The Starters: Craig Stevens (6-3, 223, Jr.), Josh Bynes (6-2, 239, Jr.), Eltoro Freeman (5-11, 222, So.)
The Backups: Adam Herring (6-1, 216, So.), Harris Gaston (6-1, 219, Fr.), Jonathan Evans (5-11, 207, Fr.), Wade Christopher (6-1, 215, So.)
The Wildcard: Spencer Pybus (6-0, 215, So.)
If I had a time machine, I’d say the list of things I’d want to do would be fairly long, but somewhere I’m certain I’d make room for “Travel to start of Auburn fall camp 2008, tell self that injuries to Adam Herring and Spencer Pybus had potentially devastating consequences for 2009 team, record reaction.”
Because that reaction would be worth recording, seeing as how it’s Sep. 3, 2009, and I’m still in a state of mild shock, that, yes, injuries to Adam Herring and Spencer Pybus have potentially devastating consequences for the 2009 Auburn team.
But they do, because the primary alternatives to playing Adam Herring and Spencer Pybus–i.e. Evans and Gaston–aren’t just true freshmen, they’re true freshmen who already have to worry about their minor, nagging injuries in addition to, you know, what the hell they’re supposed to be doing on the football field. And although Gaston arrived with a certain level of guru approval, neither freshman was exactly the sort of recruit who’s supposed ot be able to step onto campus and directly into the fray. There’s a reason Christopher, a sophomore walk-on from Vestavia Hills who hasn’t even yet been awarded a scholarship yet, has garnered more buzz over the previous couple of weeks than either Evans or Gaston.
Now, Christopher’s not a total scrub–look, offers from Army and Air Force!–but when he and Herring look like potentially the first two guys off the bench (and Herring’s only been healthy for about five minutes), this is still the kind of situation where maybe Auburn fans need to not only pray to their deity of choice for the starters’ health, but toss some supplication in the direction of a few other deities just to get all our bases covered. (Pybus showed enough promise last year that he could be a genuinely worthwhile backup if he ever gets healthy, but naturally he’s been M.I.A. for the duration of fall camp with a concussion. Like Tim Hawthorne and Mike McNeil, we’ll see him when we see him and not before.)
The one positive here: those three starters should be productive, at the minimum, if they can stay on the field. Stevens is a two-year starter who’s drawn raves all offseason and is probably the team’s best linebacker in pass coverage. Bynes is the most purely athletic of the starting unit and got off to a gangbusters start filling in for Tray Blackmon before seeming to run out of gas in the late stages of ’08. And as for The Toro … well, the next person who’s seen him in action who doesn’t think he’s going to be an impact player from Week 1 will be the first. On top of all those positives, Ted Roof has been churning out aggressive, disruptive linebackers his entire career, and the players have spoken about how much more they’re enjoying Roof’s KILL ‘EM ALL attitude to Paul Rhoads’ more read-and-react approach.
But even amongst the starters there’s some doubts. The guess here is that Freeman will play by hook-or-crook Saturday, but he hasn’t been healthy for weeks and seems certain to miss time sooner rather than later. Bynes and Stevens have mercifully been the only scholarship Auburn ‘backers to be spared the injury plague, but they’ve still got a lot of improvement to make on last year, when the linebackers collectively became the defense’s weakest link by season’s end and watched the two starting safeties lead the team in tackles. Bynes in particular should be capable of making the required leap forward, but keeping the ’08 status quo won’t be good enough.
Pair those caveats with the blaring warning siren that is the current second string, and on paper this is the weakest unit on Auburn’s 2009 team.
Roof’s influence and the starters’ experience results in the Stevens-Bynes-Freeman triumvirate starting the season in dominating fashion. But Freeman’s injuries eventually mean missed time and a huge step down on the weakside, while the iron man routine for Bynes and Stevens eventually means a smaller but noticeable step down in the middle and strongside … and an end to the season that, like last year’s, comes in decidedly un-dominating fashion.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE
Image via our own J.M. Comer on this here very site.