Auburn football: Tigers need linebackers to return to mid-2000s form

Frederick Breedon

It's been a while since Auburn has had a great corps of linebackers. Will the Tigers get better at the position any time soon?

A linebacker (LB) is a position in American football that was invented by football coach Fielding H. Yost of the University of Michigan.[2] Linebackers are members of the defensive team, and line up approximately three to five yards (4 m) behind the line of scrimmage, behind the defensive linemen. Linebackers generally align themselves before the ball is snapped by standing upright in a "two point stance" (as opposed to the defensive linemen, who put one or two hands on the ground for a "three point stance" or "four point stance" before the ball is snapped). The goal of the linebacker is to provide either extra run protection or extra pass protection based on the particular defensive play being run.

From Wikipedia.com

The linebacker position is probably one of the easiest of roles to idealize in the game of football, and at the same time, one of the most difficult to play. The perceived archetype of the position is simply an athlete of tall stature, solid size and strength, explosiveness and great field of vision. They are often more than just fundamentally sound and gifted, but they possess a competency for their position that is quite rare. Individuals who have more than exemplified these characteristics have awards and trophies named after them.

With the announcement of the latest commitment to the Tigers' 2014 recruiting class being a highly-sought after linebacker, it had me considering the position, both past and present, at Auburn. It is pretty easy to say that over the last couple of years that the play by the linebackers has been disappointing. When I think of past Tigers who played the position, I think of players who seemed monstrous and played with fearless ferocity. The recent linebacker corps, for some reason, just hasn't seemed to have that same size or fire.

So what is the issue here? Has Auburn just been unable to bring in those beasts and unleash them on the field? Or has it been a matter of poor development and coaching? Whatever it is, our perceptions often differ from reality.

THE PERCEIVED IDEAL

A decade ago, Auburn's defense fielded the last great pair of linebackers who fit into that ideal mold: Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas. Dansby stood at 6'5 and weighed in at 235 pounds, and Thomas was 6'4 and weighed 238 pounds. These guys were just killers let loose (they had rage, don't you know? - ed.) and were tons of fun to watch as they buried opponents into the ground. At the end of the season, Dansby led the defense in tackles with 84, and not only was he chosen first-team All-SEC, but also first-team All-America. Thomas finished the year close behind with 75 tackles and was also be tabbed as first-team All-SEC. Rounding out the top three in tackles was another starting linebacker, Travis Williams, with 67. Yes, you read that correctly, Auburn's three leading tacklers for the 2003 season were its starting linebackers. Dansby's and Thomas's overall performances helped them go onto the NFL, as both were selected in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft. It goes without saying that Dansby and Thomas set the standard for years to come. However, Auburn's greatest defensive unit of the new millennium, thus far, came from the effort of linebackers not nearly as big as Dansby or Thomas.

SIZE MATTERS NOT

It wasn't too long ago that the Tigers finished up their most recent spring practice and the general, overall feel by the coaches was positive, but still in need of improvement. Back when the 2004 spring practice concluded, that wasn't the opinion of one coach at all:

The overall defensive effort has, so far this spring, been pretty weak - in fact utterly disgusting to Auburn coaches. Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik admitted "we were terrible." Tuberville has challenged this group to step up this fall and lay/take claim as the strength of this team.

Well, that challenge was certainly accepted, as the 2004 defense held teams to 277.6 yards per game and allowed 11.3 points per game. But the 2004 linebacker corps saw a noticeable decrease in size. Travis Williams, the only returning starter from the '03 unit, was listed at 6'1 and 214 pounds. Karibi Dede was moved from free safety to linebacker and was listed at 6'1 and 206 pounds. Antarrious Williams was the shortest of the three coming in at 5'11 and weighing 205 pounds. That is an average height difference of three inches and average weight difference of 19 pounds. In a conference where every inch and every ounce counts, it was a significant difference.

