Johnson Sees Signs Of Life On Defense

Auburn defensive coordinator sees signs of life from his defense over the course of spring practice.

Auburn, Ala.—While much of the attention in Saturday's A-Day Game at Jordan-Hare Stadium was focused on the play of the quarterbacks and the offensive pace, Coach Ellis Johnson was watching intently to see how his defense would respond. Rotating players throughout the two groups and forcing several turnovers, Johnson says overall it gave them a chance to see some different groups and get plenty of plays on film to help build a two-deep depth chart heading into the summer.

"I thought it went well," Johnson says. "We had some things we wanted to do organizationally. We had good rotation of players, we got everybody enough reps. We actually had 80-something snaps the first half because of the tempo, so we had plenty of snaps. We got a good evaluation. We have some players that are still sort of in the hunt for a two-deep spot that got a lot of repetition. We've got some guys we feel like are getting close to nailing down a starting job. I guess overall, that part was good. Defensively we played with a lot better effort, a lot better focus than we did the previous scrimmage and we improved a lot in tackling. So overall it was pretty good."

Tackling has been the buzzword for Auburn this spring as the defense has struggled in that department for much of the last four seasons. Working every practice on the fundamentals of tackling and being physical, Johnson says that the Tigers have gotten better throughout the spring because the guys are older and learning how to be more physical, but there is more work to be done.

"Well, we definitely put a focus on it," Johnson notes. "We knew it had to improve. I think some of the reasons were things that would take care of themselves. Overall, a lot of the tackling last year was by some young players, probably were not as physically strong as they're going to be as they progress through their career. I think the other thing was probably some confidence and fatigue. There were a lot of games where they were playing from behind, had to play a lot of defensive snaps.

"But there were some things that were not good. Fundamentally things were not being done well. It didn't look like it was always as physical as it could be. It was sort of like going through the motions, more like a form tackle instead of a physical tackle. There were some things of that nature we felt like we had to address, and we put a lot of it in practice plan, and individually each coach on the defensive side made a commitment to make sure we worked tackling five minutes a day or more. Then, of course, we took advantage of all the times the spring ball rules will allow us to have full-speed tackling."

Justin Garrett

Based on spring practice and his first chance to see guys in person, Johnson says he's got an idea of some of the guys that will likely head into the fall as starters for the Tigers. Defensive end Dee Ford is definitely one of those guys after a solid showing throughout the contact sessions.

The same is true of Justin Garrett at the star position along with his back-up Robenson Therezie. With Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy taking a stranglehold at cornerback and Jermaine Whitehead stepping up at safety, Johnson says they've got a pretty good feel for much of the defense now.

"I think at defensive tackle you can't say that any players have completely separated themselves," Johnson says. "You've got guys in there still fighting and have a chance to be one or two. You got a couple of guys fighting to get in that No. 2. At linebacker, no question, there have been days that I've felt I've got five good linebackers and there's been days when I've felt if we don't improve, we're not going to play very well there at all. It's just that hot and cold.

"The safety position is one, there's a lot of gray area there. I think we know Dee Ford is going to be a starter. I think we know the corners, Mincy and Davis, are going to be starters. There are guys playing behind them, though, at a high level but I think those guys, right now, somebody has to beat them out. It doesn't mean they can't get beat out but they've established themselves."

The safety position is definitely the gray area for the Tigers right now with Demetruce McNeal still missing from practice because of off-the-field issues. Johnson says they are still unsure of his future at the moment but are hoping for the best.

"I hope so," Johnson answers when asked if McNeal will return. "He's done everything. He's working on some personal issues right now and has done everything he's got to do. All that has to be cleared up before he can come back and participate."

While tackling issues and being physical across the board were the main goals on defense in the spring, from a scheme standpoint finding a player at the Star position to step up was huge in Johnson's eyes. The key to the defense as the player that much of the action is built around, the veteran coach says it was a must to find the right guy to fill the role and he did just that in Garrett.

"When you implement this scheme, if you can't find a guy that can play that position and be an impact guy and you know you don't have anybody behind him so you're worried every step of the way he's going to get hurt, that's a huge issue," Johnson says.

"That probably is the one brightest spot coming out of our spring, personnel-wise, is we found a guy, I think, is perfect at that position. He had an absolute outstanding spring and we've got a guy pushing him now in Therezie. We've got two guys, you can put either one of them out on the field. Therezie need more work because he didn't practice there the whole spring but those guys look like they're tailor made for that and that's a big, big plus."

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