The first three weeks were one big nightmare defensively for Auburn.
The Tigers bounced back last week against outmanned Florida Atlantic with a stronger defensive effort, but should get a much better feel for just how much they’ve improved on Saturday against No. 10 South Carolina.
Auburn sophomore defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker is the subject of our Q & A this week, and he weighs in on the state of that Auburn defense as well as what the Tigers need to do to slow down South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore:
How much better defensively did you get last week, not only in the game against Florida Atlantic, but in practice?
Jeffrey Whitaker: We got a lot better, no question. Everything was better. We were running to the ball, finishing tackles, playing our keys and doing everything we should have been doing all season.
Did practice resemble preseason camp last week?
JW: It was more about details and getting back to basics. There was more tackling, but it wasn’t like we went crazy and were tackling in every period. It was more about doing things the right way.
How much was your pride hurt defensively after that Clemson game?
JW: It hurts after any loss, and we hadn’t had that feeling in a long time. It’s something we’re not used to around here. But at the end of the day, when you watch the film, you see that it was only a couple of stops here and there and we would have been all right. It’s one of those deals where we’re a young group, and we learned from it and will keep moving forward.
How has your season gone to this point?
JW: It’s gone well. I’m a lot better overall, but still have room for improvement. My deal now is making more plays and making more plays that make a difference. That’s all of us in the D-line.
Looking ahead to South Carolina, what’s paramount if you’re going to keep running back Marcus Lattimore from having a big game?
JW: To attack and swarm. Marcus is a good friend of mine, but we better be ready to attack and swarm. When you go against great players like that, you know he’s going to win some deals, but you’ve got to keep going at him 100 percent and try and make his day as difficult as you can.
How did you guys become friends?
JW: We were recruited together and played in the Army All-American Bowl together and built a little relationship there. It’s not a relationship where we talk every day, but we keep in touch and make sure we keep up with how each other is doing.
Is Lattimore the best running back you’ve seen in college football this year?
JW: So far, through four games, I haven’t seen anybody better.
Other than his obvious talent, what makes Lattimore such a great player?
JW: Marcus Lattimore is one of the hardest workers I’ve ever met, and he’s a humble kid. Good things happen to good people, especially when you work hard, so I’ve got nothing but respect for him. Like I said, when you go to tackle him, you better go in 100 percent and let the chips fall where they fall.
The South Carolina game is the start of a grueling four-game stretch for Auburn, a stretch that also includes away games at Arkansas and LSU and a home game with Florida. How ready are you guys for that gauntlet?
JW: With a year under my belt in this league, you know it’s a fight every weekend. You can’t overlook anybody, and you better not look down your schedule, either. You’ve got to look at what’s in front of you, and right now, South Carolina’s in front of us, and we’ve got to find a way to go to Columbia and win this game.
Auburn had won 17 games in a row prior to that Clemson loss two weeks ago. Now, you guys are out of the Top 25, and there isn’t much talk nationally about the Tigers. Do you like flying under the radar like that?
JW: You sort of like being the underdog. But at the same time, you like to have respect. I’m not sure a lot of people respect us right now, and that’s a problem. The way you fix that is winning. Auburn is a blue-collar school, so it’s not all about hype. You go work hard and fight for your respect. That’s what Auburn is all about.