Auburn stockpiled blue-chip DBs last year. Now it's time to turn them loose.
The Tigers signed their best-ever class in the secondary in 2023. With a lot of transition coming, bowl season will be crucial here.
CB Kayin Lee (Austin Perryman/Auburn Tigers)
This time last year, it was good to be Zac Etheridge.
The Auburn defensive backs coach was one of just two assistants retained by new head coach Hugh Freeze, joining fellow alum Cadillac Williams.
Etheridge capitalized on the newfound buzz around Auburn football in the month of December, flipping top-150 overall recruit Kayin Lee from Ohio State, top-20 safety Sylvester Smith from Tennessee and top-40 cornerback Colton Hood from Michigan State all in the month of December.
Auburn also signed top-25 safety Terrance Love — a commitment who held firm after the coaching change — and picked up top-35 cornerback Tyler Scott in January. The Tigers later added local cornerback JC Hart, Texas safety CJ Johnson and JUCO transfer Champ Anthony to their 2023 class.
While most position groups on the roster were going through massive overhauls, Auburn’s secondary was about as stable as possible in the transfer portal era.
Little-used former transfer Craig McDonald was the only departure, while Auburn brought back everybody else. That included D.J. James, Nehemiah Pritchett, Jaylin Simpson and Zion Puckett, who all had legitimate chances to go pro after the 2022 season.
The returns of that veteran quartet, combined with the likes of Keionte Scott and Donovan Kaufman, meant that Auburn could basically run it all back with a secondary that had posted solid numbers in an overall rough season for the program.
Jump to present day, and it’s still pretty good to be Etheridge.
Auburn’s secondary will have to go through quite the transition before the 2024 season. James, Pritchett, Simpson and Scott have all received invitations to the Senior Bowl. While it’s possible for a couple of them to return, the Tigers shouldn’t count on it.
And it’s clear Auburn already has the future in mind when thinking about its defensive backfield.
That was obvious early last week, when Freeze immediately mentioned the defensive backs when asked about the importance of playing in a bowl game for the program.
“I'm not one that grinds them during the bowl,” Freeze said. “I'm really not. I want them to enjoy the journey and the process. We'll try to get our young kids a lot of work, hopefully get them in the game some — particularly those DBs.
“We need to get those young DBs a lot of reps. We think they have a chance to be really good players: T-Scott, Kayin Lee, Terrance Love, Sylvester Smith, JC Hart, that group of kids. We all think they have a chance, and they're gonna have to play next year. We need to see them.”
While it’s unclear who all will be available for Auburn against Maryland in the Music City Bowl at the end of December due to transfer portal movement and any NFL-minded opt-outs, one thing is for sure: All eyes should be on the Tigers’ secondary this month.