Corey Broomfield and Nickoe Whitley can hardly wait. After a solid debut together the strong and free safeties, respectively, are eager to test this new-for-2012 tandem against a much tougher Tiger team.
The move of Broomfield, an all-conference-quality cornerback the last three years, to strong safety might have raised a few eyebrows around the league. Not to mention relieved some receivers weary of both Broomfield's coverage skills and nonstop chatter. But with two other senior cornerbacks of equal ability, Hughes welcomed moving Broomfield off the corner…likely with Coach Melvin Smith still attached to the player's ankle…and turning him loose.
So far, so very good the coach said. "We really enjoy having him back there. He is confident, he's experienced, he settles everybody down." Well, when the popular Broom isn't firing them up. It was not a big statistical debut for Broomfield the safety; one tackle total. Hughes was completely satisfied though.
"Even though it was his first time at a new position and at times a little bit of what do I do, what do I not do? he continued to play and got better and better in the game."
Whitley's case was different. Everyone knows the junior can play some serious safety, whether in run support where he has earned a headhunting name or coverage. Whitley has four career interceptions, remember. But a ripped achilles last November should, by all routine rights, still have him sitting on a sideline in early September and not starting a SEC game.
Whitley has just plain beaten the odds on his rapid recovery and shows no signs. Hughes said the game-review grade was good and Whitley ran to the ball same as ever to get his four tackles.
"I thought he responded well I thought he played very, very well. He made three or four tackles and was in on a couple of plays. I didn't see any hesitation at all, he had been practicing well so I knew he was going to play well."
Fans saw that, as well as how loosely this coaching staff regards labels like ‘free' and ‘strong' in this scheme. There were plays Broomfield was waaay back in centerfield with Whitley moving into the box. Other situations Broomfield, who has a knack for corner-blitzing, got closer to the line leaving Whitley alone in deep coverage.
"We try to be interchangeable back," Hughes said. "Both of them have strengths and everybody has different abilities. We're trying to utilize those abilities and put players in the best positions to make plays."
Neither starter were able to pile up opening-night numbers against a lesser foe as in the past. Even had the offense not blown JSU out before halftime, the defensive coaches planned to rotate early and often. And they did. This put post-spring number one safety Dee Arrington on the field enough to get a couple of tackles, too. Arrington, the PARADE All-American prospect, played special teams and some reserve snaps as a true freshman to get ready for 2012.
Now he finds senior Broomfield starting, though this is more about getting Darius Slay in the lineup at corner too. The wisdom of using this senior so showed as Slay scored an interception touchdown in his own first career start. Arrington remains very much in the gameplanning, Hughes reminded, and is of course a future starter in his own right.
"Dee is a team player. He just works hard and fins his role on the team and what he's supposed to do and needs to do to help the team. There's no negative."
Especially not to giving all the underclassmen safeties, and for that matter cornerbacks, real game experience in advance of SEC season. Hughes liked what he saw out of redshirt Kendrick Market in his own first game, for one good example. Jay Hughes and Louis Watson took their own turns, and senior Watson even moved over to corner late in the contest.
This reflects all the options Hughes, and Smith, have in the secondary. As Hughes noted, all-SEC corner Johnthan Banks began his playing career as a 2009 safety and could easily step back into such a role if needed. Not just in nickel and dime sets, but as a starter.
"And we move kids around," said Hughes. "So that versatility back there helps us. You play different teams and you have different matchups."
All of which have the same objective: win every matchup. "Our goal is to not give up big plays, through touchdown passes over our heads," Hughes summarizes. With a whole ‘nother Tiger team coming to town that goal is getting pounded into Bulldog heads this week at practice.