Defensive coordinator Ted Roof and the rest of the defensive staff saw a lot of new faces on the practice field today.
After losing all but three starters from last year's National Champion Auburn squad, a lot of eager Tigers will be competing for the other eight spots on the depth chart.
In the meantime, Roof said practice is focused on teaching and building off last year's success.
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"This is an entirely new group," Roof said. "I don't want to ever have to raise the expectations of our own performance. I want us to expect to be good and expect to be great, but we've got a lot of work to do before that happens. Our guys know it. All you've got to do is turn on the film.
"There's a lot of things we've got to get better at that we focused on a lot in the offseason. Trying to build off our run defense last year, and at the same time, improve in our pass rush and also in our coverage element. But building off what we did in the run defense where we led the conference last year, but last year is so far, so far, in the rear-view mirror.
"So as far as managing expectation level, I want them to expect to be great and at the same time, not lose focus and not lose track of the objective, which is to get better today. If we just stay in the now and keep working, then we'll get to where we need to be."
The team returns defensive end Nosa Eguae, versatile linebacker Eltoro Freeman and cornerback-turned-safety Neiko Thorpe to the first team.
Since the Tigers have added depth at corner with the return of Jonathan Mincy and early enrollment of Jonathan Rose, moving Thorpe to safety was a logical decision.
"Right now we've got more depth at corner than we have at safety," Roof said. "I think Neiko's best position is safety. I think he's a much better safety than he is a corner. I think he's very comfortable back there, is growing to be comfortable, and I think we're going to see an increased level of production from him back there."
Roof added that Thorpe's vision and range will allow him to excel at his new position.
"I think he's got the ability to cover some ground where he can see a whole field as opposed to having to focus in on a small area guarding a receiver one-on-one," Roof said.
Thorpe is learning both the free and strong safety positions.
Freeman, who has been cross-trained at all three linebacker positions and mainly played Sam last year, spent time in the middle today.
Working as the first-team middle linebacker was sophomore Jake Holland. Alongside him were Jonathan Evans and Daren Bates.
Although that trio was today's first team, Roof said there is competition at every position.
"The good thing is there's opportunity abounds," Roof said. "There's opportunity all over the place and everybody is competing. It's going to force everybody to be better."
Jessel Curry was anticipated to make contributions as a linebacker early in his career, and although the sophomore is on the current roster, he was not at practice today.
When asked about his status, Roof didn't provide any information.
"That's a question for Coach (Gene) Chizik," Roof said.
According to a university spokesman, Chizik was "under the weather" today and was not available for interviews after practice.
There are now 13 practices remaining plus the April 16 A-Day game on the schedule. Slowly but surely, according to Roof, the defense will get stronger.
"We just can't expect to go from Point A to Point Z," Roof said. "There's a lot of steps in between. We've just got to focus everyday on just taking a step. If we do that, I'm confident we'll get to where we need to be."
Developing the defensive line
With exception to Eguae, the defensive line is loaded with sophomores that don't have starting experience and last year's redshirts.
New defensive line coach Mike Pelton is aware of the challenge at hand, but is prepared to take it head on. He said the key to developing the players is making sure they understand the importance of spring practice.
"They have to have a lot of pressure put on them," Pelton said. "They've got to understand the urgency of developing. Can't waste a rep. We've got to go out, we've got to compete every time to get a chance. I think they understand that, but they're young.
"You see them sometimes lose focus or lose concentration, but that comes with being young. That's my job as a coach to make sure those guys get the most out of every rep. I enjoy doing it. I think we'll be fine. We've got some talent there, we've just got to get those guys to come on this spring."
Pelton, who spent two years coaching at Iowa State under the direction of Chizik, is an Auburn graduate and was recently hired to replace Tracy Rocker. Rocker is now coaching the Tennessee Titans' defensive line.
Pelton and Rocker were both defensive linemen under then-head coach Pat Dye. Because of that experience, Pelton believes he can offer guidance similar to Rocker's.
"We've kind of got some of the same philosophies on how we go about things," Pelton said.
Pelton added that since he is an Auburn graduate, he has always kept up with the Auburn football program and the status of its players.
Despite the amount of talent that graduated last season, Pelton said he's aware of what the Auburn fanbase expects this year.
"I'm not just a coach, I'm a fan. I'm alumni," Pelton said. "I knew the guys were going to be young, I knew the task was going to be tall, but I don't back down from it. It's Auburn. I know how to be an Auburn defensive lineman. I know what it takes because I played here. I know how to be an Auburn man because I am an Auburn man. The expectation, I understand, and I expect the same things everybody else expects from Auburn."
One of the biggest blows to the defensive line was the loss of Nick Fairley. The defensive tackle opted to leave for the NFL follow his junior campaign that was adorned with the Lombardi Award win.
Pelton said it's tough to try and make up for the loss of a guy like Fairley. However, he's not going to ask the current players to be something they're not.
"Nick Fairley's obviously a great player," Pelton said. "But you don't replace a guy like that. You just develop the guys that you have. There's no way you can replace Nick Fairley. You don't ask a Kenny Carter to be a Nick Fairley. You ask him to be Kenny Carter. And you ask the group, and we're going to do it collectively as a group. We're not going to do it with one guy. We're going to do it as a group. And we've got to be the toughest group that we can find in the SEC. We've got to be tough, we've got to be physical. We've got to play together."
*** Mincy, who redshirted last year as a true freshman and was reportedly in Chizik's doghouse for an off-the-field incident, was practicing today.
*** Jawara White and Ladarius Owens were both practicing today after redshirting as true freshmen in 2010. Roof said it was good to have them take reps today.
"They've had a great offseason," Roof said. "Their attitude is fantastic. I think by redshirting last year, they've got a little bit of an edge to them. That needs to keep up. But I've been real pleased with their offseason."
Roof added that Owens and White are learning both outside linebacker positions.
*** After losing longtime starters like MLB Josh Bynes and safety Zac Etheridge, leadership, or lack thereof, is a concern this spring. Roof said it's up to the coaches to pull that quality out of certain players.
"If you look back to last year, I think that's one of the areas our football team excelled," Roof said. "We had great leadership. We have some kids with some great leadership potential, but right now as coaches we've got to get that out of them and develop that. Because to get them out of their comfort zone, to get out in front and have the leadership and show the leadership and demonstrate the leadership that they're capable of, (we have to) to put them in positions where they have to lead. And as coaches, we have to lead as well."
*** The next Auburn practice will be Friday at 9 a.m. Weekday practices are held at the Hutsell-Rosen Track/Soccer Facility.