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Sometimes Things Don't Work Out for Good Men

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A Tribute to Ellis Johnson

Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Ellis Johnson was fired after the Iron Bowl.  This wasn't a big surprise.  After starting well, Auburn's defense fell apart in the back half of the season, giving up 30+ to its last six SEC opponents.  Miss State, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama had very talented offenses that have made a lot of people look bad.  South Carolina and Texas A&M surprised us by showing plays and formations they hadn't run going into those games.

How much of the defense's struggles is on Ellis can be debated.  Ellis is in the second year of a fairly major defensive overhaul.  We never had a great natural fit for Johnson's hybrid Star linebacker.  We lost Carl Lawson to injury and our other defensive linemen had trouble getting a pass rush.  Our secondary improved in some respects, but suffered repeated mental lapses and were frankly just physically beaten by more talented receivers down the stretch.  Some of this, but not all, goes back to the lack of a pass rush.

Auburn's rush defense showed flashes of brilliance early in the season but had issues in the major road games in the second half of the year against talented rushing offenses.  Some of these issues were due to alignment errors.  Here's a picture I first saw on Cole Cubelic's twitter feed which I've punched up some to help show what we're looking at:

Alignment

As you may recall from the preseason, to achieve balance, a defense must have (or at least be able to bring) the same number of players on each side of the ball as the offense.  Here, Georgia outnumbered Auburn by two men to the strong side.  The result was predictable:

Auburn seemed to have difficulty getting in position Saturday as well, especially on Alabama's first two drives.  How many of these errors in the running and passing game are attributable to coaching and how many were on the players or a lack of a "quarterback on the field" is something I can't answer.

Johnson's tenure at Auburn wasn't a total failure.  In some ways, he was our best coordinator since Muschamp left in 2007.  He inherited a bad defense and made it average.  Our defense had 19 interceptions this year.  In four separate games, Auburn had more interceptions (3) than the entire 2012 defense had on the season (2).  Auburn did a good job containing mobile quarterbacks against Kansas State and LSU.  Auburn allowed less than 2.5 yards per carry in a four game stretch between San Jose State and LSU.  Last year, Auburn stripped down its playbook, ran a few basic coverages and turned the ends loose and created enough big plays to come within an eyelash of a national title.

Ellis isn't stupid.  He has a long history of success. He was involved in great defenses at Alabama including the 1992 defense, which is the second best defense I ever saw (behind the 1988 Auburn defense).  As an assistant or coordinator, he won two conference titles and a national title at Alabama, one conference title at Auburn, and took South Carolina to places the program had never been before.

Most importantly, Ellis represented Auburn the right way.  He answered questions directly and candidly.  He accepted blame when there was blame and would mention blown coverages and mistakes if they were made.  He accepted a tough assignment and did his job with the class and dignity you would expect from a seasoned veteran who has seen 12-0 seasons, 0-12 seasons, and everything in between.

He's a good man who took a hard job and it just didn't work out the way anyone hoped.  I hope he finds another job soon and is successful again. Or, don't.  Take your buyout, find a nice cabin on Lake Martin and get a weekend gig on the SEC Network.

It didn't work out but Coach Johnson remains a part of Auburn.  War Eagle, Coach Johnson, thanks, and best of luck moving forward.