AUBURN, Ala. — Josh Holsey saw a lot during his time as an Auburn defensive back. He started on a 3-9 team and played for a national championship the next season. He played several positions on defenses that were underwhelming and others that were the strength of the team.
Holsey also reported to five different position coaches in his five years with the Tigers.
Holsey’s position in the defensive backfield was one of the most unstable in the country when it came to keeping coaches. When Holsey arrived at Auburn in 2012, he played one year under Willie Martinez. Then Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison shared the responsibilities on Gus Malzahn’s staff for two years. Travaris Robinson had a year back on the Plains in 2015, and Wesley McGriff came in for 2016.
McGriff and Holsey’s last game at Auburn was the same one. When the Tigers hired Greg Brown last Saturday, they completed their sixth defensive back coaching change in seven years, dating back to Phillip Lolley and Tommy Thigpen’s last season in 2011.
“It’s hard sometimes because you got to learn new techniques,” Holsey said. “But, I mean, it’s the sport we play. You got to embrace change.”
That’s the position Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele takes on the matter. Before he and Malzahn hired Brown, Steele downplayed the effects of having that much turnover at a certain position coach.
“This is not 1970, where every SEC head coach had been there 15 years,” Steele said. “There’s a lot of change in things now. Players change, coaches change. I think just as an American society we’re pretty good at change.”
Auburn defensive backs have had no choice but to embrace change for the better part of the last decade. But the veteran ones who’ve experienced several coaching changes echo Steele — the changes can be more positive than negative in the long run.
“It won’t really be a factor because we still have the same defensive coordinator,” junior safety Tray Matthews said during Sugar Bowl practices. “He’ll run the same scheme, the same things. The new defensive back coach will have to buy into Coach Steele’s philosophy, and he’ll have his little twist on things.”
Brown’s arrival at Auburn comes at a time in which the Tigers’ pass defense has turned a corner through the coaching turnover.
Robinson, who came with Will Muschamp in 2015, helped turn an Auburn pass defense that ranked outside the top 40 nationally in every major category for years into one that finished 21st in yards allowed per attempt.
|AUBURN PASS DEFENSE RANKINGS SINCE 2011|
|YEAR||COACH(ES)||YDS/ATT||TDs||QB RATING||COMP %|
|2011||Lolley/Thigpen||6.2 (68th)||23 (82nd)||137.42 (86th)||63.3 (99th)|
|2012||Martinez||7.5 (76th)||20 (57th)||145.72 (101st)||65.6 (115th)|
|2013||Smith/Harbison||7.3 (75th)||19 (55th)||126.73 (62nd)||57.8 (47th)|
|2014||Smith/Harbison||7.1 (69th)||22 (85th)||124.20 (54th)||57.7 (55th)|
|2015||Robinson||6.3 (21st)||13 (14th)||117.04 (31st)||60.7 (92nd)|
|2016||McGriff||6.4 (17th)||14 (18th)||116.83 (22nd)||57.9 (58th)|
Robinson left after one season to become Muschamp’s defensive coordinator at South Carolina. Auburn then turned to McGriff, who made his return to the college game after several years in the NFL with the New Orleans Saints.
Steele and his new defensive staff decided to keep most of the terminology the Tigers used under Muschamp in hopes of a smoother transition.
It worked. Auburn maintained its level of performance in several statistical categories and made huge jumps in areas such as opposing quarterback rating, completion percentage and pass deflections.
“At the end of the day, you still have to play regardless of who the coach is, regardless of what the scheme is,” Holsey said. “You still have to go out there and execute and make plays.”
Now Auburn’s defensive backs will make the change to Brown as McGriff starts his career as the Ole Miss defensive coordinator.
Auburn’s outgoing defensive backs said they gave the younger ones advice on going through another transition.
“They may use the same defense you have learned, but they may call it something different,” nickelback Rudy Ford said. “So (the advice is) getting on the same page with terminology and just improving your game if he wants different steps. He might want you to backpedal or do something different. Just play the way he wants you to.
“The advice I would give would be to not be down and to just show the new coach what you got … to not take anything for granted because everything goes by really quick and to seize the opportunities that you have and to always prepare like there is no tomorrow.”
Judging by the improvements Auburn made in pass defense over the last two years under two different position coaches, the Tigers’ staff isn’t worried about Brown being No. 6 in seven years.
“I think it’s way overrated,” Steele said. “It doesn’t mean a whole lot. If the guy coaching you is a good person, a good teacher, and knows what he is doing, the players will adapt. And so that’s no concern at all.”
Steele got his guy last weekend with Brown, who coached with him in 2013 at Alabama.
And the consensus between Holsey and Ford is that Brown will step into the ideal situation at Auburn. The Tigers are expected to return cornerbacks Carlton Davis and Javaris Davis; safeties Matthews, Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin; and nickelback Daniel Thomas in 2017. All have starting experience.
“Whoever comes in to coach these guys after this game is going to be walking into a room full of diamonds,” Holsey said. “Because they have a great young room and great young talent coming back. Whoever the coach is is going to make them even better. I can’t wait to watch them play in the near future.”