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Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Most Integral Player, No. 7: Zac Etheridge

There is just over a week until SEC Media Days. If you're just joining our top-10 countdown of the Most Integral Players for Auburn in 2010, here is what you've missed.
Now for No. 7, a difficult one to rank: safety Zac Etheridge.

(Quick Twitter plug. Follow along. The march to 800 begins.)
  • Skill level: 3. I hedged on this one. Etheridge is no doubt a talented player, but there are undoubtedly questions surrounding his health and football ability following the scary neck injury he suffered against Ole Miss last season. Without that, he's probably a four in this category, but if he is allowed to come back (and the day he finds out is reportedly July 20), what will he be like? Will he rein his physical style of play in? Will he have lost a step, having not been allowed to practice since the injury? Will be hesitant to throw himself into a play, an understandable reaction considering what he just went through? I think Etheridge has plenty of talent. I'm just curious if he'll be able to display it completely after the injury.
  • Production history: 4. When Etheridge is on the field and healthy, there's no doubt about his effectiveness. He was second on the team in tackles as a freshman and first as a sophomore with 75 stops. He had 52 tackles last year prior to his injury (I'm not sure, but I think that was among the team leaders), so he clearly isn't afraid to get close to the line and make some plays. If there's a drawback to his game, it's that he doesn't make many interceptions (just one in three years), although he has forced four fumbles, recovering two of them. A solid, gritty player. Just what you want out of a safety.
  • Position importance: 4. Along with middle linebacker, this is one of the most important positions on a defense. You have to have someone at safety capable of getting a defense lined up and making the correct calls. Coaches repeatedly called Etheridge a "coach on the field," a high compliment for someone who wasn't a senior yet and a nod to Etheridge's high football IQ. You can do OK without a safety of great skill, one that is going to fly around the field on every play. But if you don't have someone who is quick and smart enough to recognize what the offense is doing, you'll be in rough shape.
  • Backup competence: 2. Auburn has plenty of options at safety. Aairon Savage, a player with even more experience than Etheridge, is back after missing two years with injuries. Mike McNeil hopes to be 100 percent after missing last year with a broken leg. Drew Cole remains a viable backup option. Walk-on Ikeem Means turned heads last spring with his play-making ability and could work his way onto the field. And in a pinch, Daren Bates, who earned all-freshman recognition as a safety last year, could move back from the hybrid safety-linebacker spot coaches envision him playing this season. Etheridge's return would be a major boost, but it's not a critical blow if he is not cleared medically.
  • Leadership: 5. Few players on the roster are looked up to as much as Etheridge. He sets an example. He's vocal on the field. And he's not afraid to let teammates know if he thinks their effort is sub-par. (Remember, as a sophomore in 2008 he started the infamous scrap with fellow defensive back DeRon Furr during two-a-days as a signal that loafing wouldn't be tolerated.) Every team needs a player like that, someone who can provide a voice other than the coaching staff to hammer things home. By all accounts, Etheridge has wholly embraced that role.
  • Total: 18. A good score that would have been higher if there weren't concerns about his return from the neck injury. Clearly, he is an important player to this team, one, judging by the outpouring of support following the injury last year, that is respected by everyone on the team. And that's both from a football standpoint and an emotional one. Although the Tigers might be able to replace his production with their deep group of safeties, they would be hard-pressed to replace the leadership qualities and other intangibles he brings to the table. If doctors give him the go-ahead next week, he'll make Auburn a much better team.


SteveFC said...

This guy is crucial to the defense improving. You can't replace this kind of leadership. The only thing I think is more important for the defense is having a dominating tackle step up.

easyedwin said...

I do not know if Zac should play............but he will if the decision is his. Risk vs reward is good for us. Keep him safe Lolly


I hope he has a great year because he really worked hard to come back

Tar Heel Tiger said...

Mr. Bitter, I'm probably in the minority, but I'd have Wes Byrum just barely ahead of the others you've ranked so far. We have several backups at kicker, but none proven. Wes's extra points would come from higher position importance ranking from me. And no, I didn't plan that pun. I wish I was smart enough to think that far ahead.

These MIP thingies are great reading. Thanks!!!

Tar Heel Tiger said...

ok, if we don't get MIP No.6 pretty soon, I'm going to insist on a refund, pro-rated of course.