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Last season was No. 73 nationally in TFL per game on defense primarily because of a lack of push by the Auburn front-4. This season under Defensive Coordinator Ellis Johnson and Coach Rodney Garner, the defense is currently No. 6 nationally in TFL per game and No. 2 in the SEC. The defense registered 13 tackles for loss this past Saturday against the Red Wolves, which had not been accomplished since 2004 against Kentucky. Through 2 games Auburn has recorded 29 quarterback hurries, which is more than half of the 55 recorded through 12 games during 2012. On this play Auburn will execute a double-stunt as ASU faces an obvious passing situation on 3rd down. Justin DeLaine has a clear path to the QB after Angelo Blackson ties up 2 OL. Gabe Wright simply beats his man inside as the two DL race to the ASU quarterback. To his credit, the ASU quarterback is able to avoid being sacked by DeLaine and Wright but LaDarius Owens and Angelo Blackson arrive just in time to swallow up the QB, taking him down for the sack. On this one play alone, all 4 DL had their hands on the opposing quarterback. Despite not having Dee Ford available through the first 2 games, Auburn has managed to improve their pass-rush from 2012, which has kept Ellis Johnson from having to blitz on a regular basis just to manage some level of pass-rush. What was feared to be a possible weakness before the season began is pleasantly turning into a team strength.
The Schemes: Ellis Johnson will install is 4-2-5 defense, which will utilize multiple fronts depending on the situation and opponent. During the past season Auburn played out of a 4-2-5 alignment but it normally involved an extra CB in a nickel package. Johnson's extra DB will be a safety playing as a hybrid safety-linebacker. Johnson's defense will be far more attacking in comparison to the read and react defenses we saw under Gene Chizik. Despite the change at defensive coordinator, the same defensive philosophy remained in place. The Personnel: In comparison to the 2009 returning roster, Auburn's 2013 returning roster will consist of 48.5 percent of players rated as 4-stars or better according to Scout.com. Should Corey Lemonier declare for the NFL draft, it drops to 46.8 percent. Regardless of Lemonier's return, Auburn should be in better shape than the 2009 squad, which returned 26.6 percent personnel rated as 4-stars or better. Once again the defensive line will be a major question mark coming into 2013. The defense more than any other unit has probably been the least underdeveloped. On paper Auburn has recruited well but it has not translated to quality production on the field. Corey Lemonier will likely go pro leaving an open slot at defensive end. Dee Ford was able to bounce back from his 2011 injury but was dinged up during the midseason of 2012. Lemonier's slot will likely be field by veteran Nosa Eguae, who has appeared in 39 games as an Auburn Tiger. LaDarius Owens will be someone to watch for to make an impact on defense in 2013 with a better opportunity of competing for a starting role. Craig Sanders has been a steady performer and he saw more playing time on defense this past season than any other year. Keymiya Harrell is blessed with speed but needs to add weight and a healthy Justin Delaine would provide much needed depth. Gimel President finally will have an opportunity to play after being red shirted in 2012. There is plenty of potential for this position to be a team strength, especially with an attacking approach in scheme. The interior line is a major concern for the 2013 Auburn defense. Auburn returns 7 scholarship defensive tackles With Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright being the most consistent performers. The two combined accounted for 11.5 of Auburn's 14 tackles for loss at the defensive tackle position. As a unit, the interior line accounted for only 2.5 sacks in 2012, the second lowest total over the past 20 seasons. Jeffrey Whitaker and Kenneth Carter combined for only 29 stops and 2 tackles for loss this past season. Auburn will need for Devaunte Sigler, Jabrian Niles to step up their game and for Tyler Nero to show what he is capable of as a red shirt freshman. Auburn's interior line has lacked the physical attitude and presence needed since Coach Tracy Rocker left the team after 2010. There is speculation he could return to the Auburn staff, which would be a much needed boost to a position, which has under-performed the last two seasons. Auburn returns only 5 scholarship linebackers from 2012, which is an immediate concern. It will be interesting to see if Chris Landrum and Anthony Swain might return to linebacker under the new coaching staff. Jake Holland was 4th on the team with 73 tackles during 2012 and the leading returning linebacker in tackles. Cassanova McKinzy is the second leading tackler at the linebacker position with only 23 tackles. Justin Garrett is next with 12 tackles followed by Kris Frost with 5 stops during 2012. Javiie Mitchell was red shirted in 2012 and will receive his first opportunity to contribute in 2013. Overall this unit lacks depth and experience, which means a true freshman could come in and play right away. Like the defensive tackles, the linebackers could benefit from a more aggressive approach on defense. Demetruce McNeal (90 tackles) and Jermaine