January 3, 2014

NAMEDROPPER: Johnson never stops evolving

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. | Ellis Johnson, Auburn's defensive coordinator, is the opposite of an up-and-comer.

He's a here-and-staying kind of coach. He was a defensive end at the Citadel back when freshmen couldn't play varsity football. He's spent time coaching alongside some college football legends -- Gene Stallings, Bobby Ross, Bill Oliver.

People come to Johnson for advice. He's the wise elder.

Yet at 61, he knows philosophical rigidity is the most direct path to obscurity. Johnson instead spent the 2013 season, his 38th as a coach, adapting his style to maximize available resources.

"I try to keep my mouth shut and my eyes and ears open," he said Friday. "I've learned a lot of football … but when you stop learning, when you think you know everything, is when you're done."

Johnson installed a 4-2-5 system during the spring. It provides more positional versatility to combat spread offenses and the matchup problems they create, but the system also made sense considering Auburn's roster. Linebacker was a position of weakness; the secondary was a position of strength.

So he chose the 4-2-5, which turned an undersized linebacker (Justin Garrett) into a featured performer as a do-everything safety. Though Garrett missed most of the season due to separate foot injuries, his backup, Robenson Therezie, thrived in that role and emerged as a critical defensive component.

That happened because Johnson was willing to adapt.

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