Based on Scout.com recruiting rankings, the 2009 defense had an average ranking of 2.89 stars per scholarship defensive back. In 2010 the average star ranking improved to 3.20 and in 2011 the average ranking improves once again to 3.23.
For this year's team the concern will be the lack of experience from the 13 defensive backs on scholarship as eight of them will have less than 10 games of experience, including six with no game experience.
During Auburn's national championship season in 2010, the Tigers showed drastic improvement in run defense, but struggled defending the pass. If Auburn is going to possess a Top 20 defense again, the Tigers will need to improve their play in the secondary. With this in mind there are several obstacles the defense must overcome. The Tigers must improve their ratios regarding interceptions, touchdowns allowed, passes defended, big plays allowed and quarterback sacks.
•Over the past 15 seasons the Auburn defense has intercepted a pass every 26.4 pass attempts. The 2010 defense had a ratio of 1 every 42.9, which was 14th best over the past 15 seasons (1996-2010). This was a drop in production from the 26.6 ratio in 2009.
•From 1996-2010 Auburn allowed a touchdown pass every 25.0 pass attempts. The 2010 defense allowed a touchdown pass every 20.6 attempts, which was 13th best over the past 15 seasons. This was also a drop in production from the ratio of 1 every 23.8 attempts in 2009.
•During the past 15 seasons Auburn broke up a pass every 7.8 pass attempts. The 2010 defense had a ratio of 1 every 13.2 attempts, which was dead last over the past 15 seasons. It also was a significant drop in production from 2009 when Auburn broke up a pass every 9.2 attempts.
•Over the past 15 seasons Auburn has allowed a pass play of 30 yards or more every 28.0 attempts. The 2010 defense exceeded the 15-year average by allowing a big pass play every 30.3 attempts, 7th best over the past 15 years. It was also an improvement from 2009 when the Tigers allowed one every 22.6 attempts.
•Last season Auburn did increase its number of sacks, racking up a sack every 14.7 pass attempts. This was an improvement from 2009 when Auburn averaged a sack every 16.1 attempts. In comparison it was 9th best over the past 15 years and below the 15-year average of 1 every 13.9 attempts.
If Auburn is going to improve its pass defense in 2011 it will take a consistent rush and an aggressive secondary. A key player to watch for in 2011 will be safety Neiko Thorpe, who is making the move to the position from cornerback.
Neiko Thorpe has started every game for the Tigers the past two seasons.
Of all the Auburn defensive backs from 1996-2010 with at least 25 games of experience, Thorpe is ranked No. 7 with a defended pass every 1.73 games. The average ratio of the 27 defensive backs involved in the comparison was 1 every 2.8 games. Thorpe's ratio below 2.0 puts him in the same league with productive Tiger defensive backs such as David Irons, Carlos Rogers, Rodney Crayton, Larry Casher, Brad Ware and Jason Bray.
Another key player to watch in the secondary will be T'Sharvan Bell. The junior will likely be one of the starting corners in 2011 and already has four career interceptions in limited action. Looking at the 27 defensive backs with at least 25 games of experience since 1996, they averaged an interception every 8.4 games. Bell currently has a ratio of 1 every 6.0 games, putting him at No. 6 on that list.
The only concern about Bell is how physical he will be in run support. He is currently averaging only 1.96 tackles per game, but that can be explained by his limited action on the field. Thorpe has averaged 4.66 tackles per game, No. 3 on the list of the 27 defensive backs.
Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy will also be battling for one of the corner slots. Davis saw action in 14 games, finishing the season with 19 tackles and three passes defended. Mincy was on his way to playing as a true freshman in 2010, but was grounded by the coaching staff to enlighten him to his responsibilities and expectations.
Safety Demetruce McNeal appeared in 13 games as a true freshman, recording 24 tackles and breaking up one pass. He and Thorpe are projected to be the two starting safeties this season. Veterans Drew Cole and Ikeem Means will likely play a reserve role, but look for true freshman Erique Florence to push for playing time in 2011. Cornerback Jonathan Rose enrolled early to participate in spring practice, giving him a leg up on the other freshman coming in at his position.
From 1996-2004 Auburn's defense forced an interception every 22.8 attempts. From 2005-2010 that ratio has dropped to 1 every 33.9 attempts. This includes a drop in passes broken up from 1 every 7.1 attempts to 1 every 9.1 attempts.
With an influx of talent in the secondary, the hope for the Tigers is that they will soon be making more plays on the ball while it is in the air than merely shadowing the opposing receiver. The average Scout.com rating of the defensive backs signed by Chizik's staff is currently 3.3. This is an improvement from the average rating of 3.0 from 2002-2008.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof is looking for his secondary to make more plays in 2011, but the Tigers will have to accomplish it with a young group of defenders.