AUBURN, Ala. — On paper, Auburn football should have its most balanced roster under Gus Malzahn in 2017. But each positive aspect of the Tigers roster has a potentially troublesome flip side. Here’s a preview of Auburn’s upcoming season using each position’s biggest reason for confidence and its biggest reason for caution.
The seed was planted in 2015. In Auburn’s only year under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp and defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, the Tigers pass defense went from a weak link to worthy of praise. In 2016, under Kevin Steele and Wesley McGriff, Auburn finished No. 17 nationally in yards allowed per attempt while improving in completion percentage and opposing QB efficiency.
While safety play went a long way in that improvement, a lot of the turnaround had to do with the development at cornerback. Carlton Davis returned a physical starting corner who just went through a season of SEC football as a freshman starter. Josh Holsey broke out as the surprise of the defense. Rudy Ford kept up his high level of play at nickel.
In 2017, Greg Brown — yet another defensive backs coach — inherits a much better situation than his predecessors. Sure, Holsey and Ford are gone to the NFL, but the cupboard isn’t bare when it comes to experience to put around Davis.
However, the playing time advantage drops off a step down the depth chart, where the Tigers will have to fill some key roles with some inexperienced players. Injury history could come back to haunt Auburn at cornerback and nickel. If that happens, Auburn might look back at the 2016 season as a peak for pass defense.
2017 Auburn football cornerbacks
- Carlton Davis (Junior; 6-foot-1 and 203 pounds)
- Javaris Davis (Sophomore; 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds)
- Jeremiah Dinson (Sophomore; 6-foot and 186 pounds)
- Daniel Thomas (Sophomore; 5-foot-11 and 203 pounds)
- John Broussard Jr. (Sophomore; 5-foot-11 and 172 pounds)
- Jamel Dean (Sophomore; 6-foot-2 and 215 pounds
- Jayvaughn Myers (Redshirt freshman; 6-foot-1 and 192 pounds)
- Malcolm Askew (True freshman; 5-foot-11 and 182 pounds)
- Traivon Leonard (True freshman; 6-foot and 191 pounds)
- Raymond Lester (Sophomore; 5-foot-11 and 171 pounds)*
- Devin Guice (Redshirt freshman; 5-foot-8 and 160 pounds)*
CONFIDENCE: Proven quality at the top
For a unit that lost two starters, Auburn’s first wave of cornerbacks are in a decent spot, experience-wise. While Carlton Davis didn’t have as strong of a sophomore campaign as expected in 2016, he has the tools to be one of the best cornerbacks in the SEC.
Javaris Davis is set to take over for Holsey, and he had five starts last season as a redshirt freshman. The speedy cover corner came up with seven pass breakups and two interceptions last fall, landing on several freshman All-SEC and All-American teams.
The Tigers entered spring with a ready-made replacement for Ford in Daniel Thomas, who had two interceptions in the Iron Bowl and started the Sugar Bowl as true freshman. However, Jeremiah Dinson left the spring with the edge at the starting spot after making an impressive return from a devastating 2015 knee-and-shoulder injury.
Both Thomas and Dinson have decent experience at nickel, which plays a huge role for the Auburn defense by covering quick slot receivers and providing ample run support. The projected first-teamers in this unit — excluding Dinson — all played roles in the Tigers’ pass defense turnaround last fall. Auburn should be able to build off of that to good success in 2017.
CAUTION: Depth is thin on experience
While this revamped section of the secondary has experience up top with the Davises and the top two nickel backs, the reserves are a different story.
The Tigers lost what appeared to be a promising young corner when Marlon Character Jr. transferred after spring camp. Jamel Dean and Jayvaughn Myers have yet to play for the Tigers due to injury woes. John Broussard Jr. had just two tackles and a pass breakup in eight games last season.
Behind them, Auburn added a pair of true freshman cornerbacks in Malcolm Askew and Traivon Leonard. Both have the length Auburn is looking for at cornerback, and they could contribute right away as the staff works to find the best depth options behind the projected starters.
This unit isn’t as blessed with as much depth as the defensive line or the linebackers. Auburn needs to find a couple more breakout players to add to the rotation — ones like Javaris Davis and Daniel Thomas were last season.
A major injury could make things tougher for this cornerback group, which will go up against an SEC that’s vastly improving in the passing department. Many in the program believe the sky is the limit for this secondary. But it’s going to take more quick growth from some inexperienced players.