AU Spring Preview 10: DBs and Overall Defense

Auburn's new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads talks about the defense and secondary as the Tigers get spring practice underway.

Auburn, Ala.--Coming into his new job and hitting the ground running, Auburn first-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads has been busy since arriving on the Plains with recruiting and getting ready for Auburn's early spring football practice.

Taking over for the departed Will Muschamp, Rhoads first had to become familiar with Auburn's current defensive scheme while also working with the current staff to come up with a plan to work on in spring practice. Rhoads says that now his biggest job begins and that is learning his players.

"The time leading up to now was to get the staff on the same page and the players on the same page with what we're trying to accomplish from a schematic standpoint," Rhoads tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "What I've got to learn now is what are these guys physically capable of and what are they mentally capable of? That will be priority number one."

Auburn's secondary coach as well as coordinator, Rhoads has plenty of talent to work with despite the loss of seniors Patrick Lee, Jonathan Wilhite and Zach Gilbert at cornerback as well as Eric Brock at safety.

' Jerraud Powers is a proven player at cornerback.

Back to lead the way in the secondary are a trio of players with starting experience in juniors Jerraud Powers and Aairon Savage as well as sophomore Zac Etheridge. Fourth on the team with 63 tackles, Powers added four interceptions and four tackles for a loss. Injured much of the 2007 season, Savage has been a valuable safety in his first two seasons, but moves to cornerback in the spring to try to make his mark on the defense.

In addition to those two Etheridge quickly became a key member of Auburn's secondary last season as he started 12 games and finished second on the team in tackles with 65. Expected to join Etheridge as one of the starting safeties is sophomore Michael McNeil. A physical player, McNeil finished 2007 with 35 tackles. Also at safety in the spring is redshirt freshman Michael Slade from Tallahassee, Fla., as well as walk-on Jonathan Vickers.

While Powers has one side wrapped up at cornerback, there is a wide open battle on the left side of the defense with junior Walter McFadden and sophomore Ryan Williams locked in a battle with Savage currently working behind Powers. Rhoads says that while he's anxious to see what he's got to work with, he didn't do too much preparation so he could make sure and enter the spring with a clean slate.

"My goal, my priority, is to find out what I have," Rhoads says. "I really didn't waste a lot of time studying talent on film, studying capabilities on film, I wanted to learn them in the spring. I don't want to be influenced. I want to learn that for myself."

Mike McNeil saw significant playing time last season as a true freshman safety.

Last season Auburn used a great deal of nickel (five defensive backs) and dime (six defensive backs) packages on defense with the depth concerns at linebacker due to a rash of injuries early in the season. It is something Muschamp stayed with even late into season because of its productivity. Rhoads says that right now he's not sure what percentage of AU's 2007 defensive package he will use, but he's sure there will be some of the same things on defense in his first year at Auburn.

"We'll change it up a little bit, but without a doubt you'll see a lot of similarity and a lot of carryover to what they did," he says. "Continuity is important whether it's with the staff, with the players, or with learning. We want to maintain continuity with what they know.

"If one of the things I like to do is similar to what they were doing then we'll keep doing it that way. There are some things I love and I know are effective and are bread and butter to what my background is and they'll become bread and butter here as well. It will truly be a mix of the new and a blend of the old."

Ryan Williams, who saw action as a true freshman last season, is expected to push for a starting assignment at cornerback.

Returning 20 players with playing experience and nine who started at least one game last season, the Tigers certainly have potential on the defensive side of the football. While much of the talent is still on the young side, Rhoads says a lot of the players been in the battles and you can tell they understand what is expected of them.

"It's extremely important because whether you're putting something in new or it's something that is old, when they're looking at you and you can tell by how they're looking at you that they get it then you can start doing things fast," Rhoads says. "Now you can start coaching the finer things that go along with scheme and the plays you see. From what I can gauge right now we have that."

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