PULLMAN — Mike Leach didn’t remember the last time he coached against Ellis Johnson. Yet he did remember at the same time.
Asked Tuesday during the Pac-12 coaches’ teleconference about a 1997 matchup between Kentucky (where Leach was offensive coordinator in 1997 and 1998) and Alabama (where Johnson was defensive coordinator), Leach at first blanked.
“I don’t remember a darn thing,” he said, amused. “I never knew we’d gone against Ellis Johnson. Ellis was at Alabama that year? Son of a gun. I didn’t know that. That’s good to know.”
The game itself sparked fond memories for Leach, because it was Kentucky’s first win over Alabama since 1922, a 40-34 overtime victory that sent the bluegrass state into delirium.
If Leach’s team has a similar offensive output against Johnson’s Auburn defense on Saturday, Washington State might have a crack at proving itself undeserving of being 16-point underdogs in its season opener.
Johnson is in his first year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator after a disastrous one-year tenure as head coach at Southern Mississippi, and his 4-2-5 defensive alignment will be the first challenge of the season for the Cougars’ offense.
“It’s kind of old school, which I think is smart,” Leach said. “You don’t see them bust assignments much. They’re aggressive. … There’s not a lot of bells and whistles. It’s just good, solid football. Make sure you’re aligned right and run to the ball.”
Just as WSU’s defense features a hybrid position — the buck linebacker — Auburn’s defense includes a hybrid spot, too, a position named the “star” that combines the responsibilities of a linebacker and a safety. Occupying that spot for Auburn on Saturday — the Tigers released their depth chart Wednesday — will likely be Justin Garrett, a junior who stands 6-foot-1 at 225 pounds. He was a strongside linebacker last season.
Hybrid linebackers are especially valuable in today’s world of up-tempo offenses, because it allows defenses to switch in and out of nickel coverage packages without having to change personnel. WSU outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons said the look won’t be all that unique to the Cougars, because they throw the ball so often that “at some point in time (the opponent) is going to have that nickel package.”
The rest of Auburn’s defense is littered with upperclassmen, though the Tigers did dismiss Demetruce McNeal, their returning leading tackler, earlier in camp for violating team rules. And returning sack leader Dee Ford is expected to miss Saturday’s game with a knee injury.
“We know they’re going to be big and athletic,” said WSU offensive line coach Clay McGuire. “They’ve got a junior- and senior-laden D-line, and they’re probably going to be pretty active up there. It’s hard to tell because we’ve been watching a lot of game film, and we don’t know what kind of scheme they’re going to run, this, that or the other. We’ve got to kind of figure it out once we get there.”
Three years removed from a national championship, Auburn’s recruiting has received high marks despite an on-field downfall that led to the Tigers’ 3-9 record last season, and ultimately the firing of former coach Gene Chizik.
Defense was one of Auburn’s biggest problems. The Tigers ranked 10th in the SEC (out of 14 teams) in scoring defense, allowing 28.3 points per game. They ranked next-to-last in total defense (420.5 yards per game) and forced only 13 turnovers — and only two interceptions — in 12 games.
But just as WSU wants to forget about all the things it did wrong while stumbling to its own 3-9 mark last year, the Cougars aren’t thinking about Auburn’s 2012 transgressions. Simmons has seen Johnson’s defense at work — he was part of Eastern Carolina’s staff when they faced a Johnson defense at South Carolina.
“I have a great respect for him as a defensive coordinator, and obviously he’s coached a lot of guys that have gone on to play on Sundays,” Simmons said. “We’re going to have our work cut out for us, and we need to be prepared.”