Auburn Football: Tigers D in Store for Quick Turnaround Under Ellis Johnson
The grizzly, veteran defensive coordinator for the Auburn Tigers has seen his share of both high- and low-caliber SEC defenses in the 16 years he has coached in the Southeastern Conference.
After a 2012 season that saw the Auburn defense turn in poor performance after poor performance, logic says that Ellis Johnson's post-spring evaluation of his first Auburn defensive unit would rank Auburn near the bottom of the teams he has taken over in the past.
"As a complete roster and depth chart there are more really good, solid SEC players on this defensive unit than were at either one of those two places (Mississippi State and South Carolina) I was at, especially the first year," Johnson told Brandon Marcello of al.com.
That statement says a lot about Johnson's confidence in the strides his defensive unit made during spring. It also signals that the Auburn defense could be one of the most improved units in the SEC next fall.
That's right, a year after ranking nearly dead last in every major defensive category in 2012, Auburn's D could climb back up to the top half of the conference in those categories.
In his most recent stint as defensive coordinator in the SEC, Johnson was at South Carolina from 2008 until 2011. In his first year, the Gamecock defense jumped from ninth in the SEC in 2007 to fourth in 2008 in total defense.
Before South Carolina, Johnson was at Mississippi State from 2004 through 2007. In 2003 the Bulldogs ranked last in the SEC in total defense. After a year under Johnson, the Bulldogs jumped up four spots to eighth in total defense.
Auburn ranked 13th in total defense in 2012. If Johnson's history repeats itself, the Tigers could jump up four or five spots in 2013. That would be a drastic improvement.
Talent isn't the only ingredient for a quick turnaround in Auburn's corner. The Tigers have experience on their side as well.
Unless a freshman comes in the fall and steps up on the defensive side of the ball (I'm looking at you, Montravius Adams), expect Auburn's post-spring depth chart to look very similar to what it does now. If it does, the defensive line and secondary will likely be among the most experienced groups in the SEC.
Johnson's unique 4-2-5 defensive scheme puts Auburn players where they seem to be a more natural fit.
Justin Garrett was always considered a "tweener." Not big enough to play linebacker but not quite fast enough to play in the secondary. He had arguably the best spring of any Auburn player and thrived at the new hybrid LB/safety position called the "star" in Johnson's defense.
Another example is Joshua Holsey. A safety in high school, he was moved to CB under former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. After just a few practices at the boundary safety in Johnson's defense this spring, Holsey locked up the starting safety spot.
It is also important to note that Johnson has experience running a defense under an offensive-oriented head coach like Auburn's head coach Gus Malzahn. Johnson worked under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. When the Gamecocks ranked No. 3 in the country in total defense in Johnson's final year at South Carolina, the Gamecock offense was one of the top five offensive teams in the SEC.
The talent, experience and players' natural fit in the defensive scheme give Johnson the ability to focus on an important deficiency that seeped into the Auburn defense under former head coach Gene Chizik—tackling. It was a big issue of concern for Johnson during spring.
"The most disappointing and concerning thing right now is just our tackling," Johnson said after a few full-contact practices this spring (via Joel Erickson, al.com).
Although tackling is among the most important issues for a defense, it's also an issue that can be fixed within a year. Talent, experience and fit cannot be.
Much of the last four years have been hard to watch on the defensive side of the ball, but the ingredients are there for a quick turnaround for the Auburn defense in 2013.
According to Johnson, significant improvement can be made. "We can be a very solid unit next year," Johnson said on Monday.
After being a dreadful unit in 2012, Auburn fans would gladly take anything close to a "solid defensive unit" in 2013.
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