AUBURN, Ala. -- Ellis Johnson says he's ahead of the game this spring in his second year as Auburn's defensive coordinator.
There's no need to spend time installing a new system this time around. He did that last year.
This spring, he says, has been devoted to putting the right players in the right positions, like flipping linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy… and he says he's not going to let a rash of injuries sidetrack him from his appointed rounds.
"We've still got a long way to go, both from the standpoint of our improvement and from the standpoint of number of practices," Johnson said. "We do have a few guys making some positive steps, but, right now, we still have long way to and a lot of time for guys to make those moves."
There are plenty of wildcards because of injuries. Johnson said defensive end LaDarius Owens and linebacker JaViere Mitchell aren't practicing because each have a broken foot. Cassanova McKinzy is slowed by his bruise. Star Robenson Therezie is practicing despite a broken hand. Defensive back Josh Holsey limited as he recovers from ACL surgery. Defensive lineman Elijah Daniel is limited because of a groin injury.
The injuries have opened the door for others and experiments. Defensive tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams are getting a look at defensive end.
"It really hasn’t been much of a luxury as it’s been a necessity," Johnson said. 'In addition to being very thin at defensive end in spring practice, we also got Elijah got a groin the very first drill of the very first practice. So we’ve actually got Montravius and Gabe working out at defensive end more as a necessity than as an evaluation. Both of them do some pretty impressive things out there, but we need their depth and rotation in the interior line. So I don’t foresee that being permanent, but it would be good that if we did have some unusual rash of injuries next year or something occur, those guys have got the ability to maybe go out there and help us."
The injury to Therezie at the Star position has allowed last year's spring standout, Justin Garrett, to spend time there as well as inside linebacker. He had won the starting job at Star last season before a foot injury, and then another foot injury, cost him much of the fall.
"Justin has been very unselfish in moving in, moving out, moving in, moving out," Johnson said. "It’s been probably hard on him to learn both, but he’s had a good spring so far and right now we can’t afford to move him."
Johnson said defensive back Mackenro Alexander has "made a lot of improvement. He came in without the advantage of spring ball last year and he really never got caught up as a true freshman, but spring ball is really helping him."
Junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief has also done well.
"Moncrief has been an extremely pleasant surprise," Johnson said. "When you get a junior college player who’s not played in your system you always wonder how long is it going to take him to make the transition.
"I think at this point he is way beyond all of the new safeties. I say the word 'new', meaning those that we don’t already know about."
His experiment of flipping Kris Frost to Will linebacker, and Cassanova McKinzy to the Mike linebacker, has gone well.
"Some of it, physically, has been very good. Kris has made a real quick transition and has looked really good," Johnson said. 'Cassanova has been bothered by a bruised bone in his hip and he has not been practicing very much. The three days he was healthy and full-speed out there he had some really good practices.
"If I had to throw a guess out there right now, if both of them were back to full-speed I would probably leave McKinzy at the Mike and keep Frost at the Will. Today’s practice Kris played both and as the practice went on he rotated at both spots. I would like for them to continue to do that. "