With SEC Media Days on the horizon, sports reporter Zach Tantillo will dive into the Auburn players in various position groups that have the greatest chance for a breakout season in 2019 with the new “Bound to Break Out” series.
Today’s edition of Bound to Break Out focuses on the players who can emerge from the secondary, a position group that faced a lot of scrutiny on a top-15 defense last season.
The 2018 season was an up-and-down year for the Auburn secondary.
The unit’s susceptibility of allowing big plays (30 plays over 25 yards) and penalties overshadowed an overall solid performance last season; in which, the Auburn secondary posted an opponent completion percentage of 55.5 percent with the No. 31 opponent passer rating in the country, broke up 39 passes and picked off 12.
Those stats don’t scream regression from a unit that lost its best cover corner and two senior safeties to the NFL, but now the Auburn secondary is in a similar position with another lead corner leaving a year early for the NFL and getting picked by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
With the departure of Jamel Dean, the Tigers will lean on a few players that are bound to breakout to become the playmakers in the secondary.
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The experiment to convert Noah Igbinoghene into a cornerback has been nothing short of a glowing success for the Tigers.
In Igbinoghene’s first season on the defensive side of the ball, he relied mostly on his elite athleticism and natural instincts in Auburn’s man-to-man defensive scheme to make up for his lack of experience. Despite that, Igbinoghene broke up a team-high 11 passes, intercepted one pass and placed fifth on the team in tackles with 50.
As one of the four remaining starters returning in the Auburn secondary, Igbinoghene has emerged as the No. 1 option for the Tigers on the outside with his highly touted work ethic that molds perfectly with his athleticism that is through the roof.
“Man, I tell you what, he set a high bar and a high standard for himself,” Defensive backs coach Marcus Woodson said of Igbinoghene to AL.com before speaking to the Monroe County Auburn Club in Monroeville. “I knew day one, based on physicality and his aggressiveness and his competitive drive, that he was going to make a really good corner…. You know, Noah has the ability and the potential to play this game for a really long time.”
As the No. 2 corner in 2018, Igbinoghene’s season could be described as a trial by fire with opposing quarterbacks tending to test Igbinoghene a little more than his counterpart Jamel Dean but now as the projected No. 1 corner, Igbinoghene will be tested more than ever facing off against the top receiver talent in the country.
Christian Tutt offered an immediate impact for the Tigers while spending majority of the 2018 season as a backup. During his freshman campaign, Tutt had 25 tackles, a sack and an interception that he returned for 23 yards.
Going into 2019, Tutt is expected to take on a much bigger role and be the choice to start at Nickel for Auburn with Javaris Davis looking to make the move to the outside.
It does not seem likely that Tutt will be solely stuck in the Nickel slot in 2019, but he will also see some time at corner, as well. Tutt’s versatile skill set has him poised to be a player that can fill in anywhere in the secondary and become a big-time player for the Tigers.
“I feel like he has the ability to do anything,” Davis said. “Like myself, he's very versatile. He can play outside, he can play safety, play nickel. But he's probably going to be at the nickel position, and that's a tough position because, as you can see in the NFL, the nickel is basically a position where you have to do everything. You've got to be in the box sometimes, be a linebacker, go in coverage, make calls, so I feel like he's up ready for the task. And I've been working with him a lot, so I know his work ethic. He has a very hard work ethic and he wants to be great. I believe he is."
Tutt’s impact won’t only be felt in the secondary but he is also expected to be Auburn’s top punt returner, where he returned five punts for 65 yards serving as Ryan Davis’ backup.
Roger McCreary had a similar season to Tutt in 2018 by providing depth at the corner position but was less productive than his freshman counterpart. McCreary appeared in seven games last season for the Tigers and had five tackles and one pass deflection.
McCreary has used this spring to hone his skills and become more consistent defending the pass – an area he struggled to be consistent in last season. With his improvement this spring, McCreary has emerged as a real candidate to become an important contributor in the secondary.
“Roger's another one of those freshmen that looks completely different,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “You can tell he's more confident. He's off to a really good start. I've been with the offense mainly the whole time, but when a guy on defense flashes and stands out, that means he's doing a really good job.”
McCreary’s stats might not pop out of the box score but Auburn needs depth in the secondary and McCreary has the experience and skillset to become that rotational piece in 2019.
Jamien Sherwood is coming off an impressive first season on The Plains. During his freshman campaign, Sherwood had 22 tackles, 1.5 sacks, 1.5 tackles for loss, three pass deflections, an interception and was rated as the nation’s top freshman safety in the country by Pro Football Focus in November.
At 6-foot-2 and 204-pounds Sherwood has the protoypical size to play out in space and inside the box to provide run support and rush the passer. Sherwood’s instincts compliment his size well, making him a solid defender in the passing game and on of Auburn’s more sure tacklers.
“Sherwood is a really, really smart guy,” Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said in early October. “He's a very good tackler, and he's physical — he's a big guy who's physical, plays with good balance and body control.”
It is looking like Sherwood is going to get a lot more playing time which will lead to more production despite being a backup to Auburn’s leading returning tackler Daniel Thomas. That was evident when Sherwood led the Tigers in tackles with seven in their annual A-Day scrimmage.
Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson have the safeties spot locked down, but the young safety could make it impossible to keep him off the field.
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