Etheridge Fresh And Healthy For Bulldogs

After a pair of games in which the Auburn secondary wasn't really challenged by the passing attacks of Ole Miss and Tennessee Tech, the Tiger defensive backs could have their work cut out for them on Saturday against Georgia.

Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn defense played solid early in the year and, with the exception of the second half of LSU, has been playing lights out defense in recent games.

The Tigers have allowed seven points or less in four of the last five games and are fifth nationally in scoring defense, allowing just 14.5 points per game this season.

A big reason has been the progression of Zac Etheridge, a redshirt freshman safety from Charles Henderson High School in Troy.

"He's put together an outstanding year for a redshirt freshman in my opinion," says defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. "He's really played well. He's been really, really productive, he's tackled well, he plays our dime so he can play in the box, and he's got good box instincts.

"Here is a guy that was not a very sought after guy," Muschamp continues. "David Gibbs did a great job of evaluating him in camp and offering him a scholarship. We're glad to have him."

Gibbs was Auburn's defensive coordinator in 2005, who recruited Etheridge to Auburn. "He liked the way I tackled in the open field when he was here," says Etheridge, who played cornerback in high school and wasn't highly recruited. He played corner and safety while redshirting last season and has filled a similar role in 2007. He acts as a slot corner in dime situations and as a safety in the regular and nickel packages.

In preseason, because of his cover skills and open field tackling, he took two-year starter Eric Brock's starting safety job alongside Aairon Savage. However, Brock has played as much as anybody in the secondary this season with Savage being out with an MCL sprain and Etheridge moving down to the line of scrimmage in the dime.

"We're roommates when we travel," Etheridge says of Brock. "He's very experienced and we talk about a lot of things like what to expect in every game. He's more experienced and he helps a lot."

Savage returned to action last week against Tennessee Tech, and Brock still got a majority of the defensive snaps in the first half with Michael McNeil stepping in during the second half. Etheridge did not play because of a sore hip and AC sprain in his right shoulder.

"The safeties are all interchangeable, so Mike, Eric, Aairon and Zac can all play either/or," notes Muschamp, who uses left and right safeties rather than strong and free.

"(Etheridge) could have played Saturday," Muschamp adds. "We held him. He's had a hip and a shoulder. He certainly could have played, but we felt like we could hold him. Aairon is getting back to full speed. He's probably about 85 percent right now. He had a severe MCL and it was a bad injury. It was good to get him back and playing. He probably could have played against Ole Miss, but he's in that 75 to 80 percent range and we didn't know if we could get him in that situation."

Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford is still youthful under center, but he'll have a ton of veterans like Sean Bailey, Mohamed Massaquoi and Mikey Henderson to throw to this Saturday against the Tigers secondary.

"I had a couple of injuries that had been nagging all season and I was just playing through them," Etheridge says. "It was a great week to sit down and relax and get stronger in my shoulder.

"It's been a pretty good season," he continues. "I've just got to try to be more productive. All of us have to make more plays on defense--just try to step up and make more plays for the team and get a couple of interceptions.

"(Stafford) has got a pretty good arm and we just hope to play good against him and hold him down."

Kickoff is set for shortly after 2:30 p.m. CST on CBS.

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