Auburn, Ala.--For Auburn second-year linebacker Coach James Willis, the 2007 season has already been one to forget. Not because of the play of his group, which has been good, but simply because it has, at times, been like using smoke and mirrors to get the job done on Saturdays.
Without one projected starter coming into the season and then losing veteran Steve Gandy during preseason practices, Willis was already thin before the opening kickoff of the season. Things only got worse the first two weeks of the season as both Tray Blackmon and Merrill Johnson went down with injuries.
That has meant an increased role for little-used Chris Evans this season as well as counting on several freshmen to get the job done. Through it all the linebackers have continued to get the job done and Willis says preparation is the key.
"It's one of those things where the issue kind of forces your hand," Willis says. "That's all we can do as coaches and players, whatever happens you have to be ready when the time comes. Our guys are responding to that. We challenge them every day and put pressure on them every day in practice. They're always kind of ready for that."
Already playing true freshman Bo Harris, Willis added yet another youngster to the mix last weekend against Vanderbilt when Josh Bynes saw his first action of the season as a back up for Evans. Playing a limited role, Bynes made four tackles, but more importantly for Willis he got the mental aspect right.
"He did very well," Willis says. "I guess the big thing for me about him was it was good to see him go out there and get the front lined up. Every time they moved the tight end he got down and moved the line over. He had no busts, no mental errors. He did the right things. That was good to see, especially for a freshman in his first SEC game."
It wasn't like Bynes had not already shown his mental capabilities. Called a "defensive genius" by Harris because of his knowledge of the defense already, Willis says Bynes picked up on things very quickly when called upon in practice last week.
"What was so surprising is that when we first put him in there in practice he had no errors," Willis says. "It was his first time really even lining up and playing defense really (since two-a-days). He had no reps all season. He comes in and doesn't make a mistake on time this week. That was very impressive."
The glue of the Auburn linebacker corps this season and possibly the entire defense has been Evans. Leading the team with 35 tackles and adding one interception, Evans has been productive on the field while picking up the slack for the injured veterans Blackmon and Johnson. Willis says he continued that Saturday with his best game of the season.
"He really did," Willis says. "One thing about Chris is that he works hard every day in practice and does the right things. He and Jerraud Powers are great examples of guys that come to practice, do what they're asked to do, and come out in the game and perform the same way. Those guys are good for our team because they are good examples and do the right thing most of the time."
Willis is hoping to be able to be back closer to full strength at linebacker this week as both Blackmon (ankle) and Johnson (shoulder) practiced on Sunday. That would be a huge boost for the Tigers as they prepare to face a physical Arkansas running game this weekend on the road.
"They looked well," Willis says. "With those injuries, both of them, it's really a day-by-day thing anyway. It was impressive for them (on Sunday). There was no sense putting a guy out there if he's not full speed. The only thing that can happen is, first of all, he can hurt himself, and second he can hurt the team. We didn't want to put ourselves in either of those situations."
Auburn's defense has been steady this season and currently ranks 17th in the country in scoring and 33rd in rushing, allowing 17 points and 116.3 yards per game. Those numbers will be hard to match this week against as Arkansas team that scores 42.6 points and runs the football for 338.4 yards per game average. Willis says it's going to be tough, but something his players are looking forward to.
"It's going to be a great challenge for us, but at the same time it's going to be a great opportunity. I don't think any of our kids are shying away from it. We're very excited about it. We have to study film and see what their strengths and weaknesses are and get to those."