AUBURN, Ala. — There’s an old-school charm to Ted Roof’s defensive priorities.
While Auburn’s first-year coordinator doesn’t ignore schemes and technique, he places a much bigger emphasis on effort, wanting his players to simply run, react and hit, all at a breakneck speed.
It hearkens back to Will Muschamp’s time as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, and his players love it.
“Oh yeah,” middle linebacker Josh Bynes said, not holding back his excitement. “You get to dive over the top of piles and things like that. When it’s a group tackle, somebody comes flying full speed, it’s great because you see a lot of hats to the ball. … And we aren’t stopping ’til the whistle blows.”
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The Tigers’ defense fared well last season under the watch of former coordinator Paul Rhoads, who took the head coaching position at Iowa State after Gene Chizik was hired on the Plains.
Auburn gave up 317.8 yards a game in Rhoads’ first and only season, ranking 29th nationally and seventh in a defensively-stacked SEC, an admirable job for an injury-ravaged unit repeatedly put in tough circumstances by an underachieving offense.
But the defense wasn’t the disruptive force it had been in the past. Auburn registered 21 sacks, second fewest in the SEC, and ranked 91st nationally with only 18 turnovers forced, its fewest since 2005. For many players used to the fiery, in-your-face antics of Muschamp, now Texas’ head coach-in-waiting, Rhoads’ low-key, cerebral approach took some adjustment.
“Rhoads was the type who wanted us to break down and make sure we make the proper tackle,” Bynes said. “As far as breaking down, it just kind of messes us up a lot.”
Roof doesn’t operate that way. The 45-year-old coach made a name for himself around the turn of the century with aggressive and physical defenses at Georgia Tech, characteristics that still defined his less-talented groups while serving as Duke’s head coach and Minnesota’s defensive coordinator.
“Roof is the type of guy who will let us go full speed,” Bynes said. “If you miss, at least you miss full speed. … It’s going to seem like 12, 13 guys at the ball.”
Last season, Roof made a woeful Gophers defense respectable. A team that a year earlier finished dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in total defense forced 31 turnovers in Roof’s one year in charge, 11th most in the nation.
“The two teams that played for the national championship were both in the top-five in the country in takeaways,” Roof said. “And the two teams that played for the conference championship were in the top-two in the Southeastern Conference in takeaways. So I don’t think that’s a coincidence.”
But Roof’s job at Auburn will be made tougher by major depth concerns. Although the Tigers have an All-American talent in defensive end Antonio Coleman and a host of solid contributors, there is a considerable dropoff in talent beyond that first unit.
The Tigers have only two healthy linebackers on the roster — Bynes and Craig Stevens — with major college experience. They’ve rotated a long list of players at safety, hoping to find an answer until safety Mike McNeil returns from a broken leg he suffered last April. And the defensive line, while buoyed by Coleman’s return, has to find suitable replacements for Sen’Derrick Marks and Tez Doolittle on the interior.
“Everybody’s got a pretty good first 22, and then what happens after that?” Roof said. “In order to be successful in this league you can’t fall off the cliff when somebody gets injured.”
And how will Auburn’s defenders stay healthy while being the physical, aggressive players Roof wants them to be?
“It’s kind of tricky to balance not getting injured and things of that nature,” Bynes said. “But you’ve got to go out there and do it.”