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Defensive Backs Starting to Prowl

The increased focus on turnovers this fall has already helped shape the attitude in the back end...

My biggest hope for Tray Matthews is that he can make the tunnel video for something other than the Miracle at Jordan-Hare.

So far during fall practice, Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has implemented a reward strategy for whoever can snag the biggest turnover of each practice day. That reward (not an award, they’re very clear on this) is simply a spot in an armchair during defensive meetings. It’s just a little something to entice the Tiger defenders to increase their focus on forcing turnovers.

Much of that emphasis will fall on the defensive backfield, which only grabbed ten interceptions in 2016 to go along with two forced fumbles. Twelve total turnovers (the team only had seventeen total) doesn’t exactly look great on the stat sheet, and a small increase in that category would’ve probably netted an extra win or two last season. As we look forward to this fall, most of those turnovers do come back, with Josh Holsey’s three picks notably absent as he’s moved off to the next level. Auburn’s first string should be very good, but the lack of depth is a bit troublesome.

In Kevin Steele’s scheme, Auburn will usually hit the field with five defensive backs — field and boundary corners, free and strong safeties, and the nickel back.

These guys will be taking turns on the back end.

In all seriousness, three of those spots should be locked down. Auburn’s pretty much got the two safety positions rock-solid with seniors manning the last line of defense, while now-upperclassman Carlton Davis is tasked with the field corner spot once again.

That said, why don’t we still go through each position...

FIELD CORNERBACK

Carlton Davis - 6’1, 203 - JR

Carlton Davis burst onto the scene as a freshman, playing in twelve games in 2015 for the Tigers, grabbing three interceptions and generally holding serve against whichever receiver the opposition threw his way. He broke up multiple passes against Arkansas, Idaho, and Alabama that season before becoming a known quantity his sophomore year.

In the opener against Clemson in 2016, he did get tagged pretty hard by Mike Williams, but c’mon, that guy burned everyone. Davis also battled through some minor injuries in 2016, and admits he had a bit of a down year as teams began to avoid throwing his way. That avoidance will likely continue this season as Auburn will have less experience across the way, but I’d be shocked to see Davis finish this year with zero interceptions like he had last season.

BOUNDARY CORNERBACK

Javaris Davis - 5’10, 186 - SO / Jamel Dean - 6’2 - 215 - SO

Here’s where Auburn will have a decision to make, but it’s a good problem to have. With Davis, the Tigers get the experience, as he started as a redshirt freshman last year in the opener against Clemson, and played in all thirteen games as well. He grabbed two interceptions and has the NFL blood in his family as cousing Vontae and Vernon both played professionally.

However, Jamel Dean was the projected starter in camp before suffering a season-ending injury before opening weekend. As you can see, he’s got a great size advantage on Davis, and in fall camp this year, has impressed everyone. Dean took first-team snaps at cornerback yesterday in the scrimmage and even grabbed a pick-six off of Jarrett Stidham. Whoever does take the starting job this fall will have a more than capable backup behind them.

BACKUPS

Malcolm Askew - 5’11, 182 - FR / John Broussard Jr. - 5’11 - 172 - SO

Malcolm Askew played a little bit of everything in high school, but it looks like coaching staff has decided he’ll best be used at defensive back in college. His knowledge of the game from playing so many different positions (including quarterback) will help him find a spot and hopefully thrive as he’s able to work in a backup role at corner early in his career.

John Broussard played sparingly last year as a freshman, but saw time in eight games and recorded two tackles. He was an early enrollee last year and went through spring practice in 2016, drawing praise from some of the other defensive backs along the way. As a guy who’s been around a little bit more, and with the limited cupboard Greg Brown’s got to work with, expect Broussard to play much more this season than he did last year.

FREE SAFETY

Stephen Roberts - 5’11 - 189 - SR

Roberts got much more work last year than in his previous years at Auburn combined, as he finished with 57 total tackles, two interceptions, and carved out a role for himself as the Tigers’ main punt return man heading into this season.

