AP photo by Todd J. Van Emst|
Auburn sophomore linebacker Tray Blackmon anchors a solid defensive unit returning for the Tigers this fall. Blackmon was suspended for seven games last season and left school for a while in the spring for personal reasons.
Defense AU’s strong suit
Linemen, linebackers impress coaching staff
By Ross Dellenger
sports@ decaturdaily.com ·
AUBURN — Running back Brad Lester could do nothing but smile and chuckle to himself after learning what linebacker Tray Blackmon had told reporters earlier in the day: that he smoked Lester on the goal line, stopping the junior tailback from scoring a touchdown during Saturday’s scrimmage.
Lester didn’t contest the remark, but he did throw out a little trash talk. “I’ll get him back,” Lester said, his eyes darting throughout the room for signs of the 223-pound linebacker. “We go at it all the time.”
Lester wasn’t the only offensive player to take a pounding during the scrimmage.
Apparently, the defensive front seven — particularly Blackmon and defensive end Quentin Groves — plugged holes, smacked running backs, and tore through a young, inexperienced line, injuring two backup quarterbacks.
“They came with blitzes and stunts,” backup running back Mario Fannin said. “We have to do a better job of picking up blitzes and stuff of that nature.”
As Auburn offensive line coach Hugh Nall continues to choose his linemen — eight players have been battling for four positions — the defensive front is much more stable and solidified.
Despite several injuries, the experienced and talented defensive front seven has given Auburn reason to be optimistic as it prepares for the new season.
The front seven has survived well despite losing two players — backup linebacker Steve Gandy and backup tackle Tez Doolittle — last week in practice to season-ending injuries.
Gandy suffered his last of four concussions and quit the team. He is now a student-coach for Auburn.
Doolittle tore his Achilles tendon, ending his season and possibly his career.
With only 19 tackles in three seasons, Doolittle has not started a game, but this year he was supposed to be in the rotation more than ever.
“It’s a blow,” Groves said. “We count on Tez to be our backup nose guard. Now we’ll have to fit another guy in.”
That guy may be sophomore Jermarcus Ricks or redshirt freshman Mike Blanc, but both have been battling injuries. Ricks practiced for the first time Monday after finally recovering from a summer hamstring injury.
Blanc, a 6-foot-3, 289-pounder, played through a hurt ankle and wrist during the scrimmage.
Groves, sophomore end Sen’Derrick Marks, junior Pat Sims and senior Josh Thompson lead, what is possibly, the strongest position on the team: defensive line.
“We’ve got a lot of speed,” head coach Tommy Tuberville said.
Although Tuberville has scoffed routinely when asked if he is concerned about the depth at linebacker, the position lost two starters last season, and it’s now three counting Gandy, who started once in 2006 but five times the year before.
Gandy had 46 tackles in his three-year career. The second-string hole he leaves most likely will be filled by a true freshman, Bo Harris or Josh Bynes.
Asking about Harris and Bynes, Blackmon said, “I think they are going to get better and lead this defense in the future. I think they went out and proved they can get out there and fight.”
Blackmon, a sophomore, was suspended for seven games last season and then left school during the spring semester for personal reasons. He re-enrolled, though, and is showing no signs of rust from missing spring practice.
Since the start of preseason camp, he has been in the starting rotation, leading a young, but talented linebacker corps.
“I think with our assignments we are a little bit ahead of where we were last year,” he said.
Blackmon will be flanked by redshirt freshman Craig Stevens and junior Merrill Johnson. Junior Courtney Harden is the utility back. The four have just 10 combined starts at Auburn.
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