July 31, 2008

Auburn has stacked deck at LB

Auburn's linebacker corps took a bit of a hit last week with the loss of Bo Harris. But if there's any position on the team that could afford the loss of a potential starter, its linebacker.

James Willis, who's coached the Tigers' linebackers the past two seasons, feels good about the experience and depth he'll work with this fall.

"We're going to miss (Harris)," said Willis. "He was an extremely talented player, one of the most athletic guys on the team. The good thing is we're pretty strong at (the Sam linebacker) position with Craig Stevens and Courtney Harden. I feel real comfortable with those guys.

"I feel good about where we are right now. We've got some experience. We've got some seniors that will really help us."

That senior leadership is strongest at the Will (weakside) position where Merrill Johnson and Chris Evans enter fall as co-starters and should split the snaps as long as they stay healthy.

"They are both tremendous," said Willis. "They understand the coverage, they understand the run fits. I think they are both great players. They are blue collar guys. They don't read the papers. They don't think they're good. They work at it every day."

While Willis sees a lot of similarities in the two seniors, he also sees some differences.

"Merrill is more of a rangy player," said Willis. "He can cover a large amount of ground in a short amount of time. He can close fast and is very explosive when he tackles.

"Chris is deceptively fast. He understands run fits and understands coverages. He's more of our professor on the field but if you go back and watch film, he makes plays."

Sophomore walk-on Wade Christopher will work with the third-team at Will.

"We're hoping (Christopher) can develop some, play some special teams and maybe give us some relief at linebacker," said Willis.

Harden, AU's other senior, will begin fall practice as the backup to Stevens at the Sam (strongside) linebacker.

"Harden brings a lot of experience to the table and he should get a lot of playing time this year," said Willis. "He's made great improvements over spring and training camp.

"His leadership and savvy are the biggest things. He can play every spot on the field and knows every position. He's a great leader."

Stevens started eight games as a redshirt freshman last year finishing 11th on the team with 35 tackles. Willis is looking for Stevens to take his game to another level this fall.

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