April 25, 2013
By Charles Goldberg
AUBURN -- The weather was good and the injuries were few. New Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson got what he wanted out of spring practice, including a good look at his players and encouraging competition for starting jobs.
"I think our evaluation on our players through this spring practice is going to be very accurate," he said. "I think we got a great idea, a great feeling right now, of who has got a chance to be in that two-deep. We can't really put one in ink now because a lot of guys didn't separate themselves enough to be a clear 1 or 2; and a lot of guys didn't make good enough progress to be in that No. 2 but they're right there knocking on the door."
Auburn finished spring practice Wednesday, and now the coaches are filling out the depth chart. The Tigers could release that next week.
Johnson is dealing with cornerbacks who he said impressed more than any position, hybrid safety Justin Garrett who probably had the best spring on the team, a fluid linebacker situation and a veteran defensive line where players are still battling for position.
The four linemen and two linebackers form the body of his defense, and Johnson has some experience there. Here's a look:
Dee Ford, Jeff Whitaker, Gabe Wright, Nosa Eguae, Angelo Blackson and Ken Carter return to the defensive line after combining for 38 starts last season.
Ford will start at one defensive end spot. Carter and Eguae are competing for the other defensive end starting assignment.
"They've improved enough that somebody's going to have to come in and beat them out. There's not going to be a job waiting on somebody," Johnson said.
Craig Sanders is in the mix, too.
First in line at defensive tackles are Whitaker, Blackson and Wright, as well as junior college transfer Ben Bradley and others.
"We've got good depth in there and that's going to help us in a physical league like we play in," Johnson said. "It's also going to help us practice more physically each day. Sometimes you have to pull off on them when you get low on bodies and that's one thing we didn't have to worry about."
Johnson needs only two starting linebackers, down from the three required in Auburn's previous defenses. He said Kris Frost "has got an edge" over Jake Holland, who missed practice time because of a class. But Frost could slide over to the other linebacker spot. Cassanova McKinzy will likely be on the depth chart as well.
"My linebacker depth chart is very fluid right now," Johnson said. "The overall improvement has been good, it's steadily gotten better, but there have been some periods when one time will come out and have a better day than the other guy. I wouldn't rule out anybody right now."
That includes JaViere Mitchell, who briefly moved to the "star" safety position, moved back to linebacker, but suffered an injury that put him behind.
"That was the only thing that frustrated me with my entire linebacker picture is I think he's got a shot to be a starter and I think he showed enough of that in those 2-3 practices early," Johnson said "I think he's got a chance to jump right in the middle of it, he's going to be in the two-deep and going to be competing for that job."
Follow Auburn on Twitter: Follow @AUGoldMine