Travis Williams ended the season as Auburn's leading tackler, totaling 80. Antarrious Williams accumulated 44 tackles, but he missed the last three games of the 2004 season due to a wrist injury. Dede made 29 tackles that season, matching Kevin Sears, another linebacker who saw significant playing time. While the numbers appear misleading, this linebacker group still played a large role. Despite the size drop off, the development at the position was evident. The linebackers helped comprise an aggressive attack of the defensive front seven that would often push plays to the outside and set up ballhawks like Will Herring, Carlos Rogers and Junior Rosegreen to make plays. There were also more blitz packages where the linebackers would mask the corner or safety blitz.

BOOM MOTHERF*CKER

In 2006, after a brief stint in the pros, a coach would come to the Plains and make himself known. With him, he brought an aggressive and fast style that become synonymous with SEC defenses. He also established a cult of personality in the realm of college football that lasts to this day. Of course, I'm talking about Will Muschamp. His linebacker crew was certainly a mixed group composed of a couple of seniors and a lot of underclassmen, experienced a myriad of injuries and academic issues, and two of his starters were converted safeties, Herring and Dede. These two were the Tigers' leading tacklers and contributed largely to a defense that would allow 13.9 points and 292.3 yards per game, the lowest numbers produced by an Auburn defense since. The average size of this group? 6'1 and 216 pounds. But once again, despite their size and relative inexperience, this group made up for it with their speed and tenacity.

FROM CHAMPIONS TO UGH

Six years after missing out on playing for a national title the Tigers received redemption and took home the crystal football. Whereas the 2004 Tigers are remembered both for their suffocating defense and an explosive offense, the 2010 Tigers are pretty much remembered for a couple of guys, neither of whom played at linebacker. This group however would once again feature a couple of seniors and a converted safety to bolster the group. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens compiled 73 and 62 tackles, respectively, which was good enough for first and fourth amongst the defensive unit. While certainly having to be on the field more thanks to a fast-paced, high-scoring offense, the linebackers on numerous occasions just flat out struggled. They were often out of position, their fundamentals were poor and they seemingly couldn't finish tackles. In fact, this is the first group of linebackers discussed who had more assisted tackles than solo tackles. Size wise, however, they were larger than the 2004 and 2006 squads with an average weight at 226 pounds and height at 6'1.5

The 2011 bunch didn't fair any better, and the Tigers fielded their shortest linebacker corps to date. All three starters were listed at 5'11, and it certainly showed. Daren Bates was Auburn's leading tackler, totaling 104 and fellow starter Eltoro Freeman collect 58, which was good for fifth on the team. It is hard not to notice that huge disparagement. It was even harder not to notice just how poorly the defense as a whole was, and the linebackers were not helping the cause. At the end of the year, it seemed that the only the direction this squad could go was up, but instead, it found a way to go down.

It goes without saying that the 2012 Auburn Tigers hit bottom, both on defense and offense. Despite featuring a linebacker group comprised of two seniors and a junior and bulking up to an average weight of 229 pounds, it didn't make up for the lack of height or development. The problems that had been plaguing the linebackers did not seem to be addressed at all by then defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, who was a noted linebacker coach(!). It was all bad. Really bad. Whoever is truly responsible for the lack of these player's development or being able to evaluate them properly -- something bad should happen to them. There really is nothing else I can say.

MOVING ON

With the departure of Gene Chizik and the arrival of Gus Malzahn, a new and hopefully better defensive era begins with new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. As we have touched on before, Johnson utilizes a 4-2-5 defense, meaning two linebackers and a hybrid linebacker/safety. Coming out of spring practice, the two tabbed as starting linebackers are Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Frost was listed as a five-star recruit by Rivals.com and redshirted his freshman year, and McKinzy was listed as a four-star, also by Rivals. Frost's size is a significant upgrade from recent years, measuring at 6'2 and 233 pounds. McKinzy is even larger at 6'3 and 243 pounds. These are the biggest linebackers Auburn has featured since Sears, and he last played for the Tigers seven years ago. While McKinzy and Frost are still young and learning a new defensive system, I am hoping that their larger frames and raw talent can be coached up enough to make a giant impact. However, Johnson has stated:

"My linebacker depth chart is very fluid right now," Johnson said. "The overall improvement has been good, it's steadily gotten better, but there have been some periods when one time will come out and have a better day than the other guy. I wouldn't rule out anybody right now."

Oh ... great.

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