Auburn football: Injuries take toll on defense, but players press on

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 24, 2013 

Cassanova McKinzy moved from weakside to middle linebacker this spring. The junior will begin the fall at the top of the depth chart at Mike.

TODD J. VAN EMST — Auburn University

AUBURN, Ala. — The list is long.

Jeff Whitaker. Dee Ford. Craig Sanders. Justin Garrett. Chris Davis. Those are just a few of the players on Auburn’s defense who have missed time due to injuries this season. The injury bug hasn’t played favorites, as no unit — from the defensive line to the secondary — has been able to avoid adversity.

The Tigers acknowledged that it has been irritating, but they know nothing can be done about it.

“It’s one thing that you have to deal with,” Ford said. “It’s nothing that you can really plan for, and it’s nothing to get down about. It happens. It’s football. That is the risk we take coming into this game. It’s definitely frustrating, but we just have to build from it.”

Ford can speak to it better than most. The team’s top returning pass-rusher was forced to sit out the first two games of season after suffering a knee injury during the second scrimmage of fall camp. Sanders stepped in to take Ford’s place, but it didn’t last long. As fate would have it, Sanders went down last week with an undisclosed off-field ailment, which caused him to miss Saturday’s game against LSU.

He wasn’t even the first defender to get injured away from the field, as cornerback Jonathan Jones slipped on wet steps and broke his ankle days before fall camp ended. It didn’t surprise Jermaine Whitehead. Mishaps, whether on the field or off, “happen all the time," he said.

The main thing is not letting it affect you.

“It kind of hurts that our teammates couldn’t be out there, but we can’t do nothing but play for them,” the junior safety said. “I know they’re watching and proud of us for fighting. I know they’ve got some things they wish they could have been out there to help on, but we’re going to get better with them. Hopefully this week they’ll get back.”

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is hoping for the same thing, and is pleased to have a bye week to help his players continue to heal.

In fact, if he had things his way, the bye week would have happened even sooner.

“We physically are beat up,” he said. “We’ve been through musical chairs on defense and still are going through it. I’ve got guys even that have played in games that are practicing one and a half days a week. We’ve got guys that are missing. An open date could have helped us earlier.”

Cassanova McKinzy would agree. He’s one of the players Johnson referred to, after all. The sophomore missed a majority of practice during Mississippi State week due to a knee injury, only to start that Saturday’s contest at weakside linebacker.

Being “banged up” is part of the makeup of a football player, he said, which is why he pushes himself to always think he’s 100 percent even if his body tells him otherwise.

“I still just try to play through it,” he said. “It is what it is. I’ve got to play and help my team; I just can’t give up. If I can play through it, I can play through it.”

The Tigers have been able to take one positive from the numerous ailments that have afflicted them, though.

It has given younger players a chance to get live reps in games, with the youth movement most notably taking effect on the defensive line, with freshmen Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel impressing teammates.

More importantly, they have caught Johnson's eye.

“They just continue to progress,” he said. “That’s an area where we’ve got some guys back and we’ve got a lot of competition.”

Injuries might continue to hit Auburn’s defense this year. Or they might come to a stop. Regardless, it’s not something the Tigers can predict, anyway.

And as McKinzy would point out, it doesn’t change the way the game will be played.

Whether it has every member of the first-team defense available or it has to use a mix of starters and backups, the Tigers still have to trot out 11 defenders on every snap.

“We’ve got to give guys a chance to prove what they can do instead of paying attention to who’s out and who’s not out,” he said. “Either way it goes, we’re going to have to put somebody on the field.”

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