Question: Which defensive backs play nickel for Auburn? Answer: Yes.
...but some will play the all-important fifth defensive back spot more than others. Here's what we've learned about the role so far in fall camp.
DB Keionte Scott (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
You’ve probably heard it said that in modern football, “the nickel is the base.” With the way offenses now operate, you rarely can get away with having just two cornerbacks and two safeties on the field. Auburn’s defense might be a 3-4 at its core, but it ultimately ends up looking like a 2-4-5 in practice.
That fifth defensive back, often called the nickel, is crucial in today’s game. The terminology is pretty simple — five defensive backs, five cents in a nickel. (The naming convention quickly falls apart, though, as a dime defense has six defensive backs instead of 10. The quarter has seven, and the dollar has eight.) Sometimes, they’ll be referred to in the more technical “slot corner” term.
Of course, the nickel back is nothing new at Auburn. The Gus Malzahn era saw players such as Josh Holsey, Rudy Ford and Jeremiah Dinson carve out key roles there. While there was some mixing and matching on the back end, both Ellis Johnson and Kevin Steele liked having dedicated nickels on their defenses.
The switch to the Bryan Harsin era in 2021, starting with defensive coordinator Derek Mason and now continuing with Jeff Schmedding, has seen more interchangeability at the position.
So, when defensive backs coach Zac Etheridge was asked Thursday afternoon about who was working at nickel, he was blunt in his response.
“All of them,” Etheridge said. “And I say that because I'm all about versatility. Guys are gonna end up playing outside, but if you play corner, you've got to play nickel. And (safety Zion Puckett) works at nickel, (safety Donovan Kaufman) obviously works at nickel — because a lot of teams nowadays get into big personnel, 12 personnel, and you want to still be in a passing situation if they spread out the set. So having a big body down there is obviously something that we do.
“Every last one of those guys have to play the nickel position to understand what's going on.”
And in his first season as Auburn’s defensive backs coach in 2021, Etheridge was a man of his word when it came to the nickel.