Rudy Ford (above) is a returning starter for the Tigers.
McGriff and the rest of Auburn’s defensive coaching staff are trying to prepare the Tigers for plenty of challenges on the 2016 football schedule starting with the season opener vs. high-scoring Clemson.
Johnathan Ford, Auburn’s leading tackler the past two seasons, moved from safety to nickel during the 2015 season and performed well in his new role.
McGriff, who made the move to Auburn from the New Orleans Saints, has been coaching Ford going back to spring training.
“Rudy has got tremendous size for a back-end guy,” McGriff says. “He has exceptional speed, he has got good movement skills and I think he is going to thrive once he is closer to the line of scrimmage because he will be involved in just about every play whether it is a run play or a pass play to that side of the field.
“We are putting him in an opportunity where he has to be engaged in every play to keep the offense from advancing,” the coach points out. “You want your better players in that spot.
“Right now, Rudy has one of the better skill sets on the team. We are trying to bring him along at the nickel spot and I think you will see him thrive at that spot.”
McGriff is also looking to build the depth at the position. Josh Holsey, a fifth-year senior who has started at cornerback and safety, is having a good preseason camp, the coach says. Holsey missed spring training while recovering from ACL surgery, which kept him out in 2015.
Josh Holsey is a fifth-year senior for the Tigers.
Javaris Davis, a redshirt freshman cornerback, and junior safety Stephen Roberts are also getting practice time at nickel. Roberts has also played cornerback since getting to Auburn.
McGriff says he likes the group. “You are talking four guys there who have good skill sets, they have good short-area quickness, they have got good contact skills and they have got good football IQs because you have got to make adjustments. You have to have more than one guy who can play that spot.”
More depth could come from graduate transfer Marshall Taylor, who missed the first week of practice for what Coach Gus Malzahn says are personal reasons. “We are looking at him, on his return, possibly helping us at corner or inside at the nickel spot,” McGriff says. “We will just have to see once we get him back, get him on the grass moving around.”
McGriff notes that when he played football, the nickel position was on the field about “ten to 15 percent of the plays,” something that has really changed. “Now it is about 80 percent of the game,” he says. “That position has become very critical.”
Explaining why the nickel spot has become more important, the coach says, “When we look at guys at the NFL level and the collegiate level, that guy who comes out as the third receiver is not a third receiver, he is a starter. Guys are getting drafted to play inside slot. Teams now run a lot of one-back so teams will take the field with three wide receivers. That position has become very important. It is almost to the point where you have to start with three corners.”
“Not only does he have to cover that most talented receiver who is going to be shifty and who has tremendous short-area quickness, he has got to be involved in the running game. You want a guy who is going to have similar skills to a corner, but can tackle almost like a safety. Those guys are hard to find.”