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October 20, 2014

Auburn analysis: going over the depth chart for defense, special teams

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Posted: Saturday, May 24, 2014 1:30 pm | Updated: 9:44 pm, Sat May 24, 2014.

Auburn's spring practice concluded with the A-Day Game on April 19. Some positions didn't change. Some had upheaval.

With that in mind, here are position-by-position projections of the defensive and special teams two-deep depth chart as the Tigers head into the summer.

Defensive end

Starters: Carl Lawson (left end) and LaDarius Owens (right end). Second team: Elijah Daniel (left end) and Gimel President (right end).

Nearly every player listed dealt with some sort of ailment this spring, but that shouldn't change things all that much.

Even though Owens missed the entire spring, he started 12 games at right end last year. Therefore, it's hard to envision a scenario in which the senior isn't in the starting lineup this fall. And it's a toss-up at the other spot. Both Lawson and Daniel were backups last season. Of the two, Lawson is a bit more polished, so that's why he has a slight edge in this projection.

Defensive tackle

Starters: Gabe Wright and Jeff Whitaker; second team: Ben Bradley, Angelo Blackson and Montravius Adams.

That's a mighty impressive five-man rotation Auburn has. Of any position on the team, who starts here matters little.

Defensive line coach Rodney Garner subs players in and out so much that every player will get his fair share of snaps so long as he has proven themselves. By all accounts, Adams is the most talented player in this group — and toe-to-toe with Lawson for best defensive lineman on the Tigers’ roster. But we'll give the slight edge to Whitaker here, if for nothing else than his experience and leadership.

Middle linebacker

Starter: Cassanova McKinzy; second team: Cameron Toney.

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said McKinzy's move to the middle (after playing on the weakside last season) this spring was a success, as the rising junior grew more comfortable with the calls and the role of vocal leader that comes with manning the Mike. The only negative was a force outside of his control, as he was hampered by injuries for a good portion of the spring.

After redshirting last season, Toney is primed for a bigger role in 2014, and should be the first man off the bench if something happens to McKinzy.

Weakside linebacker

Starter: Kris Frost; Second team: JaViere Mitchell or Kenny Flowers.

Anthony Swain, who was the top backup at the weakside spot last year, wasn't with the team this spring for reasons coach Gus Malzahn has declined to disclose. So while it wasn't a surprise that Frost came out of the spring as the starter, Swain's absence allowed Mitchell and Flowers (the defensive MVP of the A-Day Game) to rise up the depth chart.  Khari Harding provides further depth at this spot after shifting from safety during the spring.

Star

Starter: Robenson Therezie; second team: Justin Garrett.

After the season Therezie had in 2013, it would be crazy not to have him listed with the first-team defense. If anyone can supplant him, though, it would be the ultra-talented-but-injury-prone Garrett, who is now back at Star full-time after cross-training at linebacker.

Rising sophomore Mackenro Alexander has made all the strides one would want from Year One to Year Two, but he's the player who gets the short end of the stick here. He'll still get playing time, sure. But he was hurt by Garrett's return to Star.

Cornerback

Starter: Jonathon Mincy (field corner) and Josh Holsey (boundary corner); second team: Jonathan Jones (field corner) and Trovon Reed (boundary corner).

Field corner is easy. Mincy moved there from the boundary during the spring — replacing Iron Bowl star Chris Davis — and flourished. At this point, he can play at either corner spot without issue. It's the same story with Jones. In this projection, Jones is slotted as Mincy's backup for the second straight season due to the possibility of Holsey playing corner.

If Holsey remains at safety, expect Jones to take the starting job opposite Mincy. And it's certainly not out of the question that Holsey plays cornerback. After all, that's what he was recruited as coming out of high school. He even started six games at the spot as a true freshman in 2012 before shifting to safety last season.

Reed had a good spring after moving from receiver and should get a lot of meaningful snaps this fall.

Free safety

Starter: Jermaine Whitehead; second team: Johnathan Ford.

Whitehead returns to the starting lineup for the third straight season and his second as the No. 1 free  safety. But the backup spot saw a slight shakeup.

At the beginning of the spring, Malzahn confirmed that Trent Fisher had departed the program at the end of last season. Even if he was still on the roster, there's no guarantee he could have held off Ford. The sophomore moved to safety (from cornerback) when the Tigers opened the spring and seemed to adapt quickly.

Strong safety

Starter: Derrick Moncrief; second team: Brandon King.

Going on gut instinct alone, methinks Holsey would be the starter here if the season opener was Saturday. But he's been held out of contact since tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last October. No matter how talented you are, that's a lot of time without getting into a one-on-one collision with another player. Good thing for the Tigers that this is a fairly deep position.

And here's the thing: Even if Holsey was healthy, Moncrief might have ended up winning the starting job anyway. That's how impressive he was this spring.

Despite the gains King made this spring, he can't rest easy. Aside from Holsey's possible return to this spot, he'll also have a pair of freshmen — Opelika’s own Stephen Roberts and Georgia native Markell Boston — nipping at his heels when they step on campus this fall.

Place-kicker

Starter: Daniel Carlson; second team: Alex Kviklys or Duncan McKinney

Carlson is the only scholarship kicker on the roster, so something out of the ordinary would have to occurred for the redshirt freshman to leave the spring at anything other than the top of the depth chart.

He has a tough task, of course, because replacing a three-year starter, regardless of the position, is never easy. And as to be expected of a player entering his first year as "the man," Carlson battled ups and downs this spring.

Those peaks and valleys surfaced in the A-Day Game. On one hand, Carlson nailed two of his three field goal attempts — from 27 and 50 yards, respectively — on his way to capturing the game's special teams MVP award. On the other, he also missed an extra point in the first quarter.

Punter

Starter: Jimmy Hutchinson; second team: Jack Bjork or Tyler Stovall.

Just like Carlson, Hutchinson is the only player vying for the starting job who owns a scholarship. And yes, as one would expect, that means it was basically Hutchinson's "job to lose" this spring.

But by all accounts, Hutchinson seemed to perform just fine. Fans got their first glimpse of him during the A-Day Game, when he punted five times for 203 yards, good for an average of 40.6 yards per attempts. That's strikingly similar to his predecessor, Steven Clark, who averaged 40.7 yards a punt in his four years at Auburn.

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