Auburn, Ala.--While the linebackers and improved defensive line have received the lion’s share of publicity this spring for the Auburn football team because of their performances in each of the first two scrimmages, perhaps the most impressive part of the defense under new coordinator Gene Chizik has been the secondary.
With experience returning across the board, it has been projected that the secondary would be a solid part of a defense that is expected to improve significantly in 2002. Just over halfway through spring practice, the secondary has shown that not only can it be solid, it has a chance to be a strength of this season's team.
With returning starters Carlos Rogers, Roderick Hood and Rashaud Walker back along with part-time starters Junior Rosegreen, Donnay Young and Stanford Simmons, the bodies and experience were all on hand. Now the coaches have to find the best mix of players and positions. That mix appears to be a little different than people expected. Rogers and Hood remain the starters at cornerback, Walker and the free safties Young and Simmons are both looking up at another player in the first team position at the top of the depth chart.
Rosegreen, a former high school safety, seems to have found a home at strong safety and has shown an ability to pound anyone who comes into his territory. Up to almost 190 pounds, his blend of coverage skills and a mean streak should be a welcome addition to the Auburn secondary. "We want our defensive backs to be physical like linebackers," Chizik says.
At free safety Travaris Robinson has firmly cemented himself as the first-teamer this spring. Showing a knack for closing on the football plus the leadership skills the coaches were hoping to find, the former wide receiver and cornerback gives the coaches four very good athletes in the secondary who are currently running first team.
“The first four guys in the secondary are all playmakers,” defensive backs coach Phillip Lolley notes. “They seem to be catching on real well. Some of them had to move from corner to safety. The guys I had at corner last year, my top four guys are now on the field because two are still at corner and two are at safety. That’s what you have to do because they make plays. Now we’re just trying to build depth. We’re moving folks around trying to get two-deep. The first object is to get the best guys out there.”
While the top four are set, the reserves aren’t so certain at this point. Guys like Walker have been forced to swing between safety and cornerback this spring to try to solidify some depth concerns going into the fall. It’s now up to players like Horace Willis, Dee Durham and Lamel Ages to step up and show they have what it takes to play every play on this level. That’s what the coaches are looking for the remainder of the spring.
“At this point I’ve got some guys that really need to come on,” Lolley says. “I’ve got several that, athletically, are capable. But they’ve got to learn the physicalness and toughness of the SEC. They’ve got a ways to go in some areas, but we’re just hoping by the end of the spring to find at least two-deep to go out and play the game.”
With the secondary showing the way, this Auburn defense must keep maturing in order to lead the team into a tough 2002 season, head coach Tommy Tuberville says. That maturity will be led by Hood, Robinson, Walker and Simmons, four of only 13 seniors on the depth chart right now. Although they have established a foundation this spring under Chizik, Lolley says the group still has to show they’re the right guys for the job as they rush towards two-a-days in August.
“It always helps to put experience back there,” Lolley notes. “But the thing is they know, just like the rest of them...and Coach Chizik told them his first day that the job is wide open to everybody. That was good because now they are having to reach back and show not what they have already done, but what they can do now. That’s important. Therefore they have to get better and they have to compete. That’s the way it should be.”