Justin Garrett didn’t know much about his new defensive coordinator when Auburn hired Ellis Johnson in December, but he learned quickly.
Players chattered about the incoming coordinator — what to expect, where they fit, how much better things could be than 2012. Naturally, it didn’t take long to figure out Johnson played a 4-2-5 system, a rare setup featuring a third safety that morphs into a linebacker.
That’s how Garrett realized he had a place in the Tigers’ new defense.
“When I saw that, I realized that was the perfect position for me,” Garrett said.
Johnson didn’t need to ask Garrett to move from linebacker to star, as Auburn calls its safety-hybrid position. Before he arrived, Garrett knew he would be making the change. After spending most of 2012 playing special teams, stowed away on the sideline when the Tigers were on defense, the junior just wanted to get more time on the field.
Being the star opens that door.
“I can play in the box, I can play in space and roam around,” Garrett said. “I feel more comfortable. It’s what I’m used to doing.”
Auburn is looking at two players to fill its hybrid position this spring — Garrett along with redshirt freshman and fellow linebacker convert JaViere Mitchell. The Tigers will receive an additional option for fall camp when junior college transfer Brandon King arrives.
Johnson said he also has a couple other incoming players in mind.
“We’ve got a couple good high school players,” Johnson said. “Maybe they can be depth for us or even challenge (for playing time), but we thought it was best that we moved somebody there in the spring and come out of spring feeling like we didn’t have to fix our depth chart in the fall. The guys that have moved seem to like it. They had a great attitude. They had a little enthusiasm about it. It’s a fun position to play — a lot of blitzing, have to cover some space.”
Until fall, Garrett will get an opportunity to prove he belongs as a starting defensive player in the SEC.
Garrett has the pedigree to be a defensive back. His brother, Jamoris Slaughter, started 16 games at safety for Notre Dame. At Tucker (Ga.) High, where he was a three-star prospect, Garrett spent time at safety.
After two years playing full-time linebacker, it remains a challenging transition.
“That’s probably the hardest part is the coverage and playing man-to-man,” Garrett said. “Everything else, I’m pretty much adapting to it and learning at a fast pace.”
At the star, Garrett will combine the two positions he’s played the most. How he plays will differ depending on the opponent.
Against pro-style offenses — formations with at least two running backs or two tight ends — Garrett said the star will be more of a third linebacker in a traditional, 4-3 defense. When Auburn is matched against spread offenses — teams with just one running back and tight end — he’ll be the fifth defensive back, counted on for pass coverage without abandoning responsibilities in run defense.
It’s a mixture that requires a player to quickly recognize an opponent’s offense, then react accordingly. After two years of standing on the sideline, Garrett said he’s up for the challenge.
“It was tough being patient the last two years, but I know it was for the better,” Garrett said. “It was what God had in store for me. Right now, I’m just loving the position and learning it to the best of my ability.”