Friday, August 29, 2008

2008 A-U Pre-View: Defense pros and cons

More, please.

T-minus, oh, 19-and-a-half hours as I start typing. Let's do this.

OK, first, 10 pros and five cons for the defense. Again, biggest reason for confidence/concern last, slighter reasons first.

10. Speed. Auburn's defense--Blackmon, Carter, Coleman, Powers, even Marks when you compare him to his fellow defensive tackles--is still just as fast as ever. And the more pass-based and spread-out and generally less cloud-of-dust the SEC's offenses get, the better Auburn will match up. (Of course, this might be more true if more passing and receivers on the field didn't mean exposing our true freshman corners. Still.)

9./8. The starting corners/the starting safeties. OK, so once you excise that little "starting" modifier things get substantially more dicey back here. But those first four are four I expect we Auburn fans will wind up mighty proud of: Powers looks poised for an All-SEC type season, Etheridge is a terror, Walt McFadden's had the same career up 'til now Pat Lee had up 'til last season (when he was solid enough to go and get hisself drafted, you'll recall) and should be fine, and Mike McNeil has talent to burn. As long as Auburn's in our base four and all four of these guys stay healthy KNOCK ON THE BIGGEST PIECE OF WOOD YOU CAN FIND WITH WHATEVER GIANT KNOCKING HAMMER THEY USE TO RING THE LIBERTY BELL this isn't going to be a sore point. Weaker than the front seven, yes, but still not exactly an out-and-out weakness.

7. The depth along the defensive line. To some extent, the hole left by Pat Sims in one of the defensive tackle spots looks like an issue: there's no proven guy to replace him, no one (aside from maybe 12th-year senior Tez Doolittle) whose name is going to seem immediately familiar to the hypothetical (and likely apocryphal) "casual" Auburn fan. But: those no-names include nominal starter Mike Blanc, the aforementioned Doolittle, Zach Clayton, and man-mountain Jake Ricks, all of which have gotten their fair share of offseason "buzz" and all of whom are likely capable of plugging the Sims-shaped hole. Things are a little thinner at DE thanks to injuries to Jomarcus Savage and A.J. Greene and Raven Gray's redshirt year, but still: Antoine Carter (who finished last year with .5 less sacks and one fewer QB hurry than SenDerrick Marks and generally looked like the next McClover/Groves/etc. to fall from Tubby's DE tree) is a backup. Things aren't shabby there, either.

6. Depth at linebacker. How hotly contested are the three Auburn linebacking spots? Chris Evans was the team's third-leading tackler and he can't even guarantee himself a starting position. Even aside from future 2008 International Wrecking Ball Manufacturer's Association "Man of the Year" Tray Blackmon, there's Evans (senior), Merrill Johnson (senior), Courtney Harden (senior), Craig Stevens (wickedly talented sophomore), and Josh Bynes (ditto) all in the two-deep.

5. Paul Rhoads. I'm not sure how much of an impact an Auburn DC really has on the Tigers' schemes and tactical battle-plans. As Tubby his own self said in the wake of Muschamp's departure, it's his defense; as he didn't say but I'm willing to infer, he just needs someone keen to keep the thing tuned up and running at maximum capacity. That Tubby wanted to hire Rhoads several years back is one point of evidence Rhoads can do just that. A second point is that Rhoads had plenty of success at Pitt whenever he had talent to work with, and--see above--talent is not much of a problem here.

4. SenDerrick Marks. All-SEC defensive tackles who eat double-teams for breakfast and enjoy them so much they have the same for lunch have proven to be pretty useful in my college football following experience.

3. The pass rush. Antonio Coleman on one end. Some combination of potential breakout star Michael Goggans and Carter on the other. Marks in the middle. Somewhere behind them on passing downs, true freshmen are going to be covering what could very well be some very talented receivers. Fortunately, it doesn't look those freshman will have to cover for very long. (A caveat: I thought the same last year, and thanks in large part to Q. Groves's gimpy foot, it never quite materialized. That was just last year, though.)

2. Tray Blackmon. Maybe this is misplaced optimism, sticking him all the way up this list--hard to argue the Little Ball of Hate's ever sustained his brilliance for more than, say, six quarters at a stretch in his two active seasons--but this year his granite body is cooperating. This year his lease on the doghouse finally ran out. This year the only thing that will decide how many opposing lives he ruins is his talent and how intently he puts it to use. As that talent is nigh well all-encompassing and by all accounts Blackmon is ready to employ it to the fullest of his capabilities ... I may be sorely disappointed, but methinks it's going to be awful fun to watch. For us Auburn fans, anyway.

1. Tommy Tuberville. I can't see Auburn having a less-than-respectable defense as long as he's in charge--nor the odds even tilting in the favor of anything other than "outstanding" as long as he continues to unearth the Chris Evanses and SenDerrick Markses of the world. It's not happening.

The Cons. There aren't many, really. When your defense was as good as Auburn's was in 2007 and it returns seven starters and one of the new starters might be Carter or will be Mike McNeil, there's not too much to complain about. Let's make No. 5 Paul Rhoads? just because I guess he could be the second coming of David Gibbs and No. 4 he second defensive tackle position just since I suppose it's within the realm of possibility that Marks is the only viable tackle in the bunch. For a semi-serious con, it's also possible that for No. 3 either an injury to Coleman or struggles on Goggans' part could create a hole on one end of the line. Also, Gabe McKenzie's a hell of an athlete, but being able to go from tight end to the DE two-deep in the space of an afternoon or so is a little troubling from a depth standpoint.

The legitimate concerns, however, are in the secondary: No. 2, safety depth, and No. 1, corner depth and/or the nickelback. Behind McNeil and Etheridge: senior walk-on (and heretofore non-contributor) Jonathan Vickers, redshirt freshman Mike Slade, true freshman Christian Thompson. Behind Powers and McFadden: even more frightening because of the extra time nickelbacks and reserve corners spend on the field, true freshmen Neiko Thorpe and D'Antoine Hood. And after that ... uh, almost no one.

I have a lot of faith in Tubby and Co. to find the proverbial diamonds in the rough in recruiting, and Hood and Thorpe have earned their spots on the two-deep via what has been, by nearly everyone's account though most importantly Tubby's, two excellent fall camps. Still: the kind of freshmen who generally--though not always--excel immediately upon arriving on campus on the Lee Ziemba-Cadillac Williams types who bring a bevy of recruiting hype, five stars, jaw-dropping athleticism, etc. Hood and Thorpe are off to a hell of a start. But until we see them line up over whoever LSU's crew lines up in the slot on third-and-six and see them shut them down, it's more than a little worrisome. And if any member of the starting secondary should go down with an injury KNOCK ON EVERYTHING MADE OF WOOD IN YOUR ENTIRE HOME THREE TIMES God help us.

Special teams and final season predictions tomorrow a.m.

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