AU’s defense overlooked but still tough

Published 5:08 pm Tuesday, September 9, 2008

AUBURN – Sen’Derrick Marks doesn’t waste much breath assessing No. 9 Auburn’s defense after two games.

“First game, shutout. Second game, 37 rushing yards,” the defensive tackle said. “You can’t be mad at that.”

Defense remains what Auburn does best, even though the chic new spread offense has garnered most of the attention for both its potential and some early growing pains.

The Tigers (2-0) didn’t allow a point this season until late in the third quarter of Game 2 against Southern Miss, which managed just 37 yards rushing. Before that, Auburn shut out Louisiana-Monroe, which scored 27 against Arkansas a week later.

It’s a familiar formula for Auburn: New defensive coordinator, same old results. Paul Rhoads inherited the nation’s No. 6 defense and a post that has held three other coaches since 2004. Despite losing a half-dozen key players from last season, he still puts a speedy, athletic group on the field.

The Tigers allowed two touchdowns in the final 18 minutes against Southern Miss after playing “about 40 minutes of pretty darn good football,” Rhoads said.

“We gave up a score and they acted like they might shut out the entire season and were deflated when they gave up the seven points,” said Rhoads, who directed the No. 5 defense for Pittsburgh last season. “We relaxed after that and we paid for it. And then they snapped back around.”

Boy, did they. The Tigers forced three turnovers — two interceptions and one fumble — in the final 5 minutes when the offense kept giving the Golden Eagles the ball back.

Coach Tommy Tuberville thinks this defense is ahead of last year’s group at this point.

“They’re playing with an attitude,” Tuberville said. “We’re a much better defense at this point than we even were at this point last year. The problem is depth in some areas. We played four defensive backs most of the game. We’ve got to start playing some of the younger players.”

Therein lies one of the few questions marks about this defense. Freshman D’Antoine Hood and Neiko Thorpe are backup cornerbacks and saw significant action in a 34-0 win over Louisiana-Monroe.

Gabe McKenzie is logging snaps as a backup defensive end a few weeks after moving from tight end when highly touted junior college transfer Raven Gray was unable to recover from knee surgery in time for the season. Gray is slated for a redshirt year.

Three sophomores are starting, defensive end Michael Goggans and safeties Zac Etheridge and Mike McNeil.

Rhoads’ primary concern with the secondary is youth, not talent, especially since he likes to play a lot of players.

“We’ve got bodies there, and in truth, we’ve got bodies that I’m confident in,” Rhoads said. “Neiko Thorpe is doing nothing but making me feel more and more confident in him and knowing that I’m going to be able to spell those corners when needed.

“D’Antoine Hood has come on. The freshmen understand the position they’re in, and if they don’t get better they’re going to be standing on the sideline cheering on. They don’t want to stand. Both those kids are competitive and want to get on the field.”

A front line led by Marks and end Antonio Coleman has been especially effective against the run. Southern Miss had gained 406 yards on the ground in its opener against Louisiana-Lafayette.

Auburn allowed 37 yards on 27 carries and effectively shut down Damion Fletcher, last year’s Conference USA offensive player of the year.

“If we continue to stay healthy and keep playing like that on defense, we can afford to make some mistakes on offense,” Tuberville said. “But it sure would help for our offense to continue to improve.”