Tigerbytes: In search of playmakers

AUBURN – When defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson surveys Auburn’s defense, he sees players with Southeastern Conference ability. What he doesn’t see is those players making dynamic plays. That, he says, must change if Auburn’s defense is to be a force in the coming season.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson

“I haven’t really seen anything that looks like it doesn’t belong on a Southeastern Conference football field,” Johnson said after Friday’s practice, the sixth of the spring. “But I haven’t seen a lot of dominant, physical one-on-one plays. That’s something you want to see. You have to have those three or four guys on both sides of the ball that make those kinds of plays, stuff you can’t coach. You can keep drawing up all these plays and defenses and everything, but players at some point have to make an impact play. That’s what I haven’t seen yet.”

That raises the question: Does Auburn have those kinds of players?

“Yeah, if you start with the measurables, the offseason, the quickness, the speed, the times on the watch, what they’re lifting in the weightroom, you look at them on the hoof,” Johnson said. “I think we have some that are capable of doing it. Until we see it, it is what it is.”

In watching tape of last season, Johnson said he saw times when Auburn’s defense played hard and well. But he didn’t see enough of what he hasn’t seen enough of this spring.

“The X factor is those dynamic plays – hits on the quarterback that either put the ball on the ground or cause interceptions, hits on the ballcarrier that put the ball on the ground, interceptions returned for big yardage,” Johnson said. “We have to start finding some of those plays. Hopefully, we are doing the right thing as coaches to put them in position. Then players just have to make plays.”

Who’s the No. 1 quarterback? Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee doesn’t know if it’s junior Kiehl Frazier or sophomore Jonathan Wallace, and he doesn’t expect to know by the end of spring practice.

“You know, I don’t know that,” Lashlee said. “I mean that. I really don’t. I don’t, at this point, see a scenario where we say ‘Here is the starter.’ I don’t see that. I think they both are doing things well. Right now there’s not a lot of separation. That is not necessarily a bad thing. I want those guys just to keep competing. At the end of spring we’ll see where we are and go from there.

“We’ve been in this situation before. We are in no hurry. We are going to get the right guy that is going to help our team.”

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee

Sophomore Kris Frost is making his presence felt at middle linebacker, where he is working on the first team with senior Jake Holland. Here’s what Johnson had to say about them both:

On Frost:

“He’s been pretty good. He’s the one guy I have in my group that really will talk. When they get on the line of scrimmage, a lot of them are afraid to make a decision. He’s not. Now he’s making some busts and wrong decisions, but Kris will talk and try to control the defense and get everybody on the same page. That can be coached.

“… I like his speed, I like his quickness, I like his attitude about contact. He’s getting better on the techniques and things. When a player has an attitude that he likes contact and he’s learning and he’s studying the game and is giving it everything full-speed, I’ll get him coached up. It’s hard to coach one if he’s not going to come to work every day.”

On Holland:

“Jake has been pretty good. He’s a veteran. He’s probably been right more than the others have been right, but he has to be a little quicker, a little more assertive in setting the calls. They have to make a lot of calls for our defense. Especially when the offense start speeding things up, we make the linebacker call a lot of defense that is not called off the sideline.

“… Experience is always important. You can be a good enough athlete to overcome it, but experience has a value that’s hard to measure. The experience of being in a tough ballgame before, the experience of being down on the goal line with your back to the goal line on the 3-yard line, the experience of being behind and not losing your poise, I don’t think you can put a measurement on that. They’re all important. Obviously, that’s a big, big factor and we don’t have a lot of it.”

Redshirt freshman Alex Kozan worked with the first team at left guard Friday and will be there in Saturday’s scrimmage.

Linebacker Kris Frost

“We are trying him out there,” Lashlee said. “We’ve seen some flashes the last few days of things we like. A bunch of those guys at the internal spot are moving a lot. That’s normal. Now let’s see what he can do at guard.”

Johnson said the starting defensive linemen are far ahead of their backups. He includes three tackles – junior Angelo Blackson, junior Gabe Wright and senior Jeff Whitaker – and two defensive ends – seniors Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae in that group. Blackson, he said, has been injured but practiced on a limited basis Friday. The loss of sophomore defensive end Keymiya Harrell for the spring to an injury, he said, was disappointing.

“Our first unit is way ahead of our second unit,” Johnson said. “That would be a point of concern right now.”

It is crucial, Johnson said, for the defense to be two deep on the line and at linebacker.

“It’s always been my feeling in the SEC that the guys in the front, defensive line and linebackers, you have to have two at every position that can perform at a winning level, that you know are going to get through a season and a game with a player capable of making winning plays,” Johnson said. “If you get in position where you only have starters and you put the backups on the field there is a liability, you’re in trouble in this league. If you only have three to play two and one gets hurt, you’re right back where you started.

“Now we might not reach that level, but our goal is to find 22. I don’t think it’s necessary in the secondary because there is not that constant play-by-play contact. Obviously, if you can get two-deep back there, you’d like to do that, too. But in the box in this conference, everybody has to have a backup. I don’t think we have four tackles or four ends to play at the level we have to have. Hopefully, by the end of spring we will.”

Running backs Tre Mason, Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne are working hard to absorb the offense, Lashlee said.

“All three guys that are rotating out there are doing a good job,” he said. “They all bring a little different skill set to the stadium. Corey and Tre have been here and played more. Of course, Cameron is not a young guy. At our running back, like everything else, there is a lot of detail, little details within every play. Their alignment and all those things, they matter. We just have to process those quicker. We have to play faster, but we have to be able to process the information fast enough to reach and play smart at that speed.”

Running back Corey Grant

Auburn’s cornerbacks didn’t intercept a pass last season. Not one. Johnson said he sees signs that won’t be the case in 2013. Cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith, he said, is working hard to make sure it isn’t.

“We have been extremely pleased with our cornerback play overall in the passing area this spring,” Johnson said. “The thing we saw on film is they’re not extremely big guys and, at times, they didn’t tackle that well. They also went through injuries and by the end of the year some of the young ones were starting. Some of them played very well – (Jonathan) Jones, (Josh) Holsey, those guys. I think Melvin is certainly addressing it and knows how to teach it. I’ve really been pleased with our corners. We’ve already had five picks in live situations, and three of them have been by our corners.”

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