BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s veteran linebackers put the summer to good use.
It didn’t take long for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to notice, either.
Every player picked up fall camp right where they left off in the spring — if not a tick better, Johnson said. From the weight they’ve lost in offseason workouts to the retention of coverage assignments, Johnson couldn’t be more pleased.
Now, the next test waits.
“The physicality of it, we don’t know,” Johnson said. “We’ve been running around with shorts, so we really don’t know. We’ll start to find out more in the next few days.”
The Tigers will don full pads for the first time this fall during Tuesday’s practice. And that’s when Johnson and the rest of the defensive coaching staff will weed out those who are merely workout warriors.
“Sometimes a player that doesn’t look real cute in a drill, he’s just a good natural player,” Johnson said. “Sometimes (you have) a player that can do all the things when you walk through the barrels and go out and run it five minutes later and he’s good, but when you run it five days later, he can’t remember. We’ll just have to see who surfaces.”
Like nearly every other position on the team, Johnson said he hasn’t begun to put together any semblance of a depth chart.
“I feel like there’s a few guys that have an edge on other guys but it’s certainly too early to say that a player has not played his way into contention or doesn’t have a chance,” he said. “We haven’t done enough at this point for me to tell you if a guy can play linebacker or not.”
Johnson had no worries about three of his most experienced players. With Kris Frost and Jake Holland battling for supremacy in the middle and Cassanova McKinzy on the weakside, Johnson was confident the Tigers wouldn’t lack for leadership.
McKinzy, in particular, has impressed Johnson with the gains he made in the offseason.
“He’s lost some weight and his change of direction — redirect on counters, coming out of your break when you drop in zone and those types of things, just acceleration and explosion to the point of attack — he’s gotten better and he can practice longer at a high tempo,” Johnson said. “He would not finish a practice and I felt like he was too heavy and out of shape. He did a good job of dropping some pounds and I think it really shows.”
Another pair of linebackers have made their presence known, too.
“Anthony Swain has improved,” Johnson said. “Swain has moved into the Mike (middle) linebacker and LaDarius Owens has moved out to the Will (weakside). That took them a couple of days. They were a little out of sorts but they’ve started to pick things up.”
Owens has been moving between back and forth, though Johnson said his preference is to keep him at weakside for now. And Owens isn’t the only one cross-training at the two positions. To keep his options open, Johnson said there are multiple players learning both the Mike’s and Will’s responsibilities.
One player who may work his way into that rotation before fall camp concludes is Kenny Flowers.
Johnson couldn’t heap enough praise on the junior college transfer, enamored with his size and physical tools.
All Flowers has to do now is learn the defense.
“Physically, he’s in the right company. He belongs right where he is in the SEC,” Johnson said. “I think he’s going to give us some good plays this year. Everything right now is sort of a crystal ball. I don’t know that he is (going to be good), but I think he will.”