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For a fan that had grown to love the punishing defenses that Tommy Tuberville had fielded, the years of 2008-2012 were painful to watch. Even in 2010, the defense managed to make stops and even game breaking plays, a la Nick Fairley. Yet the majority of the game play was fairly pitiful. Reactive play where the defenses seemed to play on their heels. That 4 year streak culminated in record lows for an Auburn defensive unit in 2012. Do you remember when we played "Crazy Train" because the defense was unstoppable? My, how things have changed. The last few years, we hear that song and we scream just hoping for a stop. It used to signal the opposing team that it was 3rd and long. Again. It was time to punt. Again. Every inch requires blood and bruises. But it hasn't been that way for some time. There was something missing. I didn't know who it would be, but Auburn needed a player to rally behind. A player that would inject that head-hunter mentality. A player that might get beat once, but would hit you so hard you didn't want to do it again. Case in point:
It was January 5th, 2011. Auburn was less than a week from playing for the National Championship and I found myself watching the Under Armour game on ESPN for the 2nd straight year. I admit that I was watching to game primarily to watch future QB Frazier play with a future NFL center, Dismukes. During a cut in the action, a player, surrounded by his family, committed to Auburn.
The players name was Robenson Therezie. And I had never heard of him.
But, he was a future Tiger, and future NFL talent or not, I love all my Tigers. I did some quick research on him, finding him to be slightly out of the top 10 in the Nation at his position. At the time, his commitment was overshadowed by future teammates such as Reese Dismukes and Quan Bray and other future NFL stars like Clowney and Clinton-Dix. I couldn't help but notice, however, that on the list of Auburn commitments were names like Enrique Florence, a prototypical safety whom everyone had all but penciled in as a future Tiger star at safety. Going by the stats offered by Rivals and other recruiting services, this kid Therezie would never see the field.
Bored with the UA game, I continued to research him...bringing up some of his highschool highlights. I was immediately impressed by his head-hunter mentality and ball skills. While highlights are frequently deceiving, I could tell that this kid had something that Auburn's defensive backs had been missing since Rosegreen and Rogers had stepped off Pat Dye field for the last time. He had a toughness and meanness about him. He was first to the ball. He wanted to punish running backs and receivers. And when he had the ball in his hands, he was untouchable. What made him different from the other players that I had watched on film wasn't his measurables. In fact, at 5-9, he was significantly shorter than the prototypical players ahead of him in the rankings. So, unlike many of these highly ranked players, he couldn't use his monstrous stature and elite speed to cover for bad form. No. He would have to do it the old fashioned way. It was his meanness and physicality. His tackling form was terrific. His pursuit angles excellent. That was something that was rare to see on film.
While I am no talent scout, I do pride myself on being able to separate these type players. Unlike the elite, Therezie, couldn't jump over people. He couldn't outrun everyone. And he couldn't run over the biggest players. So, he made up for it with terrific fundamentals and pure aggression. That was something that I loved to see. I, of all people, know that not everyone is gifted with elite size and speed. You get what you get. All you can do is work on the things you can change: aggression and discipline. As he committed, I could tell there was something about him. He knew he wasn't most highly rated safety committed to the Tigers. He didn't expect to be handed the starting job. But he would outwork and out hit to get there. I think that's why I immediately liked him.
Auburn commitments won the day for the Under Armour All-American game and Auburn went on to win the National Championship. But I didn't forget about him. I saw something in him that Auburn needed. Toughness. Auburn defenses had missed that toughness for the last couple of years.
Therezie exited the spring of 2011 down the depth chart, as I expected. He saw limited action in every game in 2011 as a true freshman. Impressive though it seemed, he frequently played behind fellow true freshman Enrique Florence. Even though he didn't have many stats...recording only 17 tackles with one for loss, he was always around the ball when he was in the game. He may not have been the first to the ball, but he always had a way of sticking his helmet in there, sometimes when he shouldn't. I recall him recording a personal foul for a late hit on a sideline early in 2011, but I couldn't be mad. On a defense that rarely did anything to slow down opposing offenses, Therezie was always trying to find a way to punish the offense. I liked it. I wanted to see more of it, especially when the players ahead of him were frequently beat on the pass and could barely drag down running backs from behind.
He played in 11 games in the ill-fated 2012 season, even moving to tailback to shore up the thin depth chart, though he remained on the roster as a DB. He showed improvement in 2012, but still didn't see the field as much as his freshman year. On a defense that would ultimately become the worst defense in the history of Auburn football, I was confounded on how a player as hard nosed as Therezie wasn't on the field. That defense couldn't stop a bloody nose and rarely showed any toughness. I figured it was because he wasn't that prototypical size, being 5-9 and 212. Maybe it was because he wasn't grasping the game play concepts that van Gorder was teaching. He must not be fundamentally sound, as van Gorder frequently pushed. And yet I would rather see a player on the field playing with raw emotion and little technique than what I was watching. Ultimately it didn't matter how or why, because this defense was terrible and it showed zero signs of turning around.
