Auburn defensive backs have been too unreliable in recent years. Will that change under the tutelage of Willie Martinez and Brian VanGorder?
The past few years have not been very bright for the Auburn secondary. Every team in the Gene Chizik era has been blistered by quarterbacks. Remember Northwestern's Mike Kafka torching the Auburn defense for 532 yards (!!!!) in the 2010 Outback Bowl? How about Tyler Wilson having his coming out party for Arkansas at Jordan-Hare Stadium in 2010? Or perhaps you recall Tajh Boyd putting his name on the map against Auburn last season. You're probably getting the point. The secondary hasn't been anything to brag about, and those types of performances led to former secondary coach Phillip Lolley being put back into an office position. New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder brought in former Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who also served as secondary coach under VanGorder at UGA, to straighten the Auburn secondary out.
Were all those passing yards given up the secondary's fault? Not completely. In 2011, there was hardly ever any push up front from the defensive line, which gave opposing QBs all the time in the world to find a receiver. It doesn't matter if you're Deion Sanders in his prime, you aren't staying with a receiver that knows where he is going on the field when you don't for five seconds or more. The frustrating thing about the secondary was lack of coverage and tackling fundamentals. Not turning around when the ball is in the air to find it, leaping at ball carriers and not wrapping up when tackling were fundamental problems that plagued Auburn last season.
Defensive Back Roster Entering 2012
T'Sharvan Bell (6'0-182-Sr); Chris Davis (5'10-192-Jr); T.J. Davis (6'1-180-Fr);
Robinson Therezie (5'10-195-So); Ryan White (5'10-195-Jr); Jermaine Whitehead (6'0-187-So);
Neiko Thorpe (drafted); Jonathon Rose (sent home for personal reasons)
CB: Davis, Bell
Also in the playing rotation will be McNeal, Fisher, White, Mincy, and Holsey.
The first observation to take away when looking at the players who will be in the defensive backfield this year is that these guys are young. However, youth cannot continue to be an excuse as many of those in the projected playing rotation saw significant amounts of time on the field in 2011. The young'ns will look to Bell for leadership. By all accounts, his injured knee has come back fine, and he should be as close to his old self as he is going to get come Sept. 1. We listed Davis as the starting nickelback (not the band) because it has been said all spring and early fall that Auburn will be playing a lot of nickel this season. In those instances, Davis will shift over to Nickel and Bell will be the corner.
Therezie has been a pleasant surprise and should play a significant role at cornerback opposite Chris Davis, who missed a good chunk of last year after suffering a concussion against Clemson in Week 3. Florence has a knack for finding the ball, and he should be locked into that free safety spot for the next few years. Whitehead has been getting solid reviews from the coaches and seems to be the favorite to start at strong safety.
Brian VanGorder's style of defense has been described as "attacking." To be a successful attacking defense, a defensive coordinator must trust his corners on an island in man-to-man coverage so the linebackers and linemen can get upfield. Davis, Therezie, and Bell have shown they are more than capable of playing sufficient man-to-man defense, and Joshua Holsey, although a freshman, has been lauded for his man-coverage skills. We wouldn't feel comfortable putting him up against the SEC's best quite yet, though.
If the defensive backs can improve on the fundamentals under Martinez, the secondary can become a solid group by the end of the year, but they'll have to grow up quickly. Even without Sammy Watkins, Clemson's stable of receivers is more than capable of producing big games. We all know what type of receiving talent LSU and Arkansas will bring to the Plains this year, and the Bayou Bengals may finally have a QB that can get their receivers the ball in Zach Mettenberger, as well.
We'll give the Auburn defensive backfield a grade of C+ to begin the year, based solely on the lack of production the last few years. This group is more than capable of becoming a B+ secondary by the end of 2012.