Auburn defense looking for more in SEC opener

Sept. 10, 2013

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Auburn's Ryan White wraps up Julian Jones last Saturday (AP/Dave Martin photo)

By Charles Goldberg
AuburnTigers.com

AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson says his defense has allowed too many "trash plays." And he's concerned about giving up too many first downs. 

But Auburn's defensive coordinator can't complain too much about the scoreboard. 

"Like I told the players, any time somebody doesn't touch the end zone, you've done something right."

Auburn hasn't allowed a touchdown in the last six-plus quarters covering 19 defensive series, the Tigers are 2-0 and they open their SEC season against Mississippi State on Saturday with momentum.

"We emphasize finishing series, finishing plays. You can’t let one bad play turn into a disaster," Johnson said. "We certainly don’t have the philosophy that each series we want to give up 50 yards, but don’t give up a touchdown." 

It's not a bend-but-don't-break defense. 

"I think I was in the third grade when that term started and, as you all can see, I’m pretty old," Johnson joked. "We certainly don’t have a philosophy of that." 

Johnson sees the mistakes most fans can't find. But he also saw a lot of effort the last time out in a 38-9 win over Arkansas State. 

"In fact, I think the effort really is what kept us from giving up points because we really had some trash plays all over the field that could have created some situations for us," Johnson said. "For the most part, I thought we got good pressure on the quarterback, but we're letting him escape too much. In addition to that, we came out of coverage a couple of times when we needed to hold coverage on those scrambles and it created some of their explosive plays." 

But Johnson gave the tackling an A- and said the Tigers were generally physical. The small sampling of the season finds Auburn fifth in scoring defense in the SEC...but 12th in total defense. Auburn is 12th in third-down defense, but has stopped the opposition 5-of-7 times on fourth down. 

A mix bag? 

"The thing that concerns me right now is we're not getting ourselves off the field quick enough," Johnson said. "The biggest issue right now is we're giving up too many first downs. Third-down defense is not that bad; I think we're about 38 percent right now, counting those fourth downs that we stopped them. But we're giving up first downs on those second downs. Overall, we're way down on allowing first downs by opponents, and that's got to stop." 

 Johnson knows Mississippi State and coach Dan Mullen. He faced them in 2011 when he the  defensive coordinator at South Carolina, winning 14-12. Secondary coach Melvin Smith knos State, too. He was there the last seven years, 14 seasons in all. Johnson, Smith and fellow Auburn assistants Charlie Harbison and J.B. Grimes all coached at State. 

"Their offensive system has not changed much," Johnson said. "Over a two-year span you lose some guys and you recruit some guys, so they have tweaked it up." 

Johnson is having to prepare for two quarterbacks. Starter Tyler Russell suffered a concussion in the opener and didn't play in the second game. Dak Prescott  replaced him i the second game. Mullen said Monday that Russell has returned to practice. 

"You’ve got to be prepared for both of them anyway because they played the backup quarterback even when Tyler was OK," Johnson said.

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