With seniors Zac Etheridge and Aairon Savage back on the field together for the first time since 2007 and junior Mike McNeil back after a broken fibula caused him to miss the entire 2009 schedule, Auburn's secondary gets a big boost in terms of leadership and experience. Etheridge says it's something the three of them have talked about and dreamed about for a long time.
"It worked out perfectly Aairon being able to come back and be a part of this year, his sixth year, and Mike and myself being here," Etheridge tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "All three of us came back from very, very hurtful injuries.
"I think it shows that we are all looking forward to this year and just working together," he adds. "Things happen for a reason. There is no telling what the secondary might turn out to be, but we are all happy for each other. All three of us are up for a starting spot so it is going to be very competitive out there in our group so we are just all looking forward to it."
In addition to those three players at safety, Auburn returns juniors Drew Cole and Mike Slade as well as talented sophomore walk-on Ikeem Means. Throw in promising true freshmen Demetruce McNeal and Ryan Smith and you have a solid group for the Tigers to throw at opponents.
Even with all those bodies senior cornerback Demond Washington says for him the two returning seniors are the most important additions for Auburn in 2010.
"It is tremendous because both of those guys are very smart," Washington says. "Even though with me being a senior, it is just my second year to be here and they help me out tremendously. They can tell me you are doing this right or that right.
"At first when I got here I didn't know as much as I know now," Washington says. "Being in their shoes, I know those are some hard shoes to fill. Their leadership there is tremendous."
The injury situation last season forced the Tigers to start true freshman Daren Bates every game at safety and towards the end of the season Washington moved back there to try to fill the gap as well. He started the final four games at safety for the Tigers. This year the Tallassee native will be back home at cornerback and with the addition of the guys at safety he hopes he'll be able to stay there.
"I am just excited to just go out and do something I know I can do just going out up under Coach Chiz (Gene Chizik), Coach Thig (Tommy Thigen) and Coach Lolley (Phillip Lolley)," Washington says. "They worked very hard with me in the spring. I feel like I am in the place I can make plays and I am very excited about it."
Behind Washington and fellow starter Neiko Thorpe the Tigers have very little experience with only T'Sharvan Bell and Anthony Morgan as returning players. Three freshmen (Jonathan Mincy, Chris Davis, Ryan White) should all challenge for playing time immediately on defense and special teams. Etheridge says while he hasn't had the opportunity to work closely with them, he's heard some good things about the newcomers.
"I haven't been with the corners much, but Demond has talked about Mincy like every day saying, ‘He can help us, he can help us, we just have to take him under our wing.' That will be one of the guys who I know who has the size already who can help us. "With the young safeties they have just got to compete because there is a lot of depth," Etheridge adds. "We wish them the best and we have to help them out throughout camp."
Etheridge will be back in action after getting the word in July that team doctors have cleared him to play as a senior after suffering a career-threatening neck and spine injury vs. Ole Miss last season.
With the depth to compete at a higher level for longer periods of time and experience coming back in key spots, Washington says he's looking for a much improved secondary this fall. That will be the goal for the entire defense coming off a disappointing 2009 campaign and it's something Washington said is very attainable.
"We had a lot of guys who came back healthy," he says. "We have freshmen coming in looking like they are going to play some. We have got a lot depth now plus we have guys who seem to know about coming in and playing as a team so I feel like we are going to be a lot better this year."