Feb. 11, 2014
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – When last seen, Auburn’s defense held Florida State well below its season averages in points and yards. But one big play set up the touchdown that broke Auburn’s heart and gave the Seminoles the national championship.
It was, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson says, probably Auburn’s best overall defensive performance of the season. But it was also, in some ways, a microcosm of the difficulties the defense faced even in coming just 13 seconds shy of a national championship.
“When you look at it, we were No. 1 in the SEC in third-down defense and No. 2 in red zone and I think No. 3 in sacks and not bad in takeaways,” Johnson said. “But on the other end you're giving up more total yardage and passing yardage and rushing yardage on just inconsistencies. If we were bad at everything, you'd think we didn't have very good players and we weren't doing a good job at coaching, but when you have that kind of disparity, the potential has to be there.
“We've got to figure out why it is we're not making consistent plays. We're giving up too many explosive plays.”
That will be a priority on defense when spring practice begins next month. Last year, spring practice was about learning Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme. This year, there will be different kinds of questions, starting with replacing lost starters in end Dee Ford, cornerback Chris Davis, safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White, linebacker Jake Holland and tackle Nosa Eguae.
“We have good players who will step up,” Johnson said. “Playing in the same system two years in a row, there's not a player in this program who has ever done that. That's got to help. I think that will improve consistency.”
Among the decisions facing Johnson in the spring will be sorting out the linebackers. Junior Kris Frost split time with Holland in the middle last season. Junior Cassanova McKinzy was the season-long starter on the weak side. That could change.
“I don't think there's any question that Cassanova and Frost have established themselves as more productive than other guys,” Johnson said. “I think I'm going to switch them from Mike and Will in the spring and see what happens, at least for a couple of weeks.”
McKinzy, Johnson said, needs only to establish consistency to become one of the Southeastern Conference’s best.
“Physically, he's about as talented as any I've ever coached,” Johnson said. “I think people don't realize how talented he is, but his play is affected by his inconsistencies. He should be 20-tackles-a-game type of guy. “
The wildcard is senior Justin Garrett. Playing the hybrid star position, he was a standout last spring, but nagging injuries kept him off the field for most of the season. Robenson Therezie thrived at star and Garrett moved back to linebacker.
“Garrett is my biggest concern right now at linebacker,” Johnson said. “He's got a lot of talent, but every year he gets hurt. If he stays healthy, he could be an impact player at star or at Will (linebacker).”
Johnson said that, if Garrett blossoms at star and if sophomore Mackenro Alexander or others show they are ready to play at a high level, Therezie could play the boundary safety position. Regardless, Therezie won’t get a lot of heavy contact work in the spring.
“We know what he can do,” Johnson said. “We don’t want to get him hurt.”
Junior safety Josh Holsey, who moved from cornerback last spring, missed the second half of the season after suffering knee injury. Holsey won’t practice full-speed in the spring, but Johnson said he’s not concerned.
“We know he can play,” Johnson said. “We just need to get him healthy.”
At cornerback, Jonathan Jones appears to be the heir apparent to Davis, but he’ll have to win the job. Sophomore Kamryn Melton will be in the mix. It is not certain whether Jonathan Ford will remain at cornerback or move back to running back, where he played before moving during preseason camp.
Here is a look at each position and the contenders, including newcomers, for playing time. Returning starters are in bold.
Sr. LaDarius Owens, So. Carl Lawson, So. Elijah Daniel, Jr. Keymiya Harrell, So. Gimel President, Jr. DeVonte Lambert (could play tackle), Fr. Justin Thornton, Fr., Raashad Kennion, Fr. Andrew Williams (could play tackle).
Sr. Robenson Therezie, Sr. Jermaine Whitehead, Jr. Josh Holsey, Sr. Trent Fisher, So. Mackenro Alexander, So. Khari Harding, So. Brandon King, Jr. Derrick Moncrief, Fr. Stephen Roberts, Fr. Markell Boston, So. T.J. Davis.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: