AU Spring Football Preview: Defensive Backs

Auburn defensive coordinator Will Muschamp comments on what he expects from the safeties and cornerbacks this spring.

Auburn, Ala.--With three of four starters returning in the secondary, at first glance it would appear this part of the defense might be the least of Will Muschamp's concerns during Auburn's spring football drills.

However, there are plenty of reasons why Auburn's second-year defensive coordinator and secondary coach says AU's defensive backs have a great deal to get accomplished in spring training.

"We have got a lot of room for improvement," Muschamp says. "We have 15 opportunities to do that this spring and we have challenged the kids to go out and do that. If they do that, we will be a much improved team from where we are today."

If the Tigers were lining up to play the season opener vs. Kansas State today, the starting lineup at cornerback would feature a pair of experienced players even though the Tigers graduated starter David Irons. Patrick Lee, who will be a senior, is running first team on the depth chart along with senior Jonathan Wilhite.

"I think Patrick and Jonathan will work with the first group," Muschamp says. "That can change from day to day. We are looking for more consistency at every position, especially that one. David was a solid player for us. Unfortunately for us, he has moved on. Fortunately for David, he has graduated and has a chance to play more football."

Wilhite has extensive starting experience the past two seasons after transferring to Auburn from Butler County Community College in Kansas where he played one season. Impressive in 2005, he had his impressive moments last fall, but an injury sidelined him for three games in the heart of the season and left him at less than full speed in other games.

When Wilhite was sidelined, Lee moved into a starting spot, something he had done five times the previous season. Unless there is a surprise, Lee and Wilhite will be on the field at the same time this year as the starters. Finding other cornerbacks who are ready to play in big games is a major goal this spring.

"Walter McFadden is a guy who will need to step up and do a good job for us," Muschamp says of the cornerback, who will be a redshirt sophomore this fall.

"Aairon Savage and Zach Etheridge will rep at the cornerback position as well because I think you have always got to prepare for situations that can happen throughout the season," Muschamp says. "We will get them ready to play at cornerback along with Zach Gilbert."

McFadden saw limited duty last fall. Savage is the returning starter at free safety and Etheridge redshirted this past fall as a freshman and he showed potential at both cornerback and safety. Gilbert, who will be a senior this season, doesn't have starting experience but has played in 25 games for the Tigers after making the roster as a walk-on.

At the safety spots, the returning starters are back with Savage lined up next to strong safety Eric Brock, who had by far his best season last fall as a junior.

"Aairon and Eric will work with the first group and Zach Etheridge is going to rep with the safeties," Muschamp says. "Unfortunately for us, Lorenzo Ferguson and Jerraud Powers are both injured at the safety positions. They will be able to do some individual work, but they won't do any contact work so they will be limited in what they can do. Both of those guys will be playing a good bit for us this season."

Zach Etheridge is shown at Auburn's first spring practice of 2007.

Ferguson, who started two games last fall as a sophomore, is recovering from major shoulder surgery. It is not certain when he will be cleared for full speed action. Powers, who played extensively last fall as a redshirt freshman, had minor surgery on his shoulder in the offseason.

With backup safety Tristan Davis returning to offense to get another shot at tailback, little-used players like Blake Shrader and walk-ons Jonathan Vickers, Josh Hebert, Brett Carr and Austin Hoyt will get looks at the safety positions. "They will all get some opportunities," Muschamp says.

Despite missing two safeties with game experience from the contact work this spring, Muschamp says, "We will just adjust, adapt and overcome. You coach who is there and play who is there and that is what we will do. We will be able to move some guys around if we had to and do some different things. We will be able to adjust daily. The biggest thing we need to do this spring is to improve on this consistency in what we are doing with fundamentals and technique.

Eric Brock got plenty of prime time exposure as a junior.

"We sat down with the defense on Thursday and we went over some things that are important to us," says Muschamp, whose Tigers finished 11-2 in his first season as AU's defensive coordinator. "First was stopping the run," he says. "We have to get better up front, which accumulates to a lot of things--run fits, leveraging the football the proper way, control blocks up front and demand a double-team with our front people. When you say stop the run that means an awful lot of things to me.

"We have to improve on third down," the defensive coordinator says. "That is a point of emphasis. We also have to continue to do a great job of getting turnovers, which we did late in the year. It really created some momentum for our team. Of the 25 turnovers we got last year, we ended up scoring on 18 of them. That tells you how important turnovers are.

"We have got to eliminate big plays," Muschamp adds. "We gave up 54 explosive plays--runs of 15 yards or more and passes of 20 yards or more so we have got to do a better job of eliminating those even though a lot of them didn't come off mistakes. We play against a lot of good people in this league, but we can do a better job with our eye control and the different things we are doing defensively to get ourselves in better position to make plays on the ball down the field as far as the secondary is concerned and leveraging the ball up front."

The Tigers will work out through March 17th when they will conclude their spring drills with the annual A-Day Game that will kick off at 1 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

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