Thin AU Secondary Faces Big Test From UGA

Auburn defensive backs Daren Bates and Neiko Thorpe talk about the challenge of facing Georgia's A.J. Green.

Auburn, Ala.--When the Auburn Tigers (7-3, 3-3) face the Georgia Bulldogs (5-4, 3-3) this Saturday night at Sanford Stadium it will be with a secondary that is drastically different from the one many expected from the Tigers this season.

Absent from the field will be veteran safety Zac Etheridge, who injured his neck early in the Ole Miss game and is done for at least the rest of the season. Also missing is fellow veteran safety Mike McNeil. The junior broke his leg late in spring practice and has missed the entire 2009 season.

That's just the start of things for the Tigers though as senior Aairon Savage was expected back this season after missing 2008 because of a knee injury, but an Achilles injury sidelined him before the year began. That's three players with a lot of experience for the Tigers, but not all of the story.

Before the season started Coach Gene Chizik dismissed safeties Christian Thompson and Marcus Jemison for a violation of team rules. Add in an early season injury to sophomore Drew Cole and you have the makings of a disaster for the Auburn defense in 2009.

But things haven't turned out that way thanks to some solid play from cornerbacks Walter McFadden and Neiko Thorpe as well as the emergence of true freshman safety Daren Bates. The trio has started all 10 games for the Tigers on defense this season to give some semblance of order and unity on defense.

The newcomer to the starting lineup is junior college transfer Demond Washington. Playing cornerback and nickel back the first nine weeks of the season, the Tallassee native moved to safety for the Furman game and did a solid job his first time out. Bates said they weren't surprised with the way he played because he brings some different skills to the table because of his background.

"It was good," Bates said. "We communicated like the coaches needed us to do. We made sure we were on the right page. We've got to do the same thing this week. It's going to be a much better opponent.

"We play more man with him because he's a corner back there," Bates added. "With him he's got the speed to come down the alley on tackles."

That togetherness on defense is something that has been a work in progress this season with so many different guys playing a key role on the defense and not much depth to work with. Despite that the success has started to build, something Thorpe said the team senses.

"I think we're coming along pretty good," Thorpe said. "We know what we need to do. We're just focusing on trying to get it done."

Bates is in agreement, which normally wouldn't mean as much from a true freshman but this is no regular true freshman. A guy who has stepped up to become a solid player for the Tigers, he spent his entire off day on Monday watching every Georgia game of the season to familiarize himself with the Bulldogs on offense. He said as a defense this Auburn team is coming together one week at a time.

"It just builds," Bates said. "Each week that we get better we get more confidence. We see things we've done right and things we've done wrong. We correct everything so it makes us have more confidence."

Bates, Thorpe and the rest of the Auburn secondary will have its work cut out this week against Georgia and superstar wide receiver A.J. Green. Despite missing last week with an injury the sophomore has hauled in 44 receptions for 732 yards and six touchdowns. His catches and yardage easily double anyone else on Georgia's roster and makes him a player to focus on for the Tigers this week.

"He's a heck of a receiver, probably the best we'll play this year," Bates said. "We're just going to have to get physical with him and put our hands on him to mess up his routes. We can't give him the jump balls that he likes. It just comes down to execution."

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