grades and Steve Gandy because of concussions, they have limited experience.

"Anytime you have inexperience," Muschamp explains, "you don't know how they're going to react when you're in front of 90,000 people. At times they show the greenness, but they certainly have continued to take steps forward everyday. Even our starters are young. Tray Blackmon has played one year and Merrill Johnson has played one year even though he's a junior. Those guys have to continue to progress and take steps forward. James Willis has done an outstanding job with them. It's what we have and those kids have taken a lot of pride in what we're trying to do."

Blackmon is currently the starting middle linebacker with Johnson at weakside and Craig Stevens on the strongside. Stevens is a redshirt freshman, but played in three games last season.

"Craig has done well," Muschamp notes. "He's really done a good job at the end of the line on blockers. He's got long arms, he's got a good frame, he's going to continue to get stronger. Craig has played really solid for us throughout camp. He's also playing some dime linebacker for us and he's a guy that we certainly need a lot of contribution from."

A pair of true freshmen may also fit into the playing rotation during the season--Bo Harris and Brent Slusher.

"Brent Slusher had a good scrimmage," Muschamp says. "Brent came along this summer and he can see the light a little on defense. He's come along for us and had a good scrimmage. I definitely think those guys will figure in to what we're doing."

Also on the second team are Chris Evans, who had a solid spring, and Courtney Harden, who is currently playing his best football. "He's a guy that has become a very reliable player," Muschamp says of Harden.

Along with Carter, Harris and Slusher, with a strong scrimmage performance Michael McNeil may have also worked his way into the expected playing rotation this season.

"Michael was our most productive safety," Muschamp explains. "He's obviously got some things to work on being a young player. He's going to be fine. I feel like we've got four players we can win with and can play SEC-caliber football. We'll continue to evaluate all positions including that one until Sept. 1."

Zac Etheridge has worked his way into a starting role and is expected to rotate with Eric Brock at one of the safeties. Aairon Savage, who started last season as a freshman, is the other starting safety. In a scrimmage where Brad Lester busted a long touchdown run early and Robert Dunn caught a long pass late, Muschamp wasn't thrilled after breaking down the film.

"I was disappointed in the safeties," he says. "The long run that came out, we didn't leverage the ball very well. On the big-play pass we got hit on a double move and it shouldn't have happened. We just need a little more production out of those guys.

"We caused five fumbles," Muschamp adds of the scrimmage. "We knocked the ball off our guys, which is good because we're a very good ball security football team offensively so when you're able to do that it's very positive. We rushed the passer really well with four guys. I thought those were the most positive things. In the red area we played well. With the first group we were 80 percent in holding them to field goals. We had a great goal line stand. There were a lot of positives. The disappointing part was two big plays."

Jerraud Powers is having as good of a camp as anybody on the defense.

David Irons, who is playing for the Atlanta Falcons this season, is the only lost starter from the secondary.

"I thought the four corners played well in the game," Muschamp notes. "Walter McFadden had his best scrimmage. Jonathan Wilhite, Patrick Lee and Jerraud Powers played well."

Also fighting for time at nickelback and corner is senior Zach Gilbert.

When the Tigers came out to practice on Saturday morning just 13 hours after the scrimmage finished, the first and second units were as follows (subject to change daily):

1st Team2nd Team
SDESen'Derrick MarksMichael Goggans
DTPat SimsMike Blanc
DTJosh ThompsonJermarcus Ricks/Zach Clayton
WDEQuentin GrovesAntonio Coleman
SLBCraig StevensBrent Slusher/*Bo Harris held out because of a sore shoulder
MLBTray BlackmonChris Evans
WLBMerrill JohnsonCourtney Harden
CBJerraud PowersPatrick Lee
SAairon SavageMichael McNeil
SZac EtheridgeEric Brock
CBJonathan WilhiteZach Gilbert

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