Hugh Freeze called out Auburn's DBs — and they're embracing the challenge
"I think we've got to improve our mental toughness and our attention to detail in the secondary."
DB D.J. James and DB Keionte Scott (Austin Perryman/Auburn Athletics)
It’s very easy to see what the strength of Auburn’s football team will be in 2023 — or, at least, what it should be.
During a rough 5-7 season last year, the Tigers didn’t do much at a high level. But they still finished the year tied for No. 23 nationally in pass defense (6.5 yards allowed per attempt). That mark was even with national champion Georgia and tied for fourth-best in the SEC.
It wasn’t always pretty — Penn State, Arkansas and Alabama definitely put up some big efficiency numbers through the air — but for a defense that struggled so much to stop the run, being one of the better teams in major college football at preventing big passing plays kept a bad 2022 season from getting much worse.
And then the Tigers brought almost everybody back for 2023.
With the top cornerback combination of D.J. James and Nehemiah Pritchett deciding not to jump to the NFL, Auburn returns its top six defensive backs in terms of snaps from last season.
James and Pritchett are joined by the veteran safety duo of Zion Puckett and Jaylin Simpson, along with primary nickel options Keionte Scott and Donovan Kaufman. And, with J.D. Rhym back to full strength after missing most of the spring with an injury, the only Auburn defensive back who played triple-digit snaps in 2022 who isn’t on the practice field right now is the recently departed Cayden Bridges.
On an Auburn roster that went through a massive overhaul under a new staff and has big questions at virtually every position at this point in fall camp, the experience and depth of the secondary is jarring.
Surely this position group is rock-solid and ready to roll with no chief concerns from the coaches, right?
“I think we've got to improve our mental toughness and our attention to detail in the secondary,” head coach Hugh Freeze said Thursday, prior to Auburn’s first practice of fall camp. “I do think we have some talent there, but it's some older talent, and then it's some really good young talent. I don't think any have been stressed and strained enough to where we need to be.
“I do think we have some talent there. So I wanna see them improve that aspect of it.”
Of all the things Freeze said in his introductory press conference last week, his statement on the secondary — a response to a question where he was asked about which position group he was most excited about this fall (the offensive line) — was by far the most surprising.
If there was anywhere on Auburn’s team where you would have the least amount of doubts, the defensive backfield had to be a runaway favorite. After all, it was the spot that got the most preseason love from the media, with James and Pritchett earning some All-SEC buzz.
But Freeze wants Auburn’s defensive backs to practice like they haven’t come close to arriving yet. And that message has been received, loud and clear.
“Everyone knows we have one of the top groups in the country,” Scott said Friday. “Now it’s just being able to go to practice knowing that we’re not anywhere, we’re not anybody, we’re not ranked in the country.
“We’re not anything.”