Auburn Football: How Injuries Will Impact the Tigers for the Rest of 2013
One piece drops out, and another rotates in.
An Auburn player falls to the side, and another Tiger shifts in to fill his place.
As defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson says, it's been "musical chairs" for his team.
"We physically are beat up," Johnson said in his weekly press conference last Sunday. "We've been through musical chairs on defense and still are going through it. I've got guys even that have played in games that are practicing one-and-a-half days a week. We've got guys that are missing."
That's how tough the injury bug has been on the Auburn Tigers in the early part of the 2013 season.
If Auburn had to fill out an official injury report like teams are required to do in the NFL, there could be a dozen players listed for the Tigers going into the Ole Miss game.
"I don't think I've been around a team that had that many (injuries) this early," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said in his weekly press conference Wednesday. "To main impact players, especially defensively, we've been playing without a lot of our impact players—and even when we get them back they're not quite 100 percent yet but they're getting there."
Like Malzahn said, things have been especially tough on Johnson and his defense—the secondary in particular.
Before the season even started, sophomore cornerback Jonathan Jones was sidelined after breaking his ankle in an off-the-field accident. Jones has missed all four games this season.
Across the way, senior cornerback Chris Davis has missed the Tigers' last two games—against Mississippi State and LSU—with a left ankle injury. Davis was emerging as Auburn's top cornerback through the first two weeks of the season, with 13 total tackles against Washington State and Arkansas State.
Also in the secondary, the "Star" position—the linebacker-safety hybrid in Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme—has seen some movement. Junior Justin Garrett was slotted as the starter at the Star going into the season but missed the first two games with an ankle injury. In his place, junior Robenson Therezie stepped up in a big way—to a point where the Auburn coaching staff decided to keep him there.
Garrett has since rotated down to "Will" linebacker. However, the last time Therezie was seen on the field, he was suffering from a neck stinger against LSU.
That could mean that Garrett could move back to the Star if Therezie is slowed this week—or if Garrett can't find a place in the rotation at weak-side linebacker alongside Cassanova McKinzy.
Meanwhile, at corner, senior Ryan White has seen more action in place of Chris Davis.
Davis has been described as "day-to-day" by the Auburn coaching staff; however, the outlook for Jones seems much more bleak—as does the outlook for senior defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker.
Like Jones, Whitaker's season is in doubt after undergoing surgery just before the start of the current campaign. Malzahn said Wednesday that the coaching staff had not yet considered placing a redshirt on Whitaker, to give up a possible 2013 return in exchange for a full 2014 campaign.
Also along the defensive line, defensive end Craig Sanders missed the LSU game with an injury. Defensive end Dee Ford—a preseason second-team All-SEC selection and Bednarik Award watch-lister—made his season debut against Mississippi State in Game 3 after missing the first two weeks with a sprained MCL.
With Ford back in the lineup, Auburn presents a stout front in its two-deep rotation along the defensive line, even with Whitaker and Sanders out.
"We have been banged up, but that's football," defensive end Nosa Eguae said last Sunday. "That's every team in the country. It's not an excuse. The next guy has to step up. Whoever has been out since the beginning of camp, the next guy has stepped up. We're just going to continue to do that."
Thus far, Auburn has seemingly found a way to either find depth in certain spots or shift pieces around to fill holes left from injury, but some roles are so wide-ranging and essential that it takes several players to make up for the loss.
Such is the case for the gap left behind by junior wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who suffered a significant leg injury on the Tigers' opening drive of the game against LSU.
Malzahn confirmed Wednesday that Denson will miss the rest of the season.
"That's a pretty tough injury with that and that's a big blow for our offense," Malzahn said. "He was our most consistent guy. It's going to have to be by committee from here on out. Right now we're rotating a whole bunch of guys. After this week we'll settle in on our plan moving forward."
Melvin Ray and Tony Stevens are two likely candidates who could step in and attempt to fill Denson's shoes, but losing an experienced receiver and a physical downfield blocker in Denson is a major setback for the Tigers—and quarterback Nick Marshall, who is still searching for a second consistent threat behind Sammie Coates.
All of these significant injuries, on top of the usual bumps and bruises players are already fighting—McKinzy and running back Corey Grant are two players known to have played through injuries against LSU—could mean that the Tigers are in for a tough few weeks, facing the meat of their SEC schedule whether they're at full strength or not.
Luckily for Auburn, the Tigers had an off week this week, buying them that much more time to rest and heal before Ole Miss rolls into Jordan-Hare on Oct. 5.
"An open date could have helped us earlier," Johnson said, "but I think it is a very good time for it now."
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