The 15 practice days of spring will be a major learning experience for the free safeties and strong safeties as well as their position coach, Gene Chizik, the man hired in February to coordinate the entire Tiger defense in addition to coaching the secondary.
"The overall objective this spring is to try to find two solid safeties at both positions to make us two-deep," Chizik tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "You really would like to be able to go into every season with four people at that position that you can really count on."
Depth has been a concern in the secondary in recent years, but that doesn't look to be a problem in 2002. Going into spring drills, 5-10, 202 senior Rashaud Walker and 6-0, 199 sophomore Donnay Young top the depth chart.
Rashaud Walker (left) is shown in a pratice session last fall.
At strong safety, Walker is backed up by 5-10, 202 junior Roshard Gilyard and newcomer Karibi Dede, a 6-1, 204-pound true freshman. Dede is also getting look at cornerback.
Junior Roshard Gilyard
At free safety, 5-10, 193 senior Travaris Robinson is the second stringer behind Young. Robinson, a former wide receiver, played cornerback last season, but late in the year got in some practice time playing free safety. Senior Stanford Simmons, a 6-2, 197-pounder with 15 career starts, is No. 3 and 6-1, 204 redshirt freshman Jared Nelson is also in the mix.
A wildcard entry is sophomore Derrick Graves, a player who is getting looks at both safety spots as well as weakside linebacker. He is a 6-1, 201-pound sophomore who was more known for his abilities as a running back in high school.
"Safety is a position where the guys will ultimately be down in the front playing like a linebacker at times," Chizik says. "It is a position that you do have some injuries at sometimes because it is a physical position. Because of that, you've got to develop two-deep. At this point, right now, we're just trying to mix and match people around who we think can potentially do what we're asking them to do in this defense at that position." Graves saw action on special teams last season as a true freshman.
Commenting on the responsibilities of the safeties in his 4-3 alignment, Chizik says, "Really, the strong safety and the free safety are almost interchangeable type guys within this defense. And, they've got to be able to do a couple of different things.
Donnay Young is shown in action last fall at LSU.
"The first thing they have to do is to be athletic enough to play in the man-to-man situations. At times, they have got to be athletic enough to play two-deep and three-deep pass coverages. But, at the same time, they have to be physical enough to come down to the front and play like a linebacker.
"There are also certain things in our scheme where they've got to be blitzers so they've got to do a variety of things. It is kind of a position where you're a very athletic, undersized linebacker, for the most part. Both positions are that way."
Chizik says after watching video of the 2001 defense in action, he won't go into the spring blindly while coaching the safety. "We have talked about some guys who played last year, who have played the position a lot," Chizik says. "In some ways, we're going to be asking them to do a little different things in this defense. We certainly haven't ruled anybody out, but we feel like we're at least at a decent starting point with that position. We have some guys who played there last year and we also have some guys that we're thinking about moving there. So, we think we are headed in the right direction, but obviously we'll know more once it starts."
Redshirt freshman Jared Nelson
The depth at safety and cornerback is a luxury that Chizik didn't have at Central Florida. "We definitely have a lot of players we can look at," the coordinator says. "Right now, we probably have 15 or 16 guys at the (defensive back) positions and the only thing you're asking for is eight. So, out of the 14, 15, 16 or however many there are right now, we have to come up with half of them that can contribute this season. And that's a good thing. We want to have competition in the spring because four safeties and four corners are what we want to find."
Phillip Lolley will continue to coach the cornerbacks and will help with the safeties when Chizik is tied up with defensive coordinator duties.
"We really want to make this a very competitive situation," Chizik says. "It's just like I told them. I said, ‘Everybody's got a clean slate. Nothing is based on last year and what you did or you didn't do. You start anew, and we'll see what happens in the spring, and we'll base all our decisions after that."
Chizik says who plays where in the secondary is very subject to change in the spring. Free safeties could be strong safeties. Strong safeties could be cornerbacks or linebackers. Cornerbacks could be safeties. "Once we get started, we may have to flip and flop, or mix and match or whatever," Chizik says.
Some players may even play at two spots. Chizik uses Roderick Hood as an example. "He's got very good speed, so right now we're going to start him at the corner position. And a guy like Robinson, who knows? Maybe he is one of those guys who can learn both. Ultimately, you'd like to have one guy that is smart enough to be able to do two things."
The Tigers will practice through April 6th when they conclude spring drills with the annual A-Day Football Game at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Editor's Note: This is the 12th in a series of previews on spring football practice.
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