With A-Day quickly approaching, it is quite understandable that the side of the ball Auburn fans are looking forward to seeing the most is the offense. Head coach Gus Malzahn has returned to the Plains and brings with him his own unique brand of offense that Tiger fans remember oh so well. But also planning to make an appearance this upcoming Saturday is Auburn's defense (yes, it has one of those; stop laughing), and Auburn's newest defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson, has a heck of a job in front of him.
For those of you who have managed to erase the memory of last year's defensive "effort," allow me to remind you in one word: horriblebadawfulpoopstainterrible. Yes, that is a word. It's German. Shut up, we're moving on. The Tigers last year ranked 79th nationally in total defense, which was good enough for second to last in the SEC. In conference play alone, the defense allowed 6.5 yards per play and 449.4 yards per game. Yep, it was bad, and to mock it further would be beyond cruel.
Coach Ellis Johnson and the 4-2-5
Not too long after Malzahn's hiring as the new head football coach, Johnson, who had just coached a winless campaign at Southern Miss, was tapped to be the new defensive coordinator . Despite that however, he brings a wealth of SEC defensive experience that includes time at Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina, and with him comes his 4-2-5 base defense. As you can imagine, a good bit of time has been put in during the spring to establish this new system.
If you recall the 4-2-5 alignment is simply thus: four defensive linemen, two linebackers, four defensive backs and a hybrid safety-linebacker referred to as the "Star." As well as setting up this defensive style, Johnson is also working with the defensive unit on a 3-4 style and a dime package that will utilize two of the hybrid players and one linebacker. Johnson's main goals: minimal substitution and flexibility.
The Tigers have spent the lion's share of 10 spring practices playing exclusively out of the 4-2-5 alignment.But in truth, Johnson's defenses will show many more looks next fall. Under Johnson's direction, Auburn's defense will be able to change formation from snap to snap with only minimal changes in personnel.One of Johnson's chief goals in developing the 4-2-5 was to create a base defense that had the personnel and the flexibility to offer multiple defensive formations with minimal substitution. As more and more teams go to the no-huddle, a defensive coordinator no longer has enough time between snaps to run separate personnel groups into the game for each package he wants to run.
Moving personnel and "Star treatment"
As with every spring and the introduction of a new system, players get moved around and are tried out at new positions. LaDarius Owens, initially recruited as a linebacker, then moved to defensive line, is back at linebacker. It's a position he has every intention to being a part of:
That's all Owens wants.After two seasons playing mostly in a backup role, Owens wants to get on the field."I didn't move to linebacker to watch or to just add depth," Owens said."I want to compete."He's getting his chance now.
Linebacker has certainly been the position on defense that Auburn has needed the most help, and hopefully, Owens will provide a great deal.
There has also been a good amount of evaluation as to whom Ellis Johnson picks to take the "Star" position, and right now, Justin Garrett leads. Garrett has received a great deal of praise for his tackling ability by the new DC, something Auburn fans are desperate to see. Also seeing time at the "Star" position is Robenson Therezie, who is receiving praise at the spot, too.
Tackling and Turnovers
Over the past several years, tackling by Auburn's defense has been abysmal. We've all seen it, and Johnson certainly noticed as well:
"The most disappointing thing right now, and this is just two practices with live tackling is just our tackling," he said. "Tomorrow will be a huge thing. It's not going to be as much about Xs-and-Os. We want to give them enough Xs and Os to strain them a little bit and see who can learn and function under pressure, but it's really more about fundamentals and seeing if we're going to improve in tackling."
Auburn's turnover margin was also outright pitiful in 2012. The Tigers scooped up only eleven fumbles and grabbed TWO interceptions last season, leading to a TO margin that ranked 13th in the conference. The defensive backs need to become ballhawks, and that is exactly what secondary coach Melvin Smith is expecting, according to cornerback Joshua Holsey:
"Coach Smith, he tells us 'You're going to get picks this year.' He wants us to get picks no matter what. So we're going to have a good year this year," Holsey said.
It goes without saying just how crucial this emphasis on creating turnovers is going to be. We know how fast Malzahn likes to have his offense go but we have also seen what happens when that offense stalls and can't stay on the field. Getting a three-and-out is great, but snatching the ball away from opponents can alter the momentum almost immediately. To have a defense that can play as fast as the offense will be tremendous, and to accomplish that will have to be done by getting turnovers.
So what to expect on Saturday?
One thing to look forward to will be familiar faces on the defense. Auburn returns nine starters comprised mostly of upperclassmen, so hopefully their experience has aided them in transitioning to a new defensive system. So when you see the guys you recognize fight through blocks to the ball carrier or make a great open field tackle, you can nod your head, offer up some nice praises to those athletes and the progress they've made. Of course, if you don't see those things you can grit your teeth, mumble some things about that player and reassure yourself that there's still plenty of time till the fall.
With that said, one can also look to see just how well this defense lines up. As mentioned earlier, a lot more teams are moving to hurry-up, no-huddle offenses, and Johnson has been working to mold his alignment to be able to adapt, adjust and attack said offenses and to do so with as little substituting as possible. Hopefully, we will also to get to see some actual, solid, wrap-up form tackling from the defense. As much as I want to see the offense score, I want to see the linebackers and defensive backs take proper angles, stick the ball carriers, wrap both arms around them and bury them into the ground. Holy crap, have I missed seeing that from our Tigers.