Editor's Note: These lists feature our thoughts on the most players for Auburn heading into the 2016 football season. We are counting down 16 key Tigers for the offense and 16 more for the defense as Coach Gus Malzahn's team prepares to face Clemson in the season opener.
Auburn, Ala.--Playing sparingly as a true freshman at cornerback, Stephen Roberts was used mostly on special teams his first season at Auburn and in year two things didn’t look much different until a position move potentially changed his career and perhaps the fortunes of the defense in the process.
Earning a starting role for the first time against Georgia, Roberts started the final four games of the season and those were perhaps the best four games of defense the Tigers played all season. His move was just one of the reasons why, but there is no questioning that Roberts brings something to the table at safety.
With the coverage skills to play corner if needed, Roberts can match up with a third or fourth receiver, which he showed in the bowl win over Memphis. As a standout at Opelika High School, Roberts was a good cornerback and a productive quarterback, but he was at his best when he lined up at safety for the Bulldogs. That trend looks like it will continue during his time at Auburn.
Best Case Scenario: The hope for Auburn’s coaches is that Roberts continues to take strides forward as a player with the valuable experience he got late in the 2015 season. With 21 of his 26 total tackles coming in his four starts, the junior showed the ability to come up and be physical against the running game while also doing a good job of not giving up the big play. That is why he is No. 14 on the defensive list of key players for the 2016 team.
Worst Case Scenario: The only downside for Roberts is a lack of ideal size to play the safety position in the SEC. With physical running still a staple for some teams in the Southeastern Conference, most notably with Leonard Fournette and LSU, Roberts may have his hands full at times. If he struggles getting down the bigger backs in the league that could be a problem for the Tigers.
Career Comparison: While he doesn’t have the swagger of Junior Rosegreen just yet, his career has mirrored that of the former Auburn standout so far. Playing cornerback as a freshman, Rosegreen backed up Roderick Hood his first year with the Tigers and got some valuable experience in the defensive backfield.
A move to safety took Rosegreen’s career to another level with three interceptions the next two seasons before his monster senior year with the Tigers. Picking off six passes in 2004, including four at Tennessee, Rosegreen overcame a lack of size with his ball skills and a physical attitude that never wavered.
If Roberts can continue on his path upward and turn into anything close to the player that Rosegreen was it would be huge for Auburn’s defense moving forward.
Stephen Roberts is shown at the game night event prior to Auburn's bowl victory over Memphis.
Roberts At His Best: In his first career start he made five solo tackles and two assists against the Georgia Bulldogs. That first real glimpse of what he could do at safety showed the potential he has got at the position because of his ability to make plays from sideline to sideline.
Quote: “That gave me big confidence,” Roberts said of his experience in 2015. “I came in the last three or four big games so that gave me a big boost of confidence. It boosted my confidence higher than what it was at the beginning of the season. It helped me out a lot.”