June 25, 2013
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN – Over the past two football seasons, dealing with pain was an almost daily challenge for Jake Holland. The training room was his home away from home.
Holland, the only senior among Auburn’s linebackers, has dealt with broken bones, a high ankle sprain, a sprained neck, even a torn bicep and more. And he’s played on, missing just one game. Last season, he was fourth on the team in tackles with 73.
As Holland works toward his final Auburn season, he’s healthier than he’s been since he was a freshman, and he’s thrived in strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell’s program. He’s reinvigorated and excited to be part of head coach Gus Malzahn’s “new day.”
“I’m really enjoying Coach Russell’s workout program,” Holland says. “I’ve seen improvements, and I’m healthy now. I’m really looking forward to this year.”
So many times since he became the starting middle linebacker in 2011, Holland has played at less than full-speed.
“There is definitely a lot of frustration there,” Holland says. “You work so hard to try to be successful. When you have to play so many snaps, your body just wears down. I pray this year I can stay healthy throughout the season. I think that’s going to happen with all the depth we have this year.”
There’s another challenge now. A building science major, Holland was forced to miss practice time and class time during the first spring practice under head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. Sophomore Kris Frost moved ahead of him as the starting middle linebacker.
But Holland is undaunted. He won’t have to miss time when practice starts in August, and he intends to do all he can to be in the starting lineup when Auburn opens its season Aug. 31 against Washington State at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
“I have to go compete for it,” Holland said. “I have enough experience that I know what to expect. I had to miss some practices in the spring. With new coaches coming in, that’s going to hurt anybody as far as the depth chart goes. I’m not worried about it. I’m just pumped up to get started again.”
Frost and sophomore Cassanova McKinzy will go into preseason practice as the starters, but Johnson says that’s subject to change. Holland, he says, could be the starter either in the middle or on the weak side.
“I’m a Mike at heart, but I could play either spot,” Holland says. “I know them well. It just depends on how Coach Johnson wants us lined up.”
As Auburn has struggled on defense the past two seasons, Holland has been a lightning rod for criticism. He has been a favorite whipping boy on message boards. He shrugs it off with a laugh.
“Oh, yeah. I know I’ve been criticized,” Holland says. “When you are in a leadership position you are going to be criticized. You just have to expect that. I know I haven’t performed to the level that I expect of myself, but you can only do so much when you are injured.”
Holland says he stays away from message boards, but he hears about the criticism even when he doesn’t see it.
“There are guys that really enjoy talking about something and guys that really want to hate on somebody,” Holland says. I just try to stay away from it. To us, it’s comical. You’ll see comments here or there or sometimes people will even message me on social media. I’ll be like ‘Good Lord, you think you know what you are talking about, but you have no idea.’”
Holland’s family hears it, too. His father, Jeff, says it’s part of the game, but not a pleasant part.
“It's no more pleasant than anybody saying anything about your children,” Jeff Holland says. “You never grow skin thick enough to prevent you being hurt when somebody trashes your kid. The fans don't know. They are into the game. They are frustrated. The reality is they wouldn't want that said about their kids.”
Jeff Holland says the only way for his son to respond is by playing harder, playing better and focusing more strongly than ever. As a parent, he is there when needed.
“I taught my kids and have always believed that in a time of great challenge, you default to your highest level of training,” Jeff Holland says. “When that happens, I have an immediate mechanism to isolate it as a single event, not life-changing, and from there you encourage.
“I don't think anything is gained from additional criticism. If he makes a mistake, he knows he made a mistake. He knows it. His coaches know it. You have to have a short memory. What can they do from that negative experience? How can that turn it into a positive?”
There wasn’t much positive for anybody at Auburn last season. The Tigers staggered to a 3-9 record, costing head coach Gene Chizik and his staff their jobs. But Jake Holland says things are very different now.
“The eagerness is definitely there,” he says. “Last year was very rough, not just for the fans but us, too. We have worked very hard this summer just to get back out there and prove everybody wrong.”