As Auburn football moves into summer practices, one key position the Tigers will be focusing on will be the defensive backs.
The secondary will be primarily led by new defensive coordinator Derek Mason, who loves to be hands-on with the defensive backs.
However, while Mason may be new, a familiar face will be returning to the Plains to assist Mason by coaching the cornerbacks. Zac Etheridge, a former Auburn safety, will be trying to coach up a very young but talented unit.
In his time at Auburn, Etheridge fought through debilitating injury to lead Auburn in their National Championship run a decade ago. Since then, he became a graduate assistant for Penn State and Georgia Tech before becoming the outside linebackers coach at Western Carolina. In 2018, he was hired as the cornerbacks coach at Louisiana before leaving to spend two seasons at the same position at the University of Houston.
“We have been focused on fundamentals and relentless effort,” said Etheridge. “They’re buying into everything we are asking them to do.”
Etheridge has five returning players listed as cornerbacks who he will be preparing for playing time in just a few months.
Trey Elston is a senior cornerback but he has no playing experience for the Tigers. However, the leader of the secondary, Smoke Monday, named him as one of the two defensive backs he thought Tiger fans should keep an eye on this fall.
Every other cornerback on the roster has had at least one start. Marco Domio is a fellow senior who had his first start versus Northwestern. A former JUCO transfer, Domio earned six tackles in the 2020 season.
Jaylin Simpson is a sophomore corner who started against Kentucky as a freshman and had 13 tackles throughout last season, but he was held out of the Georgia and Arkansas games due to injury.
Leading the corners are Nehemiah Pritchett Jr, and Roger McCreary Sr. Pritchett had 25 tackles last season, earning his first start against Georgia. McCreary started every game last year, with 86 career tackles to his name. He also had three interceptions and a fumble-forced during the 2020 campaign.
Aside from the cornerbacks, there are defensive backs and safeties. Defensive backs are players who can adapt to play either corner or safety, and currently there is only one such player listed in that category on the Auburn roster. That player is Malcolm Askew, a senior who opted out of the 2020 season due to Covid concerns but chose to use the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA and return to Auburn. Askew only has two career tackles to his name, but he brings with him plenty of experience to provide depth to the 2021 secondary.
Last but not least are the seven safeties listed on Auburn’s roster. Of those seven only two, Sammy Cohen and true freshman Ahmari Harvey, have not seen any action.
Harvey hails from Florida State University School, where he was the No. 4 safety prospect in the nation.
While the unit has plenty of players who have seen playing time, many of them are still young. Three of the remaining five safeties are underclassmen. Zion Puckett, Eric Reed Jr. and Ladarius Tennison are sophomores, but only Reed has not started a game, having only seen action against Northwestern.
Puckett started against Kentucky and was able to get 14 total tackles throughout the season.
Tennison earned his first career start against Mississippi State, gaining 14 tackles on the season as well. While he may not have started in every game, Tennison did see significant playing time in every one.
The two senior safeties for the Tigers’ defense are Devin Guice and fifth-year senior Smoke Monday.
Guice saw action in three games last season and has four career tackles to his name. He enters 2021 with 108 total career tackles, 73 of them coming from the 2020 season.
Monday also recorded an interception against Tennessee that he returned for a touchdown. Monday is seen as the primary leader of the secondary, if not the defense, and will play a vital role in commanding the squad this upcoming season.
After the spring game, Monday remarked that he was happy with how the defense performed, and with so many young guys in the secondary, he thought having a spring practice was even more beneficial.
“We didn’t have spring last year but having spring this year is gonna help a lotta guys out,” said Monday.
While the Tigers secondary may be young, they have plenty of experience to build upon before they hit the gridiron in the fall.