Ask Auburn fans what the storylines will be as fall camp begins on Wednesday and most will point to the quarterback position, the play of the wide receivers and Gene Chizik's overall persona as the new head man. The Auburn defense is rarely mentioned these days.
This is very much a testament to the job of the Tigers last three defensive coordinators which started with Chizik himself. While the Auburn offense has rivaled General Hospital in drama over the past three years, the defense has been the one constant that has kept Auburn close in many games down the stretch.
With Paul Rhoads off to Iowa State and Chizik back on campus it's widely assumed that Auburn's defense is in good hands. Perhaps the lowest key coach on campus so far has been new defensive coordinator Ted Roof. It's a safe bet to say he walks through Kroger without being hounded by fans.
Like the three men who preceded him, Roof is no slouch. While opponents like to point to his failed tenure (2003-07) as head coach at Duke, that's only a small part of the story. Despite the poor record overall in Durham, Roof had plenty of success on the defensive side of the ball. After finishing ninth in the ACC against the run prior to his arrival, Duke led the league in rushing defense a year later by allowing just 120.5 yards per game on the ground. In 2003, the Blue Devils jumped from ninth in passing defense in the ACC to third.
Last season while coordinator at Minnesota, Roof inherited a defense that had ranked last nationally in total defense, 115th in pass defense, 114th in rushing defense and 109th in scoring defense in 2007. In just one season, his squad improved to 61st in scoring defense, 69th in rushing defense, 79th in total defense and 93rd in pass defense. Anyway you look at it those numbers are impressive - especially when you look closer at the talent on Minnesota's defense.
Roof cut his teeth as a player and a coach at Georgia Tech. By his second season as defensive coordinator in Atlanta, Roof was already making a name for himself. In 2000, the Yellow Jacket defense ranked 12th in the nation in rushing defense and 20th in scoring defense, allowing just 19 points per game, as Georgia Tech posted a 9-3 record and finished the season ranked 17th nationally. A year later he was a finalist for the Broyles Award, as the nation's top assistant coach.
Roof Must Wake Up The Echoes
The biggest challenge this year may be restoring the swagger of a unit that collapsed under the pressure of injury and an inept offense that averaged only 11 points a game in 2008. Last week, assistant coach Tracy Rocker made news by commenting on the lack of physicality of the defense early in spring practice. There's no question, coaches will be looking to ratchet up the contact during camp.
Roof tells Inside The Auburn Tigers that his team is already making strides in that area. "I thought we made a lot of progress in spring training," said Roof. "I think we became a lot more physical, which was one of our big goals. We have got a way to go, but I thought we made big strides in the right direction."
There's plenty of reason for optimism on defense with the Tigers losing only four starters. The one big spot they'll be looking to improve in is takeaways. Last season, Auburn had just 18 takeaways (11 interceptions/seven fumble recoveries). For the Tigers to have a chance to play in postseason, that number will have to drastically improve.
All eyes again will be on senior defensive end Antonio Coleman. He knows there are a lot of things that need correcting if Auburn is to finish higher than fifth in the SEC West, where most prognosticators have pegged this year's team.
"Just taking a look back at all the small things that were happening around Auburn, the team, and I think it produced the 5-7 season," Coleman said. "Some of the small things you probably let slide through the cracks and didn't notice. This year, it's a big change.
"You have another Auburn man in Coach Chizik who has been here before, and won games in the SEC, and has brought in a different vibe to the football team that has made us bring our swagger back."
Auburn players report on Tuesday and begin in shells on Wednesday. They put on the pads for the first time Sunday. All practices are closed and will take place behind the athletic department.