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April 19, 2012Brian VanGorder prepared for his new job as Auburn's defensive coordinator by meticulously watching film of the 2011 season.
That year, the Tigers had the nation's No. 94 rush defense - the second-to-worst in the Southeastern Conference - and its No. 86 pass defense. Each game Auburn was giving up, on average, 408 yards and almost 29 points per game.
VanGorder knew he had his work cut out for him considering the amount of youth on the Auburn squad.
"I think it's fair to say that we've got a lot of developmental players," VanGorder said.
When he came to the Plains, he wiped the slate clean by installing a new defense this spring. VanGorder was pleased to see that players bought into his system and made progress throughout camp.
"Those developmental players took a good step forward and I think now the challenge is to gain some consistency," VanGorder said. "Any time you're dealing with developmental guys in that process and you're putting in an entirely new system with them, I think you're going to have inconsistency.
"I think we've got a good groundwork, a good base of our defense, out in front of them installed. Now, they'll have the opportunity on their own to digest it, to watch film, to do things that they need to do to help them through that."
Even though he had just fifteen days of practice with his new players, it was enough time for him to change his mind about one player in particular: defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker.
"I didn't anticipate that he'd perform like he did in our system," VanGorder said. "I saw a guy who was a line-of-scrimmage player a year ago. He was able to do that effectively -- penetrate and do some things that I didn't know he could do.
"I never expected for him to perform and do the things he did in spring ball based on watching last year's film. He was a pleasant maybe surprise is the wrong word, but what I had in my mind and what I thought his role would be, he changed my mind in respect to that, which is a credit to him."
The 6-foot-4 Whitaker dropped about 24 pounds between the 2011 season and camp and is now listed at 301 pounds. He has said throughout the spring that he feels more agile and has much more energy during sprints.
"If it was the weight (that made the difference), that's a good thing," VanGorder said. "He needs to keep that in mind during the offseason."
Another player who stood out to him on the defensive line is junior end Dee Ford.
Ford has been through a significant physical change during his time on the Plains. He initially signed as a 6-foot-2, 190-pound linebacker in 2009. Three years later, Ford now tips the scales at 237 pounds. He missed the majority of the 2011 season with a back injury, but is ready to do some damage on the line this year.
Despite VanGorder not being able to see a whole season's worth of Ford highlight film, at least one play made him realize Ford was a special one.
"(Against Mississippi State) he made an explosive move and took a guard and clubbed him out of the way and made the play," VanGorder said. "You don't see that. You have to have a special trait to do what he did and I recognized it right away. I just didn't have enough film. Even in film, that one play jumped out."
VanGorder hoped Ford would make those kinds of plays this spring with consistency, and was thrilled that he got what he wanted.
"Every snap!" VanGorder said. "He's a guy who's made it a habit to play fast and play hard. When you get those kinds of guys, it offers you a lot in terms of production. And the rest of the guys seeing, (it shows them) this is what it looks like. A lot of people don't realize that when we were at Georgia, David Pollack did that. The other 10 guys were like, 'Wow!' Every single play is a full-speed rep. Even beyond the surprise of the consistency from him, I'm really pleased to have that so he can be the guy you're constantly pointing at. Ball snaps? This is what it looks like. He had a very good spring."
One of the other defensive ends on the squad is junior Corey Lemonier, who is listed at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds.
VanGorder, who was Georgia's defensive coordinator in the 2001-04 seasons, isn't concerned about having 240-pound ends in the SEC.
"Both of them have the trait of suddenness and explosion, which gives them a chance," VanGorder said. "Defensive linemen -- their advantage should be in the athletic area and in the area of quicker and more sudden. As long as they're trained to hear that all the time and they understand that, they can play closer to their terms in winning. Dee Ford is unique -- an explosive, strong guy. I didn't see anything that bothered him playing over a tight end. That's a sudden, quick guy who should win."
Senior Jamar Travis, a perennial backup defensive tackle since he came to Auburn, was said to have had a good spring.
"Jamar Travis really took great advantage of this spring and really had an impressive spring," VanGorder said. "Right now in our mind, he'll play football for us."
Overall, VanGorder said the defensive line made the most progress from start to finish this spring.
"Our system allows them to play and play fast," VanGorder said. "Therefore the idea of disruptions and sacks and those kinds of ideas are philosophical in our makeup. That's a position of a lot of depth for us. I expect that they will take another big step forward during training camp. I feel very optimistic about that group."
