Tuesday, March 4, 2014

The Auburn Realist: What A-Day Will Tell Us About the Defense

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We started out yesterday by talking about What A-Day Will Tell Us About the Offense. If you haven't read it, please do so. Get up to date.

Last year was particularly difficult to gauge ANYTHING based upon the spring game. In fact, I took the time to talk about the Glaring QB Problems after our initial Post A-Day Thoughts. But, turns out, A-Day didn't tell us a thing about the QB struggles last year, mostly because the QB wasn't on campus. Additionally, the sub-par offensive performance didn't exploit the defense too badly. Yet, for about the 6th year in a row, the Auburn defense has struggled. Let's recall that the typical Tuberville defense was usually a top-10 D and since he left, there hasn't been much defense to speak of on The Plains. Even without facing Mason or a competent QB last year, the only real exciting moment was Garret's TD, who ultimately never contributed in 2013 despite being named the future breakout star. Ironically, I did say Therezie would be the breakout star and indeed he was. More on that later.

So, let's get to it. What will A-Day tell us about the defense. Well, like every one of these games, it will be very vanilla and will feature a second half with a lot of names you don't know. While the play calling and  hitting will not be quite game-ready, the execution of the players will still be telling.

Who will be next sack leader at Auburn
No, we won't be seeing any sacks on A-Day, at least live action sacks. But, the question is, will we see any penetration against a very good offensive line? And, if so, who? Even in the last few years of porous defenses, there is still a sack leader. Auburn has managed to put a pass rusher in the league each year, despite the inability to stop opposing offenses. This years player, Dee Ford, vacates a spot as he is a potential first rounder. It sure seems that even on teams with two or more fantastic play makers, there is always one that stands above the rest. Will it be one of the trio of youngsters in Adams, Daniels, Owens, or Lawson? What about JuCo Ben Bradley? How about Gabe Wright? It will be interesting to see the personnel groupings here, though it is widely expected that there will be a constant rotation. More to the point, will Adams and Lawson be paired on the offensive left side together? With the flashes that were shown this year, it will be interesting to see if they get split up or left together. Together they form a potent pass rush that will be utterly dominating on the blind side. Apart they can balance an attack. If they are paired together, Carl Lawson will almost certainly be Auburn's next sack leader....but don't sleep on Gabe Wright who continues to be a force on the inside.

Will the young D-line develop 
Streaming from the last paragraph, the real question is: will these guys continue to develop? Auburn fans have become acclimated to poor defenses, so I wonder at times if the "sparks" we saw from these guys last year was desperation or providence. There is no doubt that Lawson is a physical specimen. There is no doubt that Adams could put the world on his shoulders if he wanted to. But what did we see last year? Did we get excited by a few plays here and there or do we genuinely have something to be excited about. Again, I blame the recruiting rankings for a lot of this. We see a highly talented player come in and make a few plays and we get all excited. But, let's temper our expectations a little. Clowney came in and made in immediate impact in every game he played. Neither of these guys have quite done that. Now, Clowney is a very special player, there is no doubt. But I think it will do us all good to take a step back and compare these guys and temper our expectations. At A-Day, we need to see discipline. We need to see awareness on the field. Several times last year, Adams and Lawson both found themselves duped and out of position. Sometimes their physical gifts bailed them out, but many times they did not. We need to see these guys rely on discipline and execute with physical power, not the other way around.

Will the Auburn Secondary FINALLY play as a unit
How long has it been since Auburn wasn't "thin" in the defensive secondary? Go back to 2010! Even then, Savage's injury at the midpoint of the season was a huge deal because there was no one behind him. Defections from the program from highly touted guys like Rose and Florence paired with arrest and dismissals from others have continually stung this program. It seems like a broken record. Not only has the talent level and size in the secondary been small, but the depth is shallow. So shallow that guys like Ford have had to leave their natural positions to play. Auburn struggled with larger receivers all year, being unable to every stop a receiver over 6'2". While the INTs were exponentially greater (how could they not be) than 2012, the bulk of them went to one guy....Therezie....who profited from some terrible throws that never should have been made. That isn't to take anything from him, however. He was there and he made the catch, and in the case of Tennessee, took it to the house. And that's why they call him Cadillac. No, the real question isn't really in the safety play but on the corners. Auburn in 2013 featured some tiny guys who struggled not only with down field coverage but with the short game as well. While they were much better tacklers in 2013 then 2012, they still gave up a lot of yards. They either played tight on the line and were beat over the top or they played off the line and let the chains get moved. Sure, the Auburn D had a great string of bowing up inside the 20. That's because they gave receivers anything they wanted underneath. That will have to change in 2014. So, will the Auburn secondary feature team play instead of Therezie and whomever else is on the field? Let's be honest, no one knew who the starters were aside from Davis....and they only knew him after the Tennessee game. Will Garret break the rotation? Will there be a set group of true starters instead of the revolving door?

Will Auburn Find a LB?
Even after he is gone, we are still smarting on how Jake Holland was a 3 year starter at Auburn. Between Kris Frosts' injuries and slow development and the relatively slow development of McKinzy, the Auburn LBs have been  sub-par. But, McKinzy came along at the end of the year and Frost started seeing more than spot play. Both of these guys have a long way to earn their Tiger Stripes. Frost came in extremely high in the recruiting services. He possesses all the gifts. Because of the 4-2-5 alignment, these guys must be both physically gifted and mentally strong to play in space. Interestingly, neither were recruited to play in this defense, so it shouldn't be much of a surprise that they have struggled. Will they overcome it or continue to find themselves as Holland did.....out of position or trampled under foot? A-Day will tell us about their development. It will be easy enough to know if they made the right calls. Will they stand up plays in the hole? Will they play well in space? Being the players that have the most thinking and running to do, seing how they do will be easy enough to see as well.