AUBURN, Ala. – The summer after his South Carolina Gamecocks were run out of the Georgia Dome by Auburn 56-17 in the 2010 SEC Championship Game, Ellis Johnson ripped the spread offense perfected by guys like quarterback Cam Newton and then-Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn.
“They’re taking the game of football and turning it into soccer or lacrosse,” Johnson, the Gamecocks’ defensive coordinator at the time, said on a radio appearance in Arkansas in May 2011. “There’s nothing wrong with those sports, but that’s not football.”
About 19 months later, with his new boss Malzahn seated to his right and both wearing orange ties representing Auburn, Johnson enjoyed a laugh over the memory.
“Did I say that?” Johnson said, turning on that Southern charm. “Translated into Latin, that means, 'Somebody help us, we can't stop this.'” The crack drew heavy laughter throughout the room of reporters and school officials.
Seriously, though, Auburn’s defense was no funny business in 2012. Aptly, the Tigers needed help from somebody because they couldn’t stop much last year, recording the worst single-season defensive performance in school history and ranking second-to-last in the SEC allowing 420.5 yards per game.
Johnson, who celebrates his 61st birthday later this month, has officially been tasked with the turnaround, bringing his 32 years of college coaching experience to the Plains. (Yes, Johnson has spent more years on recruiting trips than his counterpart, new offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, has been alive.)
As a head coach, Johnson has struggled with a 17-40 lifetime mark, including 0-12 this year and subsequently being fired after one year at Southern Miss. His coordinating endeavors have been more promising, logging time on staff previously at South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi State and Clemson among other universities.
And yes, Johnson has changed his tune on hybrid spread offenses which he’ll now face as he returns to the SEC.
“I really feel like that’s one of the biggest trends that have come into college football,” Johnson said. “If you have a difficult time handling it, you’re going to have a difficult time stopping people.”
Malzahn essentially hands the keys completely to Johnson to lead a 4-2-5 defense, which could 10 or more players who logged starts last year. Malzahn expressed a need for multiple defensive formations with an emphasis on the word ‘attack.’
“You’re talking about one of the best defensive minds in all of college football,” Malzahn said “You play against his teams, you better have your A-Game. So it gives me a lot of comfort and security to have him running our defense.”
Under previous defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder, the dime package was used sparingly, but Johnson said a three-safety system will be his foundation.
“I’m more about players than plays. What I mean by that, I have a core principle of how to start with your defense, because it has to be adaptable to what you have to stop today,” Johnson said. “It’s going to be a disciplined football team in execution, it’s going to be a disciplined team off the field.”
With a third safety on the field, Johnson will look to start any combination of junior Demetruce McNeal, sophomore Jermaine Whitehead, junior Ryan Smith, junior Trent Fisher or even embattled sophomore Erique Florence.
“He’s got to be able to do so many things and do them well,” said Johnson of the extra safety. “He’s got to be able to blitz off the edge, he’s got to cover a third wide receiver with some help over the top, and he’s got to be physical enough to play off the edge of the box.”
Tackling was a major point of concern in 2012.
“I think what happens sometimes, you get caught up in being an assignment football team and you don't work on fundamentals,” Johnson said. “What’s changed about college football is it's a more spread-out game now with faster athletes. Tackling used to be more of a physical (attribute) committing strength-vs.-strength when I first got into coaching. Now, it's about angles, it's about speed, it's about a lot of different factors to get into it to be a good tackling team.”