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August 5, 2013

Auburn notes: Ellis Johnson explains finer points of the star position, Rhett Lashlee says receivers showing ‘inconsistency’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson didn’t mind teaching a little “Football 101″ on Monday.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was happy to explain to reporters how the "star" position functions in his 4-2-5 scheme following Monday's practice. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was happy to explain to reporters how the “star” position functions in his 4-2-5 scheme following Monday’s practice. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

During its limited viewing window at practice, media members saw Auburn’s defense working on its dime package. On a few of the run-throughs, the Tigers had two of their hybrid safety/linebacker “stars” — Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie — on the field simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, Johnson was asked about it after practice.

And the defensive coordinator was more than happy to enlighten those not “in the know.” He explained that the star functions, for all intents and purposes, as a weakside linebacker.

“There’s a lot more carry-over to what the star does every day fundamentally and his zone drops,” Johnson said. “He can take it to the other side of the ball and it’s almost a mirror in zone coverage techniques. Then you’ve got a faster guy who skill-wise can matchup on a decent wide receiver.”

One of the benefits of the hybrid position is that nearly any linebacker or bigger defensive back with “football intelligence” can learn to play it.

“I’ve had guys be the extra back that played corner as a starter,” Johnson said. “Guys that played free safety drop down there and play the nickel and bring in a new free safety.”

But there can be drawbacks to moving someone to the star as well, Johnson said.

Sometimes players used to playing outside don’t do well on the inside, since they tend to struggle with zone coverage. Or taking a player who has spent a majority of his career on the back end of a defense doesn’t respond well to moving closer to the line of scrimmage.

“He’s not always a great blitzer or a a great guy that can play the draw or the lead draw and get in the box and those types of things,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t always mean it’s (good).”

That’s why Johnson is thankful to have both Garrett and Therezie manning the hybrid spot.

“I don’t know how many more talented kids we have on the football team, physically,” he said, “and they’re learning a position that has a lot of transition advantages.”

Lashlee sets record straight on Denson’s position

Tight end C.J. Uzomah caused a bit of a stir on Sunday when he said receiver Jaylon Denson was seeing time at tight end. Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee put that rumor to bed quickly.

Melvin (Ray) and Jaylon have really been working at our slot receiver spot,” he said on Monday. “They haven’t been playing hand-down tight end any.”

Lashlee said Uzomah and Gage Batten have “been getting a lot of reps” at tight end, though, and that he feels fine about the depth of the position.

Lashlee couldn’t say the same about the team’s wide receivers, saying there has been “a lot of inconsistency” since fall camp started.

“I do see improvement,” he said. “We’ve got guys that are playmakers. Now it’s just a matter of those guys deciding they want to be playmakers every day.”

Johnson sheds light on McNeal’s absence

Johnson revealed that safety Demetruce McNeal has missed the first four days of practice due to an infection which required minor surgery, saying the senior is still day-to-day.

“I don’t want to say anything more than that because I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve been told we won’t have him for several days.”

Johnson hopes the Tigers get the senior “back as soon as we can.” And it’s not just for the benefit of the position, where Johnson acknowledged depth is still a concern.

If McNeal misses too much time, it would put him in jeopardy of missing the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31.

“If you can’t put on a game jersey, you can’t play,” Johnson said. “And I don’t mean that facetiously, but obviously, he can’t play right now, so we’ve got to have a plan. But we fully expect him to be ready soon enough to get ready to go before the first game. I don’t know all the medical details, but it’s something that’s got to heal up.”

Quick hitters

Through the first four days of practice, Johnson admitted the coaching staff has “probably overloaded” the younger members of the defense. “But there’s just no way around it,” he said. “A lot of times when the defense can’t hit without pads, one thing you like to do is really put your focus on install. Once you get the pads you go back to fundamentals. We’ll slow down a little with that part on the mental overload and hopefully kids will start to polish things up.” …  Lashlee wasn’t sure whether the team would do any full-contact, 11-on-11 drills on Tuesday, which marks the first practice the Tigers will put on full pads. “I know it’s possible,” he said. “But I haven’t seen the (final) practice plan yet, so I don’t know.”

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