AUBURN, Ala. -- When Ellis Johnson took over as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, he inherited a unit that was one of the worst in the SEC. The Tigers allowed 28 points per game a year ago and had just two interceptions.
It was time for a change, and the veteran Johnson was just the man for the job.
He had SEC experience, making similar stops at Mississippi State in 2004 and South Carolina in 2007. He was able to turn both of those defenses around in just one year, and through six games, he’s already putting his stamp on this Auburn defense.
The Tigers are third in the SEC in scoring defense, allowing only 18.8 points per game. They have seven interceptions, and they’re well on their way to surpassing last year’s sack total with 16 at the midway point. Their red zone defense is ranked second in the conference, and they have only given up one touchdown in the fourth quarter all season.
Still, Johnson knows that it’s going to take their best effort on Saturday if they expect to win at Texas A&M. The Aggies are averaging a league-best 586.5 yards per game.
“They don’t have a soft spot,” Johnson said. They’ve got great receivers. They got two NFL-looking tight ends that don’t even get on the field but about 10-12 snaps a game. Obviously, their quarterback is what makes them dynamic, but they’d be a really good football team even if he wasn’t on the field.”
That quarterback -- Johnny Manziel -- is in full control of the offense this season. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner has thrown for 1,835 yards, rushed for 438 yards and scored a combined 19 touchdowns. In week three, he shredded an Alabama defense that has only given up one touchdown in the four games since.
“He is the best player in college football,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He is very good within their system, but he is probably even better once things break down.
“He is almost like watching a video game sometimes with the stuff he does. The human side -- his competitiveness, his toughness -- that’s what really stands out to me. He is a physically and mentally tough individual. He plays with that edge.”
For all that Manziel and the Aggies can do, Malzahn believes his defense, with Johnson at the controls, is up to the task.
“I’ve got a lot of confidence in Coach Johnson,” Malzahn said. “He’s one of the best in the business. We've got a great staff. You can tell the defense is getting better each week, and we are going to have to be better this week against this bunch.”
For Auburn, slowing the Aggies’ Air Raid offense starts with the areas where this defense has improved the most from last year to this year.
“You have to disrupt them,” Johnson said. “You have to slow them down. You have to get some takeaways, and you have to play really good in the red zone. That’s the only way you’re going to manage the points.”
Johnson doesn’t expect to completely shut down Manziel and this Texas A&M offense, but he wants his players to make just enough plays to win the game. It’s what they’ve done all season.
"We really don't worry about the number of yards,” cornerback Chris Davis said. “At the end of the day, it's about a win or a loss."