AUBURN, Ala. — When Auburn football dismissed Markell Boston before the start of spring practice, the Tigers developed a real depth problem at safety.
Returning starters Tray Matthews and Stephen Roberts were back, along with fellow senior Nick Ruffin. But that’s it for scholarship players. To counter that, Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and new secondary coach Greg Brown are shuffling pieces in the defensive backfield.
“We’ve had some experiments in terms of moving some guys around,” Steele said Tuesday. “(Cornerback Jeremiah Dinson) has played star position; Javaris Davis has played the star position; Stephen Roberts, he’s ready to get a little more time in fall camp at that. Dinson’s had some safety work, Daniel Thomas has had some safety work, and so we’re kind of moving some guys around in that area.”
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Dinson and Thomas are the top two candidates at the star or nickel position — the fifth defensive back that is on the field the majority of the time in Auburn’s base defense.
But Auburn needs to cross-train them at safety, at least for the time being. When asked about how he felt about the depth at the position, Steele bluntly pointed to Dinson and Thomas.
“Obviously, if we’re taking corners back there and working them, there’s the answer to your question,” Steele said.
While having three senior safeties can be a luxury, the lack of depth behind them could cause the Tigers to worry later this year.
Matthews, who Brown called the “lead dog” at the position last week, missed the entire first scrimmage with a hamstring issue.
“You know, that’s not unusual for guys who play in the back end to have a little hamstring here and there,” Matthews said. “He did not pull a hamstring. It tightened up on him one day, so we limited him. But he’s performed really well. He’s tackled real well, he’s quarterbacked the defense very good, he and Stephen in the back end.”
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Steele said earlier this spring the fourth safety is another senior — walk-on Michael Sherwood. “Dirty Mike” has developed a reputation for being a utility piece for the Tigers in practice.
“He’s a fun guy, comes to practice every day and gives you everything he’s got,” Steele said. “He’s a tough guy. He knows what he’s doing, knows how to play corner, knows how to play safety, knows how to play star, knows how to play Mike, and he’s a problem solver.”
The Tigers will get some scholarship relief later this year, when three additional cornerbacks join the program as true freshmen.
Brown said the trio of Carlito Gonzalez, Traivon Leonard and Jordyn Peters could all play safety. The first-year coach wouldn’t rule out any of them providing that extra depth to a position that needs it this fall.
“You never ever know how things are going to turn out,” Brown said last week. “You never ever know until they get here and start working and see if guys can handle it, see if they have the physical tools and the mental capability to step on the field. No one ever knows until September.”