Tigers ready to take that next step on 'D'

AUBURN, Ala. -- Help is on the way for Auburn’s defense.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is that a ton of first-year players could be in the rotation for the Tigers next season, which is never ideal in the SEC.

“If there’s somebody who can help us in this signing class in the front seven, then I’d say there’s a very good chance they’re going to be out there this fall,” said Auburn coach Gene Chizik, whose Tigers are in their second week of spring practice.

“That’s not the way you’d choose for it to be, but that’s just where we are right now. We’ve got to build depth on defense, which means a lot of these young guys are going to be playing.”

Linebacker Jessel Curry, the son of former Atlanta Falcons linebacker Buddy Curry, is already on campus and going through the spring. The same goes for defensive end Craig Sanders.

The rest of the Tigers’ top-5 signing class won’t arrive until this summer, and there are a number of defensive linemen and linebackers in that class who will get every chance to show what they’ve got.

Neither Chizik nor defensive coordinator Ted Roof is interested in pinpointing who in this class will be the quickest to play, but they’re certainly eager to find out.

Linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens, along with cornerback Neiko Thorpe, played far too many snaps on defense last season. Then again, the Tigers didn’t have any choice. They dressed three scholarship linebackers for the Alabama game to end the regular season, and Bynes and Stevens played every defensive snap in the overtime win over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

“The first couple of weeks of the season, it doesn’t take its toll on you like it does at the end when those reps add up, when you’ve played 150 more plays than some other teams,” said Roof, the former head coach at Duke. “That’s two extra ballgames.

“So, yeah, some of the freshmen walking in the door … we’re counting on them being there. Obviously, you never want to count on freshmen, but we’re in a position where we’ve got to. That’s how we’re going to build this thing.”

The Tigers finished 11th in the SEC last season in total defense. They were 10th in rushing defense and gave up an SEC-high 25 rushing touchdowns.

It’s that facet of the game that again concerns Roof the most as he looks toward the 2010 season.

“We’ve got to get better against the run,” Roof said. “In order to win a championship in any league, you’ve got to be able to stop the run. If you can’t, it’s a headache that won’t go away.”

As much as anything, the added depth will allow the Tigers to practice more physically. They were scared to death last season that they were going to get somebody hurt in practice.

“Coach Chizik always says there’s tough and dumb tough,” Roof said. “We didn’t want to be the latter.”

With veteran defensive backs Aairon Savage, Mike McNeil and Zac Etheridge all slated to come back from injuries, Roof has moved some guys around. Daren Bates is now working at outside linebacker following a brilliant freshman season at safety, while Demond Washington has moved from safety to cornerback.

It’s still slow-go this spring with all three of the injured veterans, but Roof is optimistic that they’re going to be ready to go in the fall, at least to some degree.

“Adding guys like Aairon Savage back to our locker room is critical,” Roof said. “A lot of guys don’t feel comfortable in leadership positions when they’re not out there going through it every day and grinding every day. A guy like him coming back is really going to help us. I don’t think you can underestimate his value.”

Bynes concedes that he and several of his teammates on defense were running on fumes toward the end of last season, especially with the Tigers having to play 11 straight weeks without a bye. They face that same gauntlet next season.

“We’re going to be a lot better with the extra numbers on defense,” Bynes said. “I remember back to my sophomore year when I rotated with Tray Blackmon and how much fresher I was. In this league, you’ve got to be 100 percent on every play, and it’s hard to do that when you’re playing as many plays as a lot of us were last year.”

And while this class will help the Tigers’ numbers on defense, Roof said this is just the start.

“There is no quick fix in this league,” he said. “We needed to sign a good class, and we need to again next year and the year after. That’s what we have to get back to.”

That is, if Auburn is going to get back to playing the kind of defense that has defined this program when it’s been at its best.

As Roof correctly points out, there was a time when it seemed like every defensive lineman that played at Auburn for a 10-year stretch ended up playing in the NFL.

“The tradition and history here of defensive football and the responsibility we have to put that product on the field is certainly one we take seriously,” Roof said. “We understand it, and we get it … and we’re going to keep working toward that standard.”