An old, familiar face returned to the linebacker rotation when junior Merrill Johnson saw significant playing time in Auburn's Homecoming victory vs. Tennessee Tech. Johnson, who opened the season as a starter, went down with a shoulder injury in the first half of game two vs. South Florida. Last week's game vs. Tennessee Tech was his first time back on the field playing linebacker as he tried to work out the kinks.
"It was good to see Merrill back," says Willis, who is finishing his second season as Auburn's linebacker coach. "He has missed some time and any time you do that it is important to get back out there and get a feel for the game speed along with making the checks and adjustments. He had a chance to do that."
Johnson sat out four games before returning for special teams only duty the next three games. He could be ready for an expanded role against 10th-ranked Georgia as the 7-3 Auburn Tigers take on the 7-2 Bulldogs.
Willis notes that he will be counting on senior Quentin Groves to help fill in for Stevens. Last week Groves, a 2006 All-SEC defensive end, made his first start at strongside linebacker last Saturday. However, like most of the first string players, he wasn't on the field for much of the game as Auburn took control early. He played 10 snaps at linebacker and two at defensive end.
"Quentin did well and he has done it before anyway so it is not like playing linebacker is something different for him because he plays it in our other scheme (3-4)," Willis says. "He did some good things. We all have things to work on. I think he understands that and is fired up about making improvements."
The 35-3 Homecoming victory was a chance for Josh Bynes to see his most extensive playing time. The true freshman linebacker led the Tigers in tackles vs. Tennessee Tech.
Willis says he likes what he saw. "It was good to see him running out there and making some hits," the coach says. "I think any time you get a young guy in the game and give him some real game-time experience it is good for all of us. I think that is a good game to get him started. We are going to need him down the stretch."
The stretch run starts Saturday as Auburn tries to win in Sanford Stadium for the seventh time in the past eight trips to the home of the Georgia Bulldogs. The game kicks off shortly after 2:30 p.m. CST and it will be televised nationally on CBS.
Blackmon, who grew up watching the Auburn-Georgia rivalry in LaGrange, Ga., says he can't wait to hit the field on Saturday. "I have been ready to play this one since Sunday," he says.