AUBURN, Ala. — Josh Holsey knew many people didn’t expect much from him in 2016.
The senior was coming off his second major ACL injury in his Auburn career. He had to spend spring practices not only getting back to game shape but also proving himself to yet another defensive coordinator and position coach. He didn’t have a key role in the Tigers secondary once fall camp started.
But when Holsey left the field after Auburn’s 19-13 loss to No. 2 Clemson last Saturday, he knew he proved all those people wrong.
“A lot of people didn’t have any confidence in me coming off a knee injury and playing corner, so I don’t really think people have faith that I can still play,” Holsey said. “This game, personally, was a big game, so I could show I could still be a lockdown corner in the SEC.”
Holsey entered the Clemson game as a backup behind redshirt-freshman cornerback Javaris Davis. After Clemson successfully targeted Davis on 3 consecutive passes to Mike Williams, the coaching staff sent Holsey in to cover the seemingly unstoppable Clemson star receiver.
Holsey batted down the next pass that came his way — a Deshaun Watson lob to Williams in the end zone. On Clemson’s next drive, Holsey picked off Watson’s attempt to Ray-Ray McCloud.
In total, Watson threw at Holsey 4 times and completed 1 pass for 5 yards. It was a masterful performance against one of college football’s most talented passing attacks.
“The guy’s a pro,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said. “He knows how to do his job. He communicates it well. He plays really, really good technique. He’s got ice water in his veins. He’s not going to back up from a challenge.”
For Holsey, just getting back into the Auburn rotation in the secondary was a challenge.
The Fairburn, Ga., native arrived at Auburn in 2012 with plenty of hype as a highly rated 4-star cornerback prospect. He started half of Auburn’s games in that 3-9 season at cornerback.
Then, the constant position changes started.
Holsey moved to boundary safety under Gus Malzahn’s first defensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson. He started six games there before tearing his left ACL two days before Auburn’s memorable road win against Texas A&M. Holsey watched the rest of the team’s run to the SEC title and the BCS National Championship Game from the sidelines.
In 2014, Holsey came back to start at safety and cornerback. Even though he was a valuable member of the secondary, he never had a true home after the injury. In 2015, Holsey was a reserve defensive back under Will Muschamp before tearing the same ACL in Week 2 against Jacksonville State.
Before Holsey returned to action in March, Steele wasn’t sure where to play him. So when the two met, Holsey kept his message simple to his new coach.
“When I first got here and I met with all the players individually … the very first thing I asked him, I said, ‘Josh, what would you like to see happen this year?’ ” Steele said. “And he said, ‘Coach, I just want to get on the field and play.’ He did that.”
Although he wasn’t among the first on the field last Saturday against Clemson, Holsey made the most of his first opportunity under Steele. His breakout performance was no surprise to teammates.
“I already knew Holsey had that in him back when he got hurt,” safety Tray Matthews said. “He would have been a great asset to the team last year if he wouldn’t have gotten hurt. He’s an incredible player. He plays with a lot of fire. He’s an intense player. I’m glad to have a vet like that beside me in the secondary.”
Holsey’s greatest strength was forged in the times of recovery from two major knee injuries. Now a fifth-year senior, Holsey prides himself on being one of Auburn’s smartest defensive players.
“Once he finally got out there on that field, it felt great to have him back because he comes out with that confidence,” linebacker Tre’ Williams said. “He knows everything. He’s a very smart player, so it’s great to have him out there.”
After his MVP-caliber performance against Clemson, Holsey has a golden opportunity to earn more playing time and a starting job.
After switching between cornerback, safety and nickel in his Auburn career, a healthy Holsey is laying roots again at the position that made him a first-year starter.
“It just shows that hard work just pays off,” Holsey said. “I’ve just been working my tail off to get back on the field and make plays and produce and be the best I can be.”