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March 21, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Linebackers

This is the second of an 8-day series previewing each Auburn position leading into spring football. Tomorrow: defensive line.

Photo by Todd Van Emst

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com


AUBURN, Ala. – It’ll take just two to tango – two linebackers, that is, in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defensive playbook.

In a way, Auburn’s already used to it, at least from a personnel perspective. While the official starting base package in 2012 was a 4-3, Jonathan Evans was commonly subbed out in favor of a nickelback – usually a complement of corners Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy.

However, Johnson’s fifth defensive back is labeled a “star” safety/linebacker hybrid. We didn’t discuss that enough in yesterday’s debut of this series, but potential candidates to play ‘star’ depend on who’s sleek, strong and smart enough to man the position.

As for the two pure linebackers, the breakdown’s pretty simple. There’s some returning experience in Jake Holland and Cassanova McKinzy, dripping-with-potential Kris Frost or Justin Garrett, and junior college transfer Kenny Flowers.

All in all, there’s only eight scholarship linebackers in camp. Good news for 61-year-old Ellis Johnson, who won’t need to massage a horde of individuals as he parlays his linebacker duties with serving as the overall defensive coordinator.

Auburn Vanderbilt FootballHere’s a look at Auburn’s linebacking crew, leading into spring football scrimmages:

Who’s been playing: Jake Holland (sr.), Cassanova McKinzy (so.)

Who’s in waiting: Kris Frost (so.), Justin Garrett (jr.), JaViere Mitchell (r-fr.), Anthony Swain (so.)

Who’s out the door: Daren Bates, Jonathan Evans, Ashton Richardson

Who’s in the door: Kenny Flowers (Lilburn, Ga.), Cameron Toney (Huntsville, Ala.)

Who’s coaching ‘em up: Ellis Johnson, 31st season (16th in SEC)

Who’d he replace, where is he now: Tommy Thigpen, Tennessee

Thoughts and musings:

Jake Holland is the only returning linebacker who was on the team for the national championship season. He’s got 16 career starts – 31 total games – over a three-year career.

Cassanova McKinzy got his chance against Vanderbilt, and also started against Georgia when Holland was hobbled with an ankle injury. It’s not inconceivable Holland and McKinzy are your starting linebackers in the opener against Washington State – otherwise, they’ll wage war for a starting spot in the middle.

Photo by Todd Van Emst

Kris Frost and Justin Garrett each got some reps last year when the season went awry, but they struggled with Brian VanGorder’s complex system. Ellis Johnson won’t make it easy on these guys as they learn another new playbook.

Kenny Flowers was the No. 2-rated junior college ILB prospect by 247Sports.com out of Hutchinson CC, and will arrive in the fall. Hailing from northeast Atlanta, his dad, Kenny Flowers Sr., played running back at Clemson and three seasons for the Atlanta Falcons.

Statistically speaking:

Tiger Track Classic on Saturday, April 7, 2012 in Auburn, AL.Missy Hazeldine73 – Tackles by Jake Holland in 2012.

40 – Tackles by every other returning linebacker in 2012. That includes 12 by Cassanova McKinzy in his starting debut at Vanderbilt.

2.5 – Years Holland went in between haircuts, growing out his locks before shearing them during Auburn’s first 2012 bye week. Holland donated a hefty head of curly hair to Wigs for Kids.JakeHollandShortHair

148 – the number of days Reuben Foster was verbally committed to the Tigers. Foster, the blue-chip linebacker recruit with an AU tattoo and played his senior year at Auburn High, signed his national letter of intent with Alabama.

Good Twitter follows: Jake Holland @JTSAU5 (3,089 followers) doesn’t say much on Twitter, but he’s put out some entertaining photos with his roommates, kicker Cody Parkey and former defensive end Corey Lemonier. Kris Frost @Frost4Life (5,539) is happy to dish on basketball, and @JustinGarrett26 (1,093) has himself superimposed onto the EASports NCAA Football video game cover as his background photo.


  1. Jake Holland has experience True, but, I don’t see him starting.Casanova and Flowers will be the starters

    Comment by Jonathan Bryant — March 21, 2013 @ 12:23 pm

  2. […] I: Defensive backs Part II: Linebackers Part III: Defensive line Part IV: Special teams Part V: Quarterbacks Part VI: Offensive line […]

    Pingback by Gus Malzahn press conference: 4 pm ET blog | War Eagle Extra — March 26, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

  3. […] I: Defensive backs Part II: Linebackers Part III: Defensive line Part IV: Special teams Part V: Quarterbacks Part VI: Offensive line […]

    Pingback by The final Auburn positional battles to watch: Wide receivers, tight ends, H-backs | War Eagle Extra — March 27, 2013 @ 12:02 am

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