Aug 15, 2013
DC Ellis Johnson says defense runs smoother with Jake Holland at middle linebacker
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. – As linebacker Jake Holland’s sophomore season at Auburn wound down in 2011, just getting out of bed in the mornings could be painful.
High ankle sprains routinely sideline players for weeks. Holland had two of them at the same time. He also had a torn bicep and a painful labrum. Still, he pushed on, missing just one game and that against his will.
Last season, he played with, among other things, a bulging vertebrae in his neck. Making a tackle would frequently cause the left side of his body to go numb. He played in all 12 games and finished fourth on the team in tackles. After the season, he went to see a neurologist and spent months going through rehabilitation and seeing a chiropractor.
Giving in wasn’t an option. That’s what Holland learned from his father Jeff, a former coach, and his brother Wes, a high school All-American and standout running back at North Alabama and beyond.
“We were raised to never quit,” says Wes, an athletic performance specialist at D1 Athletics in Savannah, Ga. “Jake has done a good job of that. Since I’m the oldest, I tried to be a good example of that. I think a lot has to do with our faith in God, that He will guide us to where we need to be. That gives us a peace. That has a major impact on how he’s able to fight through everything.”
The support and strength of his family, Holland says, helped him see light even in the darkest times. So it has been since he was a little boy.
“My dad has always given my good guidance,” Holland says. “My brother was always a straight A student. He graduated from North Alabama at the top of his class in pre-med. I’ve always had those role models I could look up to.”
Holland had to endure more than just the pain of injuries, though he surely didn’t see any of it coming on Jan. 10, 2011. A true freshman, he was middle linebacker Josh Bynes’ backup. He celebrated with his teammates as the Tigers beat Oregon to win the national championship.
In 2011, Holland won the starting job. He made 11 tackles in the season-opener against Utah State. At No. 10 South Carolina, he seemed to be coming into his own. He made six tackles and forced a fumble. Assigned to cover running back Marcus Lattimore, a dangerous and explosive threat out of the backfield, Holland didn’t allow a single completion.
Then the injuries started. And soon the criticism started, too. Holland became a favorite target of anonymous message board critics. The criticism reached a fever pitch as Auburn’s defense collapsed down the stretch en route to a 3-9 record last season, and it hasn’t stopped yet. Some of the criticism has been painfully personal. Holland shrugs it off.
“Anytime you have that leadership position, you are going to get some scrutiny whether you are productive or not,” Holland says. “If they’re going to scrutinize me, I’ll take it. I have that mindset to just keep moving. If they want to blame me, they can blame me, but I know I’m doing the best I can do. At the end of the day, they don’t know what they are talking about.”
Jeff Holland admires and respects the way his son has dealt with adversity. It hasn’t always been so easy for his son’s family. The criticism stings. When it becomes personal, the urge to strike back is strong. It is strong for his family and extended family - his father, his brother, his sister, his stepmother Terri Holland, his mother Kimberly Hopkins, stepfather Reid Hopkins and grandmother Nina Pruitt.
“I think it’s been unfortunate, because the commitment he’s made to Auburn and the willingness to help the team at all costs used to be something that was admired,” Jeff says. “It was painful for me to watch because, instead, it only brought on more criticism. I don’t know that it ever affected Jake, but for me, it was hard to swallow. At the same time, I knew it would make him a better man.”
There were new challenges when last season ended. The previous staff was dismissed. Gus Malzahn took over as head coach and quickly hired Ellis Johnson as defensive coordinator. In spring practice, Holland was sometimes absent. He had class in his building science major that he could not miss, and it often was at the same time as practice and meetings. Sophomore Kris Frost moved ahead of him on the depth chart.
Last Sunday, Johnson said Holland had moved back in front. Barring unexpected changes, for the third consecutive season under his third defensive coordinator, Holland will win the starting job at middle linebacker.
“He loves football,” Johnson says. “He studies the game. He’s sharp and knows things. He practices hard and practices with a purpose. He’s got the things you really want a kid to have. He has great work habits, and it means a lot to him.
“ … Our defense has a lot more stability when he’s in there making the calls and the checks.”