Seemingly minutes after the 49-0 beating to Alabama, the old regime was gone...despite having been there only a short time. In comes Johnson with his 4-2-5 scheme and the Star position. Not knowing much about Johnson or the 4-2-5, I did some research. What made the defense work? The Star. A hybrid player. A player who didn't EXACTLY fit anywhere and doesn't do anything perfectly.A player with a little bit of everything: size, speed, ball skills, fundamentals, and aggression. A player that can track down a long ball from across the field, break up a sideline throw, smash a receiver across the middle, walk up in the box and pound a running back, or even blitz off the edge. Even before Johnson set foot on campus, I knew EXACTLY who I would play in this position. Yet, it wasn't 27 that the coaches raved about coming out of spring practice and it wasn't 27 that won MVP of the A-Day spring game in 2012. Though it was a player in the Star position: Justin Garrett. Number 26, just one off of 27.
Not to knock Justin Garrett. Other than seeing him miscast as a weakside linebacker in his first few years, I didn't get to see him exhibit the play that had coaches excited coming out of the spring. I certainly trusted the coaches, and if they say that he was the man, then he certainly was. I also knew that if 26 was the starter that had them excited, they had the countries best backup in 27.
Then Garrett went down with an injury in the fall. I know a lot of fans were fairly distressed, especially withe the Mike Leach Air Raid attack coming to Jordan-Hare. I don't want anyone to be injured, but I couldn't ignore the providence in the injury for one player. #27
Leading up to the game, I wrote my Washington State Preview. What did I say in it?
"Zach's "WHO THE HECK WAS THAT?!?!?!?!" player?That would be #27, Robenson Therezie. Garrett is no doubt a good player. But I think he is more feel good than real good. If you know about him, you know he was typed last few years as an undersized LB now turned star position breakout. Yeah yeah. But few players...heck...NO players have shown me the Jr Rosegreen level of meanness that Therezie has. Kid is mean. Loves contract. Has a nose for the ball. Does he commit penalties? Yes. Can they be boneheaded and committed at the worst time? Yes. But, just like I tell my flag football team...I will take 1 a game just to let the offense know you were there and you want blood. He gets in early and he takes over the defensive backfield with at least one game stopping hit."
How did Therezie respond in his first start? Two gorgeous INTs, one of them a game breaker made in the endzone. So one player single-handedly tied the INT season total for the entire 2012 team in one game. And every Auburn fan heaved a sigh of relief. But would he start all season?
With Garrett's impending return from injury looming from week to week, Therezie turned in one of the best half seasons that I can remember for an Auburn secondary player. A few plays come to mind.
Who can forget the Pick Six off of Bo Wallace ? Check it out!
I remember where I was when he picked that pass off. I was sitting in my chair with a cold drink. A streaking Therezie came from off screen and snatched Bo Wallace's pass. With his smooth Cadillac stride, he broke the game wide open with the 8th longest INT return in Auburn history. Meanwhile, I had jumped out of my chair, spilled my drink, and made the living room to hallway to kitchen to living room circuit three times, screaming like a kid on Christmas.
How improbable could it have been? A kid that wasn't the highlight of his recruiting class....or even at his own position on his own team. Wasn't a starter in his first two years and entered his junior year as a backup at Star to an emerging superstar. Yet, when fate gave him an opportunity to rise above, he did so in the most amazing fashion. And so, the man they call Cadillac ended 2013 with a team leading 4 interceptions, 6th on the team in tackles, an AP All-SEC honorable mention, and perhaps the best accomplishment....the Zeke Smith Award as Auburn's Defensive MVP. Along the way, he made every single player on the field know he was around as he distributed sloberknockers wherever he could. I can just envision opposing receivers watching videos leading up to their match-up with Auburn, making notes on where 27 was at all times. And, avoiding him if possible.
The 2013 defensive squad was a far cry from the Auburn defenses that I grew up loving. It still gave up points and yards. Ultimately it gave up a National Championship when it couldn't stop FSU with just seconds left on the clock. But the building blocks for fashioning an elite defensive unit are on the Plains now. There is no questioning that Auburn continue to church out NFL talent, but the talent on the field hasn't quite translated to a cohesive Unit.
It's time for a Unit punches offenses in the mouth with hard, physical play. It's time for a Unit that looks at the failures from last year and wants pay back for each and every yard. A Unit that realizes that it must make the most of it's chances, because you don't get many. All this Unit needs now is leaders and game breakers.
One of those players with the toughness and grit made himself known last year. A player who punishes. A player looking to take any pass to the house. A player who plays with raw unbridled emotion. A player we cue up Crazy Train for. A player to erupt 87,451 fans with a single hit and can turn the tide with one play.
And so, we have Therezie. A kid that didn't have the prototypical NFL measurables. A kid that wasn't a premier recruit. He wasn't a gamebreaker or even a starter in his first 2 years. He was penciled in behind a future super star in 2013. And then the opportunity came, and he made the most of it. Unquestionably.
That's what makes Star27 my favorite defensive player.
Read more about Star27 on his Auburn Bio.