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Coaching Staff Report Card: Defensive position coaches

Tommy Thigpen: well done, sir.

Hey, remember this post? That was the first–and this is the second–in a series assigning largely arbitrary, mostly gut-response grades to the coaching staff”s performance in the 2009 season. Last time was the offensive position coaches, this time is the defensive position coaches, next time are the coordinators, and the final time will be Gene Chizik his own self.

So don’t take these grades too seriously, please;  it’s primarily an attempt to simply recap the season and spotlight what specifically went wrong and what went right. Your mileage will vary.

TRACY ROCKER, DL

Secondary issues aside, I don’t think Auburn can complain about their injury luck in ’09–did the offense lose a single non-McCalebb start to injury? even one?–but you still have to wonder “What if?” when it comes to Auburn’s defensive ends. Antoine Carter didn’t see the field at all until four or five weeks in thanks to a torn meniscus from the spring, and took another couple of weeks to get fully up to speed; Antonio Coleman played with a wrist injury and wore a cast for several weeks early in the season. Once both became fully healthy, Auburn was able to boast a truly stout pair of ends: Coleman, of course, led the SEC in sacks and TFLs and the team didn’t finish with any fewer than 6 TFLs in a game after the Arkansas trip. Despite the early-season problems, the Tigers still finished middle-of-the-pack in the league in sacks and TFLs.

The point: when Rocker had healthy, quality ends to work with, he got all we wanted out of them and more.

The problem is that Auburn didn’t get any consistency out of anyone else on the line. Nick Fairley showed flashes of becoming a serious disruptive force in the interior but only saw the field intermittently; Mike Blanc was excellent against the pass, both getting bull rushes and batting balls down, but was regularly shoved aside against the run; Jake Ricks was the opposite, occasionally making some excellent run-stuffing plays but rarely penetrating the backfield; Michael Goggans was just kind of there (you realize he finished the year with just 2.5 TFLs and 1 sack?); Dee Ford looked like a future pass-rushing weapon but was totally unable to stand up against the run; Zach Clayton was either hurt or ineffective. In the end, Auburn’s second-string was so unimpressive that Gabe McKenzie, switched midseason from tight end, ended up getting critical fourth-quarter snaps against Georgia.

I’m a huge Rocker believer and can blame most of those problems on youth (Fairley, Ford), bad luck (Clayton’s injury), or the challenge of playing opposite a Gus Malzahn offense. But still, I expected the line to be one of the defense’s–and the team’s–genuine strengths, and aside from Coleman and Carter’s play down the stretch, that didn’t happen. Leading the SEC in rushing TDs given up and finishing fourth-from-bottom in yards allowed per-carry just isn’t what you want to see from your defensive line. Year 2 should pay bigger dividends, especially at tackle as Fairley develops and Clayton (knock on wood) stays healthy, but there’s definitely room for improvement.

Grade: B

TED ROOF, LBs

Did any coach on Auburn’s team have less to work with? Roof had two stalwarts in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, and past that … well, Eltoro Freeman was really good against LSU and pretty good against Ole Miss.

Other than that … yeesh. Adam Herring had some success holding down the fort while Freeman was straightening things out, but not much. Herring only became necessary because Freeman had been such an early-season nonentity. And when both players got injured, Auburn turned to … true freshman Jon Evans. And while Bynes and Stevens definitely had their moments, both also had moments when they just didn’t put the kind of stamp on the game Auburn would like.

Of course, the fact that Bynes and Stevens weren’t allowed to take a single snap off while playing opposite an offense designed to sbject them to as many snaps as humanly possible might have had something to do with it. That Roof milked as much out of Bynes and Stevens as he did is to his credit, as is the fact that Freeman did eventually become a productive player and that with two weeks to get him ready, Roof got a terrific performance out of Evans against the Tide.

As with Rocker, the unit’s overall production just wasn’t where it needed to be for me to get too generous here. But given the constraints Roof was working with, there’s still plenty of optimism going forward.

Grade: B

PHILLIP LOLLEY, CBs

There aren’t many Auburn players I would say were just a flat-out disappointment this season. I was hoping for more from The Toro, sure, but the transition from JUCO to the SEC isn’t easy. Chris Todd’s inconsistency over the final 6 or 7 games of the year was maddening, but by the standards of being Chris Todd, he was outstanding. Like I said, I wanted more impact from the defensive tackles, but there’s a reason neither Blanc nor Ricks were able to unseat a guy coming off of Achilles surgery the season before. In the end, there might only be one Auburn player I’d feel comfortable saying had a truly disappointing year … and that’s Neiko Thorpe.

Thorpe’s got the total physical package–big, fast, powerful–and looked like a future first-day draft pick earning Freshman All-SEC honors in ’08. But it just didn’t happen for him this season, as he was beaten deep repeatedly and failed to come up with enough big plays (2 picks and .5 TFLs compared to opposite number Walt McFadden’s 6 and 4.5) to make up for it. I wouldn’t say he regressed from his freshman season–the lack of depth playing opposite the Spread Eagle was hard on everyone, and he did finish up with a superb bowl game against Northwestern–but a leap forward into All-SEC contention seemed possible in the offseason. That didn’t happen, and Lolley has to bear some of the blame.

To be fair, Lolley’s other charges mostly came through for him. McFadden had an outstanding year, capped by the shoulda-been Outback Bowl MVP performance. (Yes, I thought he deserved it even over Adams.) Demond Washington overcame a couple of shaky early-season mistakes to become a solid third option for the nickel. The cameo appearances by Auburn’s remaining corners (D’Antoine Hood, Harry Adams, T’Sharvan Bell) were largely uninspiring, but between injuries and a bevy of position switches it’s hard to hold that against Lolley.

So things were far from all bad. But with the triumvirate of McFadden, Thorpe, and Washington, my feeling is that Auburn had the potential to field one of the best sets of corners in the SEC, and that potential just wasn’t reached.

Grade: B-

TOMMY THIGPEN, S’s

This first: Auburn had problems at safety. You don’t give up the kind of backbreaking 60-yard-plus touchdown runs Auburn gave up to Noel Devine … and Dexter McCluster … and Russell Shepard … and Randall Cobb (almost) without having some issues back there.

But Auburn was also starting a true freshman at one of those safety spots, and not a 4/5-star Eric Berry or Mike McNeil-type, either. You can knock the gurus for never seeing Daren Bates as immediate-starter material, but remember: until he started knocking heads in fall camp, Auburn’s coaches didn’t see him that way, either.

That Auburn was able to start Bates for 13 games and play his every snap of the way without disaster is a major feather in Thigpen’s cap, as is

1. Zac Etheridge’s solid play until his injury
2. Washington’s relatively solid play replacing him
3. Bell’s major step forward at the close of the year replacing Washington as the nickel safety

Mike Slade didn’t have much of a season–losing out on the depth chart first to Bates, then to Washington, then to Bell–I would argue no other Auburn safety (or player moonlighting at safety) failed to meet or outperform their expectations. On the evidence of this season, Thigpen’s much more than just a recruiter.

Grade: A-

That’s all for today. Enjoy your weekend.

(One last reminder: only on-field performance is taken into account here. We know that Lolley’s primary value to Chizik’s staff isn’t coaching corners, it’s beating the Alabama bushes to find the Justin Delaines and Ladarious Phillipses of the world. Even if I wish Thorpe had been better, I’m hardly disappointed by Lolley’s overall body of work on Auburn’s staff. For the record.)

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