July 22, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
Ellis Johnson saw the proliferation of spread and no-huddle offenses, and he knew it was time to do something. The Johnson version of the 4-2-5 defense was born.
Johnson used that defense effectively at South Carolina from 2008 through 2011. He went 0-3 against Auburn teams on which Gus Malzahn was the offensive coordinator, but Malzahn was impressed nonetheless. When Malzahn was named Auburn's head coach last December, he quickly turned to Johnson to run his defense.
And Johnson's 4-2-5 is the scheme that will be the foundation for his Auburn defense as the Tigers begin preseason practice on Aug. 2.
Just what is the 4-2-5?
It is a defense that features a hybrid safety/linebacker instead of three traditional linebacker. At Auburn, Johnson named the position Star. At South Carolina it was the Spur.
Junior Justin Garrett, a speedy reserve linebacker in his first two seasons at Auburn, embraced the new position and was the defensive star of spring practice. Junior Robenson Therezie, a cornerback his first two seasons, moved to Star during the spring and also convinced Johnson he can play wining football there.
"I cut my teeth on the old wide tackle 6," says Johnson, whose college coaching career spans 31-plus years. "Moved on. Learned the pure 3-4 defense we ran at Alabama in the early 1990s. Right now, it's kind of come full circle. What I really believe is the best starting point is 4-2. People are not allowing you to substitute freely. That's the package I think gives you the chance to be OK no matter who they put on the field and what situation."
But Johnson says no one should be deceived. Offenses won't see the same defensive set on every snap. Far from it. Sometimes there'll be two Stars in the game. Sometimes, on running downs, there might be three linebackers or even an extra defensive lineman. Sometimes the Star will cover the slot receiver. Sometimes he will play zone or have deep coverage on the outside. Sometimes he will blitz. Sometimes he will drop down into the box. Sometimes the Tigers will line up in a 3-4.
What Auburn does on defense when the season starts on Aug. 31 against Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Johnson says, will be based on what he believes his players can execute at a winning level.
"I think stopping the run is more about leveraging the ball and getting hits on the ballcarrier than it is about diagrams," Johnson says. "When you put a defense together, you don't try to put together an elaborate package you've built. You put together a package based on what you are going to have to stop.
"A lot of people coach out of systems. They hope their system is better and they are more elaborate and it's more complicated. My philosophy has been more I am going to sit down and figure out what we are going to have to stop. Let's adapt this thing to be able to do that."
Johnson's players long ago embraced his philosophy, one they say is simpler and more fun that the Brian VanGorder's scheme in the ill-fated 2012 season.
"Everybody is buying in," Garrett says. "Everybody has really been working hard on improving technique and fundamentals. I really feel like we are going to shock everybody with our defense."
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: