Whitehead Seeing Improvement On Defense

Auburn safety Jermaine Whitehead discusses the first scrimmage of the preseason and the improvement on defense.

Auburn, Ala.--Part of a secondary that had just one interception last season in 12 games, junior safety Jermaine Whitehead has seen the focus on forcing turnovers become a big part of Coach Ellis Johnson's defense since the Auburn Tigers took the field in spring practice.

In Auburn's first preseason scrimmage on Wednesday, the defense forced several turnovers including interceptions by senior linebacker Jake Holland and fellow senior cornerback Chris Davis. Hoping to see that become a normal occurrence in 2013, Whitehead noted it was fun to see his teammates making plays.

"I can't remember what routes they were," Whitehead said. "I know one was a deep ball, I think one was a post that we had help in. It's part of the scheme that put us in position to make those plays, which is a credit to coach Johnson and how he's running his defense and knows when to call certain things."

Whitehead has been forced to take on a much bigger role for the defense with veteran safety Demetruce McNeal missing the first six practices after having minor surgery (tonsils removed) that was complicated by an infection. Without him on the field the Tigers have used sophomore cornerback Josh Holsey as the first-team safety. Whitehead said it has made him a better player because he's been forced to step up his game on and off the field.

"My role kind of had to pick up putting a guy in there with a little less experience," Whitehead said. "I feel good at being a leader and being able to direct traffic out there. I know with him being out I have to look out for the other guy a little bit more being that it's a new position for those guys that are learning that. He's going to get back and I'll be okay with that."

Josh Holsey works on his hands during practice.

Even when McNeal returns it's not a given he'll be able to take his job back from the athletic Holsey. Bigger and faster than he was last year, Holsey isn't the prototypical safety, but his coverage skills and physical nature make him a viable option at the position. Whitehead said he's seen some very good signs from his fellow defensive back so far and he thinks he's got a bright future no matter where he lines up.

"He's a great player," Whitehead said. "I think we can put him anywhere on the field and he'd be prosperous, but at safety I saw some flashes of him running downhill to the ball and making plays. I made that transition my freshman year and my sophomore year. I can help him and tell him how much space he's got to cover on those tackles and things. He's been a little brother to me and I think he looked pretty good out there.

"Everything back there is a little slower than when you're at corner," Whitehead added. "The ball gets around the edge faster at corner. When you're at safety you read a lot more and see a lot more of the field. You're helping everybody. You're making plays everywhere. He's just embracing that role and he's taking it a lot better than I did I think."

With one scrimmage under their belts and plenty of work still left to be done, the Tigers will get back to work with two practices on Thursday to get ready for another scrimmage coming on Saturday. Trying to get a feel for exactly where the defense stands after the first week of practice, Whitehead said it's all about improving and moving forward.

"We have all seen great strides, especially from the spring," the junior said. He added that he would give the group a B- grade on the first scrimmage. "Sometimes today we had it to perfection. We missed a play or two and we're going to get it perfect. We're going to get it right."

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