AUBURN — Just as Gus Malzahn had to reinstall his offense last year, Ellis Johnson had to teach his scheme to the Auburn defense.
But Johnson didn’t have the luxury of players being familiar with his 4-2-5 scheme the way the offense was only a year removed from Malzahn’s Hurry-Up, No-Huddle.
The Tigers were coming off a dismal year defensively while running Brian VanGorder’s complex and traditional 4-3 defense, Johnson was bringing a whole new approach and moving personnel around to spots they never played before.
Linebackers were asked to change and learn more than other positions. Johnson inherited a thin personnel group and the strong side linebacker is replaced by the “star” safety in his system, putting an additional premium on communication out of the middle linebacker.
Jake Holland missed a few practices during spring practice in 2013 due to a class conflict, making the process more drawn out than Johnson would’ve liked.
Now Johnson enters year two, and the focus is no longer installation, it’s about improvement and refinement.
With Cassanova McKinzy, Auburn’s leading tackler (75) last season, moving to the middle and Kris Frost (59 tackles) sliding to the weak side, Auburn is shuffling personnel, but familiar personnel.
“I think coach Johnson would say we’re light years ahead of where we were at this time last year with our linebacker situation because he knows more about them,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “JaViere Mitchell coming back, and he’s got some flexibility with some other guys too. But with (McKinzy and Frost) specifically, coach Johnson has got a lot of information and I know he feels good going into the season with the information he has.”
But like Holland had to miss time a year ago, McKinzy was hampered with a hip injury and was unable to take part in much of spring practice. In limited time on A-Day, he had one tackle and forced a fumble.
“His transition to that position was really effortless. It was easy,” Johnson said. “I just wish he hadn’t missed so much time, because I think fundamentally he hasn’t improved. And he’s still a relatively inexperienced linebacker who would have gotten a lot better with spring.”
McKinzy, who has not spoken publicly since immediately following the BCS National Championship, enters his junior season with 16 career starts, though just two as a middle linebacker. His fall camp will be focused on improving as the figurative quarterback of the defense.
“When I first got here, I thought he was a Mike linebacker but he wouldn’t talk,” Johnson said. “He didn’t communicate well at the line of scrimmage and things of that nature.”
Frost is the more vocal of the projected starting duo, but needs to keep learning the scheme.
Mitchell, Kenny Flowers, Khari Harding and Anthony Swain also return and Tre’ Williams and Deshaun Davis join the group, which lost only Holland, who had 46 tackles and started 13 games last season.
The Tigers were not good against the pass and average, at best, against the run, but when their backs were against the wall they buckled down in the Red Zone.
It was all a bit perplexing to the veteran defensive coordinator, who stated the need to eliminate “garbage” plays on a weekly basis.
With run-heavy Arkansas in the season-opener on Aug. 30, the Tigers will know early on if their linebackers have seen the proverbial light, and are ready to lead the Auburn defense in a year of throwing out the garbage.