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Position Group Previews: Defensive Backs

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Auburn’s secondary must replace three key pieces but it’s hard not to be excited about this group’s upside.

NCAA Football: UL Monroe at Auburn John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

Auburn’s front seven is expected to be one of the best in the nation as highlighted in our earlier previews of the defensive line and linebackers. The secondary, however, must find a way to replace three key pieces of what was the nation’s #1 passing defense according to S&P+ in 2017.

Luckily, the Tigers still have a lot of talent left in the back third of their defense.

Cornerbacks

Auburn will miss Carlton Davis in 2017, there’s no way around it. The now Tampa Bay Buccaneer was trusted with the toughest assignments week in and week out. For the most part, he got the job done. But where Davis was also a crucial factor was in Auburn’s run defense. He’s one of the best cornerbacks I have ever seen in an Auburn uniform at shedding would be blockers and making open field tackles. A guy who can both lock down an opponent’s #1 WR and be a willing, effective participant in run defense are hard to find.

But Auburn has a clear heir to the throne.

Jamel Dean finally got a chance to showcase his immense talent in 2017 and he did not disappoint. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, Dean is Auburn’s highest graded returning player this fall.

Told he couldn’t play football by the Ohio State medical staff (a place that’s clearly doing the right things), Dean transferred to Auburn in 2015. He sat out due to transfer restrictions and took a redshirt. He was expected to start for the Tigers in 2016 but suffered another injury in fall practice that left him sidelined for the whole season. After his medical issues at Ohio State, there were legitimate concerns on whether or not he would ever see the field for the Tigers.

But in 2017, he finally played his first collegiate snaps. He went on to eventually take over the starting role opposite Carlton Davis and put together a fantastic debut sophomore season. Dean totaled 43 tackles, 2.5 tackles for a loss and broke up 8 passes. However, he did not have a single interception, something he hopes to change this fall. He landed on Bruce Feldman’s “Freaks List” this offseason at #10 due to his insane combination of size (6’2” 208 lbs), speed (4.3 40 yard dash) and athleticism (38 inch vertical). He looks like a guy poised to become a superstar in 2018.

The bigger story at cornerback is what’s happening opposite Dean. After catching six passes for 24 yards in mop up duty last year, former 4* athlete Noah Igbinoghene got a chance to take some reps at cornerback this past spring. He took to it immediately.

Somehow, despite not having played cornerback since middle school, Iggy quickly worked his way to the top of the depth chart at cornerback. That allowed Auburn to slide Javaris Davis inside and bump Jeremiah Dinson back to safety. But while this is an awesome story it’s hard to not feel a little concerned. I mean, is Auburn’s 2nd or 3rd best cornerback really a converted wideout? That appears to be the case according to Marcus Woodson:

“It seems like he’s been playing it his whole career. When you watch film, he doesn’t stand out like a guy who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I’ve been overly pleased with his progression up until this point,” Woodson said. “He’s made that transition look as smooth as you could possibly make it with as little experience he has at the position and how polished he’ll make it look.”

At 5’11” 196 lbs, Iggy possesses a long wingspan that should allow him to match up just fine against bigger wide receivers. The son of two former Olympic athletes, Iggy possesses elite athletic ability. He’s a member of Auburn’s track team, participating in the long jump and triple jumps this past summer. He won multiple state titles in high school as a track athlete while also being a standout on the gridiron. We will see how he holds up this year on an island opposite Dean but given the fact he’s gotten the approval of Kevin Steele, Greg Brown and Marcus Woodson, I got a feeling he’s gonna do just fine.

After Dean and Iggy, things get murky. Veteran John Broussard appears to be the #4 man on the depth chart. Once a highly regarded recruit himself, the former 4* prospect out of Phenix City, AL has struggled to find his way into the rotation. That might be changing in 2018. The now junior put together a solid spring practice and that’s apparently continued over to fall camp. Marcus Woodson has noticed a heightened sense of urgency from the junior.

“His sense of urgency and want-to to improve has increased tremendously from when I first got here and because of that, he’s had better results on the field,” cornerbacks coach Marcus Woodson said. “John as come a long way since I’ve been here and he has made tremendous improvements since the spring. Still has some areas to improve in, as we all do and we all do, but I’m expecting for John to play a bigger role for us this year than what he may have last year.”

I have a feeling that urgency is coming some from having a very talented blue chip prospect nipping at his heels. Christian Tutt was a late pull for the coaching staff in the 2018 signing class but a big one. The Tigers fought off the Buckeyes down the stretch to sign the Thomson, GA native. Tutt is a physical defender with great speed and the toughness you want to see on the perimeter of the your defense. He might be a year away from contributing as a cornerback but don’t be surprised if he sees some time in the return game. He and fellow freshman Matthew Hill were two of the best return men in high school football last season.

More than likely, both sophomore Traivon Leonard and true freshman Roger McCreary will see mostly special teams snaps or mop up duty in 2018. Leonard had some good moments last season when he got a chance to play late in blowout victories while McCreary has already started turning heads this fall despite being on campus for only a few weeks. Both were lowly ranked 3*s but both seem keen on outperforming those rankings.

