The Starters: CB — Walt McFadden (6-0, 175, Sr.), Neiko Thorpe (6-2, 176, So.); SS — Zac Etheridge (6-0, 212, Jr.); FS — Daren Bates (5-11, 195, Fr.)
The Backups: CB — Harry Adams (6-0, 183, So.), Demond Washington (5-9, 185, Jr.); S — Mike Slade (6-3, 192, So.), T’Sharvan Bell (6-0, 192, So.), Drew Cole (5-11, 182, So.)
The Wildcard: FS — Mike McNeil (6-2, 201, Jr.)
The Outside Possibility: CB/S — D’Antoine Hood, 5-10, 187, So.
The general consensus on the Auburn secondary can be summed up in … well, is Uh-oh even a word? Summed up in two syllables seems more accurate, two syllables named Uh and oh.
And not without reason. Aairon Savage is a memory until further notice. Christian Thompson got the boot. Mike McNeil’s broken leg is healing at the speed of Bill Walton’s feet. The other returning safeties watched a two-star true freshman snatch their job right out of their hands. Taikwon Paige never even made it to campus. Bell and Hood are dragging around injury problems, Hood a nasty high-ankle sprain.
But for all of that, you know what? I think the Auburn secondary, as the song goes, is gonna make it after all. Look at the game log for last season: just four teams broke 7 yards-an-attempt and one of those, Georgia, did so primarily via the screen pass (despite having, you know, the year’s No. 1 draft pick at QB and a bevy of talented wideouts). A few more interceptions would have been nice, but if you finish the year tied for 10th in the nation in opponent’s YPA, you were doing something right.
Now, I know that secondary featured both Jerraud Powers and Mike McNeil and for the time being, at least, the current secondary will feature neither. However: Powers missed big chunks of time and was hobbled for much of the time he did see, meaning his production should be able to be mostly replaced. As for McNeil … well …
Let’s start at the other three positions, because assuming these guys stay healthy KNOCK ON THE MOST PRECIOUS PIECE OF WOOD YOU OWN it’s a hell of a way to start. McFadden played virtually every down last year–he can argue that sterling opponent’s YPA belongs to him more than any other player–and mostly held in check all manner of beasts from McCluster to Massaqoui. He’s now a senior with a full year of starting experience behind him and should be able to be everything Powers was last year. At the other starting corner you’ve got Thorpe, who played from Day 1 and on Day 1 did this:
Thorpe would go on to play the whole of the season as at least the nickel, and with the exception of one or two plays never looked out of place. Thorpe is a a proto-corner–tall, fast, a big hitter–and both broke up and intercepted more passes than either of Auburn’s starting safeties. Now that whole “freshman” thing is behind him, and the guess here is that Thorpe elevates himself into the all-conference discussion to give Auburn–no one outside of the Plains will believe this for a second, but I believe it anyway–the best pair of corners in the SEC outside of Gainesville and Tuscaloosa.
Then you’ve got Zac Etheridge, the former SEC All-Freshman team member who’ll only be in his third year of week-in-week-out starting and led the team in tackles last year. Oh yeah, after struggling with his shoulder all last year. Now he’s (supposedly) healthy. We are good here at strong safety.
It’s after that when things get dicey. The hope is that Bates does as a true freshman at safety what Thorpe did at corner a year ago, but Bates doesn’t arrive with nearly immediate physical gifts or recruiting attention of Thorpe, and he’ll be playing a position where one mistake can be even more fatal than one on the corner. Bates has a huge, all-conference future ahead of him and he wouldn’t have beaten out Slade if he wasn’t ready to play, but there’s also going to be a few moments that force Auburn fans to grab a handful of their own hair and pull, hard. He’s a true freshman. Playing free safety. Unless Auburn somehow discovered the next Eric Berry while he waited to enroll at Arkansas St., it’s going to happen.
But that’s the worst thing we can say about the unit, because despite all the injuries and dismissals the depth is still, somehow, OK. It’s miles better than last year, in any case, when Hood deputized as the nickel more than once; that he was no better than third-string even this year before his injury (we think) should tell you there’s been a positive influx.
As we mentioned yesterday, the nickel package is expected to see Slade come in and Etheridge slide to corner. Slade hasn’t done a lot to date, wasn’t a high-profile recruit, and just got beaten out by Bates for the starting job, but he’s still a third-year player with some on-field experience, and if the coaches trust him enough to keep the other corners on the bench and force Etheridge elsewhere, he must have shown them something. All we need him to do is nothing catastrophic.
Speaking of those other corners, Washington is a JUCO veteran who came in with a five-star rating from Scout and should at the very least be able to hold his own. Adams spent the spring at wideout but has flashed some physical potential; I don’t think seeing him every now and then would be a disaster. There’s even reason to think Bell (a former four-star athlete who came in fr plenty of spring praise before struggling with injuries this fall) or Hood (who didn’t embarrass himself last season, all you can ask of a freshman) could contribute if they get healthy, though Hood’s got a long road in front of him. I’ll be surprised if Cole sees the field, but he’s currently listed above Bell and Hood, so it’s certainly a possibility. (Not one I’m relishing thinking about, mind you.)
And lastly there’s McNeil, who would turn our outstanding starting three into a rock-solid, airtight, take-no-prisoners starting four. Too bad his rehabilitation seems to be progressing so slowly–at this point the best-case scenario would be Bates staking a firm hold on the starting job and letting McNeil take his redshirt beforereturning with a vengeance next year.
Thorpe and McFadden both rank amongst the SEC’s top corners, and along with Etheridge, power the secondary to one of the better statistical profiles in the league. Bates has his growing pains before coming out the other side OK. Washington eventually establishes himself as the third corner and stakes a claim to be McFadden’s replacement in ’10.
THE UNIT’S FINAL GRADE ON AN UNNECESSARILY PRECISE FIVE-STAR SCALE
Photo by Van Emst.