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.
Things started to finally click for Auburn’s safeties in 2016. With Rudy Ford taking over at nickel full-time, the Tigers had three upperclassmen who could rotate in their top two safety spots. Auburn turned the corner in pass defense, especially in the area of preventing explosive plays downfield.
In 2017, the foundation is back. Auburn has all three of its top veterans back for their senior seasons. Another offseason under their belts could see them take the next step with a cornerback group that also has solid experience toward the top of the depth chart.
However, Auburn’s inexperience at safety is a larger concern. Early departures and position changes left the Tigers with a razor-thin unit in spring camp. Reinforcements are on the way, but they’ll be new to college football.
Of all the positional units on Auburn’s roster, safety might have the biggest gap between confidence and caution. It’s a polarizing split that could make or break the defense in 2017.
2017 Auburn football safeties
- Tray Matthews (Senior; 6-foot-1 and 209 pounds)
- Stephen Roberts (Senior; 5-foot-11 and 189 pounds)
- Nick Ruffin (Senior; 6-foot and 202 pounds)
- Michael Sherwood (Senior; 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds)
- Jordyn Peters (True freshman; 6-foot-1 and 185 pounds)
- Carlito Gonzalez (True freshman; 6-foot and 190 pounds)
- Sam Sherrod (Redshirt freshman; 5-foot-11 and 198 pounds)*
- Jacob Rogers (Redshirt freshman; 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds)*
CONFIDENCE: Three seniors lead the way
When Tray Matthews decided to return to school for his senior season, the Tigers retained their top tackler and one of their best all-around players for another year. Matthews headlines a group of three seniors that will rotate in the two safety spots this fall.
The former Georgia Bulldog did a little bit of everything as a strong safety last season. Matthews provided excellent run support from over the top along with some solid pass coverage. The Tigers didn’t give up nearly as many long passing plays as usual in 2016, and a lot of that had to do with the play of their safeties.
Stephen Roberts took over at free safety with Matthews nailing down strong safety. He is versatile enough to play both roles — he has starts at both positions. Matthews, a rangy safety with good ball skills, picked off a pair of passes last season and started eight games.
Nick Ruffin had the fewest starts among the trio of seniors, but he’s played in double-digit games in all three years of his Auburn career. Ruffin brings good size to the safety positions at 6-foot and 202 pounds, and he’s not afraid to be physical with opponents.
Auburn can rely on three experienced safeties who lead not only in the secondary but on defense overall. They’ve already developed a solid rotation and have the ability to switch out spots at any given time. With two new starters coming in at cornerback and nickel back, the veteran safety net in the back of the secondary will be huge.
CAUTION: This unit is ‘very, very thin’
While three starter-quality seniors make for a great foundation, this safety group also has Auburn’s most glaring weakness on the entire roster. Behind Matthews, Roberts and Ruffin, Auburn has virtually zero experience.
With Markell Boston’s dismissal earlier this year, Auburn was just left with one additional true safety during spring camp — former walk-on Michael Sherwood. “Dirty Mike” is a beloved among teammates for his versatility. However, the senior’s only career tackles have come against Alabama A&M and Idaho.
“We’re very thin there,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said this spring. “Very, very thin.”
Auburn could move some cornerbacks to safety. Nickel backs Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson have worked at the position. The Tigers also added Jordyn Peters and Carlito Gonzalez to the mix in this year’s signing class. Those true freshmen could be thrown into the fire early.
Entering a season with extremely thin depth at any position is a dangerous game. If everyone stays healthy, the Tigers might not feel the effects until next season, when their top four safeties leave. But an injury or two could throw everything out of whack for this veteran-led unit.