He first earned a starting role late in 2015 before starting every game last year. His fluid ability to cover or move up in run support confirms that he’ll be an important role in Auburn’s defense this year.

STRONG SAFETY

Tray Matthews - 6’1 - 209 - SR

Many Auburn fans got their first glimpse of Tray Matthews four years ago when he was going for what would have been the game-clinching interception for Georgia against Auburn. We know what happened next. Josh Harvey-Clemmons then stepped in, batted the ball up in the air, and we know what happened next.

Matthews’ senior season should afford him an opportunity to find a place in the Auburn tunnel video while actually wearing an Auburn uniform. As the senior leader of the defensive backfield, he’s got a lot of hype coming into this season, and for good reason.

He began his career at Auburn in the highest possible way, in the 2015 season opener, as he picked off some guy named Lamar Jackson on Louisville’s first snap. It led to an Auburn touchdown just a couple plays later, and we thought we were going to win the national championship.

Instead, Matthews had an up-and-down year in which he was trucked by Leonard Fournette just a couple weeks later. Still, after two full seasons on the Plains, 2017 will be his time to shine with a solid starting cast surrounding him.

Matthews is a tackling machine, leading Auburn last year with 76 total stops, he should be able to continue that this year, and hopefully grab another few turnovers to help out Kevin Steele’s cause.

BACKUPS

Nick Ruffin - 6’0 - 202 - SR

Unlike the corner spots, the safety positions have a wily veteran slated as the main backup. Nick Ruffin’s three years of experience assuredly give Greg Brown and Kevin Steele a reason to sleep soundly should one of their two other senior safeties go down.

Ruffin finished last year with 32 tackles after playing in eleven games with three starts. He recorded ten tackles as a starter against Clemson, and provided good depth otherwise. He’s a capable backup to both Roberts and Matthews and should help Auburn’s stability in the back end.

Jason Smith - 6’1 - 186 - SR

Here’s a guy whose career at Auburn has been spent on the carousel as he’s gone from quarterback to receiver to the defensive backfield. Smith was given a chance a couple seasons ago to try out for quarterback, but he moved to receiver and never really found a groove there, despite scoring Auburn’s lone Iron Bowl touchdown in 2015 on a crazy deflected pass.

He asked to change positions over the summer after running some offseason drills with the safeties, and his knowledge of offenses should help his understanding of how to defend them. The move is similar to Trovon Reed’s move to defensive back, which worked out as he grabbed three interceptions his senior year, and now plays in the NFL.

NICKEL BACK

Jeremiah Dinson - 6’0 - 186 - SO / Daniel Thomas - 5’11 - 203 - SO

Here we’ve got a pair of sophomores vying for playing time in the back end at nickel back. Both have contributed greatly to Auburn’s defense over the past couple of seasons, but they’ve both come about in different ways.

Dinson was an early-season starter as a freshman in 2015 before he was taken out against Texas A&M, suffering a knee injury that ended his year.

Daniel Thomas, meanwhile, was a late addition to Auburn’s 2016 signing class out of Montgomery, and played his way into the rotation, picking off Jalen Hurts twice in the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa.

Whichever direction Auburn chooses to go with the nickel spot should be a solid choice, and this is one of the positions in which the Tigers actually have some depth. Dinson has also spent time backing up the other positions as well, and as a smart guy that drew the eye of Rodney Garner and Travis Williams, he’s sure to find a ton of playing time this year.

Altogether, the defensive backs should be a strength for Auburn in 2017, but there’s always a caveat. They have to avoid injury. It’s imperative that these already pretty thin positions stay healthy, as the Tigers have already had to move guys around in the summer and early fall to create depth. Greg Brown has had really good success as a DBs coach, and he’s got some pieces to play with as the Tigers continue along on the road to the opener on September 2nd.

Just one position left to go, that’s the offensive line. We’ll look at the hog mollies later this week to finish up our position previews. Until then, War Eagle.