Daren Bates may be small, but he's the most proven linebacker on Auburn's roster.
The linebacker position at Auburn is undergoing a massive overhaul under new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. His defense relies heavily on the men in the middle, and since the start of fall camp, getting those players up to speed has been a focal point. If you have seen any media videos of practice, you know how vocal VanGorder has been with his linebackers, which is not necessarily a good thing. Being physical and getting up field defines his NFL style defense, and progress with this group is slow, but it has been encouraging at times.
There is a lot more thinking required for the linebackers in this system, as opposed to previous years in Ted Roof's system. The majority of the mental aspect of the game has shifted to the linebackers and away from the defensive line. This will allow the D-line to think less, pin their ears back, and get up field. A lot is riding on the development at middle linebacker, as that is the player making all the calls and adjustments for front seven -- the quarterback of the defense, you might say. Getting playing time under VanGorder will start with lining up right, making adjustments according to what the offense shows, and having consistency in overall play, fundamentals that Auburn linebackers struggled with in 2011.
Linebacker Roster Entering 2012
This linebacker core is still young. In the past few years, Auburn has had major depth problems at the position, but that problem is slowly starting to disappear thanks to heavy defensive recruiting. Daren Bates, a starter since 2010, is definitely the most experienced in this group, but as you might expect from a former safety, he is woefully undersized. Nevertheless, he has managed to play well. Last year, Bates led the team with 109 tackles, and if he continues to progress under VanGorder, he could be a lock-down player on this defense. Jake Holland and Jonathan Evans were also starters last year, although both dealt with injuries and neither were hailed as standouts when healthy. Holland, in particular, must step up his game this year. He struggled last season and lost his job to Eltoro Freeman after suffering an ankle injury. Freeman played well, and Holland was unable to win back the starting position. If Auburn's defense is going to be successful, the middle linebacker has to be a force and a leader on the field. Right now, that job belongs to Holland. Despite the fact that he still has room for improvement, Holland has been performing well in fall camp, and he believes he is coming into his own as a player.
"I've seen improvement with him. It's important that he creates an environment that the other 10 guys recognize he is out in front of the huddle, he is making the calls (and) everybody trusts and feels comfortable with that." -- defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, on middle linebacker Jake Holland
Aside from Holland, Bates and Evans, the rest of the linebackers are mostly unproven. With his wealth of experience and solid play in the past, Bates is guaranteed to be the starter at the weak side, and after three good scrimmages, Holland seems to have solidified his starting position in the middle. True freshman Cassanova McKinzy has talent and size, but he's just too young to beat out Holland. The rest of the pecking order is yet to be determined by VanGorder, and it changes almost on a daily basis. Kris Frost was first string at the strong side at the start of fall camp but has moved behind Bates at the weak side. Frost has been slow picking up the defense and hasn’t reached a level with which VanGorder is comfortable. The starting position battle to watch should be between Justin Garrett and Jonathan Evans on the strong side. Garrett was moved after starting camp at the weak side and has performed well, but VanGorder has given Evans a lot of praise recently, mentioning how the senior is really coming into his own and making good progress. At this point, the edge should be given to Evans at the strong side.
Overall, this group has much to prove. The linebackers were Auburn's weakest link last season, and the assumption is that they will be again in 2012. There's plenty of outstanding talent waiting in the wings, but most of it is just too young to make a major impact this season. This group will be much better next season, and it's possible that VanGorder could have it playing at a higher level later this year, but right now, the best grade that can honestly be applied to the linebackers is D+.