BY RYAN BLACK | email@example.com
AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson knows a thing or two about immediate turnarounds.
In his first year as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State in 2004, the Bulldogs gave up 100-plus yards less to their opponents than the previous season. It was much the same at South Carolina. Taking over in 2008, Johnson helped the Gamecocks’ chop nearly 90 yards off their total defensive output, improving from ninth in the SEC (378.1 yards per game) to fourth (291.9) in just one season.
Now the question is whether he can replicate those feats at Auburn. Last season, the Tigers allowed 420.5 yards per game, which ranked next-to-last in the 14-team SEC. As much as people wanted to speculate, Johnson tried to tap the brakes on the possibility of another one-year quick fix when the topic was broached.
“I don’t know that I can make that judgment in 15 practices,” he said. ” … We’re probably deeper than we were at South Carolina or Mississippi State but I don’t know our players well enough yet to know what we’ll accomplish.”
Johnson noted he was blessed to inherit “a very physical and deep front” in his first year with the Gamecocks. That doesn’t mean the same could be said elsewhere.
“We were very thin in the secondary and up until the last game — the game at Clemson and the bowl game — we were very fortunate with injuries in the perimeter,” he said, “but we lost a couple of kids late and we played poorly in both those games.”
If Johnson is going to pull off the first-year magic he did at his previous SEC stops, there are question marks on the defense that need to be answered. First and foremost, Johnson said, is the pass rush.
“I’m talking about without bringing pressure,” he said. “How good are we? We didn’t have a lot of live, obvious third-down situations other than the ones that occurred in the scrimmages. By the time you get to the end of spring, each player probably had very, very minimal reps in that situation. I don’t know that we know that yet.”
The second concern is at safety, which thinned out when Demetruce McNeal missed the last five practices of the spring for unknown reasons.
“We’ve got to develop some depth back there,” he said. “It comes down to (McNeal) coming back and having a good reentry. The kid you’ve got to look at most quickly is (Brandon) King. He’s a junior-college player. We’ve heard great things, but he didn’t get spring practice. That’ll be a focal point in the secondary.”
While those areas will need to be addressed, there’s no person Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn would rather have doing the evaluating. Calling Johnson “one of the better defensive coordinators in all of college football,” Malzahn said the Tigers’ 2013 season is intertwined with how the defense progresses.
“The thing that stood out in the spring is that he’s very fundamentally sound,” Malzahn said. “He’s going to let our guys play. Line up and let them play. We’ve been working hard on identifying our top 11 guys and putting them on the field. I’m really looking forward to fall camp with our defense.”
Johnson didn’t want to declare that a dramatic defensive about-face was in the offing. No, it’s far too early for that. However, he felt the ingredients integral to future success are in place.
Now, the onus is on the Tigers to play like it.
“I think we got good, solid SEC players that when you play like they did last year, they’re going to have to play differently,” he said. “I don’t think we have to have different people, we have to have different performance. I don’t know that I’ve seen them enough, but at this stage I want to believe we got enough talent.”