AUBURN — The defensive group which suffered the most substantial losses in personnel from last season for Auburn is the linebackers, with starters Daren Bates and Jonathan Evans both graduating.
In the second of our spring practice preview series, we look at the reshaped linebacker corps which is going to have some familiar faces but will also see the most drastic change as the defense changes to Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme.
Jake Holland, who started 10 games and made 73 tackles, is the leading returning linebacker from last season. At 6-foot-1, 240 pounds, Holland is undersized but that can be somewhat mitigated in Johnson’s system compared to last year’s 4-3 scheme.
Cassanova McKinzy should get ample opportunity to get much more playing time this season with the departures of Bates and Evans. The 6-3, 243-pound McKinzy started two games last season and had some impressive performances, though his mental mistakes held him back.
Kris Frost is another young player with a chance to see the field a lot more this season, as is Justin Garrett.
Bates and Evans were both only 5-11 and less than 230 pounds and their Pro Day numbers showed just how weak the Tigers were in the middle of the field last season. Playing out of position for three years, Bates is trying to make it as a safety in the NFL and his instincts may carry him, as they did at Auburn, and that will be the biggest hole to fill.
Only two linebackers were in the heralded 2013 signing class, JUCO transfer Kenny Flowers and Cameron Toney, since Reuben Foster flipped back to Alabama late in the process, and neither will be on campus until the summer.
With Johnson coaching this group, it could be the most analyzed part of the defense throughout the spring.
Daren Bates: 94 tackles, 5.5 TFL, 2.0 sacks
Jonathan Evans: 20 tackles, 1 TFL
Ashton Richardson: four tackles, 1 TFL, 1 sack
Jake Holland: 73 tackles, 3 TFL
Cassanova McKinzy: 23 tackles, .5 TFL
Justin Garrett: 12 tackles, .5 TFL
Kris Frost: five tackles
See You Soon:
Leader Of The Pack
Spring Story Lines
1. Holland was the target of criticism by the fan base, as most middle linebackers are when things aren’t going well, particularly against the run. Without Bates and Evans to his flanks, Holland will have to show he is capable of working with the younger and less experienced linebackers. Plus, in the 4-2-5 Holland may lose reps given his comparative lack of size and speed to McKinzy and Frost.
2. Can McKinzy and Frost get past their difficulties of learning Brian VanGorder’s defense last year and adjust to a less complex system? As freshmen, both had a hard time learning their responsibilities. As sophomores, they may end up getting the most playing time.
3. Johnson says he’s comfortable with the relative lack of depth at linebacker since there are only two on the field at a time. But do the Tigers have the talent to make it work? Auburn gave up nearly 200 rushing yards per game last season and the front seven had a very poor year.
“It is not a system that you need 12 linebackers on the roster, you need about 12 safeties on the roster. You don’t need but about eight linebackers on your roster. If we’re in this system, you don’t see three, five, four, five, four linebackers signed every year; there’s nowhere for them to play.” - Ellis Johnson