Less than a week into spring camp, Auburn is already battling the injury bug—especially on defense.
This is less-than-ideal news for the Tigers, as spring is the best time for players to improve on their skills and comfort with the scheme. Missing some of their biggest projected contributors might curtail some momentum from the end of last season, when the defense was finally starting to gel and playing by far its best football.
However, there is something to be said for thinning the ranks during spring practice. Veteran players—the primary source of Auburn's injuries thus far—need the offseason coaching far less than younger ones, and the door their absence has opened might eventually be a blessing for the depth of the defense.
Per Joel Erickson of AL.com, here is the list of notable injuries on Ellis Johnson's unit after five days of camp:
|Auburn Spring Defensive Injuries|
|Player||Injury||Time of Injury||Spring Status|
|DE Elijah Daniel||Groin||March 2014||Day-to-Day|
|DB Josh Holsey||ACL||October 2013||Non-Contact|
|LB Cassanova McKinzy||Hip||March 2014||Limited|
|LB JaViere Mitchell||Foot||December 2013||Out For Spring|
|DE LaDarius Owens||Foot||*Unclear*||Out For Spring|
|STAR Robenson Therezie||Hand||March 2014||Limited|
Things are especially mangled in the front six. LaDarius Owens and Cassanova McKinzy both started last season and are expected—if not guaranteed—to do so if healthy again in 2014. Elijah Daniel is a former blue-chip recruit who played well in a situational pass-rushing role as a true freshman (2.5 sacks, 3.0 tackles for loss), while JaViere Mitchell provides depth and contributed mostly on special teams.
One immediate upshot of this is an early leadership role for sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson. A 5-star recruit in 2013, Lawson flashed well last season and earned a spot on the Sporting News Freshman All-American team, finishing the year with four sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss (including 3.5 TFL against Ole Miss in October).
He, Owens and Daniel are expected to rotate as the primary bookends this season, with Owens, a senior, serving as the functional "leader" of the group. But Lawson is the most physically gifted of the trio, and any amount of time—even time in a non-competitive practice setting—spent working as the alpha dog should serve his development well.
More tangibly, the brief attrition opens up first-team reps for otherwise second-teamers and second-team reps for otherwise third-teamers. Though head coach Gus Malzahn expects Daniel back in the next few weeks (per Erickson), the time spent playing up should benefit potential contributors, such as Gimel President.
(Unfortunately, none of the incoming 4-star recruits—Justin Thornton, DaVonte Lambert and Andrew Williams—have enrolled early, as each would have benefited from the extra available playing time. Instead, defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright have been forced to practice out of position, per Brandon Marcello of AL.com.)
Elsewhere, the injuries to McKinzy and Robenson Therezie—the first-team "Star" defender—have helped foster (even more) positional versatility for Justin Garrett.
Last year's defensive MVP in the spring, Garrett injured his foot and was forced to take a redshirt year. He was expected to start ahead of Therezie in 2013 before the injury, but now he is battling to make himself useful in any capacity possible.
According to Marcello, Johnson called Garrett "unselfish" for bouncing between inside linebacker and "Star" thus far this spring. And that he is. But the more positions Garrett can play, the better his chances of seeing the field next season. And the more he practices at each in the coming month, the more positions he can rightfully say he plays.
This is as good for him as it is for the rest of the team.
Finally, there is the matter of boundary safety. Josh Holsey was playing well before tearing his ACL last season, and the fact that he's suiting up at all this spring (five months removed from surgery) makes him well ahead of schedule. Per Erickson, Johnson even said, "If we were getting ready to line up and play next week against Arkansas, [Holsey would] be ready to go."
That the staff feels good about Holsey's knee is great. But coaches and fans alike are wise to invest in a backup plan. Fair or not (and no matter how ahead of schedule the rehab), blown ACLs are injuries that tend to relapse. Depth behind Holsey must be fostered.
Fortunately, there is a good option in JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief. Moncrief played with new Auburn receiver D'haquille Williams at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and was the top-ranked JUCO safety in the 2014 class, per the 247Sports composite.
Holsey's limitations should expedite Moncrief's learning curve at the FBS level. Nothing can simulate the speed of an actual game, but practicing with the first team—i.e. against the first-team offense—comes closer than doing so with the "Twos."
"[Moncrief is] learning faster than any other player who has played that position for the first couple of reps he's been taking," said Therezie, per Erickson. "He's a guy we can count on to replace some of the veterans we had last season."
Therezie there spoke of Moncrief in particular, but the sentiment of his words can be applied across the spectrum of Auburn's entire defensive spring practice. The unit doesn't lose a ton from last season, but it does lose something. Now is the time to develop a new rotation.
So long as none of these spring injuries linger into the fall—which none are expected to—increased playing time for the youngsters might be the best way to accomplish that development.
Follow Brian Leigh on Twitter: @BLeighDAT