Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows a little something about change.
This is his seventh defensive coordinator’s job -- his fourth in the SEC -- and the 11th time overall that he’s been starting his coaching career anew.
But it’s the first time in his 30-plus years that he’s been a part of a total coaching turnover at a school.
“That was pretty hard, especially early on with recruiting and establishing relationships and everything,” said Johnson, who takes over an Auburn defense that ranked next-to-last in the SEC last season in total defense (420.5 yards per game) and gave up 38 or more points in four of its last five SEC contests.
What’s not new for Johnson is the challenge of building a championship-caliber defense in the SEC, and he’s got some familiar faces alongside him. He coached with co-defensive coordinator Charlie Harbison at Clemson, Alabama and Mississippi State. He and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith coached together at Alabama and Mississippi State, while defensive line coach Rodney Garner has been a fixture in the SEC for the last 20 years.
“It’s a huge help,” Johnson said. “There’s over 20-something years of experience with each coach. We’ve all been in this league. We’ve recruited in this league. We’ve recruited against each other in this league and coached against each other.”
Now, they tackle together the task of helping restore the edge to an Auburn program that went belly-up last season after winning the national championship two years earlier.
Four practices into the spring, Johnson hasn’t been displeased with what he has to work with defensively. But with only two practices in pads, he’s careful not to draw too many conclusions, either.
“The good thing is that we’re pretty healthy,” Johnson said. “A lot of times, you don’t have a lot of healthy bodies in the spring. But we do, and it’s going to be a good, physical spring. That’s what we need to sort some things out.”
Nine starters return on defense, and the Tigers are especially deep at tackle. But as the losses began to mount in 2012, Auburn had a hard time stopping anybody.
“It was obviously a disappointing year, but when I look at the roster, it’s a good-looking group, probably overall better even than what we had at South Carolina,” Johnson said. “My concern is that I don’t see that one different guy, a difference-maker like a (Jadeveon) Clowney.”
That was especially apparent when Johnson went back and watched tape of last season.
“They played pretty well defensively in a number of games, but they weren’t dominant enough to turn a ballgame around or make a big-time play when they needed to,” Johnson said. “Offensively, they never got up on anybody and were constantly playing from behind. They didn’t have but two interceptions, but I don’t think anybody threw any passes in the second half.
“The thing you keep coming back to are those two or three guys that are going to make a play for you and cause a ballgame to turn around. I haven’t seen them yet, and we’ve got to find them.”
Johnson will use the same 4-2-5 defense he utilized at South Carolina, which includes two true linebackers and a hybrid linebacker/safety. The hybrid position requires a player to have the kind of speed to cover receivers, but also be able to hold up in run support.
Junior Justin Garrett, who’s played only sparingly to this point in his career, is getting a look there this spring along with redshirt freshman JaViere Mitchell. Johnson said incoming junior college transfer Brandon King would also be a strong candidate to fill that spot once he arrives this summer.
When Johnson took over as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State (in 2004) and South Carolina (in 2008), both schools were coming off disappointing seasons. The Bulldogs were facing NCAA probation and had suffered through three straight losing seasons. The Gamecocks had gone 6-6 the year before and lost their last five games.
“There were a lot of off-the-field issues to clean up at State, and the first group I inherited at South Carolina was a good group, especially in the box,” Johnson said. “In all three cases (including Auburn), you’re coming into a situation where players are looking at you with a ‘Coach me, coach, attitude, and let’s try something different.’
“What I don’t see here is that I don’t see a lot of leadership yet within the team and guys to take charge. That’s something that has to develop, and I think it will.”