Holland says it’s what he expected. He was confident from the start of preseason camp that he would reclaim the starting job. For the first time in a long time, he isn’t dealing with pain. His work ethic and his intellect have won respect from teammates since the time he arrived at Auburn. He’s healthy and eager. He’s excited about what lies ahead for his senior season.
“This being my last season, I’d like to put that behind me and prove that I can be a productive player in this league,” Holland says. “Anytime you play the first half of the season and you’ve played 80 or 90 snaps a game, you’ve played a whole season. Without depth, your body just isn’t going to hold up. Even if you do all the right things, your body is going to wear down. That’s how tough this league is. We do have depth now, which I like.”
It’s a far cry from late last season when there was little hope and less excitement, when the defense seemed almost helpless.
“I know the fans really care, but for us to go through something like that is very tough,” Holland says. “To go through a season with almost no hope is very difficult. It’s hard to wake up in the morning and find that motivation. You have to dig deep. Each day was a grind.”
Where there was despair, there is now hope. Where there was confusion, there is now confidence. Holland says the 2013 Auburn team is different in almost every way from the 2012 team.
“I think we are a lot closer,” Holland says. “I feel like everybody has the opportunity to make plays and everybody is more confident, not just on defense but offense, too. They know Coach Malzahn’s offense is going to work. We know Coach Johnson’s defense is going to work. To a player, it’s just about getting your job done. Everybody is more confident because they feel like they can play fast, get pre-snap reads and get to the ball quicker. We’re having a lot more fun.”
It only took one play at Pelham High School for Wes to be convinced that his little brother had a future in college football. Wes was a senior and Jake was a freshman. Wes tells the story:
“They had pulled some of the freshmen up. We were playing Hillcrest High School right before the playoffs and we were beating them bad. Jake got to get in at middle linebacker. Jake went out there as a little ol’ 15-year-old freshman. A guy, a junior or senior, came across the middle to catch a pass. Jake planted him head first in the ground and he dropped the ball. From then on, it was fun to watch him grow.”
Holland took to football from the time he was a little boy, following in the footsteps of his older brother. Wes would go on to the Naval Academy before returning to finish his college career at North Alabama and play professionally for two seasons.
Through middle school, Holland was a running back, bigger and faster than most of his teammates. When he got to Pelham as a ninth-grader, he became a linebacker by trade. Jeff was there as a youth league coach and as a defensive assistant and middle school coach at Pelham through Jake’s sophomore season.
Fiercely competitive and aggressive on the field, Jake was quiet and introspective off the field. Unlike Wes and his younger sister Anna, both extroverts, Jake was more introverted. But he was determined to learn the lessons taught by his father and to follow the path blazed by his brother as a football player, as a student and as a person.
“He was really a quiet, shy kid who always tried his best and was very humble in all his doings,” says Jeff, who left coaching after Jake’s sophomore season at Pelham and is now president of Vision Security Technologies. “I don’t really think it was until Jake got into middle school or the early part of high school that he started realizing he had some good gifts himself. He was comparing himself in his own mind to Wes.”
Holland became a starter as a sophomore at Pelham. The letters from colleges started to come before his junior season. He visited UAB, and the entire coaching was there to offer him a scholarship. After his junior season, Southeastern Conference schools began to express interest. He was an All-State selection, an Under Armour All-American and was rated one of the South’s top inside linebacker prospects. Offers started to come, one after another.
When Holland visited Auburn, the decision was made. He committed and never wavered.
“I knew Auburn was the place for me,” Holland says. “It just reminded me of home, really. I saw the opportunity to play. Josh was going to be a senior. I saw a defense I could fit into and be productive. Not only that, Auburn’s building science school was what I was looking for as well.”
Through all the trials of the past two seasons, all the sometimes angry criticism Holland has endured, that love for Auburn has only grown.
“That kid loves Auburn,” Jeff says. “I’m talking about the school, the people, the football. He identifies with everything about it.”
Jeff hopes fervently that his son can have a productive, healthy and joyful senior season. He hopes he answers the critics and goes out in style. But, regardless of what happens, he’ll be proud.
“I really think the process of going through recruiting, becoming his own man, having to lead the defense really brought him out of his shell,” Jeff says. “He’s really a confident young man in terms of his ability to speak and those things.
“He’s really changed in his time at Auburn. He has really grown into a guy that doesn’t fear anything. I’m proud of him.”
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: