Let's take an early look at the next wave in Auburn's secondary
Zac Etheridge has a foundational four to build around in 2022. But what does he think of the newcomers who will have to play a role this fall?
CB J.D. Rhym (Todd Van Emst/Auburn Athletics)
If Brad Bedell’s tight end room is the model of pure stability for Auburn football this spring, Zac Etheridge’s secondary is quite the opposite.
Roger McCreary left the Plains to go be a potential first-round pick in the NFL Draft. Smoke Monday will join him in the league. Bydarrius Knighten has a shot, too. Malcolm Askew is now working for the Tigers in recruiting and player personnel.
Then there were the transfers. Ladarius Tennison, Dreshun Miller, Ahmari Harvey and Eric Reed Jr. all left the team this offseason. Ro Torrence entered the portal before the second week of spring ball was finished.
The departures were timed up with a massive influx of defensive back signees over the offseason. Four will be true freshmen this season. D.J. James transferred from Oregon. Auburn also landed the top JUCO players at both cornerback (Keionte Scott) and safety (Marquise Gilbert).
Through all of that, Etheridge is now tasked with being the solo coach in the secondary room after Derek Mason — who helped with the position in 2021 — resigned and took a job at Oklahoma State.
Etheridge has the depth. They’re not all on campus right now, but Auburn is set to have at least 13 scholarship defensive backs this fall. Still, the Tigers’ ace recruiter knows the grind never stops.
“Nah, I never got enough numbers,” Etheridge said with a laugh. “As long as Coach Harsin gives me a scholarship number, trust me, we’re going to go get as many DBs as he’ll allow me to have.”
Etheridge’s defensive backfield projects as having a good mix of returning experience, instant-impact transfers and developing young talent in 2022.
He has a senior leader at cornerback in Nehemiah Pritchett, who has been Auburn’s No. 2 behind McCreary for each of the last two seasons. At safety, it’s junior Zion Puckett, who wasn’t too far behind Monday in overall workload last year.
Each position also has a veteran with starting experience to fill in — junior Jaylin Simpson at cornerback and junior Donovan Kaufman at safety. (Several of them have also gotten reps at nickel this spring.)
There’s a solid foundation in place in the defensive backfield. Auburn could list a traditional starting base of guys who have been there before and have proven themselves able to contribute at a high level.
But who is going to step up around them? That’s where the real intrigue begins.