On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Demetruce McNeal is “penciled in or slashed” alongside Josh Holsey as the starter at boundary safety heading. McNeal finished second on the team in tackles last season, with his 90 trailing only Daren Bates’ 94. He set a career-high for tackles in a single game when he had 18 against Mississippi State last year, the most for a Tiger since linebacker Dontarrious Thomas had 19 against Syracuse in 2001. McNeal also added seven tackles for loss and a sack in 2012.
Despite his numbers and his experience (20 starts over the last two seasons), McNeal was not listed on Auburn’s two-deep post-spring depth chart after missing the final five practices of the spring for undisclosed reasons. But to Johnson’s knowledge, those issues are now resolved and McNeal is ready to jump back into the fold.
“He’s had a good summer injury-wise and attitude and work habits. … Struggled a little bit with one course, but he’s getting it done," Johnson said. "We’re very optimistic that he’s ready to return and be right on target.”
Junior college help
Junior college transfer Brandon King is expected to provide competition at safety as well, even though he hasn't gone through a practice yet at Auburn.
King played at Highland Community College in Highland, Kan., last season, collecting 118 tackles. He is originally from Alabaster, where he starred at Thompson High.
Johnson said he will start King at boundary safety, but given his size, King could eventually be in the mix at the hybrid “star” spot manned by Justin Garrett.
“He’s good enough to move up to the star (position), big enough — he’s about 210 right now — but our depth issues, on paper, are at deep safeties,” Johnson said. “So we’ve got him at boundary safety.”
When you’ve been coaching football for 30-plus years, you see and hear a lot of things.
Johnson had never heard until recently was the argument championed (most notably) by Arkansas coach Bret Bielema: That “hurry-up, no-huddle” offenses were a hazard, causing more injuries to defensive players due to the increased number of snaps. Having never “looked at it from that viewpoint,” Johnson was puzzled.
As long as both teams get lined up before the ball is snapped, the better team normally will win out, he reasoned.
“If both teams are not lined up, then you’ll find out who got there fastest, I guess,” Auburn’s defensive coordinator said Tuesday. “In some cases, it’s not football. But I think that when the referees are consistent, then the defenses have no disadvantage. I think in the early years with the speed-up offenses, the officials — especially in the SEC, because they didn’t see it very much — they weren’t as good with the consistency of the mechanics. And I think that they’ve gotten better, and probably we’ve gotten a little bit more accustomed to it on defense.”
Johnson sees no problem with an offense trying to run as many plays as it can — in fact, he said he likes it. What he could do without, however, is offenses snapping the ball before the defense has had time to set up.
“I’ve seen it snapped so fast the offense isn’t lined up,” he said. “So I don’t know what you’re trying to prove there. But the pace to me is part of the game, and I think it is good when you challenge somebody else from a conditioning and toughness standpoint. That’s part of the game.”