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Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Spring recap: The Secondary

Have you ever noticed how position-by-position reviews always start with the quarterbacks? Well, the blog is trying something different this year. We're going backward, starting with the secondary and doing the defense first before getting to the offense. It's like starting roll call with the letter Z. I'm sure all the Zyzinskis out there appreciate it.

Like last year, I'll be reviewing all the positions in the next few weeks, recapping the spring and giving an outlook for next year, with some opining as well. (And while we're here, let's give a quick plug to following the blog on Twitter.)

Without further adieu, let's start with the secondary:


  • S Zac Etheridge, 6-0, 210, Sr.
  • S Aairon Savage, 5-11, 200, Sr.
  • CB Neiko Thorpe, 6-2, 192, Jr.
  • CB Demond Washington, 5-9, 183, Sr.
  • CB T'Sharvan Bell, 6-0, 179, So.
  • S Drew Cole, 5-11, 193, Jr.
  • CB D'Antoine Hood, 5-10, 192, Jr.
  • S Mike McNeil, 6-2, 210, Jr.
  • S Ikeem Means, 6-0, 204, So.
  • CB Anthony Gulley-Morgan, 5-9, 185, So.
  • S Mike Slade, 6-3, 191, Jr.
  • CB Rodney Cofield, 5-7, 156, rFr.
  • DB Tyler Mickens, 5-10, 184, rFr.
  • DB Woody Parramore, 5-8, 178, Sr.
  • DB Blake Poole, 6-0, 188, rFr.
  • DB Dorian Rhodes, 5-11, 182, rFr.
  • DB Jonathon Mincy, 5-10, 175, Fr.
  • DB Demetruce McNeal, 6-1, 176, Fr.
  • DB Ryan White , 6-0, 185, Fr.
  • DB Ryan Smith, 6-2, 208, Fr.
  • DB Chris Davis, 5-11, 175, Fr.
"Finally, a position Gene Chizik and Co. don't have to worry about getting the numbers up. The Tigers seem to have a solid starting lineup already in place, with Savage as an option to start or come in as a key reserve. Behind them, there's plenty to work with, so you won't see any iron man action out there this season. All in all, one of Auburn's most solid groups."
Riiiiiiiiiight. This group took more blows than any other last year, proving that you can never have enough depth in college football. It started when McNeil broke his leg last spring, continued when Savage injured his Achilles' in the summer and concluded when Etheridge suffered a scary neck injury that briefly left him motionless on the field against Ole Miss. Throughout it all, Auburn did a patchwork job. Daren Bates stepped in and did more than anyone ever imagined for the least-touted member of the 2010 class, starting every game at safety and earning Freshman All-SEC honors. After Etherdige's injury Washington got a crash course at safety and moved there for Auburn's final three games. The team's lack of depth in the secondary was exposed against pass-happy Northwestern in the Outback Bowl, when a motley crew of Bell, Cole and Hood played major roles. But this year there appears to at least be more bodies -- even with Bates moving to a hybrid DB/LB position -- assuming the trio of McNeil, Savage and Etheridge return to their pre-injury forms. But that's a big assumption.
Washington has been able to focus on one position this spring -- corner -- and learn all the ins and outs of it, a major advantage for someone who bounced around last year. He started showing his cornerback chops last season right before Auburn needed him at safety. If he can seamlessly return to corner, it'll lessen the blow of losing McFadden. Meanwhile, Means, a walk-on, drew rave reviews from the coaches for his willingness to make plays and knack for forcing turnovers. Coaches made him sound like the second coming of Bates, provided he continues to progress this summer, meaning playing time on the regular defense isn't out of the question. While Thorpe had a quiet spring, missing the A-Day scrimmage with what looked like a non-serious wrist injury, Bell and Gulley-Morgan got valuable reps. Bell capped an erratic year by intercepting two passes in the Outback Bowl. Gulley-Morgan made the full-time switch to defense at the end of the year. Both need as many looks as they can get to be viable options as backups.
It's still hard to tell just how the injured players will return to the fold. Etheridge didn't participate in spring drills and while coaches seem to be counting on him to return, one can't forget how major of a neck injury he suffered last season. Those kind of injuries can affect someone in many ways and it's not clear if he'll be the same player upon his return. Savage didn't participate in contact this spring and, after missing the last two years because of injuries, you have to wonder how sharp he'll be once he gets back on the field in a full capacity. And McNeil, who found praise from the coaches hard to come by, still showed a slight limp on the leg he broke last spring in the latter part of practices. Coaches brushed it off as a fatigue matter, something that will work itself out once he's fully recovered. But these are the same coaches who were pleased with the news last spring that McNeil suffered a "clean break" of his leg, fully expecting him to be back for last season. We saw how that worked out. That's a lot of question marks for Auburn's top-three safeties.
As usual, Auburn signed a class of lesser-known defensive backs, none of which rate higher than a three on the ol' star system. It's worked out great in the past, though. Bates was a two-star, while Thorpe, Etheridge, McFadden, Jerraud Powers and Savage were all three-stars. So Auburn has a pretty good track record there. The important part is that all the signees get into school. Last year's class was hurt by players not qualifying. Izauea Lanier, Taikwon Paige and Reggie Taylor all went the JUCO route, leaving Auburn with little depth. Mincy and McNeal are the top players in the DB class, with White, Smith and Davis being under-the-radar prospects. But those are the kind of players who have succeeded at Auburn. Whatever the case, it doesn't appear they will be counted on to contribute right away other than on special teams.
Finally able to focus on one position, Washington could bust out this year. He showed signs of what he could do at cornerback, flashing his coverage skills as a nickelback in certain situations. He also showed no fear of throwing his helmet into the fray as a tackler while at safety. Add in a comfort factor after transitioning from junior college to Division I last year and Washington definitely could make a leap.
The starting safety spots will be interesting. I assume they are Etheridge and Savage's to lose at this point. Those two, despite being limited this spring, are the most experienced of the group. And experience is a major advantage at safety, which has a major role in getting the defense set up on a play-by-play basis. McNeil, if he's healthy, could challenge for playing time. He did, after all, start as a sophomore, finishing second on the team with 65 tackles. An even more intriguing challenger, however, is Means. If his spring performance was not a mirage, he might be in the mix. Probably not as a starter (going from walk-on to starter is quite the jump) but certainly as someone who could get reps and ease the burden of Etheridge and Savage from playing every snap.
"At some places walk-ons think that there's too many roadblocks to get to where they need to be, but I think he provides hope for a lot of kids. If you just do what you're supposed to do, work hard and ... when you have the opportunity, you can perform instead of going out there and laying an egg. And he's done that and I certainly hope that that's provided hope to a lot of other guys that may have started in his situation, because he's taken full advantage of his opportunity." — defensive coordinator Ted Roof on Means.
3 — interceptions last year by Bell, most of the returning members of the secondary. Two came in the Outback Bowl.
There are a lot of "ifs" in the secondary. Auburn will be solid IF Washington makes a smooth transition back to corner, IF Thorpe becomes less prone to giving up the deep ball, IF Etheridge, Savage and McNeil return close to pre-injury form, IF Means is for real. Still, the Tigers would probably rather have a multitude of question marks than go into this season with the patched-together group it had in the Outback Bowl. IF those things above happen, the secondary could be one of the strengths of the defense.
Tomorrow: Linebackers.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great write up Andy. Love your articles.One thing i'll say is that Ryan Smith and McNeal are both safety prospects coming in this year. Other than that everything seems spot on. We could have a great secondary or a weak secondary and it will be interesting to see which ends up happening