Auburn, Ala.—One of the biggest changes for the Auburn Tigers this spring will be in the secondary where former Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez takes over coaching both the safeties and the cornerbacks for the Tigers. Most recently with Oklahoma and Bob Stoops, Martinez brings a great reputation coaching defensive backs to an Auburn team filled with talent in the secondary.
One of the first things on the list for Martinez is going to be shoring up the safety position with the loss of senior Neiko Thorpe. Second on the team last season with 102 tackles, Thorpe added three interceptions and broke up six passes in his only season playing the position.
The good news for Martinez is that junior Demetruce McNeal returns after his first season as a starter for the Tigers. Playing in all 13 games he finished third on the team with 74 tackles. Late in the season McNeal shared time with fellow junior Ryan Smith, who finished the year with 23 tackles and two and a half tackles for a loss.
On the other side the favorite to win the starting job is sophomore Erique Florence. One of the most talented defenders on the roster and a standout on special teams last season, Florence played in all 13 games and finished with 23 tackles and a sack. With a year of experience and an offseason in the weight room, Florence has a chance to be a difference maker on defense beginning this spring.
A pair of players are expected to challenge Florence for playing time in senior Ikeem Means and sophomore Trent Fisher. Earning a scholarship for last season after walking on to the team, Means has been a solid contributor at safety the last two seasons. The son of new St. Louis Rams coach Jeff Fisher, Trent was injured during the 2011 season and missed the second half of the year but should be ready to go this spring.
While the depth at safety is solid, the numbers at the cornerback position are even better even with senior leader T'Sharvan Bell out for the spring after having knee surgery late in the 2011 season. Expected to be full speed for the 2012 season, Bell will likely be there to help out the younger defensive backs this spring while learning the defense himself.
Returning on the other side is one of Auburn's better defensive players in junior Chris Davis. Playing an outstanding game in the bowl win over Virginia as he earned Defensive Player of the Game honors, Davis finished fourth on the team last season with 60 tackles despite missing two games. With the ability to cover and also play physical on the edge, Davis has the chance to develop into one of the league's premier cornerbacks this season.
With Bell out the opposite cornerback position should be a fun one to watch with a load of talented players trying to earn the number one spot this spring. Junior Ryan White and sophomores Jonathon Mincy, Jermaine Whitehead, Robenson Therezie, and Jonathan Rose all have the ability to make a move this spring.
Auburn's holder on field goals and extra points, White also played a good deal at cornerback last season as he finished with 17 tackles. Perhaps the player that made the most impact out of the group last season was Whitehead. A standout on special teams and playing the nickel position late in the year, he made 31 tackles and also added an interception for a touchdown. Playing in all 13 games, Mincy had 29 tackles as a redshirt freshman.
Auburn will open spring practice Friday morning with the A-Day game scheduled for April 14 at 2 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.