Whitehead (86 tackles) were second and third on the team in tackles. Whitehead started all 12 games and McNeal drew 8 starts this past season. Ryan Smith started twice this past season at free safety but had only 27 tackles and failed to defend a single pass. Trent Fisher was awarded a scholarship before the 2012 season and made two starts this past season. Erique Florence is the most highly touted and athletic of all the safeties but he wasn't always focused on being the best player he is clearly capable of being. Robinson Therezie is another highly touted player in the secondary, who has yet to prove he can be a consistent performer. Like Florence, Therezie has a lot to prove on and off the field before he becomes a reliable element on defense. Jonathan Mincy drew the most starts at corner this past season with 9. He was the 5th leading tackler on the team and No. 1 at the cornerback position. Chris Davis drew the 2nd most starts at corner with 6, allowing him to be the 6th leading tackler on defense with 46 stops. Joshua Holsey (3) and Jonathan Jones (2) were next in line in terms of starts, playing as true freshman. Ryan White and T.J. Davis will provide depth with Davis yet to see action as an Auburn Tiger. This position has the potential to be a team strength in 2013. Inside the Numbers: Over the past 4 seasons, Auburn's defense has been the worst in the conference. During their previous 52 games under Gene Chizik, the Tigers allowed 391.8 yards per game, the worst average among SEC teams. They also allowed 5.54 yards per play, second worst in the conference and 27.1 PPG, second worst in the conference over the past 4 seasons. Over the past 4 seasons, Auburn's defense has allowed 170 touchdowns a stark contrast to the 59 allowed by Alabama. Ellis Johnson has a major challenge on his hands, taking over a defense that was 9th in the SEC in scoring defense, 14th in run-defense, 13th in total defense and 12th in pass-efficiency defense. The Tigers were also 12th in 3rd down defense, 11th in sacks and 12th in red zone defense. During the past 52 games, Auburn's defense held 14 opponents to under 20 points and allowed 22 to score 30 points or more. During the 52 games prior to Chizik's arrival as head coach, the Auburn defense held 34 opponents to under 20 points, while allowing 6 opponents to score 30 or more points. A possible sign the defensive line might have been improving late in the year was the increase in tackles. During the first 8 games of the season, the DL accounted for 19.1 percent of the team's tackles. During the last 4 games of the season, the DL accounte3d for 33.6 percent of the team's tackles. Ellis Johnson has fielded 7 top-30 defenses during his last 14 seasons as a defensive coordinator. He accomplished this feat at his last 4 stops as defensive coordinator at Clemson, Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina. While at Clemson his best scoring-defense was 10th nationally, 21st at Alabama, 35th at Mississippi State and 15th at South Carolina. In terms of forced-turnovers, his 1995 Clemson defense was 27th nationally, his 1999 Alabama defense was 31st, his 2007 Mississippi State defense was 24th and his 2011 South Carolina defense was No. 9 nationally. During his last 8 seasons as a defensive coach, Charlie Harbison's defense has finished in the top-30 of pass-efficiency defense, 4 times. His last 8 defenses have totaled 123 interceptions. Auburn's last 8 defenses have totaled 85. Coach Ellis Johnson and his defensive staff won't just be repairing a poor defense, they also have the difficult task of establishing a new culture and mindset on defense. The 2012 defense could not stop the run, could not defend the pass, could not force enough turnovers and was limited in making negative plays. The "read & react" approach on defense Gene Chizik believed in was supposed to limit the big plays in order to force the opponent to work for everything they got. The 2012 defense allowed a play of 30-yards or more every 31 snaps, the 2nd worst ratio since 1992. The plan failed and as a result, the defense became soft. The offense appears to be far more closer to rebounding than the Auburn defense as Ellis Johnson must address talent, depth and work-ethic issues. Gus Malzahn hired Johnson based on his history of fielding a physical and disciplined defense along with being fundamentally sound. More importantly than schemes, Auburn's defense is in dire need of becoming physical and disciplined before they can ever take advantage of Johnson's diverse defense. With the hiring of secondary coach Charlie Harbison and the courting of Tracy Rocker, it's clear that Gus Malzahn wants to bring back a physical and hard working defense. During Ellis Johnson's last 14 seasons as a defensive coordinator, he never had a defense finish ranked 97th or worse in run-defense. He never had a defense that finished 80th nationally or worse in total defense and he had only 1 defense that finished lower than 65th in scoring-defense. These are Auburn's current rankings nationally on defense and the obstacles Ellis Johnson must overcome in 2013. Hopefully Gus Malzahn's vision of having a coaching staff working in unison with the same goals in mind, Auburn can overcome some of their deficiencies on defense. I would not expect a miracle on defense in 2013 but any form of improvement would be a welcome sight.
Defense: Despite injuries to Dee Ford, LaDarius Owens and Justin Delaine, Auburn’s defensive ends finished the season with 35 quarterback hurries. Playing 1 less game than the 2010 defense along with depleted depth, the 2011 defensive ends had more quarterback hurries than the 2010 Auburn defensive ends. Auburn is loaded with talent and experience at the defensive end position, which could translate to a very productive unit in 2012. The return of a healthy Dee Ford matched up with Corey Lemonier could be something very special. If the defensive tackles can obtain a more consistent push inside, it will open up rushing lanes for the defensive ends to the opposing quarterback. Last season Auburn’s defense had 22 sacks and 63 QB hurries, a major drop from the 37 sacks and 99 hurries in 2010. Despite the lack of pressure on the opposing quarterback, Auburn’s secondary broke up a pass every 10.6 plays compared to the 13.2 ratio in 2010. Auburn returns 11 scholarship players in the secondary with 196 games of combined experience. Auburn’s defensive front should be able to apply more pressure on the opposing quarterback in 2012 to go along with a more aggressive secondary under Coach Willie Martinez. Offense: Despite Auburn’s offensive woes during 2011, the running game was No. 2 in the conference, producing 200-yard rushing games and No. 4 in yards per game. The 2011 Auburn running game averaged a solid 5.01 yards per attempt, when not trailing on the scoreboard and 3.6 yards, when trailing. Auburn’s struggles with their pass-offense and overall defense resulted in 42.9 percent of Auburn’s offensive snaps coming when the Tigers trailed on the scoreboard. Auburn was No. 9 in the SEC when it came to playing offense, while trailing on the scoreboard. Losing Michael Dyer was a major loss in terms of proven talent and experience but Scot Loeffler will have five 4-star rated running backs to work with in 2012. The addition of All-American fullback Jay Prosch will be a huge addition to Auburn's pro-style run offense. As bad as the 2011 Auburn pass offense was in terms of efficiency (No. 78 nationally), the Tigers were surprisingly No. 4 in the SEC on 3rd down (146.6 rating). Auburn’s problems came on 1st down, where the Tigers were No. 11 in the conference with a dismal rating of 106.9. How is this even possible? My take is the play calling on 1st down, when it came to the passing game was extremely conservative with and excessive reliance on the perimeter passing game. On third down, Auburn was forced to pass down field, putting more pressure on the opposing defense. Auburn had a pass rating of 170.2 facing 3rd & 10 or longer. Look for an emphasis placed on the intermediate passing routes under Coach Loeffler, a common element in the West Coast pass-offense. Special Teams: Special teams were stellar last season with a passing grade in 11 of 13 games. In comparison the offense had a passing grade in 6 of 13 games and the defense finished at 5 of 13. Improvement on offense and defense should magnify the production of Auburn’s special teams. Auburn was No. 15 nationally in net-punting, No. 35 in punt-return defense, No. 14 in kick-return offense and No. 2 nationally in touchbacks. With the return of Cody Parkey and Steven Clark, Auburn should be in very good shape, when it comes to their kicking game. Cody Parkey was a major weapon on kickoffs during 2011 but finished No. 45 in FG percentage among the 82 place-kickers nationally with at least 15 FG attempts. His FG percentage of 72.2 percent (13 of 18) must improve but he was 7 of 8 inside the 40-yard range and 6 of 10 beyond 39-yards. Thoughts?