As Chizik's second Auburn team prepares to hit the practice field on Wednesday for the opening day of spring drills 2010, once again the secondary looks like it has the potential to be an area of strength.
In fact, the coaches feel good enough about the depth on that part of the team to move starting safety Daren Bates to outside linebacker to bolster that was also short on depth last season.
If Bates stays at linebacker, as expected, that means that two of last year's secondary starters must be replaced. The other one, senior cornerback Walter McFadden, is hoping that he will be able to earn a living playing in the National Football League this year.
The starter at the other cornerback spot, Neiko Thorpe, is back for his junior year after finishing the 2009 season with a game-winning tackle in overtime as the Tigers defeated Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
Neiko Thorpe is expected to be a key member of Auburn's defense this year.
Thorpe started all 13 games last season and made 56 solo tackles and 28 assists while intercepting two passes and forcing a fumble. The previous season he started once and played in 13 games while earning Freshman All-SEC honors.
Demond Washington is coming off an eventful first season at Auburn. The juco transfer started four games and contributed in all 13. He made one start at cornerback before moving to safety to start the final three games there. Washington did an admirable job of filling in at his new position after safety Zac Etheridge was seriously injured in the Ole Miss game.
At 5-9, 185 pounds with a lot of quickness, cornerback is Washington's natural position and he is expected to return there this season. He finished the 2009 campaign with 36 total tackles.
A player who was expected to be a starter at cornerback last year, Aairon Savage, was lost for the season with an Achilles injury. However, he has been granted an extra year of eligibility and says he is full speed, ready to go after not playing in a game since the 2007 season when he lined up at safety for the Tigers.
Savage, who was redshirted in 2005, started 11 games the next year and earned Freshman All-SEC honors as an aggressive safety. Slowed by injuries in 2007, he played in just seven games and then he missed the entire 2008 season when he suffered a serious knee injury in a preseason drill.
T'Sharvan Bell, another Tiger who was sidelined in 2008 by an injury, made his Auburn debut last season and played in all 13 games. He made just seven solo tackles and two assists in limited playing time, but finished the season with a pair of interceptions in the bowl game to give him three for the season.
Bell, who will be a redshirt sophomore this year, is joined at cornerback by D'Antoine Hood, a junior who made nine tackles last year in 10 games. He has two starts as an Auburn player.
Attrition was a major issue at safety last season. The Tigers lost four players before the opening game. Christian Thompson and Marcus Jemison were dismissed from the team and returning starter Mike McNeil broke a bone in his leg that kept him sidelined the entire season.
Savage, a former starter at safety, was unavailable to fill the void with his injury so that radically changed the look of the secondary by opening night when the Tigers went with true freshman Bates in the lineup.
Aariron Savage is excited to return to action.
Tommy Thigpen, Auburn's safety coach, notes that the attrition in the secondary was so severe last year it could have been a recipe for a disaster, but says he likes the mental toughness the players showed to step in and do their best to get the job done.
One of the players who responded admirably to the challenge was Bates. The freshman finished the season with 70 tackles and an interception while starting every game. He could return to safety this year if needed, but unless plans change the sophomore is expected to play linebacker, another area of the team short on depth in 2009.
Mike McNeil should add experience to the secondary lineup this fall.
McNeil played in 13 games as a true freshman in 2007 and made 35 tackles. He broke into the starting lineup in 2008 and finished the year with 65 tackles and a fumble recovery. He has showed improvement in spring drills last year and AU's coaches were hoping he would have a strong season, but the injury prevented that from happening.
Drew Cole, another safety who was injured last year, should be ready to have his best season. He played in the first two games and the final two after seeing action in 11 games the previous season as a true freshman.
Drew Cole was pushing for a starting job in preseason last year prior to an injury.
Joining Cole on the roster as a junior safety is Mike Slade, who played in 12 games last season. He finished the year with eight solo tackles and five assists.
It is still too early to know for sure how much of a factor that Zac Etheridge can be at safety as he continues to make good progress on his recovery from a serious neck/spine injury. Etheridge, a three-year starter who made 52 tackles in eight games last season, is out of his neck brace and continuing to rehab in hopes of playing this fall.
"The more competition we get at each position, the better we will be," Thigpen says. "They competed every game, but it gets better when there is a guy behind you trying to get your spot and put you on the bench."
Auburn's highly-regarded signee class includes players who are expected to bolster the secondary when preseason drills begin in August. That group includes cornerback Chris Davis from Woodlawn High in Birmingham, safety Demetruce McNeal from Banneker High in College Park, Ga., cornerback Jonathan Mincy from Southwest DeKalb High in Decatur, Ga., safety Ryan Smith from Cordova High and cornerback Ryan White from Lincoln High in Tallahassee, Fla.