Stevens Gaining Confidence at Strongside LB

Craig Stevens is one of two freshmen on the current first-team defense. The Tigers are also starting four sophomore defenders.

Auburn, Ala.--The talent could be there for Will Muschamp's Auburn defense to improve on the already impressive 13.9 points per game allowed in 2006.

In year two of Muschamp's system, the line has veterans like Josh Thompson, Pat Sims and Quentin Groves leading the charge, but the back seven is youthful with as many as five sophomores or freshmen expected to start on opening night. One of those players is redshirt freshman linebacker Craig Stevens.

"It's been going good so far," Stevens says of August. "I've been doing pretty good out there trying to get the plays down. I haven't had too many busts. I'm a little mentally tougher than last year, where if I messed up just one assignment I'd get down on myself and see one play turn into two. But now, whenever I mess up I keep moving."

Stevens (6-2, 220) played in three games last season before injuring his hamstring and taking a medical redshirt. He played well in those three games, collecting six tackles as a reserve. He played on the weakside because of his speed, but with the entire physical package Stevens was moved following the spring because of the academic casualty of Patrick Trahan.

So far so good at the strongside, says Stevens.

"I think it fits me real good," he explains. "I've got long arms, so just shoot them and try to keep the tight ends off me since I'm not as big as them. I'm good at using my hands so I think the switch will work out good.

"You have to deal with the offensive line at sam more since you look down on them every play mostly," he adds. "You have to work a little harder. A lot of times at will or mike you're not blocked and you get to run in and just make the tackle. At sam rarely you get unblocked so you have to work harder to get off the blocks and make plays."

Linebacker coach James Willis, left, and Muschamp like Stevens' play-making abilities.

Losing three seniors in Will Herring, Karibi Dede and Kevin Sears from last year's linebackers, the current starting lineup consists of a junior (Merrill Johnson), a sophomore (Tray Blackmon) and a freshman (Stevens). Communication is a key as none of the three have a full season of consistent playing time.

"I think we're doing pretty good--we're pretty close," Stevens notes. "Last year the whole group was kind of close inside the meeting rooms and we're not going to fall off from that aspect. I think we're doing pretty good communication-wise.

"Will and Dede were reliable, so we're going to have to find out who that is going to be this year. The person who knows the defense the best is Courtney (Harden). He knows it the best and he helps us out a lot. As far as communication on the field, Merrill probably makes most of the calls."

Freshman Bo Harris, when healthy, is the second option behind Stevens at sam, and Harden is a backup at both of the outside positions. Stevens is a backup to Johnson in Auburn's dime packages.

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