AUBURN, Ala. -- As the Tigers break spring practice and head into the summer, one position is a clear area of need for Auburn's new-look, highly aggressive defense.
Beyond Daren Bates, Auburn has a wide-open field at linebacker, a position left thin by graduation and injury.
And the Tigers are going to need some young players to start realizing their potential by the time Auburn kicks off against Clemson to open the 2012 season.
"We've got to really push the guys we have," defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "I think they recognize that there's concern there, and they've got to take a big step forward."
Bates is the only sure bet to earn a spot in the starting lineup.
A little small at 215 pounds, Bates, a former safety, led Auburn with 104 tackles in 2011, and the senior picked up the defense faster than any other linebacker this spring.
His skill set is probably best suited to the weak side, leaving two spots open in VanGorder's 4-3 scheme to be grabbed by a group that includes Jake Holland, Kris Frost, Justin Garrett, Anthony Swain and incoming freshmen Cassanova McKinzy and JaViere Mitchell.
"We've got a senior that, because of experience, we know he's a starter," VanGorder said. "From there, it's competitive. If a freshman's the best player, a freshman's going to play."
An already-thin group of proven players at linebacker took another hit when promising sophomore middle linebacker Jawara White was forced to quit midway through the spring due to a career-ending injury suffered in practice.
White's departure prompted speculation that one of Auburn's deep group on the defensive line -- LaDarius Owens and Craig Sanders both have linebacker experience -- could change positions, but VanGorder has eliminated that possibility.
"No, I don't see that in our roster right now," VanGorder said. "Don't see that body type and makeup of another player that could do that."
And that leaves it up to a lot of guys still looking to realize their potential.
Jake Holland, a junior and Auburn's presumptive starter at middle linebacker after the spring, opened 2011 as the starter in the middle, but injuries and a breakout season from senior Eltoro Freeman relegated Holland to a backup role late.
Next to Bates, Holland had the best spring of any other linebacker, but he has to make the jump and improve on a mildly disappointing 43-tackle season in 2011.
On the outside, returning starter Jonathan Evans (40 tackles) missed the spring due to injury, leaving the door open for a player like freshman Kris Frost or sophomore Justin Garrett to make a bid for a starting spot.
Frost, an athletic 6-3, 225-pounder who was rated a five-star prospect coming out of high school but took a redshirt year to recover from a torn labrum, may have the most athletic ability.
After a year away from the game, Frost's biggest obstacle is adjusting to the scheme and the college game.
"It's still a fast game to him, I guess is the best way to put it. He's got to be able to calm his game down," VanGorder said. "He does have some good, athletic traits that should be advantageous down the road."
Both Frost and Garrett -- a 206-pounder who reminds linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen of Bates -- were also singled out by VanGorder for "great growth" this spring.
The key is to find three starters and a couple of reserves who can get the job done.
"I like to go at least five deep with that," VanGorder said. "Right now, that's a young group, a developing group."
And it's up to them to earn a spot in VanGorder's rotation.