While the fate of the college football season seems increasingly in limbo as the country battles the Covid-19 pandemic, this week’s preview focuses on a position that was ranked 47th overall in pass defense last season and should provide depth for Auburn’s defense this season: the defensive backs.
Of Auburn’s 20 defensive backs on the roster last season, six have departed. Javaris Davis, Jeremiah Dinson, Daniel Thomas, Sam Sherrod, and Jacob Rogers finished their eligibility, while Noah Igbinoghene left early for the NFL Draft. Davis was picked up by the Kansas City Chiefs as an undrafted free agent, while Dinson signed as an undrafted free agent with the Detroit Lions. Daniel Thomas and Noah Igbinoghene were both taken in the NFL Draft, with Thomas taken in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars and Igbinoghene in the first round by the Miami Dolphins.
Both Sherrod and Rogers were reserves in the defensive back corps and Sherrod had only one tackle last year while Rogers had none. Their graduation will not signal any significant loss for Auburn’s defensive backs. The loss of Davis, Dinson, Thomas, and Igbinoghene will be much more important. Dinson and Thomas both led the team in tackles last season, combining for 162 tackles. Dinson and Davis also tied with Chrstian Tutt for the most interceptions last season, with each having two interceptions apiece. Figuring out how to replace all four of these players will be the key to a successful Auburn secondary in 2020.
Fortunately for Auburn, there are plenty of defensive backs on the roster ready to fill the shoes of their predecessors.
There are five returning defensive backs who have had enough game experience to be expected to contribute in 2020. Juniors Christian Tutt, Jamien Sherwood, Smoke Monday and Roger McCreary, along with senior Jordan Peters, are all expected to compete for starting roles this fall. Of these, Sherwood led in tackles in 2019 with 43, followed by McCreary with 36, Tutt with 32, Monday with 20, and Peters with 13. Peters, while being the eldest, has seen his experience primarily on special teams where he blocked three punts as a junior. These five are all experience enough to compete for starting roles in 2020.
In 2020, Auburn will welcome three incoming freshmen and one JUCO transfer into its ranks. The JUCO transfer is Marco Dumio from Blinn Junior College. Dumio was ranked as a top 5 JUCO defensive back and had 26 tackles last season. While he may have a difficult path to a starting position, he will certainly provide depth for the Tigers.
Auburn also signed Eric Reed Jr. from Calvary Baptist Academy in Shreveport, Louisiana. Reed Jr. was rated in the top 15 nationally at his position. With Reed will also come freshmen Ladarius Tennison from Rockledge, Florida and Chris Thompson Jr. from Desoto, Texas. Tennison had 98 tackles as a senior and was ranked as the No. 4 athlete in the nation while Thompson Jr. was rated the No. 2 safety coming out of high school.
Auburn’s secondary will be coached by Wesley “Crime Dawg” McGriff for a second season . McGriff will be entering his second consecutive season as a coach for Auburn. McGriff began his coaching career at his alma mater Savannah State from 1990-1994. From there he became the defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Kentucky State. He led the Thorobreds to the No. 1 defense in the nation in 1995 and the number 1 pass yardage defense in 1997. He left Kentucky State in 2000 to become the secondary coach at Eastern Kentucky before moving on to Kentucky where he coached running backs in 2001 and cornerbacks in 2002.
After Kentucky, he spent four year at Miami before becoming the defensive backs coach for Vanderbilt. McGriff then spent 2013-2015 with the New Orleans Saints as their defensive backs coach before coming to Auburn for the same position in 2016. He left Auburn to become the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss for two seasons before returning to Auburn in 2019 to become the defensive backs coach.
The 2020 defensive backs will be under Kevin Steele, a veteran coach who has had success at both the college and professional level. When Steele came to Auburn in 2016 from LSU, he immediately improved Auburn’s defense from 71st overall (2015) to 28th overall. Since then Auburn has had multiple top-15 total defenses and has been a dominant force on the football field.
While there are some big shoes to fill on the back end, there is both depth and experience present in the locker room and a lot of upside to the defensive back group. There are five solid candidates for starting jobs who all have solid playing experience.
The biggest question for the defensive backs is not who will be on the field in August, but how well will they have developed from 2019 with such a limited time to do so.