Before LSU begins SEC play in 2013 with its conference opener versus Auburn Saturday night (6:45 p.m., ESPN), TSD is previewing the War Eagles on both sides of the ball.
Yesterday I previewed the Auburn offense in Gus Malzahn’s first year back on the Plains. Today I’ll flip over to the defense, taking a look at defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s personnel and schemes.
AUBURN STARTING DEFENSE (4-2-5)
DE: Craig Sanders (6-4, 245, Sr.)
DT: Angelo Blackson (6-4, 310, Jr.)
DT: Ben Bradley (6-1, 295, Sr.)
DE: Dee Ford (6-2, 240, Sr.)
MLB: Jake Holland (6-1, 240, Sr.)
WLB: Cassanova McKinzy (6-3, 246, So.)
Star: Robenson Therezie (5-9, 204, Jr.)
CB: Jonathon Mincy (5-10, 200, Jr.)
FS: Jermaine Whitehead (5-11, 201, Jr.)
BS: Joshua Holsey (5-11, 197, So.)
CB: Chris Davis (5-11, 200, Sr.)
Notable Backups: DT Gabe Wright (6-3, 296, Jr.), DE Nosa Eguae (6-3, 269, Sr.), DE LaDarius Owens (6-2, 250, Jr.), STAR Justin Garrett (6-1, 218, Jr.), CB Ryan White (5-11, 196, Sr.)
When it comes to college football defense in the South, perhaps nobody is as well-versed (or traveled) than Auburn coordinator Ellis Johnson. The man has been a defensive coordinator at Alabama, Clemson and, most notably, South Carolina. And, after a wildly unsuccessful 0-12 run at Southern Miss in 2012 as a head coach, Johnson is back in his comfort zone on the Plains.
He took over a War Eagle defense which had recently lost a big chunk of its pass rush, namely in the form of DE Corey Lemonier. Through three games in 2013, Johnson has brought his pressure-heavy ways to Auburn, transforming a relatively green group into a defense that is more routinely finding its way behind the line of scrimmage.
AU’s 4-2-5 defense has combined for an impressive 22 tackles for loss (second in the SEC, T-17 in the NCAA), setting opponents back 67 total yards. The most disruptive defenders along the front have been DT Gabe Wright (3 TFL), DE LaDarius Owens (2.5 TFL, 1 sack), DE Craig Sanders (2.5 TFL) and DT Ben Bradley (2 TFL, 1 sack). In obvious passing situations, Johnson has enjoyed good success using Owens, a former linebacker, as a rover, doing a lot of pre-snap movement along the line and playing from a stand-up position. Auburn also hasn’t been afraid to utilize stunts, twists and zone blitzes.
But, better than all those schemes is getting back an ace, personnel-wise, and that’s exactly what Auburn’s defense got when DE Dee Ford returned from a ligament sprain in his left knee that kept him out of the team’s first two games to play in the SEC opener against Mississippi State. Ford racked up six tackles and registered two QB hurries against the Bulldogs. He admitted to being a little rusty after the game, but his presence will bolster an Auburn pass rush that’s been better than expected in the early going.
Where Johnson has his work cut out for him against LSU (and the entire SEC) is in pass defense. The Plainsmen have been worse than plain defending the pass in 2013, conceding 276.3 yards per game through the air (103rd in the NCAA). It’s been the most deflating for War Eagle fans on third downs, when Auburn has allowed conversions 40% of the time (70th in the NCAA).
Auburn has also given up more first downs, 71, than it’s made, 61, on offense. Not surprisingly, opponents have made 38 of those 71 first downs through the air on Aubie. All this has led to Malzahn’s team being out-possessed in three straight games, including allowing Washington State to run 88 plays and Arkansas State to run 80.
A good indication that the War Eagles are letting up a lot in the passing game is the fact that the team’s top four tacklers are DBs. “STAR” position player Robenson Therezie leads the team with 17 tackles and two interceptions; FS Jermaine Whitehead is next with 16 tackles, CB Jonathon Mincy is third with 15 tackles (and 5 PBUs) and CB Ryan White is fourth with 14 tackles (and 3 PBUs). So it’s been an active secondary in the tackling department because it’s had to be.
Comparatively, Auburn has been better, though not great, against the run. The blue and orange have given up 157.3 yards per game on the ground (66th in the NCAA). Johnson’s best asset at linebacker attacking the ground game is senior middle linebacker Jake Holland, who has compiled 14 tackles and recovered a fumble so far this fall.
Overall Johnson’s Auburn defense is very much still a work in progress. There are some positives – namely the pass rush and TFLs, as well as the fact that the ‘D’ hasn’t allowed a single fourth-quarter point yet, but the overwhelming negative that is pass defense will be a lot to overcome at night in Tiger Stadium. For the third straight game, LSU will face a defense seemingly lost against the pass.
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