AUBURN, Ala. — In his first three seasons of Auburn football, Stephen Roberts had a grand total of 1.5 tackles for loss.
But through two games of his senior year, Roberts has made the opposing backfield his new home. After picking up two tackles for loss in Week 1 against Georgia Southern, Roberts added another in Week 2 against Clemson. Auburn’s rangy coverage safety is now a force near the line of scrimmage.
“It has something to do with just being confident in the game, knowing my job and knowing what I’m supposed to do,” Roberts said Tuesday. “That’s just my responsibility. It’s a great play, but it’s still my job and I still have to be accountable.”
Over the last two seasons, senior strong safety Tray Matthews handled that role for Auburn. The 6-foot-1, 209-pound Georgia native led Auburn in tackles last season and was a key factor in run support.
But Matthews didn’t want to be limited to that role in his final season of college football. So he started changing responsibilities with Roberts, a speedy 5-foot-11, 189-pound athlete who was known more for covering a lot of ground than cutting it off for opposing ball carriers.
“We’ve been trying to do some things differently this year,” Matthews said Tuesday. “I played a lot of strong safety last year. This year, I wanted to play a little more field so I could be in the mix with the passing game and stuff like that. So I let him come close to the line of scrimmage on different plays. I’ve been very impressed with him.”
It’s worked well for Auburn so far in 2017. Roberts was even listed as the starting strong safety in Week 2 against Clemson, while Matthews started out at free safety.
When Roberts plays strong safety, the Tigers have an extra burst of speed near the line of scrimmage, perfect for ambushing runs in the backfield for negative plays.
Using safeties to play close to the line of scrimmage has been crucial to Auburn’s emergence as a top-tier defense under second-year coordinator Kevin Steele.
“That’s the way we’re built,” Steele said Sunday. “The best rudiments of the defense is quarters defense. We’re press-man out there on the edge, and it allows the safeties to be run-pass keyers and be involved in the run game. Both of those guys have done a good job of that.”
Now, when Matthews plays free safety, Auburn has a more physical presence in potential 1-on-1 matchups with receivers downfield.
That mixing and matching will continue throughout the next few weeks as Auburn’s defense, which ranks fifth nationally in yards allowed per play, looks to build off a hot start to 2017.
“It’s very good for us,” Matthews said. “It makes us able to be very versatile, do different things in the run game, do different things in the passing game, especially with the size difference between me and him. It’s a lot to look forward to in the future.”