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December 6, 2012

FIRST LOOK: Auburn's new DC Ellis Johnson


On Tuesday, Auburn landed one of the brightest offensive minds in college football as their next head coach in Gus Malzahn.

On Wednesday night, Auburn added one of the brightest defensive minds in college football when Ellis Johnson agreed to become the Tigers' next defensive coordinator.

Malzahn stressed the importance of finding a defensive coordinator that utilized multiple fronts and defenses and displayed an attacking style. Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme has drawn success everywhere he's been, including his most recent stint at South Carolina from 2008-2011.

The Gamecocks were in the top 15 nationally in total defense all four years and during the 2011 season, Johnson's unit only allowed 18 points per game and just 17 points per game in the SEC.

Chris Clark from GamecockCentral.com believes Auburn landed a unique mind in Johnson.

"He's great, he's extremely smart. You listen to him talk football and there's not much he hasn't seen. He's seen it all," Clark said. "His defenses will be that interesting 4-2-5 scheme, with that 'spur' position being very important as a hybrid linebacker and safety. He loves to blitz to stop the run.

"South Carolina was more aggressive in 2011 in terms of blitzing, but that's under Lorenzo Ward who coached under Johnson. But I think the developed talent allowed him to do that. Ward would tell anyone, Johnson really liked to blitz to stop the run. He values speed and playing smart."

The year before Johnson arrived at South Carolina, the Gamecocks were 56th in total defense allowing nearly 380 yards per game and gave up 24 points per game. During Johnson's first season in Columbia in 2008, South Carolina's numbers improved to 13th nationally in total defense allowing just 291 yards per game, and shaved three points off the per game average.

"They got a lot better against the run when he was there, he improved a lot of things," Clark said. "South Carolina did a good job of recruiting on the defensive side of the ball the last four years, but Ellis did a good job of utilizing players like Melvin Ingram and Eric Norwood."

The most intriguing position in Johnson's defense is the 'spur' position. The hybrid safety/linebacker that must display tremendous athletic ability to excel. That player for South Carolina in 2012 was DeVonte Holloman, who was third on the team in tackles with 54, third on the team in tackles for loss with seven, but also led the team with three interceptions.

"He has to be big enough to blitz and take on offensive linemen and stop the run, but they also have to be quick enough to cover slot guys and tight ends," Clark said. "From a schematic standpoint, when you have that guy, especially in today's world of spread offenses, if you get caught in one defense that 'spur' player allows you to essentially play nickel or a 4-3 at any time. You can adjust on the fly because of that 'spur' so he can cover the slot receiver."

Whether it's Holloman, or three-time first-team All-SEC selection and 2009 All-American Eric Norwood, or 2011 first-team All-SEC and All-American Melvin Ingram, or the nation's No. 1 rated player in 2011 and 2011 Freshman All-American Jadeveon Clowney, defenses under Johnson create opportunities for playmakers to emerge.

Auburn's last two coordinators have been in stark contrast. Ted Roof was often times soft spoken and rarely showed extreme anger or frustration on the sideline. Brian VanGorder was very much the opposite, displaying a grit and intensity not seen on the Tigers' sidelines since Will Muschamp.

Clark believes Johnson is somewhere in the middle.

"He's not that incredibly vocal. Ellis called the defense from the box and coached linebackers," Clark said. "You watch him coach, you watch him talk to the media after a loss at South Carolina or even Southern Miss, he's not that fired up all the time, he just explains things and is laid back. He's a sound coach, but he'll get after you when it's called for."

On the recruiting trail, Johnson wasn't in charge of a large recruiting area for the Gamecocks, but his experience and understanding of the recruiting game came in handy on more than one occasion helping USC land some impact players.

"He had a really small recruiting area at South Carolina," Clark said. "He signed some of South Carolina's most important players. Stephon Gilmore, USC was way behind on him before Ellis was hired. He recruited Holloman, who was committed to Clemson before he switched. Then you look at Clowney, Ellis started early on him and while most assumed Clowney was a lock for South Carolina and they led throughout, there was a lot of garbage that they had to navigate through and stuff behind the scenes to ultimately land him. Ellis' experience allowed him to navigate that very well."

Now the question will be, how can Johnson mesh his wisdom and knowledge with the high-paced offense of Malzahn. Can it be done successfully? Clark believes that's the challenge, but from what he's seen of Johnson and his ability to adjust and adapt, he has no doubts.

"It's interesting because Ellis has hated that offense in the past, but any defensive coordinator would because it's hard to prepare for," Clark said. "But I think Auburn is in good hands with Johnson, especially if they keep these recruits in hand. Ellis will do big-time things with Auburn in the long run."

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