2014 Key Returnees:
LB: Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy, Kenny Flowers, JaViere Mitchell, Cameron Toney, Anthony Swain
STAR: Robenson Therezie, Justin Garrett, Mackenro Alexander
LB: Tre' Williams, De'Shaun Davis
STAR: Nick Ruffin
I was cautiously optimistic about the linebackers, last season. I was a bit worried about the depth at Star to start the year, and those worries turned to near panic until Robenson Therezie's 11th hour reinstatement before the Arkansas game. I expected a lot out of Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost, and they produced. They didn't always produce the way we would like, but they did produce.
Cass led the team in tackles in 2013 with Kris Frost close behind him. They were 2nd and 3rd in 2014, with Johnathan (Rudy) Ford being the team leader. Ford - as a DB - being the leading tackler on the team is troubling. Cass and Frost are still up at the top, and Therezie at the Star was 6th, but he had half the number of tackles that McKinzy and Frost did.
I don't know how to really measure tackles as a weight system for evaluating the position. I looked at their production as a percentage of the total number (as I've done with the defensive line positions), but that can be deceptive. When we're talking tackles as a whole, there are missing elements like incomplete passes, ball carrier running out of bounds, or, unfortunately, touchdowns with no tackle. So that skews things a bit.
However, just looking at their 2013 and 2014 numbers, McKinzy and Frost increased their production (75 and 59 total in 2013, 91 and 87 total in 2014) while the number of total tackles decreased. So, these two saw an increase in their production as a part of the whole. Therezie's numbers dropped a bit (57 to 42), but with Justin Garrett healthier and getting a bit more playing time, that was somewhat to be expected. Garrett accounted for 17 tackles, so combining that with Therezie's numbers can somewhat explain a way the first glance drop in production at Star.
As a whole, Auburn actually increased its number of tackles per play in 2014. 93.9% of Auburn's 2014 defensive plays ended in tackles, while 92.3% ended that way in 2013. Unfortunately, I think the numbers there are skewed by the number of big plays and quick drives Auburn gave up. How did the linebackers do in that?
This was complicated, but I figured that production increased by the linebackers in 2014. I'm not sure if that's because more runners were getting past the defensive line or because the linebackers were making more tackles on receivers/runners before they reached the next level. Either way, the linebacker/star position accounted for 36.2% of Auburn's 2014 total tackles, while the 2013 unit accounted for 31.5%.
Honestly, I still consider it a wash. The linebackers tackled much better at times, but they still missed on quite a few that they should have made that could have salvaged big plays.
With the linebackers/Star I wanted to examine pass breakups, but this seemed to be an even more imperfect measurement than tackles. Therezie was more a traditional DB, so he was going to add numbers in 2013 vs 2014. However, I don't have the stats in front of me on how many times passes were targeted towards linebackers. I'm sure the info is out there, somewhere, but I'm not going to go digging for it that much.
One thing that did jump out at me, though, is that Therezie - while he had a few interceptions and more tackles in 2013 - was only credited with one pass breakup that season. That was... surprising. In 2014 he was credited with 6.
I would say the linebackers were a push. They caused some costly penalties (the late hits in the bowl game being a prime example), missed some key tackles (UGA game, anyone?), but they also did a lot of good work. The amount of tackles accounted for shows that. They also made some big plays. Therezie's hurry/near sack in the Arkansas game that led to one of Jermaine Whitehead's interceptions being one of those.
We expected more from Therezie and Garrett at the Star position this season, but never really saw it. McKinzy and Frost played well, but weren't consistent all season long. No one really can be, but it seemed they had too many off moments to say they played well.
The backups were respectable. Anthony Swain played a number of snaps in relief, as did freshman Tre Williams. In fact, those two played most of the Louisiana Tech game due to injuries to Frost and McKinzy.
Gone is the "Star," and in comes the "Buck." We go from a hybrid DB/LB to a hybrid LB/DE. Carl Lawson or incoming Freshman Byron Cowart could excel in that role. Frost and McKinzy return for their senior seasons, which is huge when you look back at the numbers I posted, above. Of the linebacker productions, each one alone accounted for more tackles than every other linebacker/star combined aside from Therezie.
Auburn adds a few stud linebackers in the 2015 class, as well. Montavious Adams, Darrell Williams, Richard McBryde, and Jeff Holland were all four star recruits. Holland in particular could contribute immediately.
We're going to need it, too. Swain - the most effective backup - has left the team. I would be in a near panic if Frost and McKinzy had gone pro. Auburn would have been left with essentially two players - Justin Garrett and Tre Williams - with any real meaningful snaps at the linebacker position. Javiere Mitchell would be another player with some experience, but not a terribly large amount.
There are other linebackers on the roster. Deshaun Davis redshirted in 2014. Cameron Toney was getting a look at the H-back position, but I have a feeling he may be back on the defensive side of the ball. Kenny Flowers is a JUCO guy that hasn't really done much in his time at Auburn, so far.
Depth will be there, but experience will be the issue. That's where losing Anthony Swain will hurt the most. Outside of Lawson or Cowart, I'm not sure who will get a look at the Buck position. Don't rule out Raashed Kennion. He was garnering praise in fall practice last season, and at his size he may be perfect to slide into the Buck role.
Interesting times are ahead as we see just what Auburn's defense will look like under Will Muschamp. It will by multiple with 3-4 and 4-3 and maybe even occasionally the 4-2-5, as well. One thing is for sure; It's going to be intense.
Next up: Defensive Backs
For all previous entries in this series you can check out this Section I've created for them.