AUBURN, Ala. — When a reporter asked Tray Matthews on the first day of Auburn football spring practice what the biggest difference was between his old position coach and his new position coach, the senior safety went with a response that sent an entire room roaring with laughter.
“I’d say their skin color,” Matthews said with a huge grin.
It was a funny response, but it was truthful. The Tigers see a lot of similarities between new defensive backs coach Greg Brown and their one in 2016 — Wesley McGriff, who now is the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss.
Those parallels between Brown and McGriff have made for an easy change this offseason. This is the third straight spring in which Auburn has broken in a new defensive backs coach following the departure of Melvin Smith and Charlie Harbison in 2014.
“It’s been a great transition working with Coach Brown,” Matthews said. “It’s been smooth, and he’s a real smart coach. He’s been in this business for a long time now, so it’ll be an amazing opportunity for me as well as the other players in the room.”
Like McGriff, Brown arrived at Auburn with plenty of defensive back coaching experience in both college football and the NFL. Brown is the only coach in college football history to train three different winners of the Thorpe Award, which goes to the nation’s best defensive back.
Finding a defensive backs coach who had that level of teaching experience was important to Auburn’s staff, especially head coach Gus Malzahn.
“You can just tell that all the players respect him. He fits in great. He’s a great complement to (defensive coordinator Kevin) Steele,” Malzahn said. “He’s a teacher. You can tell he’s a teacher, and when he talks, they listen. He’s done a great job coaching. He’s been around a long time.”
Brown also was quite familiar with Auburn’s defensive system, one that McGriff coached last season with Steele.
That allowed Brown to get off to a quick start on the Plains.
“I think the biggest thing was the transition was so easy because, terminology-wise, we’re on the same page,” Steele said. “There was no training going on. We didn’t have to go in there and spend a week with just me and him in a room. ‘OK, this is how we do this, this is how we do that. This is what we call this, this is what we call that. This is the alignment of this and this is the alignment of that.'”
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Instead, Brown went right to work in a system he already knew inside and out. Steele previously worked with Brown as assistant coaches at Alabama, and he knew the hire he made at defensive backs coach wouldn’t need a long transition process.
“He has been in this system,” Steele said. “The verbiage and the adjustments are the same. He understands that. He is a guy that has coached the techniques at that position at a high level for a long time, so it transitions easy on the grass. It’s just a good fit.”
The similarities between Brown and McGriff are more than strategic. Auburn’s defensive backs said the two are alike in the way they approach coaching.
“(Brown) wants you to do your job, make sure you know your job inside and out,” senior safety Stephen Roberts said. “(Brown and McGriff) both let you do your work and study film … they’re both coaches that can flat get after it. They don’t mind a little contact. That’s what I like about both of them.”
Auburn’s defensive backs meshed with that under McGriff, who had a reputation for being a “players coach,” along with Steele.
From the first day Brown arrived as McGriff’s replacement, the Tigers knew they had someone who fit the vibe of the defensive back room.
“He’s laid-back. Very cool, but he’s very detailed,” Matthews said. “He wants everything done his way, pretty much like the other coaches we’ve had, but he’s just laid back and cool.
“I mean, I’m blessed and fortunate to have two really cool coaches that know the game really well. They definitely fit our personality in the room.”