AUBURN, Ala. -- Outside of special teams, Auburn linebacker JaViere Mitchell didn’t play until midway through the second quarter of Saturday’s game at Arkansas. But when the Razorbacks drove inside the 5-yard line, the coaches called Mitchell’s number, and he responded.
With help from the defensive line and fellow linebackers, Mitchell came up with back-to-back tackles at the goal line to prevent the Razorbacks from getting in the end zone. Auburn clinged to its 14-3 lead, and the momentum shifted back in the Tigers’ favor.
“Boy, he made two great plays down there, the first one especially,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “The first one he came over the top, and if he didn’t hit that running back, I don’t know if he’d then squirt into the end zone.
“Our front did a really good job creating some penetration. Kris [Frost] did a good job of taking on the lead, but Javi made two really good tackles there. That was really the only two plays that he got to play, and both of them were excellent.”
It’s been a difficult year for Mitchell. He missed a week in the spring with a concussion. He lost weight over the summer because of a stomach issue. During the season, he’s moved back and forth between linebacker positions.
Johnson said Mitchell started to catch on and make progress the last three weeks, and the coach said he would feel comfortable putting the sophomore in the game.
Mitchell’s emergence is the latest positive move for a group of linebackers that was thought to be a weakness. But the unit has more than held its own, and it continues to improve every week.
“I feel like there are a lot of things we can do better, but I feel like right now they're all playing very solid, making some plays a lot better than we were at the beginning of the year,” Johnson said.
On Saturday, starting weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy had seven tackles, assisted on a tackle for loss and made a key interception. At middle linebacker, Jake Holland and Frost combined for nine tackles and a fumble recovery. The trio has played in every game, and all three have more than 30 tackles this season.
It wasn’t Auburn’s best performance this past weekend as the Razorbacks still rushed for 243 yards, but between the turnovers and the goal-line stand, the linebackers made the plays when it mattered.
“It wasn’t a great week of practice [in preparation for Arkansas],” McKinzy said. “The first two quarters, it showed up. We weren’t getting our right run fits, and they were busting runs on us because of that. There’s just no excuse for it.
“What I take from it: We did decent without a good week of practice. If we have a great week of practice, I feel like it’s going to be hard to get those yards that Arkansas got.”
Auburn will need to start having better practices the rest of the way with three of the SEC’s top rushers -- Tennessee's Rajion Neal, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and Georgia's Todd Gurley -- still on the schedule. It begins with the linebackers.