June 20, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN — Ellis Johnson says spring practice taught him he has four or five players who are physical enough to be good SEC linebackers.
But Auburn's defensive coordinator isn't ready to give his guys a working summer depth chart.
"My biggest issue right now at linebacker is I didn't think any one guy separated himself as being outstanding," Johnson says.
Auburn's new defensive scheme with the new defensive coordinator requires only two linebackers, not the standard three. Spring practice ended with Kris Frost's physical ability coming through and Jake Holland's experience a plus in the middle. Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell ended spring leading for the other linebacker spot. But Johnson said some of the players and some of the positions they play may be interchangeable when fall practice begins.
And what about LaDarius Owens? He was signed as a linebacker, moved to the defensive line, given a chance at linebacker again in the spring, but could switch to defensive end again if it means more playing time.
"Right now, I feel like I could pull their names out of a hat and throw them out there and there wouldn't be that much difference in the production," Johnson said.
That's sounds like a summer workout challenge, or at least a call for competition when fall practice begins in August.
"The biggest challenge I'll have in the fall with my linebackers is finding the right two, and the right four, to get that two-deep depth chart," Johnson said. "They need to improve in the consistency area. Other than Jake, they're not a very experience group in game experience."
Johnson said Holland is "smart enough" to play in the Mike linebacker, a critical position because that player makes many of the defensive calls. Holland could end up at the other linebacker spot as well.
"He got hampered by the fact he missed practice and meetings in the spring. His experience level kept him from getting too far behind, but some of these other guys made some strides and got ahead of him right now," Johnson said.
"Jake is experienced. Kris is a lot less experienced, but Kris will take charge of things. He'll make mistakes that will have to be cleaned up, but that's my job. He'll take charge. Some of others don't talk enough to move to the Mike spot."
Owens is a wildcard at linebacker, finishing spring as a backup at the Mike and Will linebacker positions on the loosely constructed depth chart.
"I'm very pleased with Ladarious Owens' progress," Johnson said. "He played a little bit of both during the spring. He made himself a better linebacker during the spring.
"He's got a good chance to be a good football player. He has the physical tools.
"But there's a possibility he may be moved to D-end. He might be one of the best 22 players we've got. I don't want him to play five plays a game at linebacker, or 10 plays every other game, if he can play 25-30 snaps for us at defensive end. We'll have to see how that all shakes out."
Anthony Swain figures to be in the mix as well.
"It's a deep group that has to get sorted out," Johnson said.
Johnson needs more time to do that.
"We learned a lot about our football team in the spring and the offseason, but I don't think you can know exactly what you have in 15 practices as a defensive unit, especially with half of them not even having pads," he said. "I don't know if we know completely where we are. There are some areas of concern. I don't know if we can generate a dynamic pass rush without blitzing. We are very, very thin at safety.
"We think we have some young guys coming in who will have a chance, but you never know. There will be some pleasant surprises and some disappointments."
Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Goldberg on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine