Phillip Marshall: Looking ahead, the Auburn defense

Jan. 13, 2014

AUBURN, Ala. – Statistically, it wasn’t the best of years for Auburn’s defense under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. But in reality, it was a very good year. And based on the players returning, there is reason to expect next year to be better.

The Tigers were among the nation’s best in the red zone. And they were at their best when it mattered most in most games. The final drive withstanding, the BCS Championship Game against Florida State was probably their best performance of the season. One touchdown came on a kickoff return and another after a fake punt. They forced seven three-and-outs.

The defensive line and linebackers improved dramatically over the course of the season. The secondary coped with injuries and preseason loss of projected starting safety Demetruce McNeal.

Following is a position-position-by position look at returning players. We are not able to mention the names of incoming recruits.

DEFENSIVE END

Top returnees: Sr. LaDarius Owens (30 tackles, 5 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 11 QBH. So. Carl Lawson (20 tackles, 7.4 TFL, 4 sacks, 7 QBH, 2 FF). So. Elijah Daniels (9 tackles, 3 TFL, 2.5 sacks, 11 QBH).

After bouncing between linebacker and defensive end, Owens started 12 games and was one of Auburn’s more consistent defensive players. Lawson, a 5-star recruit, got increased playing as the season went on and looks to an all-star candidate. Daniels, another 5-star recruit, frequently played inside on passing situations.

Junior Keymiya Harrell has been on the verge of significant playing time the past two seasons but has been plagued by injuries. Sophomore Gimel President could be ready to make a move for playing time.

DEFENSIVE TACKLE

Top returnees: Sr. Gabe Wright (31 tackles, 8.5 TFL, 3 sacks, 9 QBH, 1 FR). Sr. Jeff Whitaker (missed season with injury). Sr. Angelo Blackson (16 tackles, 3 TFL, 0.5 sacks, 6 QBH, 1 FF). So. Montravius Adams (20 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 1 sack, 7 QBH). Sr. Ben Bradley (14 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack, 5 QBH).

It is perhaps the deepest position on Auburn’s team. Wright, Blackson, Adams and Bradley were all in the playing rotation during Auburn’s championship season. Whitaker was a two-year starter who sat out the season after having knee surgery. He was found to have an issue that had plagued him for the previous three seasons. He is considered by teammates and coaches the top leader on defense.

Wright had a breakout season and Bradley played increasing snaps as the season wore on. Blackson, big and athletic, is prototype NFL defensive tackle. He’s down to his last season to consistently play that way. Adams, a 5-star recruit, made an impact as a freshman and has all the tools to become a star.

Sophomore Tyler Nero and junior JaBrian Niles have had their moments on the practice field, but breaking into the playing rotation will be a challenge.

LINEBACKER

Top returnees: Jr. Cassanova McKinzy (75 tackles, 8 TFL, 2 sacks, 1 INT., 6 QBH). Jr. Kris Frost (59 tackles, 6 TFL, 3 QBH, 1 FR). Jr. Anthony Swain (26 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 FR). Jr. Justin Garrett (4 tackles, 1 TFL, injured). So. JaViere Mitchell (13 tackles, 1 TFL).

McKinzy started all 14 games at outside linebacker and led the team in tackles. He played perhaps his best game in the BCS Championship Game. Frost split time with departed Jake Holland at middle linebacker and got playing time late in the season. Swain also got increasing playing time as the season went on and was a pleasant surprise.

Garrett was the defense’s MVP in spring practice playing the Star position. He suffered leg injury and returned as an outside linebacker. After two games, it was decided he could not play and he will receive a medical redshirt. He could remain at outside linebacker or return to Star.

Sophomore JaViere Mitchell has battled injuries last spring and will have an opportunity to get into the playing rotation. Freshman Cameron Toney was redshirted. Junior college transfer Kenny Flowers played mostly on special teams.

STAR

Top returnees: Sr. Robenson Therezie (57 tackles, 3 TFL, 4 INT, 1 TD, 6PBU, 1 FR).  So. Mackenro Alexander (4 tackles, 1 TFL).

Therezie was one of the major success stories of Auburn’s 2013 season. After playing sparingly at cornerback his first two seasons, he was moved to Star in the spring and quickly blossomed. Alexander got playing time as Therezie’s backup. Coaches believe he has a bright future.

CORNERBACKS

Top returnees: Sr. Jonathon Mincy (56 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 INT, 14 PBU). Jr. Jonathan Jones (11 tackles, 1 TFL, 1 PBU).

Mincy was a consistent force in the secondary against the pass and the run. Jones, with sprinter’s speed, was a backup and special teams standout.

Freshmen Kamryn Melton and Jonathan Ford got playing time. Ford moved from running back in the summer. Whether he will remain at cornerback or move back to running back, where he also played during the season, is uncertain. Redshirt freshman T.J. Davis could play cornerback or safety.

SAFETIES

Top returnees: Sr. Jermaine Whitehead (68 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 6 PBU, 1 FR). Jr. Josh Holsey (17 tackles, 0.5 TFL, 1 QBH, 2 PBU). Sr. Trent Fisher (9 tackles).

Whitehead was among Auburn’s more productive defensive players and returns as a four-year starter. He played nickel back as a freshman. Junior college transfer Brandon King played sparingly. He also could get a look at Star.

Holsey had been Auburn’s most effective safety when he was lost for the season to a knee injury in the sixth game.

Derrick Moncrief, the nation’s top junior college safety, is enrolled in school and will participate in spring practice. Sophomore Khari Harding also could play Star or even linebacker.

PUNTER

Replacing Steven Clark will be one of the taller orders for the 2014 team. Redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchinson and Tyler Stovall will compete for the job in the spring.

 
       

Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: