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Linebackers Begin Season With Little Depth

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Linebackers Begin Season With Little Depth

Auburn's new linebackers coach not only has to take over for Joe Whitt, but he also comes into a situation where he must replace two starters from last year and also deal with the suspension of two position players who'll miss several games.

When Whitt decided to hang up his whistle in February to take on a new role with Tigers Unlimited, Auburn's fundraising arm of the athletics department, head coach Tommy Tuberville knew it wouldn't be easy to find someone who could fill the shoes of the longtime Auburn assistant.

Whitt, who came to Auburn in 1981 as an assistant under Pat Dye, coached outside linebackers from 1981-98, then became the full-time linebackers coach in 1999. He was also the Tigers' assistant head coach in 1998.

During his 25 years at Auburn, Whitt helped the Tigers win five Southeastern Conference titles and make 18 bowl appearances. The Mobile, Ala., native has had 20 former players go on to play in the NFL.

James Willis replaces Joe Whitt as linebackers coach. (Photo courtesy of autigers.com)

James Willis was hired by Tuberville three days after Whitt decided to step down. Willis was a three-year starter at linebacker under Whitt from 1990-92 and was voted to Auburn's All-Decade team for the 1990s after finishing his career with 344 tackles.

After his playing days ended at Auburn in 1992, Willis played in the NFL for six seasons with stops at Green Bay, Philadelphia, and Seattle. He then had the opportunity to play in the XFL for the Birmingham Thuderbolts for two seasons before putting the pads away for good to become a coach at the collegiate level.

Willis, 33, began his coaching career in 2001 at Auburn as a student assistant before serving as a defensive graduate assistant in 2003 under Tuberville, where he worked primarily with linebackers. He then left the Plains to take a job at the University of Rhode Island as linebackers coach from 2003-05 before taking a similar position at Temple last December.

As he enters his first year as linebackers coach, Willis will have to find the right mix of players to step in and play for departing seniors Travis Williams and Antarrious Williams. One bright spot for Willis is the return of one starter from last year's linebacker corps. Senior Karibi Dede replaces Travis Williams at middle linebacker. Dede started eight games last year on the strong side, but also started one in the middle and three on the weakside.

As the starter at middle linebacker, Dede is responsible for every other defender on the field. Willis will count on Dede to make sure everyone is lined up in the right spot and to get the correct calls in for the defense to be able to stop opposing offenses.

Behind Dede will be sophomores Chris Evans and Courtney Harden. Evans played in nine games as a true freshman last season, recording 13 tackles, including a season-high four against South Carolina. Harden played in eight games in 2005, earning six tackles and recovered a fumble against Mississippi State.

Will Herring moves to linebacker after three seasons at free safety. (Photo courtesy of autigers.com)

Will Herring, a three-year starter at free safety, was moved to strongside linebacker prior to spring drills. Moving Herring to linebacker has turned out to be a smart decision by the coaching staff since fellow linebackers Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon will likely miss the first three games of the season for their involvement in separate alcohol-related incidents in the off-season that led to their arrests and punishment from Tuberville.

Herring, a preseason consensus first-team All-SEC pick, played well at his new position in the spring and that has Willis excited to see how the senior performs once the season begins Sept. 2 against Washington State.

Heading into preseason practice, redshirt freshmen Patrick Trahan and Alonzo Horton are behind Herring at strongside linebacker. Willis is pleased with the work they've done this summer in the weight room and he thinks they'll be excellent players once they get some experience on the playing field.

Merrill Johnson will be the starter on the weakside. (Photo courtesy of autigers.com)

Sophomore Merrill Johnson is penciled in to start at the weakside linebacker position. Johnson had to sit out most of spring drills with an injury but is now healthy and has a chance to secure the starting job with the absence of Blackmon.

Steve Gandy was also moved in the spring from his strong safety spot to help with the depth problems on the weakside. Gandy may be out indefinitely after being operated on for a deep thigh bruise that he sustained during a recent preseason practice.

Willis is eager to see how newcomers Craig Stevens and Hendrick Leverette perform during preseason practice since the Tigers are thin at the position. If Willis likes what he sees once the preseason wraps up, they could both see playing time at any linebacker spot while Sears and Blackmon serve their suspensions.

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