Star (Nickel)

Auburn suddenly has a plethora of riches at the star. That’s good because it’s an important position in Kevin Steele’s scheme. The star is often asked to be the force player to the strong side of the field (meaning they are responsible for forcing a ball carrier back into the teeth of the defense) but are also asked to man up on a wide range of pass cathers. Sometimes a team might use a hybrid WR/TE in the slot (something UCF bullied AU with in the Peach Bowl) or they might use a lightning fast slot WR. The star defender must be tough enough to help out in the run game, strong enough to shed bigger blockers, quick enough to match up against quick slot wide receivers and intelligent enough to quickly react to what’s happening in front of him. So it seems pretty obvious why Auburn would move one of their smartest, most talented defensive backs to the position in 2018.

When Javaris Davis was healthy in 2017, he was outstanding. Despite missing three games, Davis lead the team in interceptions with two, recorded 29 tackles, broke up 6 passes and even scored a touchdown. Davis is one of the quicker players on the team with outstanding instincts. He’s also a great tackler in space and I think could be used as an effective blindside blitzer some this fall as well. I expect a huge junior campaign from the Jacksonville, FL native.

However, if Igbinoghene struggles some early or if the Tigers identify a matchup on the outside better suited for Javaris Davis’s skillset, the Tigers should have no qualms bumping him back to corner and bringing in Jordyn Peters. in something of a theme in this secondary, Peters wasn’t a highly regarded recruit coming out of high school but earned a scholarship to Auburn after blowing the staff away at camp. As a true freshman last year, he was a surprising early contributor and by the end of the season was seeing meaningful snaps against top competition. At 6’1” 191 lbs, Peters could bring a bit more size to the star position but still possesses the quickness to matchup against talented wide receivers as Alabama learned the hard way last year.

If not for Iggy’s shocking rise to the top of the DB depth chart, Jayvaughn Myers might be the story of the offseason for this secondary. The somewhat forgotten brother of Nate Craig-Myers, Jayvaughn has spent most of his Auburn career on the sidelines recovering from injury. But he’s healthy now and appears to have impressed both coaches and teammates alike with his progress this offseason. I’m not sure how often he will see the field in big time situations with guys like Javaris Davis and Jordyn Peters ahead of him but I wouldn’t be surprised if we see more of Jayvaughn Myers in 2018.

Finally, there’s the highest rated DB from that 2017 signing class in Malcolm Askew. Despite being one of the first signees on campus last year, Askew was the only DB in his signing class to not to see any playing time last fall. Now a redshirt freshman, it doesn’t sound like much has changed. Askew mostly played QB for his high school football team and it was expected that he would have a bit of a growing curve switching to defensive back full time. However, with what Auburn brought in last class and what’s coming in 2019, he needs to step up soon if he wants to carve out a role in this Auburn defense in the near future.

Safeties

Honestly, I am not as worried about replacing Carlton Davis this year as I am in replacing Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts. That might seem a little odd considering one was drafted in the 2nd round of the NFL while the other two are hoping to earn a roster spot but it’s hard to overstate how important those two were to Auburn’s defense last year. There’s a reason the Tigers rarely busted coverages or if they did it happened while one or both were out of the game. Roberts was a tremendous help in the run game, quickly filling the alley to takeout a ball carrier before he can even get past the line of scrimmage. Matthews was the deep man on the backend, ensuring no one got behind the defense. Both were immature kids who ran into trouble only to grow into leaders and great Auburn men. I’m gonna miss both dearly.

But Auburn has some very good options waiting to take over in 2018. The Tigers starting star for most of the season, Jeremiah Dinson, moved back to take over Tray Matthews old spot this past spring while Daniel Thomas appears inline to try and fill Stephen Roberts’s shoes.

Dinson was a top performer early in his freshman season until a cheap shot stole away a year and a half of his collegiate career. He had an outstanding comeback season in 2017 finishing 7th on the team in tackles at 47, racking up 2.5 tackles for loss, recording one sack and defending four passes. However, he did struggle at times in man to man coverage so I like the move to safety. He won’t be asked to man up as much but instead read and react, something he’s much better at doing. He’s also a highly intelligent player who should hopefully help ensure that Auburn’s defense doesn’t revert back to bust city again in 2018.

Daniel Thomas burst onto the state in the 2016 Iron Bowl when he picked Jalen Harris off twice. However, by the end of the 2017 campaign Jordyn Peters had passed him on the depth chart and Thomas really only saw action as a Auburn’s dime defender on 3rd & long situations. But Thomas appears to be on track to fill Roberts’s role as the alley filler and enforcer on the back end of this Tiger defense in 2018. The former low ranked 3* has built a reputation this offseason among the Auburn defense as one of the hardest hitters of the bunch. Thomas and Dinson give the Tigers a veteran pair at two important positions this fall.

Behind them is the future. Auburn needed to sign a big time safety class in the 2018 cycle and that’s exactly what they did. The Tigers stole 4* Smoke Monday away from the Clemson Tigers and went into south Florida to pluck 4* Jamien Sherwood away from the trio of Florida, Florida State and Miami. Both were early enrollees and both appear poised to see meaningful playing time in 2018. As much as I like Dinson and Thomas, I would not be surprised if either lost their starting job at some point to either one of these stud freshman this fall. Both bring a combination of size, speed and attitude that will make teams fearful to throw over the middle in the coming years. The key for both is proving they understand their assignments and will execute when it matters most on Sundays.

Big questions face this secondary heading into the 2018 campaign but given the talent all over the field, I think they will be just fine. Having possibly the best front 7 in college football will undoubtedly help as well.

War Eagle!