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April 29, 2013

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn defensive line, linebackers & defensive backs spring rundown

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the third and final piece of a three-part series, revisiting the past month in Auburn spring football and taking stock of valuable developments.

Adopting the style of WarEagleExtra.com’s popular “7 at 7” features, let’s go through seven bullet points of what you need to know about the Tigers’ defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.

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Photo by Todd Van Emst

We learned the most promising defender Auburn has to offer isn’t, in fact, a lineman, linebacker, cornerback or safety.

But he is a star in the making. A shooting star. A star on the rise. And other groan-worthy puns you’re bound to hear over and over connected to junior hybrid Justin Garrett.

“Justin Garrett’s been the best player we’ve had on defense, if you just measure all 12 full-speed practices we’ve had at this point,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “He’s probably made as many impact plays and has played as well as any player on that side of the ball. So that was a very pleasant accomplishment.”

He’s fast enough to play safety and large enough to play linebacker, but mainly, Garrett’s hard-hitting presence is why his expectations have soared.

“I’ll tell you what, he has had an outstanding spring,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “Coach Johnson, I believe, has him in the right position, letting him play.”

Unless Garrett’s humble to a fault in his first month in the spotlight – entirely possible – he’s not even sure he’s close to fulfilling his potential.

“I feel like overall (my spring) was OK. I’ve just got to get back and watch film on my own and see what I can do better,” Garrett said after A-Day. “Technique and fundamentals, I feel like I can improve a lot.”

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We learned Malzahn is hands-off with the defense. Johnson has the keys, Charlie Harbison’s riding shotgun, and Rodney Garner and Melvin Smith are back-seat drivers … but the vehicle is titled in Malzahn’s name. If that makes sense.

Let me put it this way: Malzahn fielded ten questions after the A-Day scrimmage pertaining specifically to the offense. He took three on the defense.

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We learned playing against the hurry-up, no-huddle offense for three and a half weeks will work to naturally benefit Auburn’s defense.

“It’s real. At the beginning of the spring it was tough but we figured we would eventually get used to it,” senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “It’s hard to get used to that pace but you just come out there every day and you get better. You have to focus on the technique and the little things.

“We came out and continued to work, and we’re starting to get used to that pace for sure.”

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AUBURN FOOTBALL

We learned cornerback should not be a problem position in 2013.

Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are entrenched with the first unit – Johnson specifically mentioned them as starters – but there’s plenty of depth behind them in Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Jones, Ryan White and Robenson Therezie.

“I think our corners have tackled extremely well,” Johnson said. “This offense forces your perimeter players to make a lot of open-field tackles, and our corners have been outstanding.”

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We learned safety might be a problem position in 2013.

Because of Demetruce McNeal’s absence the final five practices including A-Day (though a recent tweet indicated he might be good to go) and Erique Florence leaving the program, Harbison had to squeeze water from a rock. Jermaine Whitehead better stay healthy and maintain his progress. Because other than him, it’s Ryan Smith, former walk-on Trent Fisher with a sore ankle, Holsey moving over from corner, and walk-ons.

Brandon King will have his chance from day one. So will Khari Harding and maybe Mackenro Alexander. That position’s a little frightening right now.

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We learned the first four on the field at defensive line were ahead of the rest of their backups in the middle of spring. Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter on the ends, and Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright at tackle seemed to be the top group, though Angelo Blackson had a nagging shoulder.

Eguae should get reps, Keymiya Harrell’s leg will heal and Carl Lawson arrives this summer, so the DE depth should improve. Speaking of incoming freshmen, it’s been said all along: Montravius Adams probably makes the rotation from day one. But Garner’s goal of five game-ready tackles and five game-ready ends by Labor Day seems a bit ambitious at the moment.

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We learned we’re going to find out real quick what Jake Holland’s made of.

Johnson praised Holland early and often for his maturity, trusting him to learn both mike and will linebacker positions. But when Holland had to miss numerous practices for a mandatory course in his major, the senior fell behind on the depth chart, giving Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy every opportunity to take the job away.

Holland has played in 31 games, starting 16. He hasn’t always been the most popular player on the team to fans or message board lurkers. As a rare senior on this team, Holland’s senior leadership could hold the same value as T’Sharvan Bell last year, and that’s nothing to be taken for granted.

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