PULLMAN — Mike Leach didn’t remember the last time he coached against Ellis Johnson. Yet, at the same time, he did remember.
Asked this week during the Pacific-12 Conference coaches’ teleconference about a 1997 matchup between Kentucky (where Leach was offensive coordinator, 1997-98) 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 sparked fond memories for Leach. 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 a 16-point underdog in its opener.
Johnson, in his first season 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 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. 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, a position named the “star” that combines the responsibilities of a linebacker and a safety. Occupying that spot for Auburn on Saturday will likely be Justin Garrett, a 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior. He was a strongside linebacker last season.
WSU outside receivers coach Dennis Simmons said the look won’t be all that unusual to the Cougars because they throw the ball so often that “at some point (the opponent) is going to have that nickel package.”
The rest of Auburn’s defense is littered with upperclassmen, though the Tigers dismissed Demetruce McNeal, their returning leading tackler, during camp for violating team rules.
“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. We’ve got to kind of figure it out once we get there.”
Three years removed from a national title, Auburn’s recruiting has received high marks despite an on-field downfall that led to the Tigers’ 3-9 record last season, which ultimately cost coach Gene Chizik his job.
Defense was one of Auburn’s problems. The Tigers ranked 10th in the SEC (out of 14 teams) in scoring defense, allowing 28.3 points and 420.5 yards a game with 13 turnovers.
But just as WSU wants to forget all that when wrong in its 3-9 season last year, the Cougs aren’t thinking about Auburn’s 2012 problems.
Simmons has seen Johnson’s defense at work – he was part of Eastern Carolina’s staff when they faced Johnson’s South Carolina defense.
“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.”