Four months after standout cornerback Roger McCreary was selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, secondary coach Zac Etheridge is given the task of setting a new standard for the back end of Auburn's defense.
Auburn, even with McCreary, was fourth-worst in the SEC in passing defense in 2021, giving up 242.7 yards per game through the air. The team grabbed just nine interceptions, and only three of them were by returning players: Donovan Kauffman, Nehemiah Pritchett and Jaylin Simpson had one a piece.
The front seven for Auburn has been notoriously dangerous, and one could even say they've built their own brand. With returning playmakers such as upperclassmen Derrick Hall, Colby Wooden, Eku Leota, Marquis Burks and Owen Pappoe joined by big transfers Jayson Jones and Jeffrey M'Ba plugging things up in the middle, the Tigers are looking study up front.
While the back end is more of a sure thing, the secondary has a lot of young, unproven talent- talent that Etheridge talked to the media about on Thursday with excitement.
"I feel like we got a really good group of guys with Jaylin (Simpson), Nehemiah (Pritchett), D.J. (James), J.D. (Rhym), Keionte (Scott) and then you got A.D. (Diamond),” Etheridge said. "I think Nehemiah and Jaylin have taken their game to another level… they’ve set the bar high.”
While Pritchett is a returning starter, Simpson saw the field in more of a limited fashion last season, although he was a key piece on special teams and appeared in 11 games. He got the start in the Birmingham Bowl in the absence of McCreary, so he was able to get the hang of things as a starter.
Simpson got his foot in the door well last season with 22 solo tackles as well as an interception, but a few miscues late in the season is what fans might remember the most. Particularly, a fourth-quarter kick versus South Carolina that bounced off of Simpson and recovered by the Gamecocks, leading to their go-ahead score. Staying confident and level-headed will be key for the junior this season.
"A couple plays [Simpson] wishes he could have back. He wants to be in on every play and be in the right spot, but things don’t happen that way," Etheridge said. "He’s got to understand that he has to play the next play, so that’s we’ve been talking about. Getting back to the middle; not too high, not too low and just be consistent. Work on your technique, put yourself in position in practice so you won’t have those same results in-game.”
Beyond the starters, Etheridge bragged on some of the younger guys who have energized the locker room and brought competition to fall camp. As head coach Bryan Harsin has said on multiple occasions, most positions are open for battle, and things are no different in the secondary.
One guy Etheridge raved about is Vanderbilt transfer Donovan Kauffman, who is listed as a safety but has shown his willingness to be moved around on defense.
“Man, [Kauffman] studies. D.K. comes in every single day with his iPad, and he’s writing notes," Etheridge said. "He’s making sacrifices from himself to come in and study. He would run through a wall; he’s a guy who goes hard every day.”
Another youngster that has made a name for himself in fall camp is sophomore cornerback Keionte Scott. 247 named him the top JUCO player at his position last year before coming to Auburn, and according to his coaches and teammates, he is living up to the hype.
As far as Etheridge's impressions of Scott?
“Baller," Etheridge said. "He’s very instinctive on what he does. He just loves football, and he comes out here and plays the game the way it’s supposed to be played. He walked in day one and earned respect from the guys in the room.”
From youngsters to veterans, the Auburn defense has reasons to expect improvement from years past. One thing is certain, though: Harsin, defensive coordinator Jeff Schedding and Etheridge have plenty of talent to work with. If the injury bug stays away from the Tigers, depth shouldn't be at a lack, either.
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Noah is a senior in journalism from Salem, Alabama. He joined the Plainsman in August of 2021 after transferring in from Southern Union Community College.