Auburn, Ala.--Will Muschamp has been around the game of football for the majority of his life, playing in high school and college and now coaching for the 12 years. With all that experience, he had a short and simple answer when asked if he had ever dealt with as many injuries as he has to start the 2007 season.
"No," Muschamp says. "It has been frustrating. The kids are resilient and they keep playing. That's what we're going to continue to do and coach the guys that are there and that are able to practice and prepare through the week and play hard on Saturday."
Without starters Tray Blackmon, Merrill Johnson, and Aairon Savage for much of the season and senior Quentin Groves making it four starters out against Vanderbilt, Muschamp has had to depend on several guys to step up their games this year. One player that has done that is junior linebacker Chris Evans. Finishing with six tackles and earning the Coaches' Defensive Player of the Week, Muschamp says Evans just continues to get better each and every time out on the field.
"He's played well for us," Muschamp says. "He's stepped in and he plays very hard. He's an instinctive player and he's done a great job for us this year. He was the player of the game this past game because of his production. He just continues to improve and get better. He's felt more comfortable in the defense each week. He's really done a good job for us."
With both Blackmon and Johnson practicing on Sunday and working towards being back for Saturday's game against Arkansas, Evans could be the odd man out for the Tigers. Muschamp says that's not likely to happen though because of the way he's played in the first half of the schedule.
"He's going to play," Muschamp says. "He deserves to play. He can play the mike (middle linebacker) or the will (weak side linebacker). He can play either one. We feel good about those three kids being able to play inside linebacker in the SEC."
Eric Brock brings down a Vanderbilt runner in Saturday's 35-7 victory.
Evans hasn't been the only player to step up his game this season for the Tigers as safeties Eric Brock and Zac Etheridge deserve iron man awards as well for their performance this season. On Saturday alone, Muschamp says Brock played in 75 snaps in the football game and there was really no other option for him to turn to.
"We're just so thin at safety right now," Muschamp says. "We don't have anybody else. I would have like to have gotten him out of the game. Zac Etheridge has got a bad shoulder and Mike (Michael McNeil), those are really the only three safeties we worked all week. We certainly could have gotten ourselves in a bind if we had another guy go down."
Without Savage available after re-injuring his knee against Florida one week earlier, Muschamp went with three safeties the entire time with Jerraud Powers available to play the position if needed in an emergency. Even with very little time to take a breather, Muschamp says both Brock and Etheridge have done more than enough for the defense and that continued against Vanderbilt.
"They've played well," Muschamp says. "Zac has played well in space and tackling and playing the dime position (sixth defensive back). We brought him on some pressures this week and he did a really good job."
While Savage ran on the side in Sunday's practice and looked good according to Muschamp, he concedes that it's too early to know if the sophomore will be ready to go on Saturday and the same holds true for both Blackmon and Johnson. Because of that he says they'll continue to work Josh Bynes and Ryan Williams in on defense after both played on Saturday and burned their redshirt seasons. Muschamp says Williams played particularly well in his first collegiate action at cornerback.
"He played 25 snaps and played well when he went in," Muschamp says. "Ryan is going to be a really good player. We're just so thin right now with all the injuries we've had that we've had to add more speed on special teams. He's certainly capable of playing corner right now and helping us. We're going to continue to work with him."
Coming off back-to-back solid performances on defense that included first half shutouts against Florida and Vanderbilt, Auburn will face a tough challenge this week against the run happy Arkansas Razorbacks. Different than anything they've seen this year, Muschamp says the Hogs will be a tall order to defend, but if his defense needs to keep moving forward and build on a great effort against the Commodores.
"I think we played well," Muschamp says. "Obviously third down was the key to getting off the field. We gave them a couple of runs early in the game that got out on us, but we did a great job on Bennett (Earl Bennett). We did a great job of affecting the quarterback in the game. We got some solid hits on Nickson (Chris Nickson) which got him out of the game a little bit as far as what he was doing. I was pleased with the performance. I think we've taken some steps forward each week and we need to continue to do so."