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Auburn Tigers spring practice: Time for returning defensive players to stand out

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Posted: Thursday, March 28, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 12:45 pm, Wed Apr 17, 2013.

As the Tigers implement a new defense, players who showed flashes of greatness last year have the chance to separate themselves this spring.

Spring football practice at Auburn University is here. “A New Day,” a true statement for the program and this season’s hopeful slogan, fills the air along with, I’m learning, a dusting of mysterious yellow pollen. Mostly though, it’s the return of football, even if only in practice-form, that accounts for the biggest portion of the area’s atmosphere as March gives way to April.

The Tigers will be different. That’s the plan anyway, but there are returning players still familiar here and spring practice is their shot, right now unfettered by the arrival of the 2013 National Signing Day class, to go from a recognized name to a household one on the Plains—especially on the defensive side of the ball. Here are a few out of many to keep an eye on.

Senior defensive end Dee Ford led the team in sacks (6.0) last season and figures to be the first guy offenses try to stop from reaching the quarterback. He will no doubt need help in that department, but Ford, after wearing the disappointment of 2012 on his sleeve, yet remaining committed to the process at Auburn, should be one of the team’s unquestioned leaders. It will be players like Ford that you’ll hear setting the tone in the spring.

On that need for help in creating backfield chaos, there are ends like Ford looking to crash the corners of the offensive line, but junior defensive tackle Angelo Blackson’s disruptiveness may also figure into the Tigers’ new scheme. 

Auburn, with the likes of Jeff Whitaker and Gabe Wright also back, have depth to send in waves, and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson doesn’t want tackles to be merely space-eating masses in the middle. Blackson’s 7.0 tackles for loss last season tied for the team-high, and along with three quarterback hits and two forced fumbles —not to mention two blocked field goals—his knack for breaking through an offensive line could be amplified in 2013.

In the 4-2-5 defense, the implementation of sophomore linebacker Kris Frost is going to be one of spring’s more interesting developments. A Rivals five-star outside linebacker recruit in 2011, Frost played in eight games last season with little to show for it. Will he work as an inside ‘backer in Auburn’s new system or a “Star” blend of linebacker and safety in Johnson’s three-safety secondary? With some of the issues in those areas of the defense a season ago, it seems pertinent for the Tigers to make Frost a productive member of the unit.

With three safeties roaming the field, cornerbacks will be monitoring zones with an added emphasis on generating turnovers—a crucial well of momentum in college football the Tigers left dry in 2012. As a junior, cornerback Jonathon Mincy has a lot of on-field experience, and the unit is going to need someone to make Johnson’s ballhawking system a reality by actually making plays. Along with Josh Holsey, an impactful freshman last year, Mincy will have plenty of opportunities this spring to show he’s one of Auburn’s upperclassmen leaders, something the secondary will need.

Even with the uncertainty on offense an offseason ago, the defense was supposed to be stout enough to keep the Tigers close through the don’t-win-but-survive Southeastern Conference schedule. And really, they might have been before any number of turning points slowly eroded any progress being made. 

Like just about all of last season, it’s hard to discern what trends or characteristics might stick around on this new day. One can argue, though, that the defense did and still features players that have the potential to contribute to the exciting scheme devised by the new-but-veteran Johnson. It was believed to be true a year ago and it remains that way now. 

That may not sound like progress, but given head coach Gus Malzahn’s emphasis on a rejuvenating “clean slate” for all returning Tigers, everyone potentially stands to gain something as spring practice begins.

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