Quick, name the position where Auburn has been the most successful at producing pro prospects over the past couple of years.
You wouldn’t think that in the SEC, where Alabama and LSU have a pretty long history of sending defensive backs into the NFL, that Auburn would have a pedigree that’s just as solid over the past few seasons as other teams. Yet, the Tigers have placed cornerbacks into the NFL that not only make rosters, but start and produce. You know who helped shut down Patrick Mahomes in the Super Bowl? Carlton Davis and Jamel Dean, both for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Noah Igbinoghene turned from a speedy wideout to a first round cornerback during his time at Auburn, and now there are plenty more guys waiting to become the next draft selection of a team needing some help in the back end.
Kevin Steele’s biggest work at Auburn didn’t come with some of the defensive line monsters that were employed, but with the secondary. Those names above weren’t going to be sure-fire pro prospects coming out of high school, but here they are. Now, the next wave of draft picks are going to be coaches by a former Auburn Tiger in Zac Etheridge. Etheridge’s story is widely known, working into a steady star at safety with his career culminating in a national championship. This all came after a broken neck in the 2009 Ole Miss game, and a rehabilitation that led to the ultimate success. After spending some time as defensive backs coach at Houston, he’s now made his way home, giving the defensive staff a little alumni flair.
He’ll have some help pairing up with his new boss, as Derek Mason should be taking over the safeties coach work. All in all, the two guys have some serious players to work with, including depth, talent, and future professionals. It’s about as solid a spot as you could hope for stepping into a new gig.
Projected Starters: Roger McCreary (CB), Nehemiah Pritchett (CB); Smoke Monday (Safety), Christ Thompson/Jaylin Simpson (Safety)
- Biggest Question: Who shores things up at the other safety spot opposite Smoke and how does the steady defensive backfield help the rest of the defense?
You know, when you look at some of the names on Auburn’s defense, this might not be a bad little unit next year. We’re expecting to have outright stars at cornerback, and solid play in the back end, throupled with the McClain/Pappoe combo at linebacker and returnees up front in the line. Yet the best part of this unit could come on the boundaries with McCreary and Pritchett. Like we mentioned above, McCreary will get drafted, and could end up as a first round, if not top ten, draft selection. Pritchett is a junior who could become the next guy to star at Auburn once McCreary goes pro in the spring of 2022. Let’s also not forget that Jaylin Simpson had a very steady freshman campaign and has shown that he can play corner and safety.
Honestly, and I hate to say this, but one of the biggest frustrations for Auburn fans might be gone with Christian Tutt leaving for the NFL. I know that the College and Mag slack wasn’t the most kind to him over the last year or two, but he’ll be spared the remonstrations of unnamed writers for this website. Auburn may be replacing experience with talent + a little less experience. Since Tutt played the nickel quite a bit, Ladarius Tennison will likely take over in his spot after starting two games last season and racking up 21 tackles.
Losses that will be tough to overcome are Jordyn Peters and Jamien Sherwood in the back end. There’s a ton of experience between those two guys, and so a ton of the coaching and on-field alignment stuff will have to come from Smoke Monday. The only issue with Smoke is that he was a bit of a drum major last year, where someone’s band is going to play when the action’s directed at him. You might get the 100-yard pick six like we saw against Tennessee, or you might get him completely falling for the Devonta Smith head fake. I would have to expect that another year helps him out and that he turns into a steadier player. Either way, he’s the guy we’re going to roll with back there.
Cornerback will be an embarrassment of riches, and only multiple guys going down with injuries would derail a successful season there. We’ve talked about McCreary and Pritchett, but Auburn is also bringin in Dreshun Miller from West Virginia. Miller posted 31 tackles, a pick, and 8 pass breakups last season in the pass-happy Big 12, and had the 5th-best incompletion rate in Power Five football, according to PFF. He’s just going to be an additional high-level player to backup the starters. However the Tigers want to play things in the back end, it shouldn’t be much of an issue becuase they’ll have the bodies to adapt to basically any passing attack. If the defensive line can become a bit of a disrupting force, then these defensive backs could really start seeing some chances to eat and force turnovers.