Coach Gene Chizik, defensive coordinator for one season, has all the tools available to put one of Auburn's best defenses in years on the field as the Tigers hope to make a run at the SEC Championship.
Karlos Dansby is expected to be one of the top defensive players in the nation in 2003.
The strength of the defense is going to be in the front seven where six of the seven starters return from a unit that allowed 141.7 rushing yards and 186.5 passing yards per game, but when healthy the Tigers were an even less generous bunch. That was proven in the last two outings of the season when Alabama and Penn State, two of the top rushing teams in the country, combined for just 281 yards and one touchdown on 70 attempts, well below their averages coming into the game. Having a healthy Reggie Torbor, Demarco McNeil and Spencer Johnson had a great deal to do with Auburn's success last season as did added depth up front at the tackle and noseguard positions. The following is Auburn's depth chart going into the first practice of the spring:
Defensive end Reggie Torbor is Auburn's most explosive pass rusher heading into the 2003 season.
92 Demarco McNeil (6-2, 300, Sr.)
96 Wayne Dickens (6-2, 290, So.)
58 T.J. Jackson (6-1, 304, So.)
Defensive end was a critical position for the Tigers last season as Torbor, Jay Ratliff and Bret Eddins all fought through injuries to play well for Coach Terry Price in 2002. This spring two new players will be added to the mix in Kyle Derozan and Tony McClain. Derozan, who was redshirted last season after injuring a shoulder early in the year, is bigger and stronger this spring and hopes to get back to the form that he showed last fall when he was perhaps Auburn's best pass rusher behind Torbor. McClain, who is a physical specimen capable of playing linebacker at 270 pounds, will give the Tigers immediate physical play at the position.
Bret Eddins and T.J. Jackson both emerged as solid players last season.
Inside the emergence of Ben Grubbs should be exciting to watch this spring. Compared to Johnson coming out of high school, Grubbs has followed the same path as the former Southern Choctaw star and appears ready to challenge for playing time at tackle. One of the strongest players on the team, the former linebacker will give Auburn a push up the middle against passing teams.
At linebacker both Dontarrious Thomas and Karlos Dansby return to give Auburn the best one-two punch in the SEC and possibly the country. The only question mark is in the middle where Mark Brown is gone after leading the team in tackles last season. Both Lemarcus Rowell and Jake Slaughter have experience at the position but they will be challenged by a redshirt freshman and sophomore who have the talent to play right away.
Dontarrious Thomas is back for his third year as a full-time starter for the Tigers. He has 276 tackles in his career at Auburn.
A physical player who has gained nearly 15 pounds since his arrived on campus, Mike Sherill will get a look in the middle. At 6-1, 246, he has the size to take on blockers in the middle and the speed to get outside and make plays. The sleeper of the bunch may be 6-2, 246, Kevis Burnam. Drawing rave reviews from the coaching staff and teammates last fall before injuring a knee, he will get some action this spring but won't be turned loose until two-a-days in August.
In the secondary the Tigers return two starters and are looking for replacements at free safety and cornerback. The top candidate to take over for Travaris Robinson is experienced Donnay Young but look out for Karibi Dede. One of the fastest players on the team, Dede was impressive on the scout team and has grown to over 200 pounds over the winter. Former high school quarterback Will Herring will also get a strong look because of his football smarts and athletic ability.
With Carlos Rogers returning, Auburn is in good shape on one side of the field but the coaching staff will be watching the cornerback position very closely to see which players steps forward in spring practice. Solid technique is the strong suit of Lamel Ages but his size limits his ability to cover bigger receivers. That may open the door for either Dee Durham or Montae Pitts, both of whom have the athletic ability and speed to excel at the position.
"We are going back over the whole year and trying to evaluate what we were best at and what we were worst at last season," Chizik says. "We feel good with where the team is going into the second season with this defensive system. We made progress towards the end of the season, but we are not satisfied and are looking to be better from the start to the finish of the coming season."
Editor's Note: The 14th part of the series will be posted on Thursday.