AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson didn't have an answer. In his final meeting with reporters prior to Auburn exiting fall camp, he said he still wasn't sure who the Tigers' third linebacker would be behind starters Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost.
"That's a good question," Auburn's defensive coordinator said last week. "The one with the most experience is obviously (Anthony) Swain, and he's played in SEC football games before. So in many, many ways, he's ahead of some of those guys. But there's some others who've shown some playmaking ability that exceeds that."
Swain was one of the Tigers' backup linebackers last season, appearing in every game and finishing with 26 total tackles (one for loss). He missed the entire spring due to off-field issues, however, which led coach Gus Malzahn to state Swain began the fall "at the end of the line."
Sophomore JaViere Mitchell and Kenny Flowers — the defensive MVP of the A-Day game — also saw limited action in 2013.
But to see more playing time this fall, they'll have to fight off a quartet of newcomers at the position: redshirt freshmen Cameron Toney and Khari Harding — who moved to linebacker in the spring after playing at safety last year — and true freshmen Tre' Williams and Deshaun Davis.
"They've just got to get better, they've got to get more repetition, they've got to get familiar with their scheme," Johnson said. "Right now, it would not be clear-cut who is the third-best linebacker."
Williams has done his part to keep his name in the conversation, with Johnson specifically mentioning him on multiple occasions.
"Tre' Williams did enough that I've got to keep him battling for the two-deep, but like I've said before, he's one of the guys that doesn't have a grasp of our system yet, so he makes typical freshman mistakes," Johnson said, "but he's shown some good playmaking ability."
That still doesn't calm Johnson's nerves much. When talking about the linebackers aside from Frost and McKinzy, he's been careful to couch his opinion in very precise, defined terms: He's been "pleased" with the effort and intensity players have shown. Being "satisfied" is a different story, though.
"They’re not there right now to be able to play more than just a few plays for us. If they were out there 20 plays, right now they are prone to make a mistake that could cost you a big play," Johnson said earlier this month. "They all played pretty good in the (first) scrimmage, but it was vanilla. We didn’t run much and the offense didn’t run much, so as far as evaluating a guy and how much could he handle in the big picture, I don’t think we really got that far. Physically, the tackling was good and the coverage assignments were executed pretty well."
As camp went on, Johnson noted he noticed quite a few of the linebackers "have made a lot of progress."
Now, the key is figuring out which ones will be able to help this season.
"You can’t get seven or eight linebackers ready to play in a game," he said. "You can get four ready and maybe a fifth one. Right now we’re trying to figure out who those five are.”