February 13, 2008

Competition tight at linebacker position

Auburn assistant coach James Willis will enter spring practice in an enviable position. His linebacker corps returns five players with starting experience including three seniors.

"Experience-wise I feel very good about it," said Willis. "Athletic-wise I feel even better about it."

Willis is expecting a lot of competition this spring, especially at the weakside (Will) linebacker position, which will include seniors Chris Evans[/db ], [db]Merrill Johnson and Courtney Harden all vying for one starting spot.

"I know Merrill and Chris are going to go at it," said Willis. "Merrill, Chris and Courtney will all be seniors now. It's time for them to step up and get it done."

Evans was third on the team last season with 64 tackles and will begin spring as the starter at Will.

"Evans is out unsung hero at linebacker, and really the whole defense," said Willis. "He played well last year, played hurt. He could go through the week and not practice and come out Saturday and he'll play and produce. He was our best producer at linebacker this past season.

"He's a tremendous leader for what he does. Not what he says but what he does. We're really going to lean on him."

Johnson began the season as a starter but missed four games with injuries.

"We all know Merrill can run and he can hit," said Willis. "He had a few injuries also. For him, it's going to be important to get his body stronger so he can take a pounding week in and week out. There's no question in my mind what he can do and what he can be.

"He's also a great leader for us. He's the kinda guy that when he gets going for us, he can be special. My job as a position coach is to get him going."

Harden played in 11 games last season, mainly as a backup and on special teams.

"Courtney is a guy I'm still waiting to turn that corner," said Willis. "I love Courtney for the simple fact he comes to practice every day. There have been times he had nobody to rotate with at practice and he practiced every rep, every play.

"The only thing I'm waiting for Courtney to do is come out and do it on a consistent basis, not only in practice, but in a game also. He can do that because he knows every position on the field."

Willis is hoping the competition will be just as tight at middle (Mike) linebacker, which will feature junior Tray Blackmon, sophomore Josh Bynes and redshirt freshman Adam Herring.

Blackmon is one of AU's most talented players but has missed 11 games the past two seasons with a suspension and injuries.

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