2009 Auburn Football: Defensive Preview

We take a look at the defensive side of the ball for the Auburn Tigers heading into the 2009 season.

Auburn, Ala.--Heading into the 2009 season, there are plenty of questions on both sides of the football for the Auburn Tigers. While the offense gets much of the attention, defensively Coach Ted Roof's unit will be one to watch as the Tigers try to make up for several key losses from last season and injuries in the secondary that could play havoc early in the year.

Up front Auburn must replace its top two performers in the middle on defense as Sen'Derrick Marks left school early and was a second-round draft choice in the NFL Draft while Tez Doolittle exhausted his eligibility. The two combined for 22 starts, 60 tackles, and 18 tackles for losses.

In the secondary the Tigers will be without one of their leaders in Jerraud Powers. Starting 10 games last season, Powers made 47 tackles and picked off two passes. Also leaving school early, Powers was selected by the Indianapolis Colts in the draft.

Also gone are four linebackers, including seniors Chris Evans, Merrill Johnson and Courtney Harden, as well as junior Tray Blackmon who is now playing in the CFL. Despite the losses, Auburn is looking to rebound from a disastrous end to the 2008 season under the guidance of Roof.

"I thought we made a lot of progress in spring training," Roof says. "I think we became a lot more physical, which was one of our big goals. We have got a way to go, but I thought we made big strides in the right direction."

Antonio Coleman will be a key for the Tigers this season.

When looking at this year's Auburn defense, the first place to look is with the return of senior defensive end Antonio Coleman. One of the most productive defensive ends in Auburn history with 102 career tackles, 30 tackles for losses, and 14 ½ sacks in three seasons, Coleman gave up the chance to leave early for the NFL to return for his final year at Auburn.

Coleman, who says he is glad he decided to return, says he has a good feeling the Tigers will surprise some opponents this year. "I think we have a chance to be really good on defense," he contends. "We have a lot of good players coming back."

Also returning at defensive end are juniors Michael Goggans and Antoine Carter. Goggans played in all 12 games last season for the Tigers, but managed just 27 tackles and no sacks. He needs to become more of a force in the backfield in 2009. That has never been a problem for Carter. Despite playing through some injuries much like Coleman in 2008, Carter had 16 tackles with four and a half for losses and two and a half sacks. Redshirt freshman Cameron Henderson could provide depth as well as true freshmen Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae.

In the middle while Marks and Doolittle are gone, the Tigers return three key performers in senior Jake Ricks and juniors Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc. All have extensive experience albeit from backup roles. Along with them Auburn will have redshirt freshman Derrick Lykes, junior college transfer Nick Fairley and true freshman Jamar Travis to provide additional depth.

Zach Clayton will be counted on for a big role in 2009.

While the depth is thin at defensive end, it's nothing compared to the linebacker position where Auburn returns just three players with any experience on the SEC level. Back to anchor the middle is junior Josh Bynes after he made 53 tackles with three interceptions in 2008.

On the strong side fellow junior Craig Stevens returns after his 54-tackle performance.

On the weak side the addition of Eltoro Freeman from junior college has given the Tigers another body to work with after he was impressive in the spring. Behind him is sophomore Spencer Pybus, who played some last season as a true freshman on the strong side.

Those were the only four scholarship linebackers available in the spring with sophomore Adam Herring held out of practice, but he should be back this fall to provide depth in the middle along with walk-on Wade Christopher. Auburn will also count on help from true freshmen Harris Gaston and Jonathan Evans to provide depth right away.

In the secondary the key question is health as returning starter Mike McNeil broke a bone in his leg during spring practice and could be slowed when the Tigers open fall camp on Aug. 5. To add to the questions senior Aairon Savage injured his Achilles over the summer and is expected to miss the entire 2009 season.

Even with those questions the secondary could still be one of the strengths of the team as senior Walt McFadden and junior Zac Etheridge return with loads of starting experience. McFadden had 29 tackles and two interceptions last season and started all 12 games while Etheridge led the team in tackles with 74 despite playing through shoulder problems all year.

At the safety position junior Mike Slade and sophomore Drew Cole are back to provide depth along with T'Sharvan Bell. Bell was moved from the cornerback position following the dismissal of Christian Thompson after spring practice. The coaches have plenty of options at corner with sophomores Neiko Thorpe, D'Antoine Hood and Harry Adams all battling for playing time. Adams is making the move back from wide receiver but could be slowed early in camp. Help is also expected from junior college signee Demond Washington and with fellow signee Taikwon Paige a question mark as far as qualifying heading into the season.

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