Linebacker, on the other hand, is plagued by a lack of depth. It returns two starters in middle linebacker Jake Holland and Will linebacker Daren Bates, but the Tigers were without the third starter in Jonathan Evans. Evans was forced to miss the spring with an injury.
Even though Auburn is thin at the position, VanGorder does not anticipate moving anyone to linebacker.
"I don't see that in our roster right now," VanGorder said. "Don't see that body type and makeup of another player that could do that.
"We've got to really push the guys that we have. I think they recognize that there's concern there and that they've got to take a big step forward as we go into fall camp."
One of those players is redshirt freshman Kris Frost. A five-star from North Carolina, Frost was anticipated to play as a true freshman in 2011, but a shoulder injury suffered over the summer sidelined him for the year.
VanGorder likes what he has seen from Frost, but wants him to make more progress.
"He's got a lot of work to do to gain a comfort in playing the game," VanGorder said. "He still has a youngster's body that needs weight-room development. The thing that I'm encouraged about is that it's important to him. He's going to work hard. He's got to try to speed the process up and gain a different comfort on the field when he's playing. He still doesn't see things. It's still a fast game to him I guess is the best way to put it. He's got to be able to calm his game down.
"He will -- it's just a matter of when will that happen. That's the challenge for him. He does have some good, athletic traits that should be advantageous down the road."
Sophomore Justin Garrett earned some time as a backup linebacker as a true freshman last year. He has been working at outside linebacker and VanGorder hinted that he could earn significant playing time this year.
"As we quality control spring ball, it'll just be a matter of who's our -- I like to go at least five deep with that -- top five," VanGorder said. "Here's our guys who are going to be playing. These are the guys we know will play. If it's six guys, that's great. If it's seven guys, that's better. Right now, that's a young group, a developing group. Justin -- if we feel like through the spring evaluation that he's in the top three, then that's exactly what we'll do."
As for Javiere Mitchell, a freshman who didn't play this spring, and the rookie freshmen coming in this summer, VanGorder said they will play if they are good enough.
"Absolutely," VanGorder said. "We've got a senior that because of experience, we know that he's a starter. From there, it's competitive. If a freshman's the best player, a freshman's going to play."
At the defensive back positions, VanGorder said a lot more work has to be done there.
"There's so much communication going on there and there's so much involved there in respect to coverage," VanGorder said. "I think that's where you'll see the biggest difference from spring ball to fall ball, back there."
However, multifaceted sophomore Jermaine Whitehead has caught VanGorder's attention with his development.
"If you talk about changes, he's probably the most interesting conversation," VanGorder said. "He may not feel as comfortable about it right now, but us as coaches, we think it carries a lot of value for our defense, in that he's a very intelligent player and really in the long run here can function in a lot of different positions for us.
"We want him competing for the starting safety job for us. But he's got background at corner, he obviously started games at nickel and now he's learned the safety position.
"I think Jermaine will have a very important role as we go into fall camp. You may see him playing all three of those positions. It's a great advantage in having a player like him. He is a very smart player, and he's still young. There's still a lot of physical development that has to take place with Jermaine."
With potential starting safeties Demetruce McNeal and Erique Florence both out with injuries in the latter portion of spring camp, walk-on Trent Fisher earned snaps in the A-Day game. He also caught VanGorder's eye.
"He brings a football player's mentality to our defense," VanGorder said. "He's smart and tough, and therefore he's got a chance. He's a guy that needs some physical development. He's still a young player. To play in this league, we've got to get bigger and stronger. He's got opportunity right now to think that he's coming in here to compete to start as we go into fall camp. That's what he earned during spring ball."
As for McNeal and Florence, VanGorder said their injuries set them back.
"Guys have to stay healthy," VanGorder said. "Young players cannot afford to miss time. It's just invaluable to them. They've lost time. That's not a good thing. They can't be the same player because of lost time, so they've got to recover that as quickly as they can and try to close the gap that they've kind of created.
"Their plates are full. They've got to do a lot in respect to operating our defense. There's a lot of communication involved. They've got to really detail their work during the summer collectively together and get a comfort level with having to do that. They've never had to take on as much in respect to that responsibility like they are now. We've got to get them comfortable. Lost time is hard to make up."
Now that spring camp has concluded, players will have their summer schedule's full with weight room and running workouts with strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall.
Official preparations for the season will begin in mid-August.
VanGorder said it is vital that all players take advantage of the summer and focus on improving, because they certainly aren't where they need to be at this point in time.
"I'm glad we don't have a game right now, I'll tell you that," VanGorder said.