AUBURN, Ala. — Even Josh Holsey is surprised at himself these days.
After all, Holsey entered fall camp three months ago without a true position. He didn’t have a starting job when the Tigers opened the regular season. He also was coming off two ACL injuries in three years.
But as Holsey enters November of his final regular season at Auburn, he’s the top-performing cornerback on the roster. He’s also coming off the game of his career — five pass breakups and a game-changing interception of Ole Miss gunslinger Chad Kelly.
Did he see all of that coming?
“Not at all,” Holsey said Tuesday. “It is just, some things kind of work out in your favor sometimes.”
The Auburn cornerback has had a lot work out in his favor in his senior season. He’s tied for the team leads in interceptions and pass breakups. While Kelly put up plenty of big numbers through the air in Auburn’s 40-29 road win last Saturday, he only got 45 yards over Holsey on 9 attempts in his direction.
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Kelly’s last throw toward Holsey in 1-on-1 coverage was the biggest. With Auburn only up by four and Ole Miss driving, Holsey jumped a sit-down route by A.J. Brown that he recognized from earlier in the game.
“My eyes got so big. If they zoomed in on my eyes, you could tell that they got really big,” Holsey said. “He’s going to throw it this time.”
Kelly did, and Holsey stepped up to make his second interception of the season. He then weaved his way 47 yards to the Ole Miss 25-yard line. Three plays later, Auburn scored the touchdown that put the game out of reach.
“At that point it was kind of back and forth,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He flipped the field and gave the offense a short field … That was really the play of the game.”
The trip to Oxford marked the second time Auburn’s defense has faced a truly elite college quarterback in 2016. In both games — the win over Ole Miss and the close season-opening loss to now-No. 2 Clemson — Holsey put up standout performances.
“I’m filled with joy just for that guy and the journey he’s been on,” Auburn cornerback Carlton Davis said. “I’m very proud of him and how he’s playing so far, so (the interception vs. Ole Miss) was a huge moment for him and us.”
Holsey went through two different recovery processes for ACL injuries before making his major impact in 2016.
As a true freshman in 2012, Holsey became a starter at cornerback on a struggling Auburn team. A year later, he was a starter at safety for a brand-new staff before an ACL injury during practice robbed him of a full standout sophomore season.
After bouncing back and forth between safety and cornerback in 2014, Holsey tore his ACL again in Week 2 of 2015. When he came back to full health, he had to prove himself all over again to a new coaching staff. He did just that with his work in practice and in his big game against Clemson.
“I’ve been working hard, been doing the little things that matter to keep my body right and the little things to get my body back in shape,” Holsey said. “I’m in a great point in my life right now, probably in the best shape, probably playing the best football I’ve played since I’ve been at Auburn.”
In his senior season, the self-described “old man” helped transform the Auburn defense from a punchline to a power.
After the Tigers pull off wins with dominant defensive performances, he makes a point to put his hand over his mouth during the postgame celebrations.
“I want to say we’re just silencing the crowds, you know?” Holsey said. “Especially in away games. People are talking, you know, so much … the ‘shh’ is just to keep them calm, you know what I mean? Keep calm and relaxed. We’re just trying to keep playing the best we’re playing.”
Holsey is ready to finish his Auburn career with a bang. He talks of getting his revenge on Vanderbilt this Saturday — he is one of the few players on the Tigers’ roster who was a part of the 2012 team that lost in Nashville.
Most of all, Holsey wants to leave Auburn with fans and media members across the country buzzing about the return of elite defense on the Plains. That’s how he wants to leave his legacy.
“When we leave, I feel like we’re going to be in those conversations with like those 2006 defenses when they were only holding people to 14 points, you know what I mean?” Holsey said. “That was big for me and for most of the seniors coming back. It’s just a trend that we’ve got to keep going.
“We’ve still got a few more games to showcase what we can do and we’re going to try to do the best we can to keep that defense to the top-notch level that we’re playing.”