- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Auburn’s defense was bad down the stretch. Everybody knows it. We’ve been over it on the SEC blog. It’s the reason Ellis Johnson was let go as defensive coordinator after just two seasons. Simply put, the Tigers couldn’t stop anybody.
So when choosing a position that needs improvement for this team in 2015, it was pretty clear which side of the ball to focus on. But where does the problem lie?
The linebackers were the strength of the group, and both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy are coming back, so not there. The defensive line had its inconsistencies and failed to generate a pass rush all season. But the real culprit was on the back end, a secondary that got torched time and time again in SEC play.
Position to improve: Secondary
Why it was a problem: In the last six league games, Auburn’s defense allowed 1,722 passing yards. That’s 287 yards per game. During that stretch, quarterbacks Dylan Thompson, Kyle Allen and Blake Sims all threw four or more touchdowns against the Tigers. It ultimately cost them wins against Texas A&M and Alabama. To be fair, it’s not all on the secondary. The lack of a pass rush makes it extremely difficult for the defensive backs. But this group got burned too many times. And there were too many missed tackles that turned good plays into explosive plays and sometimes touchdowns for the opposing offense. If you need further proof, just go back and watch Melvin Gordon’s 53-yard touchdown run in the Outback Bowl. He froze safety Jermaine Whitehead, and everybody else was out of position.
How it can be fixed: It starts with the offseason coaching changes. New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was a safety in college and has a good track record with defensive backs. He brought with him his defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, a former Auburn safety who has worked with the likes of Matt Elam, Jaylen Watkins and Vernon Hargreaves III during his time at Florida. The new coaches along with the new scheme should provide a boost on the back end. The first order of business will be to fix the missed tackles and the missed assignments. Then it’s on to coverage, which should be easier given the return of defensive end Carl Lawson and the possible addition of Byron Cowart, the nation’s No. 1 player. No longer will quarterbacks have all day to sit back and throw against this Tigers’ defense.
Early 2015 outlook: The cupboard isn’t bare. Auburn gets back top cornerback Jonathan Jones and safety Johnathan Ford, the team leader in tackles. For all the deficiencies in the secondary, Jones still finished among the SEC leaders in interceptions (6) and passes defended (12). Seniors Jonathon Mincy and Whitehead are gone, but the new coaches will have some young talent to work with next year. Freshmen Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin both played this season and should have an expanded role in 2015 while former ESPN 300 cornerback Kalvaraz Bessent will look to make an impact after redshirting his first year on campus. Also keep an eye on safety Tim Irvin. The four-star athlete recently flipped his commitment from Texas to Auburn and the staff believes he can make an early impact. Irvin enrolled last week.