Secondary Seeing Early Improvements

Auburn's secondary play could be one of the bright spots for the Tigers this season.

Auburn, Ala.—While the depth along the defensive front has gotten plenty of talk as the Auburn Tigers open practice for the 2012 season, in the secondary things are stacked up as well with more than a dozen players in the mix for playing time under first-year coach Willie Martinez. With Chris Davis perhaps the only secondary member who has a lock on a starting job, Martinez said the rest of the positions will take care of themselves over the next few weeks.

I'm a firm believer that the cream of the crop will rise," Martinez said. "There's still some time, there's quite a bit of reps out there for the guys. They're starting to feel comfortable in the system. Before, it was all new. They were playing more like robots. They were so coach-dependent on the calls. But now, as a group, they feel more comfortable. They understand it. Now, they're letting it loose. It's been pretty good, but we're talking about only three practices."

A junior, Davis is the antithesis of the usual cornerback. Very quiet and unassuming off the field, he doesn't like interviews and will rarely talk of himself. When asked about his teammate however, T'Sharvan Bell gave a good analysis of how far Davis has come since arriving at Auburn.

"I'd say he matured a lot," Bell said of Davis. "He's a leader out there now. Guys respect him, because they know he's tough. They know he's going to give them 110 percent every play. Every time you look on the film, 95 percent of the time, he's going to be lined up right, he's doing it right. He's come a long way. I tell him that all the time, you're so different than when you first got here. I'm proud of him."

Chris Davis

With Robenson Therezie, Bell and Jonathan Mincy all working at cornerback and at the nickel defensive back position, and Erique Florence, Demetruce McNeal, Ryan Smith, and Jermaine Whitehead among those in the mix at safety, getting reps for all those players is among the biggest challenges of preseason camp. Making the move permanently to safety, the sophomore Whitehead said for him it's all about making every rep count.

"I'm getting the feel of it," Whitehead said. "It's still a little difficult, not difficult but different. I'm still learning and picking up new things every day. I'm listening to the coaches and taking a hold of all of it.

"It's a shuffle every day," he added. "We are all competing. They are giving us all a fair shot. That's the great thing about it. The cream rises to the top."

Facing offensive attacks such as Clemson, Mississippi State, LSU and Arkansas early in the season that will also use three and four receiver sets offensively at times, it will be important for the Tigers to find a fifth defensive back capable of playing inside. Forced to help in the running game while also facing off against the other team's top receiver much of the time, Martinez said he's looking for a unique player to man that inside spot.

Right now the favorite to move inside is Davis with Bell and Mincy in the mix. Physical enough to handle the running game while also taking on bigger wide receivers man-to-man, Davis could give Auburn a playmaker closer to the line of scrimmage similar to how LSU uses Tyrann Mathieu defensively. Moving him inside is something that could be in the works with Martinez hinting that they want their best guy inside in those situations.

"That's what we would prefer," Martinez said. "That's a position that demands a lot. You've got offenses whose best receivers are in that slot position a lot of times, and you get a lot of the mismatches with linebackers and safeties, so you can put a guy in there who has corner skills. Right now, that's the rotation."

With the full pads going on for the first time on Monday, Auburn is just beginning to hit its stride in preseason practice. Needing to make big improvements defensively from last season , Whitehead said he's already seen some good things and he's expecting more to come this fall.

"I think we moved ahead in the summer," he said. "Communication isn't a problem. We're seeing things a whole lot better. We have a feel for the defense. We know what the coaches expect and how it's supposed to look. We're calling our own mistakes out. We're just learning every day."

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