Auburn Football: Why Linebacker Will Be a Secret Strength for the Tigers

Ian BergCorrespondent IJuly 4, 2012

Auburn Football: Why Linebacker Will Be a Secret Strength for the Tigers

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    The Auburn Tigers head into the 2012 season with enough talent to be serious contenders in the SEC West, but there are some major questions as the season begins at key positions which keep the preseason confetti throwers away. The linebacker position is one of those major points of focus. 

    The Auburn Tigers have a secret—the linebacker position will be a strength for the Tigers in 2012. 

    There were some serious tackling and production issues that occurred early last season in the middle, but numerous scenarios attributed to the problems for the Tigers. Auburn had to play a host of true freshmen and cross-trained others to fill gaps due to injury. 

    This fall, the Tigers still lack ideal depth in the middle of the defense, but the overall talent and scheme that will be employed will make a major difference in how the 2012 Tigers linebacking corps is viewed by season's end.  

Veteran Leadership

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    Unbeknownst to the knowledgeable powers that be that pick the preseason rankings for college football, the Auburn defense is one of the most experienced in the country. A lot of that experience falls at the linebacker position.

    Auburn returns three seniors, a junior and three other underclassmen that received significant game-time a year ago.  Add in redshirt freshman five-star Kris Frost, and the Tigers look extremely strong at the position. 

    Jake Holland enters his second season as the starting middle linebacker for the Tigers—he also saw time as a freshman in 2010—and is being asked to anchor this linebacker unit. Daren Bates and Jonathan Evans are two others that have played significant roles in the Auburn defense since their freshmen seasons. 

    Bates led the team in tackles a year ago with 104 total tackles, while Evans started the 2009 Iron Bowl as a freshman. 

    The Tigers will have youth patrolling the middle third of the defense at times this season, but there will be consistent veteran leadership in 2012 to help the young Tigers make the right reads and stunt opposing offenses. 

Productive Talent

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    Three of the Tigers top tacklers a season ago came from the current linebacker group. Daren Bates led the team with 104 total stops, Jake Holland landed at No. 8 on the team with 43 total tackles and Jonathan Evans finished at No. 9 for the Tigers in total tackles, playing in only 10 games. 

    Holland also plucked two interceptions from the air in 2011. 

    With Holland, Evans and Bates in the assumed starting rotation as it stands today, the Tigers have three proven veteran leaders to guide the linebacker corps. 

    Ashton Richardson is another senior option at the middle linebacker position that has been with the Tigers for four seasons—earning a scholarship last season. Richardson brings experience and a cross-trained mentality to the field, as he has played both on the outside and inside during his career. 

    Look for improved defensive line play this season help keep productive blockers off of these linebackers, freeing them up for more big play production in 2012. 

Utility Options

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    One of the many changes that will come this season with the Brian VanGorder defense is multiple looks from base schemes. What I mean by that is Auburn will play a base 4-3 defense but will bring a host of looks directly at pre-snap, causing offensive confusion. 

    According to Charles Goldberg with al.com, VanGorder will look to cross-train defenders in the future, causing more complex blitzing options from the secondary and linebacker corps. 

    What cross-training will allow is for players like Jermaine Whitehead and Ryan Smith to step into Rover-type roles for pass coverage or containment when an outside linebacker will be blitzing and become out of position. 

    The Tigers have the talent and size at safety to maneuver some of those players into the box when needed. It will also shake-up the readability and predictability of the Tigers defensive blitzing schemes. 

Coaching Acumen

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    The Auburn Tigers have the benefit of three linebacker minded-coaches walking the sidelines this season. Not only was head coach Gene Chizik a linebacker coach and defensive coordinator for years at Central Florida, Auburn and Texas, but current defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder coached linebackers as the defensive coordinator at Georgia and for the Atlanta Falcons.

    Did I forget to mention that the linebacker position coach, Tommy Thigpen, was a three-time All-ACC linebacker at North Carolina and has coached the position six of his 14 years of his college coaching career?

    The Tigers have a wealth of knowledge for the young Tigers linebackers to soak up this season, and the move for Thigpen to linebackers from safeties was a great one for the Chizik staff. 

    Chizik and VanGorder both earned their Frank Broyles Awards—given to the most outstanding assistant in college football every year—while leading defenses but also coaching linebackers. Look for this year’s linebackers to rarely miss assignments and to be the surest tacklers that have taken the field at Jordan-Hare in some time. 

Scheme Favors Production

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    With Ted Roof calling the defensive shots, the Tigers appeared to be almost anemic with the way that they would attack the football. Roof built his defense around reads and assignment-based football, where Brian VanGorder is more instinctive with his players. 

    The VanGorder defense has received rave reviews from players—especially Jeffrey Whitaker, who told Phillip Marshall of AuburnUndercover.com, "No disrespect to the old defense, but I like this better," Whitaker said. "You are going to put your hand in the dirt and it's going to be man against man.”

    The defensive linemen will have a fast-attacking attitude instead of a read-and-react type mentality this season. So will the linebackers.

    This scheme will favor production, as it will allow for the Tigers to run to the football instead of guessing where the ball carrier may end up—allowing for fast reactions for the linebackers.The VanGorder scheme does put more reads into the hands of the secondary, but with Willie Martinez leading the group in the defensive backfield—VanGorder and Martinez worked together at Georgia—the progression in the defensive knowledge will be solid. 

    This defensive scheme is built to be fast, tenacious and vicious at the point of attack. Auburn fans will see a lot of flying bodies this season and a return to the old-school ways of big hits and smash-mouth defense.

    Look for a lot of bells to ring when the Auburn linebackers make contact with ball carriers this fall.