AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn football lost three starters in the secondary from last season. Jeremiah Dinson is the only returning defensive back who opened and closed 2017 as a first-teamer while starting double-digit games.
With all the changes coming to the Tigers’ defensive backfield, it would make sense for Dinson to stay at his same position. Continuity has been key for Auburn’s defense in recent seasons.
But Dinson is no longer lining up as a first-team nickelback in practice. Instead, he’s moved back to the middle of the field at safety, where he’s in line to replace the gaps left by Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts.
“It’s a different position, but it feels good,” Dinson said Saturday, after Auburn’s second spring practice of 2018. “I kind of played it a little bit last year during the season. I’m getting a hang of it now.”
Dinson started 11 games for the Tigers in 2017 at nickelback, the extra cornerback used so much in modern football that it’s a base position in most defenses.
Yet, with the Tigers losing three seniors at safety — Matthews, Roberts and Nick Ruffin — the staff wanted more experience at the back of the defense.
“Every really good secondary that I’ve ever seen always had a point guy back there that could make the calls,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday. “Especially nowadays, with all the offenses with the motions and different formations, unbalanced formations, it really is critical that you have somebody on the back end that can get everybody on the same page. We believe Dinson can definitely do that.”
Dinson has mostly been a cornerback during his time at Auburn. The junior was in the rotation at cornerback in 2015 before suffering a devastating knee injury at Texas A&M that kept him away from action for nearly two years.
Last season, Dinson was seventh on the team in tackles while locking down the nickelback position. He was also listed as the “fourth safety,” so to speak, behind the senior trio in 2017.
Dinson said having defensive coordinator Kevin Steele back for a third season has made the full-time transition to safety easier this offseason.
“This is probably like the first time I’ve had somebody that really stayed,” Dinson said. “Since freshman year, we’re jumping into another playbook. Knowing the defense in and out is really good. You can be a versatile player, you can play nickel, play corner, play Money and play safety.”
Dinson’s speed and physicality translate well to safety. He’s also added good weight for the position, as he’s up to 200 pounds from the 185 he played at last season.
However, one of Dinson’s biggest challenges is to become more of a vocal player as one of the lone veterans in the secondary. That attribute defined the Auburn careers of Matthews and Roberts.
“Last year, I talked, but I was all about signs,” Dinson said. “I would give you the sign, and I wouldn’t talk to you very much. Once [Matthews and Roberts] left, I talked to them and both of them said, ‘You next up. You’ve got to be the leader. You’ve got to be that vocal leader.’ I’m taking that in practice every day starting now, so in the fall, it’s just second nature to me.
“You grow up, people leave and then you have to replace them. Those are two good, excellent players and I just have to be the next one, the vocal leader to step up in the back room.”
Malzahn has noticed a more talkative Dinson through the first two practices of spring camp. And while a lot has to go right for a transitioning Auburn secondary in 2018, the Tigers head man is confident in what Dinson can do as a leader.
“Just from a big-picture standpoint, when you’re back there watching everything go, you can really tell the guys that are the leaders on both sides of the football,” Malzahn said. “And he really stands out just with his communication, his attitude. He’s a guy that a coach can put at multiple positions. He’s like a coach on the field.”