Auburn's Justin Garrett a 'star' in the making

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comAugust 25, 2013 

AUBURN, Ala. -- Justin Garrett has always had athleticism in abundance.

Jake Holland could vouch for that. The senior linebacker had seen Garrett show flashes during practices in previous years. The only thing Garrett needed was a position that harnessed his abilities.

Enter Ellis Johnson.

Hired by Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn to lead to the defense back toward respectability, Johnson brought a 4-2-5 scheme with him. One of those 11 was a hybrid linebacker/safety position, dubbed the "star," a spin on the spot he had called the "spur" when he was South Carolina's defensive coordinator from 2008-11.

It was a spot that had Garrett's name written all over it, Holland said.

"As soon as I heard coach Johnson was coming in, I knew about that hybrid position," he said. "… I was like, 'We've got some linebackers with that kind of body type,' and the first thing that came to my head was Justin's name."

Garrett didn't let Holland's words end up as false praise. He went out on the field and proved it in the spring.

"I'm ecstatic about having an opportunity to play," Garrett said during the spring. "I just felt like if I was to be patient and keep working hard, in due time, my time will be able to come where I could be able to shine."

He never shined brighter than during the A-Day game, when he notched two tackles and a pass breakup. More importantly, he scooped up a fumble and returned it for a score on the game's second play, which bolstered the coaching staff's belief he was setting himself up for a great season this fall. That performance helped him garner the game's defensive MVP.

Despite his progress -- he's only started two games in his Auburn career heading into this fall, after all -- this spring, all Garrett could think about where the aspects of his game that needed touching up.

"I feel like I played good, but I had a lot of room for improvement," he said. "I could have played better. I could have made a lot more plays I didn't make."

That's why he spent the summer working with other position players on the team. He hung around with wide receivers and cornerbacks, chatting with them about the things to look for when he has to drop back into coverage.

The wide receivers explained what techniques they use to shed defenders.

Garrett did the same with members of the secondary.

"I've been working with some of the corners and things like that, with my techniques and fundamentals out there," he said.

He never shied far away from his base positional groups, however. He also spent time with the safeties, discussing how to properly work on "zone drops" and the specific blitzes designed for them. Garrett also continued to work on the skill that helped his make his mark this spring -- tackling.

His pursuit abilities turned him into arguably the Tigers' best open-field tackler, which will be of the utmost importance this fall when they face off against teams that spread the field and leave many one-on-one matchups.

"My mentality is to stop the man in front of me," Garrett said. "I've just got to keep getting better and better."

All the time put in has paid off, as Johnson recently said he considers Garrett "one of the leaders" of his unit. That's why even the slightest injury -- like the one the Tucker native suffered during the second scrimmage of fall camp -- had Johnson on edge.

It doesn't matter that it was a small injury to his left foot that had Garrett back at practice just a few days later.

"We obviously know he's one of our impact players," Johnson said. "I don't think any team in the country can lose an impact player and not have some issues."

There was little doubt in Holland's mind that Garrett is worthy of the hype he attracted during the spring.

He was every bit as sure Garrett will live up to those high expectations this fall.

"He just needed that position, that niche position he could fall into to really break out," Holland said, "and he's finally got the opportunity to do that."

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