New defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is preaching that the Tigers need to keep the pressure on opposing quarterbacks and not allow them to sit back in the pocket and pick apart the secondary. The Tigers also need to improve on their sack total of just 15 from 2001 if the defense is going to carry the clout necessary to make a run at an SEC title.
Freshman Kyle Derozan made a good start as an Auburn Tiger before being sidelined.
The biggest concern this season is expected to be a lack of depth and experience at the defensive end positions. After losing seniors Javor Mills, Alton Moore and James Callier, the Tigers must look to newcomers to take their place.
Coming into two-a-days defensive ends coach Terry Price expected to have six players to cover the two positions. However, with the loss of redshirt freshman Steve Bouldin during the summer to family problems Price needed more bodies. The decision was made to move junior defensive tackle Dexter Murphy outside for some extra depth.
Along with Murphy, the Tigers have returning junior Reggie Torbor at the weakside end position and sophomores Bret Eddins and converted tight end Jay Ratliff to work at the strongside. The Tigers have also brought in signees Ben Grubbs and Kyle Derozan to add depth.
However, after making a strong push during the first week of two-a-days Derozan went down with a torn meniscus and had his knee scoped on Thursday. The 6-4, 240-pounder from Morganza, La., will miss about two weeks and Price notes that Derozan will be missed.
"It is depth," Price says. "We are thin enough as it is. You hate to lose another guy that was really coming out and doing some good things during two-a-days. It has to hurt you because you lack depth. You need depth in this game. I am disappointed, but hopefully he can heal up and come back and help us here a couple weeks from now."
Even with the depth problems, Price says he believes that his group is working hard and will get to where they need to be. "They are making progress and learning what they have got to do. They are getting better everyday. We have just got to have a few more guys step up and we'll be all right."
Dunn adds, "Ratliff has made a move and done some good things, Eddins is always steady and Dexter is just not a great athlete, but he is an extremely hard worker so you get a lot out of him. They are all working hard trying to get better."
Price predicts that when September 2nd rolls around that his group will be ready to bring the heat to opposing quarterbacks. "Oh yeah, they'll be ready to go. They are working their tails off trying to get ready to go. They're excited about it." Auburn opens on the West Coast vs. the Southern California Trojans.
For defensive tackles coach Don Dunn the depth issue has not been as big of a problem, but there is still some concern. The Tigers are returning two junior starters in Spencer Johnson and DeMarco McNeil. Dunn also has senior transfer Dante Booker and redshirt freshman Wayne Dickens along with signees Antwarn Franklin and Tommy "T.J." Jackson to fill the gaps in the middle.
Tommy Jackson at the Alabama/Mississippi All-Star Game.
The major question inside for the Tigers has been the health of McNeil and Johnson. Both are coming back after being plagued by knee problems last fall. However, Dunn says that both are doing well and he plans on keeping it that way during preseason practice.
"Spencer is doing really well," Dunn says. "I would say he is 98 percent. We just have to be really smart with him. We held him out of Wednesday's practice just for rehab and ice and stuff. I would say DeMarco is about 85 to 90 percent. He is probably a little behind Spencer. He didn't go through spring practice and you can tell. He is getting used to wearing his pads again, back to the full flow of the game. But I am real pleased with both of them. We have just got to be real smart and take care of them. We have got a lot of games in a short period of time and we have got to be real careful with how we practice those two guys right now."
Thus far in two-a-days the combo has shown that it can certainly be a huge handful for opposing offensive lines as long as the juniors can stay healthy.
The backups have been solid. Booker has been the best in relief, showing effort and really firing off the football. Dickens has also stepped up his play this fall and Dunn says that he has noticed the improvement. "Wayne is doing a great job. He has really had a great two-a-days. The last two days he has really come on and people forget he is just a redshirt freshman, too. It seems like he has been around here for a long time, but he really hasn't. We are looking for big things out of him because DeMarco is not going to be able to play every snap."
T.J. Jackson went down in Wednesday's scrimmage with a knee problem, but the mishap proved to be minor and he returned to action the next day.
Dunn also says that he is excited about Jackson and Franklin, but adds they need to improve before the season kicks off in Los Angeles. "The two freshmen, Antwarn Franklin and T.J. Jackson, they are doing a good job, but they still have a lot of work to do," the line coach says. "They have got to learn how to practice. They have got to learn how to finish. They have got to learn how to go full speed every play and learn the tempo of the game. We would love to redshirt both of them, but I don't think we are going to have that luxury with the long season and, hopefully, into the bowl season and a championship game and all that stuff. It is going to be a long season and we need them to come along. I look for them both to play and I don't know how early they will play, but I expect both of them to play."
Dunn says that he still has a few things to teach the guys to be ready to go on opening night, but adds that he really likes his players. "I am real pleased. They are a great bunch of kids. I know I have said that before, but they are really good people. They work hard, they do everything we ask them and I am real pleased with them. I just need to get those freshmen to come along, get DeMarco healthy and get them all ready for game speed."