Plenty of Options in the Secondary

Auburn, Ala.--Heading into preseason practice in early August, perhaps no part of the defense had more questions than the secondary which had to replace a pair of All-Americans as well as Gene Chizik, who coordinated the overall defense and personally coached the cornerbacks and safeties.

With less than two weeks until the season opener against Georgia Tech on Sept. 3, many decisions are still up in the air, but first-year coordinator David Gibbs sees lots of promise and depth to work with.

"I think the depth here is by far the most I have had," Gibbs says. "We've got a bunch of good players. We've got good kids and they practice hard and prepare hard. We have just got to go out there and keep working and hopefully we play good."

Junior Montae Pitts is a returning starter at one of the cornerback spots, but his job is open for competition with several younger players like sophomore Patrick Lee, redshirt freshman Lorenzo Ferguson, sophomore Zach Gilbert and juco transfer sophomore Jonathan Wilhite playing well in practice.

"I think Montae has come out and practiced hard lately and competed, which is what I'm looking for," Gibbs notes. "Patrick Lee continues to compete. One guy who keeps getting better everyday we go out there is Jonathan Wilhite. We feel good about the depth as far as who starts and we will sit down with Coach Tuberville and make those decisions."

Head coach Tommy Tuberville notes there will be tough decision to make with so many quality defensive backs.

"We have about eight guys," he says. "We have a lot of young guys. They just don't know what to do yet. There is going to be a lot of competition as the year goes on. We have got Montae Pitts and Patrick Lee and Irons (David Irons) and then all of the young guys behind them are trying to get out there. Lorenzo Ferguson has played really well. There is going to be a lot of competition all through the year, not just this first game."

Irons, who missed last season with a torn ACL after transferring from Butler County Community College, has been the only cornerback to stand out and claim a starting role.

"David is such a competitor," Gibbs says. "He is far and away the best cover guy we have on the field. I think anybody can see that. He has got his flaws in his game, but his competitive spirit and the way he tackles and flies around he is just a really good player.

"He hasn't played a (major) college football game yet and that is what people tend to forget," Gibbs adds. "The man has not taken one snap here at Auburn yet. We don't want to call him Carlos Rogers yet. He's a good player."

Kevin Hobbs makes a player during a preseason workout.

Although Irons has yet to play a down, he has already earned the respect of his teammates, including senior free safety Kevin Hobbs.

"I like David Irons all the way around from his personality to him on the field," Hobbs says. "Off the field he is a great person. On the field he has proven himself to me coming back from his knee injuries. I really admire him and his fight and love for the game.

"He goes out there every day and gives 100 percent--110 every day and he never gets tired," Hobbs adds. "I really respect that about him. When everyone else is like, ‘I really don't feel like going out today,' he always going, ‘Come on guys--let's go, let's go.' He is always trying to hype everybody up."

Hobbs is currently running second team at free safety behind returning starter Will Herring and is in competition with Lee for the role as the nickel back in passing situations. Hobbs played exclusively at cornerback as sophomore in 2003 and split time between corner and safety in 2004, which may give him the edge as the fifth guy.

"We are still working on that, but when they call ones (first-team) I usually go in there," Hobbs says about the competition at the position. "Coach Gibbs says we don't have a definite number one. The nickel schemes are a lot tougher to learn as far as what you have to do. Last year when we played nickel it was like, ‘Okay, you've got this man.' This year it is a harder package for the nickel. We have to know the linebackers and watch the linemen and stuff like that.

"With me being a safety I have the upper edge on the rest of the guys because when you are at corner you either know, ‘I've got this guy, or I've got zone," he adds. ‘When I'm at nickel I tend to use the same instincts as when I'm at safety so it's kind of easier for me."

Lee, who played well in limited action last season as a freshman, is a player whose physical nature and athletic ability has caught Gibbs' eye.

"I think he has matured and he is a good cover corner," Gibbs says of Lee. "He is long, fast, athletic--he's a prototype corner to me. He has got to go out there and play like it. The kid can fly, he can jump, he has just got to turn into a football player. I think he has matured, which gives him a chance, but he keeps getting better."

While Irons has stepped up and all but locked up a starting role, there might be a heavy rotation at the other spot with several guys playing.

"I have always been a guy who says I wouldn't do it (rotate cornerbacks), but if we have got three or four guys who deserve to play who you feel comfortable with then you should play them," Gibbs says. "It makes your special teams better because more guys are fresher and more guys can go in the game.

"It is scary because if you put a guy in there and he makes a mistake it is a touchdown in the secondary," notes Gibbs, who came to Auburn prior to spring training. "You can roll D-linemen all day long and we will cover up for them. In the back end it is a tough business. We'll see what happens. I'm not going to put a guy in there who is not ready. At the same time I'm not going to leave a guy out there because he has been out there before and he is not as good as somebody else."

True freshmen Jerraud Powers, Aairon Savage and Walter McFadden have also shown the potential to contribute as they continue to develop. Powers, however, is out of the mix after suffering a bone fracture in his foot.

There has been plenty of competition among the safeties this preseason even with redshirt freshman Tristan Davis being moved to tailback. Sophomore Eric Brock showed major improvement in the spring at strong safety and hasn't backed down in fall practices either. He will likely get the starting spot next to Herring.

Sophomore Eric Brock is running number one at strong safety.

Gibbs notes that there are several safeties who could see significant playing time. "(Redshirt freshman strong safety) Steve Gandy continues to improve and impress. He has got a chance. And Kevin Hobbs has had a good camp at free safety." Sophomore Tony Bell will also have a chance to get into the rotation.

Hobbs notes that even though he is listed as a backup at this point, he is excited about his role and he is enjoying his first fall camp under Gibbs.

"I get to run around a lot back there at free safety and use my speed," he says. "It is fun to play back there. Some of our technique as far the bump and run coverage is different this year. Coach Gibbs is always on us about getting up in the other guy's face and getting your hands on them and being more physical.

"He always says it is all about the timing," Hobbs adds. "Offenses run off of timing--time, time, time. If you get up in there face and you get your hands on them you mess up their timing and it messes up the quarterback

"I really don't know about the playing rotation," the senior adds. "I'm waiting to find out just like you are about how Coach Gibbs is going to be in the game-type situations with the game on the line with who he is going to put in and who he trusts. I'm just as eager as you are as to find out who is going to be in there."