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Talking defense with Auburn coordinator Ellis Johnson

April 23, 2014

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson during last Saturday’s A-Day game (Lauren Barnard photo)

By Phillip Marshall

AUBURN, Ala. – Uncertainty has been replaced by confidence. Lingering bitterness has been replaced by the swagger of a champion. T

As spring practice ended with last Saturday’s A-Day game, Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson saw something very different than he saw a year ago or even during last season’s run to the Southeastern Conference title and the BCS Championship Game.

In the spring of 2013, Auburn’s football team was coming off a 3-9 season. And even when the first spring under head coach Gus Malzahn was done, scars remained. Those scars, Ellis says, are gone.

“Last year we were fighting a lack of confidence and a little bit of bitterness,” Johnson said. “At the same time, there was hunger to try it another way. This year, they are confident. But, at the same time, we have to learn how to keep that intensity and focus to keep getting better. I haven’t seen an issue with it. To me, they just look more comfortable in the system and more confident in themselves. So far, it’s all been a plus.”

Johnson’s first Auburn defense was on a roller-coaster ride for much of the season, giving up 420.7 yards and 24.7 points per game, but standing strong when it mattered most. Johnson says he saw more consistency even in a spring plagued by injuries.

“When you are No. 1 in the SEC in third-down defense, you ought to be good in pass defense,” Johnson said. “But we were terrible. It would be one of these stupid first-down plays a lot of times, turning a guy loose in man coverage, somebody running out of a zone, run-fit on a one-back zone play. We’d do stuff like that and give up a 25-yard play and somehow hang on and make a stop. A lot of that seems to be cleaned up now.”

Even with the inconsistency of last season, the Tigers were one stop from beating Florida State and winning the national championship.

“By the middle of the year, the way our offense could run the football and the way our kicking game could back you up, all we had to do was play a little more consistently and make a few more big plays on defense and we’d have a chance against just about anybody on any given day,” Johnson said. “Texas A&M was terrible on defense, but to beat them at home made our kids believe they could play with anybody.

“We went from a team that probably had no idea we’d even be in the championship game to, I believe, being the best team on the field that night.”

More from Johnson:

The question most asked about Auburn’s secondary is where junior Josh Holsey, out since suffering a knee injury last October, will play. Will it be safety or will it be cornerback?

“I’m concerned about (Jonathan) Jones being able to stay healthy through the season. My first thought is to move (Jonathon) Mincy to the field and put Holsey at the boundary corner where he was last spring. Derrick Moncrief really was a bright spot at safety, but can he be the starter with no proven guy behind him or rotating with him? Then you say maybe we ought to keep Holsey where he is. I don’t know.”

Despite the questions, there was a lot to like in the secondary. The move of senior Trovon Reed from wide receiver to cornerback was a big success.

“Once Trovon learns everything that’s going on, technique, hands, feet, splits of receivers, all the nuances that can help him, he has a chance to be really good. Physically he looked the part. The first day he was over there he tackled aggressively, and that’s half of it right there. Ability-wise he’s what you want. That was very pleasing.

“(Jermaine) Whitehead didn’t get many reps, but we feel very good about him. Right now, we think we have two good starters at safety and maybe three and maybe four. We feel good about Rudy Ford. I think he’s going to be ready to go. So you have Whitehead, Moncrief, Holsey and Rudy. Do we move Holsey to corner? If we do, we’re back to three again.”

Sophomore Khari Harding made the move from safety to linebacker midway through spring practice. Mackenro Alexander could move the other way, from the star position to safety.

“You’ve got two good ones at star in (Robenson) Therezie and (Justin) Garrett. Maybe we move Mackenro back and see if he can compete there and be the No. 2 guy.”

On the defensive line, the Tigers worked around injuries through the spring. Some questions were answered at defensive end. But with senior LaDarius Owens out for the entire spring with a broken foot and sophomore Elijah Daniel slowed with a groin injury, some weren’t. Sophomore Carl Lawson was a highlight, but he was hurt and missed the A-Day game.

“From a starter standpoint, we felt like Carl needed to improve as an every-down player but we felt good about him being a starter. We thought he would probably solidify that, and I thought he did. Unfortunately, Elijah got hurt early and LaDarius was hurt before. We really didn’t have the competition at that spot we wanted to have to see who would emerge. I thought Elijah got back at the end and had a good two or three days.”

To deal with the lack of spring depth on the outside, senior Gabe Wright and sophomore Montravius Adams, defensive tackles by trade, got significant work at defensive end.

“We moved Montravius and Gabe outside because of necessity. We didn’t have enough bodies. They did a very good job out there, very impressive at times. I’m not sure that won’t end up being an X and O deal that we kind of thought about early. Against some of the teams like Alabama, Georgia and LSU, we need to play bigger people. That wasn’t a wasted effort. They did a heck of a job cross training.”

Juniors Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy went into spring as the starting linebackers and emerged from spring the same way.

“I thought they established themselves. Kris had an excellent spring. Cassanova had a really good spring but was hampered by missing time with that bruised bone. I have a lot of confidence in those two.”

Behind Frost and McKinzy, there is talent at linebacker. But who will claim the available playing time behind the starters is anybody’s guess.

“I was real disappointed JaViere (Mitchell) didn’t practice. I thought he had a legitimate shot to be one of those two-deep guys. He tore a ligament in his foot in the SEC Championship Game. He’ll have a good, full summer. … I’d probably put him outside, but he could play either one. He’s pretty sharp. In the meetings, he’s about as quick as any of them mentally.

“If you look at who got down on the field, it boiled down to Harding, (Kenny) Flowers and (Cameron) Toney. They were all about equal. I think Harding has the biggest upside. My best guess would be Khari, (incoming freshman) Tre Williams and those other two will be in a mad scramble there with JaViere being the wild card.”

Immediate help is expected from incoming signees, starting with defensive lineman DeVonte Lambert, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound transfer from Georgia Military College.

“I think he has the kind of ability to make a contribution very early. We feel like he has the quicks to play defensive end. He might end up being a big guy and move inside, but I think he can play end.”


Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for Follow Marshall on Twitter:




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