It did not take long for Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to see a major problem with the defensive side of the Tigers' football team. It will come as no surprise to Auburn fans what that problem was.
Poor tackling has become as common as an annual QB battle each spring on the Plains. Fixing the problem will not be an easy task for Johnson and the Auburn coaching staff this offseason.
Before last Saturday's scrimmage and after the sixth spring practice on Friday, Johnson gave a scathing review of Auburn's tackling after a first-hand view for a couple of tune-ups in full pads.
“The most disappointing and concerning thing right now is just our tackling,” Johnson told Aaron Brenner of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer and the rest of the media after Friday's practice. “It’s not going to be as much about Xs-and-Os [in tomorrow's scrimmage]. We want to give them enough Xs and Os to strain them a little bit and see who can learn and function under pressure. But it’s really more about fundamentals and seeing if we’re going to improve in tackling.”
If you have followed the Auburn football program in recent years, that review should come as no surprise. At times in 2011 and 2012, talented players that were considered can't miss prospects out of high school appeared to have the tackling aptitude of a player putting on pads for the very first time.
Would-be tacklers would jump at the ball carrier or not bring a runner all the way to the ground to finish a tackle. It became as frustrating for Auburn fans who were watching the offense struggle game in and game out.
Was there a more frustrating tackling moment for Auburn fans than this play against Ole Miss? On 3rd-and-long, a stop would have given Auburn a chance to tie the game on the next drive with just over five minutes left in the fourth quarter. A tackle that went unfinished prevented that.
The tackling problem under former head coach Gene Chizik is quite the enigma. Prior to becoming a head coach, Chizik won the Broyles Award (nation's top assistant) in 2004 as Auburn's defensive coordinator. His Auburn defenses in his three years were always at the top of the national rankings and helped produce a national championship in 2006.
It would be foolish to think that Chizik, along with defensive coordinators Ted Roof and Brian VanGorder, did not know how to teach tackling or that Auburn didn't work on that aspect. But for whatever reason, Chizik's defenses struggled at the task.
Chizik's successor at Iowa State, Paul Rhoades, didn't have the best review of how Chizik's team learned to tackle, like Johnson. "The first time we put on pads that first spring, we had to shut practice down for about 15 minutes and go back to Tackling 101," Rhoads said at the 2010 Big 12 Media Days (via ESPN).
Maybe Chizik and his coordinators were too caught up in being an "assignment" football team. This means focusing more on the game plan and having players concentrating more on their reads than the fundamentals. Johnson pointed to that possible cause in his introductory press conference (via auburntigers.com):
I think what happens sometimes is you get caught up in being an assignment football team and you don't work fundamentals. It's up to a coach to make sure you focus on that during the period of time you've got to do it during the day. One thing that's changed about college football is that it's a more spread out game. There are faster athletes. There are guys doing a better job with the systems, such as Coach Malzahn, and it exposes tackling more now.
Halfway through the first spring practice under Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, it appears Johnson is taking a fundamental approach, as evidenced by this video from practice on March 29.
Johnson used last Saturday's scrimmage to focus even more on the fundamentals. "We want to give them enough Xs and Os to strain them a little bit and see who can learn and function under pressure, but it's really more about fundamentals and seeing if we're going to improve in tackling," Johnson told Charles Goldberg of auburntigers.com.
One player has done just that. Justin Garrett.
The junior has emerged as the leading candidate for the Star position and as Auburn's best tackler. "He is, without a doubt, the best we've got," Johnson said to Goldberg. "He hasn't played much ball, not in games around here. It's not always game experience when it comes to something as simple as physically tackling."
With Auburn returning a large bulk of its contributors from last year's team and a new way of teaching takedowns, the Tigers have an excellent opportunity to become a much better tackling team when August 31 rolls around.
However, old habits die hard. Even the bad ones, unfortunately. Fixing the tackling problem will not be any different.
So far, Johnson and his defensive staff appear to be up to the tall task.