Auburn, Ala.--Last season was a test of wills for Auburn linebacker Coach James Willis. With the Tigers playing much of the season without starters Tray Blackmon and Merrill Johnson and without projected starter Steve Gandy, Willis had to be resourceful and get some help from an unexpected source in Chris Evans to keep the unit productive throughout the season.
This season Willis is hoping for different results as the Tigers have some quality depth and experience back for the 2008 season. Willis says while he's still missing a guy like Bo Harris on the strong side, so far this spring has been a productive one for his guys.
"We're getting better," Willis says. "What we've done from a linebacker standpoint is every day trying to come out with a purpose. We do it as a team defense also. Every day before we come on the field we say, ‘Today what is our goal?' What I see is this unit coming together and trying to help each other out.
"You've got Tray (Tray Blackmon) trying to bring Josh (Josh Bynes) along and the older guys trying to bring the young guys on. What we have now is a very competitive group. That's what you want. We're getting out of it what we want."
Tray Blackmon is becoming a more vocal leader for Auburn's defense this spring.
While several players have stepped up their play in spring practice, perhaps nobody has done as much as Bynes. Willis says there is little doubt in his mind which players have taken advantage of their opportunities to improve in the spring.
"Number 17 Josh Bynes has stepped up and also Tray has," Willis says. "I think that has a lot to do with how Josh is doing right now. We're very competitive right now. Josh is really trying to step up. What I questioned with Josh last year was his toughness, being physical. I think he's made a point of trying to come out and hit somebody every play on every day.
"Tray's thing right now is he understands the defense. He's playing fast, he's being a leader out there. He's not just that quiet guy that makes plays, he's vocal now. That's what he has to do for us."
Josh Bynes has come on strong this spring at the middle linebacker position.
Another player who has solidified his spot on the strong side of the defense is sophomore Craig Stevens. A starter last year, but only playing sparingly because of injuries and Auburn's willingness to play five and six defensive backs much of the time, Stevens has added to his game in the spring and Willis says he wants to see more of the same as the Tigers get closer to the A-Day Game on March 29.
"I see from Craig consistency," Willis says. ‘That's one thing we talked about in the offseason was that during the season he was kind of up and down. We wanted to see him come out and try to be consistent every day. I honestly think he's doing that."
For now the linebackers will continue to work where they began the spring. That is something that could change down the road depending on how well Bynes or any of the other backup linebackers perform the remainder of spring practice. After that Willis says you could see some position moves, but that won't be known until the Tigers wrap up spring drills.
"That's probably too far off right now," Willis says about any potential moves. "What we're trying to do right now in the spring is to keep everybody in one spot, let them understand that one position of the defense, and then move from there. We're going to find our best three to put on the field and go from there."