War Eagle Extra

Auburn football: Tigers improve linebacker depth

AUBURN, Ala. — Ted Roof walked into the linebackers meeting room before the start of Auburn’s football practice Tuesday and was met with a pleasant surprise.

“We had a full room instead of having a bunch of empty chairs in there,” the defensive coordinator said, a smile creeping across his face.

Roof, the defensive coordinator who also oversees the linebackers, scraped through his first season on the Plains with two tireless starters in Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens but little else, a frustrating lack of depth that became more apparent in the season’s latter half.

But the offseason was a boon to the depth chart, with four scholarship freshmen joining the mix, several backups getting healthy and safety Daren Bates moving from safety to outside linebacker to increase the unit’s speed.

The result is an honest-to-gosh two-deep roster, without any walk-ons.

“Last year, that was a semi-revolving door,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “And we’ve improved some of that.”

Stevens provided an unofficial rundown of the depth chart Wednesday:

— Bynes, redshirt freshman Harris Gaston and freshman Jake Holland are in the middle.

— Bates, sophomore Jonathan Evans and freshmen Jessel Curry and Jawara White are working on the weak-side.

— Stevens, junior Eltoro Freeman, Evans and freshman LaDarius Owens are on the strong-side.

Despite a full stable of linebackers, Bynes and Stevens, who finished first and second on the team in tackles last season, remain the most important pieces of the group — two All-SEC caliber players whose success correlates directly to that of the Tigers’ defense.

But if the backups get up to speed quickly, the seniors will get more breathers this year, meaning there won’t be any repeat ironman performances, such as the Outback Bowl, where the duo played all 115 snaps against pass-happy Northwestern.

“Those guys, they’re going to be good in the future,” Stevens said of the newcomers. “They’re all picking up on the plays really fast. It’s just a matter of learning the plays.

“Everybody can pick it up in the media room, but, when you get out on the field, it’s like a different world. Once they get a few reps under their belt on the practice field, they’re going to be all right.”

The biggest question — and one that persisted throughout last season: Who will emerge as the unit’s third starter?

Freeman had an erratic first year. After a rough transition from junior college made the first half of the season a lost cause, he made 21 tackles against LSU and Mississippi, only to see his rapid rise come to an end because of an ankle injury and concussion that kept him out of the Iron Bowl.

His status as a possible contributor remains a mystery after an invisible spring session, when coaches repeatedly expressed a desire for him to be more consistent.

“Toro is a good player,” Stevens said. “In high school, he was used to just running around or whatever. We have a structured system here.

“I think he’s better now because he knows the plays. I think he’s going to be better this season. I think last year was a matter of breaking him in, getting him to see that running around isn’t enough.”

Auburn’s insurance plan was to move Bates, a freshman All-SEC safety, to outside linebacker, an experiment that will make the Tigers faster at the position and hearkens back to Chizik’s undersized but quick 2004 crew, which helped Auburn finish fifth nationally in total defense.

Bates’ switch leaves the coaches cautiously optimistic about the unit’s depth.

“Things can change in terms of where guys are physically,” Chizik said. “So I hope it’s not like that, but we’re not out of the woods when it comes to depth. We’ve got young guys, and we’ll see how it unfolds.”