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May 3, 2012

Spring football recap: Linebackers

Photo by Todd Van Emst

The next step in the blog’s position-by-position look at how Auburn’s roster ended up shaking out at the end of spring, and what it could look like for the first game.

As always, any depth charts listed below are only my best guess. Nothing more, nothing less. By now, most Auburn fans know that the Tigers do not usually release an actual depth chart after spring practice, and this season was no different. With so many players out on defense and new schemes being installed on both sides of the ball, a spring depth chart can only mean so much anyway.

As always, feel free to disagree with my take. At this point, with such a young roster, everything’s open to discussion.

For a look at the other four position groups in the series, take a look at the following links:

For more Auburn news and notes, follow the blog on Twitter and Facebook.


  • SLB: Kris Frost, 6-2, 225, R-Fr.
  • MLB: Jake Holland, 6-1, 236, Jr.
  • WLB: Daren Bates, 5-11, 211, Sr.


  • SLB: Jonathan Evans, 5-11, 225, Sr.
  • WLB: Justin Garrett, 6-1, 206, So.
  • MLB: Cassanova McKinzy, 6-2, 224, Fr.
  • SLB: Anthony Swain, 6-2, 245, R-Fr.
  • MLB: Chris Landrum, 6-3, 238, R-Fr.
  • WLB: JaViere Mitchell, 6-2, 215, Fr.
  • LB: Ashton Richardson, 6-1, 214, Sr.


  • LB: Clay Finkelstein, 6-2, 207, R-Fr.
  • LB: Daniel Pond, 6-1, 202, R-Fr.
  • LB: Jacob Westrich, 6-1, 229, So.


“The Tigers lost a lot here. Bynes and Stevens were constants on the defense for the better part of three seasons. It’s tough to replace that experience. But they have some pieces. Bates, Freeman and Evans have all been in there. Holland is young but shows promise in the middle. The real key will be getting enough bodies to be able to rotate players in. Nobody of the group is good enough to play 95 percent of the downs like Bynes or Stevens did. The key will be if the redshirts and true freshmen — guys like Owens, White, Frost, Landrum and Garrett — can make big enough strides that they can be trusted on the field.”


Daren Bates made a big leap in his second year at the position. After routinely missing tackles as a sophomore due to launching for big hits, Bates became more of a sure tackler and led Auburn in stops. Jake Holland earned the starter’s job in the middle, but injuries and the emergence of Eltoro Freeman relegated Holland to a limited role down the stretch. Jonathan Evans started most of the season, but injuries at the end of the season also kept him out. At times, Jawara White and Justin Garrett got opportunities to play, and they showed flashes. As a whole, though, the linebackers failed to make enough big plays on the defense, save for Freeman who finally realized the promise he’d been trying to tap into ever since arriving on campus. A torn labrum in July and the subsequent surgery kept the highly-touted Frost from seeing the field at all.


Fitting given his status and experience, Bates learned VanGorder’s defense quickly, and he’s probably got a better grasp of the defense than anybody else in the back seven other than maybe Jermaine Whitehead, who the blog will get to in a later post. Back on the field, Frost showed flashes of top-line athleticism, including a big scrimmage in Auburn’s first. Behind Bates, Garrett showed a bunch of potential as a weakside linebacker in VanGorder’s defense.


Holland, the clear-cut starter at middle linebacker coming out of the spring, still has to take the next step to become Auburn’s leader on defense — Tommy Thigpen‘s words, not mine. And behind Holland, White, who had moved to the middle and made some progress in the position change, was forced to give up football after suffering a serious injury. Frost’s athleticism has been hampered some by an inability to understand the defense. Maybe most importantly, on a team with very little depth, Chris Landrum and Anthony Swain did not emerge from spring practice as viable options, at least for the moment.


Only one linebacker hasn’t arrived on campus yet, and he could play a huge role for Auburn next season. Cassanova McKinzy played at around 225 pounds in high school, but he has reportedly been putting on weight. He could be up to as much as 245 pounds by the time he arrives. With White’s injury, McKinzy becomes the most likely player to be put in the middle behind Holland and possibly provide a push at the position. McKinzy was a highly-rated four-star prospect, and if he can pick up the defense quickly, it would help Auburn add precious depth at its thinnest position.


Holland has always been good in pass coverage, as evidenced by the two interceptions he made in roughly a half season’s worth of play next season. But he’s got to take the next step and start altering games at the line of scrimmage. In any 4-3, a playmaker at middle linebacker is a key cog, and if Holland can take the next step and start racking up tackles, it will help Auburn tremendously in the run game.


Evans is a steady, assignment-sure player with plenty of experience, but he missed the spring, a move that automatically puts him in the position of trying to fight for a starting spot once two-a-days start in the fall. His main competition, and the starter on the strong side coming out of spring ball, is Frost, a young player whose biggest challenge is learning the defense. What Frost has to offer is superior athleticism, and the possibility of a playmaker that Evans has not been able to offer in his time on campus yet.


“We’ve got a senior that because of experience, we know that he’s a starter. From there, it’s competitive. If a freshman’s the best player, a freshman’s going to play.” — Brian VanGorder on the depth chart.


104 — The number of tackles for Daren Bates, Auburn’s leading tackler in 2011.


Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said at the end of spring practice that he wants to have at least five players ready to play, and as many as six or seven. Right now, Auburn is still looking for that kind of depth. Bates is a proven player, and he is likely to produce as a tackler again. The rest of Auburn’s linebacker play depends on whether or not guys like Holland, Frost, Evans, Garrett and maybe even McKinzy and Mitchell can learn the scheme and start making plays early. Right now, linebacker looks very thin, and Auburn’s going to need as many capable bodies as possible if injuries hit.


  1. Hey Joel, your D-line recap End of the Day summary sneaked onto the end of this one for the linebackers.

    One on-topic question – Craig Sanders has always looked under-sized for defensive end and more like a linebacker to me. With him buried in the DE depth chart now, did his name ever come up (even suggested from you or other beat writers) as a possible move to LB if for nothing more than depth?

    Comment by Jay G. — May 3, 2012 @ 10:55 pm

  2. JE –

    The “Battle to Watch” paragraph cuts off mid-sentence and the second :End of the Day” paragraph is about the DL.

    Enjoying the series though!


    Comment by TRE — May 3, 2012 @ 11:06 pm

  3. Cassanova told AuburnSports he’s up to 250 right now, but will probably play at 245 (that’s his goal weight)

    Also you transitioned to the D Line that last paragraph. Editing mistake?

    Comment by mabwriter — May 4, 2012 @ 4:26 am

  4. Whoa. All kinds of stuff I didn’t catch in that post, that’s my bad. Must be the spring. Jay G., Sanders was listed at 263, so he’s gotten a little big to be playing linebacker. Plus, we did ask VanGorder about the possibility of moving other people to linebacker, and the new DC said he doesn’t think anybody on the roster right now can make that transition.

    Comment by JErickson — May 4, 2012 @ 9:39 am

  5. Rivals.com. 5 star rated OLB is now at Auburn high school.
    Where he decides to play will be an interesting development.

    Comment by T. Downey — May 4, 2012 @ 12:06 pm

  6. Ah, the spectre of Reuben Foster, the No. 2 player in the country. You’re right, T. Downey, that will be an interesting recruiting battle to watch.

    Comment by JErickson — May 4, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

  7. the ones that really want to help out in the fall will take it on their own to work extra hard during the summer to be ready when fall practice starts war eagle

    Comment by sportsnut — May 4, 2012 @ 2:02 pm

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