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Mix and match: Auburn defense juggling lineup

Sep 3, 2013

LaDarius Owens takes the high road, Robenson Therezie is low to make the stop in opener (Anthony Hall photo)

By Charles Goldberg

AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson was mixing and matching his defense, because of injuries, because of Washington State, because of young guys trying to find their way. 

Auburn's defensive coordinator won the chess match against pass-happy Washington State last week, and now will try to do it against likely-more-balanced Arkansas State this Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium. 

Johnson has been juggling his lineup throughout fall camp because of injuries to starting defensive end Dee Ford and hybrid Star safety Justin Garrett as well defensive tackle starter Jeff Whitaker, another potential starter. They all missed Saturday's 31-24 win. There were also the dismissal of defensive back starter Demetruce McNeal, another potential starter, and injuries that slowed the defensive line in August. 

Ken Carter, a defensive tackle last year who was moved to defensive end by Johnson, had to play both positions against Washington State. 

"I'd say right now we're sort of in a musical chairs with Jeff gone," Johnson says. "We kind of need him inside. With Dee Ford, we kind of need him outside." 

Auburn played all three of its 5-star freshmen defensive linemen. Montravius Adams got a sack on his first college play and brought energy in the heat and humidity. Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel were also in the rotation. 

"They made some mistakes, typical freshman mistakes," Johnson said. "As they get better as the season rolls along, we'll probably have the luxury to move Kenny inside when we need to. He's probably one of our best interior rushers. There'll be some rotation in there. One good thing, I think we're developing up front is some real quality depth." 

Adams played the most among the defensive line rookies. Lawson was next. Daniel got in for three plays. There was disparity there, but not like at linebacker. Washington State's pass-first plan — the Cougars threw it 65 times — forced Johnson to play six defensive backs, a move that kept the Will linebackers on the sidelines most of the night. 

Auburn's top five tacklers, and seven of the top eight, were defensive backs. They had three interceptions, or one more interception than Auburn had all last season. It could be a different playbook against Arkansas State, a team that needed to throw it just 13 times in smashing Arkansas-Pine Bluff 62-11 last Saturday. The Red Wolves ran for 509 yards. 

Auburn used starting Will linebacker Cassanova McKinzy played only 19 snaps in the opener. His backups didn't get in for a single play. The middle linebacker spot was manned by Jake Holland and Kris Frost. 

"I think Frost probably had a little bit more production, but he had a couple of mental assignments that Jake didn't have," Johnson said. "But it was the type of ball game where either your pass rush showed up or your coverage showed up." 

Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday had plenty of time to throw early in the game. Less so as the game wore on when Auburn switched to man-to-man coverage.

"During the course of the game, we felt frustrated about the amount of pressure we were getting on the quarterback. But as we looked at the film, he was throwing the ball very quickly at times," Johnson said. "We were a step or two away."

Charles Goldberg is a Senior Writer at Follow him on Twitter:



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