Gibbs says he is going into spring training, which starts on Tuesday, with an open mind about who should play in the secondary for the 2005 Tigers. "I would think that it is a great opportunity for the guys who weren't starters last year," he says.
"I know when I was a player and I had position coach changes I was excited," Gibbs adds. "That is not to say that one way is better than the other or the new coach is better than the old coach, but it is something new, something exciting to keep you stimulated.
"I have no pre-conceived opinions," the new Auburn coach says. "All I know is what I have seen out here (winter workouts) so far. You can't hide in football. If you are good football player, you are going to show up. If you are coward, you are going to show up as a coward. You can't hide. I believe that. The best players will show up. Every now and then a kid will grow up and come back and really surprise you, but the real football players aren't hiding."
The two players the Tigers must replace had a wealth of starting experience and both made All-America teams last season. Cornerback Carlos Rogers and strong safety Junior Rosegreen were two of the key components to Auburn's 2004 success.
Will Herring makes a play in the 2004 SEC Championship Game.
The two other secondary starters return. Will Herring will be a junior this season and already has two full years of experience as a starter. Montae Pitts, who will be a junior, too, is the returning starter at cornerback.
"Pitts started every game last year," Gibbs notes. "He will obviously be starting on one side when we begin practice. He has had a good offseason so far. I am looking forward to working with him. David Irons on the other side was hurt last season. He looks good running around out there, but I am not sure how much he will be able to do in the spring coming off his knee injury.
Montae Pitts will be a redshirt junior this fall.
"Kevin Hobbs has been around a long time," Gibbs says of the former starting cornerback, who has also played free safety. "He seems to be a smart guy who understands the defense. He played a lot two years ago, but didn't play as much last season. I don't know the reason why, but the slate is clean when you get a new coach."
With backup safety Donnay Young gone, too, there is nobody else in the secondary who has significant playing time at the college level.
"I don't know a lot about the young guys," Gibbs says. "To be honest with you, I don't know where I am going to put these guys. After a couple of days of practice, I will probably rearrange them.
"The young guys all look good running around out there. Anthony Campbell looks like he has great speed. Patrick Lee looks quick in conditioning drills. Tristan Davis has shown up and had a good offseason. I don't know where he is going to play yet. The same is true of Lorenzo Ferguson. He has a big, long body and he can run. He looks like a safety, but people tell me he has corner skills so we will have to wait and see on him."
Campbell, Davis and Ferguson will be redshirt freshmen this season and Patrick Lee is a sophomore. Tony Bell and Eric Brock, a pair of players expected to challenge for playing time at safety, are both sophomores while Steve Gandy is a redshirt freshman.
The Tigers also return Zach Gilbert, who played as a backup cornerback last season as a redshirt freshman.
"The good news is that we have a good group to choose from," Gibbs says. "The bad news is that a lot of these guys haven't played before. That is what spring practice and two-a-days are for. I really believe these guys have done a great job of recruiting and it is up to the coach to get these guys to play.
Steve Gandy spent last season as a redshirt.
Auburn will continue to run an aggressive style 4-3 defense and may become even more aggressive with Gibbs running the show. However, Gibbs says he will need a lot more time studying the personnel before he can make that type of judgement.
Gibbs is sure about how he wants his safeties to play. "In the system that I coach and the way I coach the secondary you have to know both safety positions," he says. "With as much shifting and trading as offenses do now, they end up getting you to play the other position.
"Right now Will Herring is the free safety and he has been the starting free safety for a couple of years. I am looking forward to working with him. He needs to step up and get these young guys in line and help them grow as well.
"After that there are a bunch of young guys who are highly recruited guys who are great athletes who haven't been on the field yet--Tony Bell, Brock and Gandy look good running around out there. I am excited about the group, but I just don't know what we are going to do until we line up and play Georgia Tech. If these young guys step up, we are going to be really good in the back end."
Gibbs says he isn't sure if Hobbs will be competing for a safety job, where he played well in preseason last year before injuries forced him to move back to cornerback last August. "Hobbs is a smart guy," Gibbs says. "There is no question from talking to him that he understands both positions. We will probably start out with him at corner and let Brock, Bell and Gandy go for the (strong safety) spot and keep an older guy at corner to help the young guys much the way we expect Herring to help the young guys at safety."
Gibbs and the Tigers open spring drills on Tuesday and will practice daily through Saturday when they will have their first scrimmage. The Tuesday and Wednesday practices will be in shorts.