Looking For Improvement In Cornerback Play

This is the third in a series of articles previewing Auburn spring football 2004.

Auburn, Ala.--With everybody back except position coach Phillip Lolley, the cornerbacks are expected to be one of the more seasoned groups on the 2004 Auburn football team.

With Lolley moving into a new role as the coaching staff's liaison with high school and pro football teams, defensive coordinator Gene Chizik has expanded duties as a position coach, taking over the assignment as coach of the cornerbacks in addition to handling the safeties.

Chizik says that he expects overall improvement from the group, starting with the most experienced cornerback, senior-to-be Carlos Rogers.

"Carlos needs to step it up and really come and finish this thing off right," Chizik says. "I think he can do that. He did some really good things last year. He played really well, I thought, considering he played most of the year with a broken hand with a pin in it. I think this is the year he needs to shine. He has to be able to shut down guys."

Rogers, who is 6-1, 191, flirted with the idea of making himself available for the NFL draft. However, the same evening that tailbacks Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams announced that they were returning for their senior seasons, Rogers made it unanimous.

Carlos Rogers has 31 career starts heading into his senior season.

"There is no doubt that Carlos made a wise choice to come back for his senior year," says Lolley, who coached Rogers for the past three seasons. "I believe his game is going to improve. I believe if he had come out this year he would have been drafted, but by coming back I think he definitely has a chance to develop into a first round draft pick. By coming back there is no doubt he will get a chance with the pros. He can physically take someone over if he chooses to do so. He has always had confidence. Now his skills match his confidence.

"Carlos improved, even in the last two or three games last year," Lolley adds. "He had the hand hurt and was playing great at the time when he broke it against Tennessee. He could not get up there and be as physical with the receivers as he wanted to be until the Alabama game and the bowl game. He finally got out of that cast. Against Southern Cal and Georgia Tech before he got hurt, he had tremendous physical games where he would take over the receivers and did some great things with them."

Chizik agrees that Rogers has a good chance to play at the NFL level. The defensive coordinator says that the senior has a golden opportunity to make himself a player in high demand by the pro scouts. "That is without question," Chizik says.

In the bowl victory over Wisconsin, redshirt freshman Montae Pitts made his first college start. "That was good for him mentally," Chizik says. "We are hoping that Montae understands a little more about how to compete for a job. We are pleased with the way he played in the bowl game. Obviously, there is a huge, huge area for improvement. I think he understands a little more now about how to play the game the way it needs to be played at this level. I think this spring is going to be big for him in terms of growing as a player."

To begin the 2004 season the way he ended 2003 as a starter, Pitts will have to hold off what should be a serious challenge from junior college transfer David Irons, Jr. Irons worked out with the Tigers last summer and planned to join the team as a sophomore in August, but had to complete more classwork to be eligible to transfer to Auburn. He did that last fall at Butler County Community College in Kansas, where he also had a strong on the field performance.

"The Irons kid is showing tremendous quicks in his workouts so it is going to be a tremendous battle there," Lolley says. Irons will be a junior in eligibility this fall.

David Irons (left) covers Jeris McIntyre.

Another player looking to hold off a challenge from Irons is Kevin Hobbs. One of the surprises of 2003 season was having the walk-on break into the starting lineup for seven games as a sophomore. He made 28 tackles and intercepted three passes.

If he is going to have a chance to start in 2004, Hobbs must improve. "Consistency is the name of the game and we need to see that from Kevin," Chizik says. "He needs to work on his man coverage skills. He has got to work on tackling. I think people went after Kevin last year a little bit and he knows that. We have to work on his whole game. The good thing is that he has a great attitude. He will go out there and work his tail off and try to get the job done."

Former walk-on Lamel Ages, who was put on scholarship in 2002, is expected to add depth as a senior. "Lamel is just a role player for us," Chizik says of the undersized cornerback, who is five-foot-nine, 187. "He really works his tail off. Hopefully, he is a guy you can throw in there and get some reps out of. He is a guy who has been around now for three years and has really worked hard to get into the rotation. He is a great special teams player for us and that is his main role. The more snaps he can help us with on defense the better. I am just looking for him to keep doing what he has been and increase his knowledge of the game, get better and make big plays."

A pair of redshirt freshmen from south Florida will try to make their presence felt in the competition for a starting spot. Patrick Lee, who is 6-0, 180, joins 5-11, 200 Courtney Denson in the mix at cornerback. Denson began his freshman year at quarterback before switching to defense.

"Patrick Lee is going to be in there competing for a job at corner and we will see how he does," Chizik says. "It will be the first time he has really had to compete live. I am looking forward to seeing that. The same thing is the case with Courtney Denson. I think they both want to do it. I think they both want to be good. I am looking forward to working with them."

More depth is expected to come from a pair of walk-ons, Gerald Williams and Zach Gilbert. Williams is a 5-9, 186-pounder who made the traveling squad last season. Gilbert, who is a quick 5-10, 175-pounder, redshirted last season as a freshman.

With three players returning with starting experience and some talented backups ready to challenge for playing time, some of the most competitive battles of spring training could be taking place in the secondary this fall.

Going into the 2003 season, the position was an area of concern with heavy graduation losses. Starting safety Junior Rosegreen was used at times to bolster the group, however, don't look for that to be necessary with more experience and more depth for Chizik to work with this season.

This is the third in a series of articles previewing spring football practice.

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