Summer School: What we know, don’t know about Auburn’s defensive backs
Editor's note: This is the eighth in a nine-part series breaking down Auburn’s 2019 roster position by position leading up to SEC media days, which take place July 15-18 in Hoover.
AUBURN — There are a few games from last season that Auburn’s secondary would rather not remember.
There was the Sept. 15 loss to LSU, where a long passing touchdown and crucial pass interference penalty allowed the purple-and-gold Tigers to come from behind and win at Jordan-Hare Stadium. There was the Nov. 24 Iron Bowl loss to Alabama, when Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts erupted for five passing touchdowns in the second half alone.
But, overall, 2018 was a successful season for Auburn’s secondary. The team’s pass defense ranked top-60 in yards allowed through the air per game, top-40 in yards per attempt and top-30 in opponent completion percentage. Its 14 interceptions were eight more than the year before and tied for 24th nationally.
And this season, the Tigers return four of five starters on the back end as well as defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff, who replaces the departed Greg Brown (who left for Purdue) after two seasons as the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss.
Here’s what we know and don’t know about the team’s defensive backs:
Javaris Davis (Sr.), Jeremiah Dinson (Sr.), Daniel Thomas (Sr.), Devan Barrett (Jr.), Noah Igbinoghene (Jr.), Traivon Leonard (Jr.), Jordyn Peters (Jr.), Malcolm Askew (So.), Smoke Monday (So.), Roger McCreary (So.), Jamien Sherwood (So.), Christian Tutt (So.), Nehemiah Pritchett (Fr.), Zion Puckett (Fr.), Jaylin Simpson (Fr.)
WHAT WE KNOW
What we know is that the Tigers set at safety this season and for seasons to come. Between Dinson, Thomas, Monday and Sherwood, they have two senior starters and two sophomores ready to slide seamlessly into those roles immediately once they’re gone, respectively.
Dinson and Thomas ascended to the starting roles at safety after the departures of Tray Matthews and Stephen Robert, shined at the position in 2018 and elected to reprise their roles in 2019 after briefly considering the NFL draft during the offseason. The former totaled 64 tackles, four tackles for loss and a sack. The latter 74 tackles (second on the team behind linebacker Deshaun Davis) and had a coverage grade of 88.8, per Pro Football Focus. Both had two interceptions.
“It’s going to be pretty big,” Thomas said of both he and Dinson coming back for their senior seasons. “A lot of times, guys come in and they don’t have anybody to look up to. We try to be there for the guys when they need us and show them the way, lead them in the right direction.”
The guys Dinson and Thomas are leading are Monday and Sherwood, who have ascended quickly after enrolling early as four-star recruits last year. When the 2018 season began, they were backups to the two senior starters. By the time the season ended, they were legitimate members of a rotation at safety.
Sherwood totaled 23 tackles and three pass breakups last season, and Monday 15 tackles to go along with a pair of sacks. The latter wasn’t able to participate fully in spring practice because of a foot injury, but that didn’t stop him from making an impression on McGriff, who said the rising sophomore was still “very engaged” and “asking questions like he was getting ready to go out and practice" even when he couldn't.
“No worries about them. Those guys came in and both of them did a hell of a job. Those two guys are rangy. They can come up and tackle, cover you,” Dinson said. “That's what we need from those guys. That's what we need from freshmen that are coming in. It's a next-man-up business. A year from now, me and DT are not going to be here. You're going to be talking to Jamien Sherwood and Smoke Monday. It's good. I'm so proud of those guys and tell them each and every day, ‘Keep working.’”
WHAT WE DON’T KNOW
What we don’t know yet is if the loss of top cornerback Jamel Dean will have any effect on the play of Auburn's secondary.
We know it will affect how the Tigers line up. It already has. During the spring, Davis shifted from nickel (where he spent most of last season) to corner opposite Igbinoghene, who ascended to the top of the depth chart going into his second season playing the position. Tutt took the lead at nickel while Peters (another candidate to play extensively at that spot) recovered from offseason foot surgery.
None of that is cause for any concern, though. Davis limited opposing quarterbacks to a passer rating of just 64.4 when targeted in coverage last season, breaking up two passes and intercepting one. Igbinoghene ranks second among returning SEC cornerbacks having allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete just 41% of throws into his coverage a year ago. Tutt continuously got better throughout his freshman campaign, finishing with 25 tackles.
“Just to see him grow from last season to where he’s at now is tremendous,” Davis said of Tutt. “The sky’s the limit for him.”
But the fact of the matter is that Auburn is still replacing a 6-foot-1 cornerback that held opposing quarterbacks to a 40.2-percent completion rate over the past two seasons, ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine and was selected in the third round of the draft.
Igbinoghene, Davis, Tutt and Peters give the Tigers a solid base at corner and nickel, but they’ll need the likes of McCreary, Barrett and others to provide the extra depth and performance at those spots that they’ll miss without Dean.
“Next man up. That's all there is to know,” Dinson said. “Carlton (Davis) left, and when he left there were a lot of eyebrows raised, and then Dean stepped up. Now that Dean is gone, Noah has to step up, Javaris has to step up. We have the players to do it. It's a next-man-up business.”
THEY SAID IT
“Right now, you can’t be concerned; you’ve got to be ready for the season. Your concerns, you’ve got to put them in your pocket and you keep working to strengthen the roster if the scholarship allows that. It comes from the head coach. But right now our focus is making sure we get a little bit better everyday classroom-wise, in the weight room and get ready for the season. Your concerns are to a minimum now because you’re not going to cut anybody, you’re not going to draft anybody, so it’s time to go.” — Wesley McGriff
The Summer School series ends with a look at what we know and don’t know about Auburn’s special teams.