The Starters: LLB Craig Stevens (6’4″, 229, Sr.), MLB Josh Bynes (6’2″, 235, Sr.), RLB Daren Bates (5’11”, 203, So.)
The Backups: Jonathan Evans (5’11”, 230, So.), Harris Gaston (6’1″, 231, rFr.), Jake Holland (6’0″, 231, Fr.), Jessel Curry (6’1″, 214, Fr.)
The Wildcard: Eltoro “The Toro” Freeman (5’11”, 225, Jr.)
The first thing I think about when I think about this year’s Auburn linebacking corps is Will Herring.
You remember Will Herring: earned a starting job at safety two games into his freshman season (redshirt freshman, but still), immediately began racking up tackles, started all 13 games in 2004 but by season’s end had become defense’s biggest Achilles heel due to over-aggressiveness against the run, was finally moved to linebacker as a senior, led team in tackles for second straight season and became second-team All-SEC at LB, was drafted in the fifth round at LB, and is still drawing a paycheck on the Seahawks’ second team four seasons later. The only question still to be answered regarding Herring’s Auburn career is: He was a linebacker even when he was a safety. So why did it take so long to move him to linebacker?
Gene Chizik wasn’t party to the move–he’d gone on to Austin, with first-year DC Will Muschamp making the call–but it’s possible he learned the lesson of Herring’s career from a thousand miles away anyway. Because last year Auburn had a freshman safety who started from Day 1, immediately began racking up tackles, occasionally allowed a big play due to over-aggressiveness against the run … you can see where this is going. But instead of waiting until his senior year, Daren Bates is a linebacker now.
This is a big, big, big deal. No one will dare say a word about Adam Herring’s effort, but through the first several games of the season, no single position on Auburn’s defense was less productive than weakside linebacker. Even once Freeman got his head on straight enough to contribute, breakdowns were still a major issue. And when Freeman went out against Georgia, the rush defense sagged again. Getting consistent production out of the spot not patrolled by Bynes or Stevens–even run-of-the-mill production–would be a massive step forward for the defense, particularly against the run.
And if Will Herring’s experience is any indication, Bates should be able to provide that production … and possibly a lot more. We know Bates has a terrific nose for the ball; we know he already has safety-quality coverage skills; we already know he’s fearless enough to lay the proverbial wood. All he really requires to succeed at linebacker is a knowledge of the schemes and maybe a tad more size. It may take another offseason to get him 100 percent as built as we’d like, but after an entire offseason working with Ted Roof, the former issue shouldn’t be one. If Roof can take Jon Evans and turn him from the tentative player we saw against the Dawgs into the terror we saw against the Tide in the space of two weeks, there shouldn’t be any issues getting Bates mentally ready.
So … if we’re not going to worry about Bates, we’re certainly not going to worry about Josh Bynes or Craig Stevens, are we? No, no we are not. If we want to pick nits, I do think Stevens could stand to be a little more aggressive, stand up to blockers a little better, and make a few more tackles near the line of scrimmage; I do think Bynes could stand to be just a little more consistent. But they’re both outstanding already–I’m looking forward to Roof unleashing Stevens, an excellent pass rusher, on the blitz much more often this season–and another year in Roof’s schemes and under his tutelage should see them develop into one of the best linebacking tandems in the league.
And they’ll actually be able to take snaps off this year! Well, probably, once The Toro comes back from his foot injury. Between the disappointing start to last season, the injury to cap it, and then landing on the second string even before the end of spring, it’s easy to forget that Freeman did flash a tremendous amount of potential in mid-2009; he was Auburn’s best player by a mile, on either side of the ball, in the LSU debacle. It’s not a guarantee a healthy Freeman would be able to replace one of the starters without the unit even noticing, but it’d at least be possible, and I’m not sure we’d be able to say that about the other backups.
But that doesn’t mean Jon Evans, for one, wouldn’t at least be serviceable (or better) after that performance against the Tide. His presence gives us five linebackers I’d be comfortable seeing on the field, or three more than we had to begin 2009.
Even the freshmen on the two-deep are going to be light-years ahead of the pace of last year’s freshmen. Heck, one of them, Gaston, was one of last year’s freshmen. But between Curry’s arrival in spring and Holland’s pre-enrollment polish, either should be at least perfectly capable of giving the starters a blow here and there.
This is not to say everything’s perfect with the linebackers, of course. Promising as the underclassmen are, having just two guys on the two-deep with more than a season under their belts at Auburn is still … sub-optimal. Bates is still going to have some adjustment pains, particularly early in the season. The season after their herculean efforts of 2009, it’s possible both Bynes and Stevens could be a little more brittle, despite the increase in rest. Which is a worry since a long-term injury to Bynes would be particularly damaging; if neither Holland nor Gaston are ready for a full-time gig, someone’s going to have to play MLB who’s not training in the position today.
But compared to either the defensive line or the secondary, those questions are relatively minor. These linebackers should be the heart of the defense, its greatest strength, the pillar on which the entire unit’s improvement rests. If they’re up to it, and I think they will be, many of the woes of 2009 will be forgotten.
All-SEC for Bynes, second team for Stevens, Bates makes it a clean 1-2-3 sweep at the top of Auburn’s tackles chart. Freeman, Evans, and eventually Holland all show enough that no one freaks out about what lies in store in 2011.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON A N UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE