When the news broke Saturday that Auburn safety Demetruce McNeal had been arrested on charges of marijuana possession, just about everyone assumed McNeal had worn an Auburn uniform for the last time. A couple of hours later, head coach Gus Malzahn validated those assumptions and gave the senior the boot.
The incident was the final straw -- McNeal dealt with some attitude issues during spring practice -- and it leaves a hole in the Tigers' secondary, which based on performance in recent years, needs all the help it can get. Of all the players returning from last season, McNeal had the most tackles in 2012, and losing him could really affect a unit that seems to be showing improvement in practice under Ellis Johnson, Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison. But if you step back, take a breath and look at the bigger picture, McNeal's dismissal won't hurt Auburn too badly.
Yes, he piled up the most tackles for the Tigers last year, but here's the thing: McNeal was a safety, and if your top tackler is a safety, you're pretty much boned anyway. Auburn allowed 420.5 yards -- 222.9 through the air -- and 28.3 points per game in 2012. Someone had to be the top returning tackler, and it just happened to be McNeal. Yes, he added seven tackles for loss and a sack, but for the most part he was just a guy bringing someone down at the end of a big play. Really, anyone could be that guy, and McNeal didn't have some incredible skill set that gave him the advantage as a tackler after a 15- or 20-yard reception.
When it comes to actual pass defense, like the rest of the Auburn secondary, McNeal didn't make much of an impact. He only broke up four passes all year, and he didn't record an interception. It won't be too hard to replace that production. Obviously, it's possible that McNeal could have been much better in 2013, but we can't say for sure. And considering his off-the-field issues since the spring, there always appeared to be a chance he'd finally commit strike three and be sent packing. Better for that to happen now than midway through the season.
Where McNeal's absence will hurt is depth. The Tigers don't bring back a ton of proven experience at safety, and now there's one less body to throw out there. Although, as you may have heard, Kiehl Frazier is transitioning to the position and reportedly doing well. So well, in fact, that he could be in line for some playing time against Washington State. If Auburn has to deal with any injuries or suspensions in the secondary, we'll be missing McNeal's presence, but otherwise, it shouldn't be too much of an issue.
It's never good to see a player dismissed, and we hate it for him, but the Tigers should be alright. If we had to choose a returning contributor to be kicked off the team, honestly, McNeal would be near the top of the list. That's not to say we're happy to see him go; it's just that Auburn has several players that are much more valuable.
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