Auburn's Iron Man Looking For More On Defense

Auburn junior linebacker Craig Stevens talks about playing so many plays for the Tigers and what he's looking for on defense.

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn's defense has been a strength of the program since Pat Dye arrived on the Plains in 1981 and before that during the days of Shug Jordan. Since that time the Tigers have been consistently good on the defensive side of the ball and often great.

That is not the case in 2009 though as a lack of depth and talent in key spots has Coach Ted Roof grasping for straws as the Tigers begin the second half of the schedule this week against Kentucky. Auburn is coming off its worst performance of the season last weekend as the Arkansas Razorbacks scored 44 points and gained 495 yards of total offense in the win.

The position that has been impacted the most this season with a lack of depth is at linebacker where juniors Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes have played almost every meaningful snap on defense this season in addition to a big role on special teams. While it's not something that is easy, Stevens said he's not bothered by his Iron Man duties in games any longer.

"I think I'm used to it now," Stevens said. "It doesn't even really phase me. I just go out there and play. I don't feel myself wearing down throughout the game. I don't think it has much impact now as it did in the beginning of the season."

It's not surprising that because of the number of plays they've been on the field, Stevens and Bynes are number one and two on the team in tackles with 55 and 51 respectively, 10 more than Neiko Thorpe in the third position. Because of the time on the field Stevens said it's not the physical side of things that gets to you, it's the mental game that is the toughest part when you're worn down.

"You have so much that goes through your head before the play," Stevens said. "You have your run fit and then you have you're pass assignments. Just in general it's knowing what you have during the play."

With Adam Herring securing the other starting spot at the moment with Eltoro Freeman dealing with personal issues, the Tigers are down a man in the playing rotation right away. Take out true freshman Harris Gaston with an injury that kept him out of last week's game and the expectation that it will against Kentucky as well, and sophomore Spencer Pybus with a concussion that will keep him out the remainder of the season, and that leaves just one scholarship linebacker for Auburn.

That is true freshman Jonathan Evans. Playing in all six games this season, mostly on special teams, Evans has eight tackles in his first year. Those numbers could increase dramatically over the course of the rest of the season though as he begins to pick up more and more of the defense. Stevens said that's something he expects in the coming weeks.

"We're trying to work him in every now and then," Stevens said. "He got a few reps at the end of the game. It takes a while to adjust to the game coming straight out of high school. I feel like slowly but surely they're making the adjustment."

Finding some help on defense would be big for this Auburn team with several big tests coming the rest of the season. It won't be hard to improve over last week's performance for the Tigers though as Stevens said there was very little positive to take out of the game.

"It was pretty bad," Stevens said. "People weren't fitting gaps right. We were basically letting it happen to us instead of taking it to them. In the second half we made some adjustments and got pepped up a little bit. We played a little better, but in the end we weren't able to get it done."

Undefeated and ranked entering the Arkansas game, Auburn was brought back to reality with a body slam from the Razorbacks, something Stevens said might not be a bad thing for a team still searching for a complete game.

"I think everybody is back focused," Stevens said. "I think that loss gave us a reality check. Everybody sees that we're not invincible. Everybody is back focused like we were at the beginning of the season. I think that's going to pay off in the end."

Invincibility is something that hasn't been a concern this year on defense for the Tigers and Stevens said that's not a concern. While you would always like to shut down every opponent and be a dominating defense, sometimes you have to play within yourself and try to become as good as you can be. That's the goal for Auburn the rest of the way in 2009 on defense.

"We're handling it well," Stevens said. "I feel like as long as we keep winning we'll be all right. As long as we keep getting better on defense week by week. This was a setback, but we can always move forward. We have to go out in practice and find a way to get better."

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