Auburn Already Taking the Right Steps to Fix the Defense

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterMarch 4, 2013

New Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson
New Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis JohnsonChuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports

It's safe to say that Auburn's football program was a complete disaster last season—the final season for former head coach Gene Chizik.

However, a new year has brought a new outlook to the program.

First-year head coach Gus Malzahn has already orchestrated an offensive turnaround once on the Plains. His hurry-up, no-huddle offense finished second in the SEC with 431.8 yards per game in his first season as offensive coordinator in 2009—a 129.5-yard per-game improvement from the previous season.

Malzahn's attempt to repeat the feat may grab a lot of attention this spring, but it's Auburn's defense that's in desperate need of an overhaul.

First-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows this, and he is starting with fundamentals.

Tackling was a major problem at Auburn for the better part of the Chizik era, and that's something that Johnson noticed right away, according to

"I saw a lot of broken tackles on film, and that comes from physical strength, and want-to," Johnson said. "That's something that if it continues, we'll have to put our attention there."

It's the right time to give fundamentals as much attention as possible.

Once games kick off in the fall, game plans and film study become much more important than tackling. If any team is having issues with it at that point, it's already too late.

Former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder told that the tackling issues were due to a lack of size, strength and power. Fixing that has become a primary goal for Auburn on the recruiting trail. 

Johnson sees it as more of an effort issue than anything else.

"The biggest thing that gets kids in trouble is angles to the ball, because the more you spread out, you've got to get proper angles to the ball with great effort," he said. "Usually, when they get in the right place, they make tackles."

Johnson's scheme is a perfect fit for the players already on the Auburn roster. His 4-2-5 scheme uses a hybrid linebacker/safety called a "star," which will allow Auburn to limit its depth issues at linebacker and shift either a bigger safety or an undersized linebacker into that spot.

That means more speed on defense, which should in turn limit bad angles. That's an important asset considering the hurry-up, no-huddle is becoming more and more prevalent throughout the country, including in the SEC.

Even though Johnson has been an outspoken critic of hurry-up, no-huddle offenses in the past, going so far as to say that they're deteriorating the game in 2010, his scheme is designed to slow them down.

Every team in the country will work on tackling this spring, but it takes on new importance this season in Auburn. 

A new defensive scheme means that everyone has a clean slate, and it all starts with the basics on the Plains. The Tigers can't get back to contending for division titles if the defense doesn't learn how to tackle, and a fresh start with a new scheme should ensure that the team doesn't repeat the same mistakes of the past.

Does that mean that Auburn's defense will transform into one of the SEC's best in its first year under the new regime? 

Probably not. 

However, if Malzahn can get the offense turned around as quickly as he did the first go-round, all the defense will need to do is limit big plays and be opportunistic to get Auburn back into contention.



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