Neiko Thorpe, a two-year starter at cornerback, returns for his senior year, but has moved to free safety, a position where he is the strong favorite to start. At the other safety spot, and at both corners, the Tigers will feature new starters.
The other starting cornerback from the national championship season, Demond Washington, was a busy Tiger last season with 47 solo tackles, eight assists and three interceptions, but he was a senior and must be replaced. The same is true of the players who opened last season as the starters at safety--Aairon Savage and Zac Etheridge.
Etheridge made a strong comeback from a serious neck injury suffered in 2009 vs. Ole Miss and started all 14 games. He finished the season with 69 tackles. He is now trying to earn a spot on the roster of the Oakland Raiders.
Savage, who was also coming back from an injury, wasn't as fortunate. He started the first seven games and made 37 tackles before another injury ended his football playing days. In his place Mike McNeil took over as the starter, but an off-the-field incident prompted head coach Gene Chizik to permanently dismiss the safety from the team, ending his senior season before it started. Savage is back at Auburn working as a quality control assistant for the coaching staff.
Despite the attrition, the cupboard is certainly not bare at either cornerback or safety.
Both Chizik and defensive coordinator Ted Roof predict the spring training experiment of moving Thorpe to safety will benefit the senior defensive back and the entire Auburn team. "I really believe safety will be the best position for Neiko," says Roof. "We need him to have a good year for us."
Neiko Thorpe is Auburn's most experienced defensive back this season.
Playing through an arm injury last year, Thorpe managed to make 45 solo tackles with 19 assists.
The other favorite to start at safety is 6-1, 187 Demetruce McNeal, who is coming off a solid true freshman season. He made 24 tackles and saw his playing time steadily grow as the season progressed. "He is tremendously competitive and he has got a chance to be good," Roof says.
Ikeem Means, 6-0, 205 pounds, came to Auburn as a walk-on wide receiver from Wetumpka High. The coaches immediately converted him to a safety and he has played in 26 games since then and steadily improved. Roof sees that trend continuing this fall.
"He is a guy we feel good about putting in the game to give us quality reps," says the coach, who adds that Means performed well in spring training this year.
Another safety who is improvement mode, according to Roof, is sophomore Ryan Smith. He has added 15 pounds of muscle since last summer and is expected to play at around 6-1, 200 pounds this year.
More depth in the secondary will come from 5-11, 190 senior Drew Cole, who made six tackles last year in 10 games, and redshirt freshman Trent Fisher, a 6-0, 189-pounder from Nashville, Tenn. Fisher joined the team last year as an invited walk-on from Christ Presbyterian Academy. Like Means, Fisher comes into the preseason with momentum following a good performance in spring drills. Fisher has earned praise from the coaches for his play so far in preseason drills.
One of the top high school seniors in the state last fall, Erique Florence from Valley High, has the talent to push for early playing time. The same is likely going to be the case with another 2011 signee, Robensen Therezie, who is from Jackson High in Miami, Fla. However, there is a good chance that Therezie will play cornerback. If that is the case the competition for playing time should be intense at those spots with a variety of players trying to move their way to the top of the depth chart.
Erique Florence is shown as a senior last season at Valley High.
Another defensive back signee, Anthony Swain from Gadsden City High School, was a late academic qualifier and just reported to campus this week. He didn't have the benefit of summer workouts with his new teammates so he his learning curve will be a challenging one this preseason. Up to 235 pounds, instead of working out at strong safety, Swain is practicing at outside linebacker.
The Tigers will be counting on 6-0, 180 junior T'Sharvan Bell, who was a key player on defense last year as a cornerback and a nickel back. He chipped in with 29 tackles and 11 assists. Bell made big plays such as a sack at Alabama and an interception he returned for a touchdown in the SEC Championship Game.
The former high school quarterback made the successful conversion from safety to cornerback in 2009 and goes into his third Auburn season with four career interceptions and the expectation from his coaches that he will be a leader in the secondary.
"I am really proud of him of how far he has come both on and off the field," Roof says of Bell. "He is a guy who has made some big plays for us. He is a very head football. As an older guy, he has to do a good job leading for us."
Roof notes that Bell has a good feel for the game as does 5-10, 192 Chris Davis, who played in every game as a true freshman last year while making 14 tackles with five assists.
Chris Davis is shown in action during spring training in March.
"Chris was really coming on and then he got hurt on the opening kickoff of the (BCS) championship game," Roof points out. "We had some nickel and dime stuff we wanted to play in that game and it kind of took us out of it. He is another guy who has a lot of pride and has worked hard in the offseason. I think we are going to see some dividends out of that."
A cornerback who made a move for playing time in spring training was Jonathon Mincy, a 2010 signee who was on the scout team last year. "The redshirt was a good thing for him last year because he graduated high school when he was only 17 years old so he was a very young freshman," Roof points out.
The coach notes the challenge for Mincy is to play consistently this season. "That is something you can say about so many of our young guys," Roof says.
Another 2010 cornerback signee, 5-10, 194 Ryan White, was scheduled to redshirt last year, but injuries in the secondary prompted the Tigers to play him. White made six tackles in six games with one coming in Auburn's victory over Oregon in the BCS Championship Game. White is also working as the holder for field goals and extra points.
Also in the mix at cornerback is Jonathan Rose, who enrolled at Auburn in January after being a key performer as Leeds High School won the 4A state championship in December. "With him graduating early from high school, he should be ahead of the other young guys coming in," Roof says.
This year's group of newcomers at cornerback includes Jermaine Whitehead, a multi-sport star at Elzy High in Greenwood, Miss., where he was his class valedictorian as well as Therezie, another very highly regarded 2011 signee.
By the time the Tigers are ready to play Utah State on Sept. 3rd Chizik and his staff hope to have a quality two-deep group ready to take on the Aggies.