- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor’s note: This is the first part in a weeklong series looking at Auburn's top five position groups with room to improve.
AUBURN, Ala. -- The SEC is typically known as a defensive league, but offenses that dominated play last year. The conference featured the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and James Franklin at quarterback, and defenses paid the price.
Auburn had to face all of the quarterbacks above and allowed 7.3 yards per game in those contests. The season stats don’t do any favors to the Tigers’ defense, especially the secondary, but they made enough plays on the back end to win 12 games and play for a BCS title.
“The [secondary] is really a picture of what our defense has been,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said before the Florida State game. “They've been inconsistent, given up cheap plays, [but] they have made some unbelievable plays. When they make the kind of plays that they made at critical times, you have to trust them.”
The good news for SEC defenses is that all five of those quarterbacks have moved on. In fact, six of the eight league games on Auburn’s 2014 schedule will feature teams with a first-year starter at quarterback. However, the Tigers will be without top cornerback Chris Davis next season, as well as safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White.
The balance of power in the SEC is expected to shift back to the defenses, and if Auburn hopes to follow suit, it must have better play in the secondary. Who will step up?
Battling for No. 1: With Davis no longer in the picture, Jonathon Mincy is expected to slide over and take his role as the No. 1 cornerback. The senior to be finished with 56 tackles last year and has started 28 games in his Auburn career. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs, and the early favorite to win the job is Jonathan Jones. He has made three starts in his first two seasons, and when healthy, he’s one of the better defensive backs on the team. At safety, the Tigers get Jermaine Whitehead back, and they hope to have Joshua Holsey back from injury. Holsey tore his ACL in practice just days before the Texas A&M game, but he was the glue that held the secondary together before he went down. A combination of Whitehead and Holsey could make safety a strength heading into next season.
Strength in numbers: Depth in the secondary was an issue for Auburn last year, and it could be again this year. Freshman Johnathan Ford came to Auburn as a running back but moved to cornerback in fall camp because of the lack of players at the position. There has been no word yet on which side of the ball Ford will be on this spring. If Holsey is still out, the team’s next best option at safety is senior Trent Fisher. He has played in 32 games, starting two, and should get plenty of first-team reps this spring. Another candidate could be Robenson Therezie, who started every game at Star this past season. If the coaches go a different direction at the Star position, Therezie could make an impact in the secondary, at cornerback and/or safety. Therezie’s backup, Mackenro Alexander, also could provide help at safety if needed.
New on the scene: With depth a concern, Gus Malzahn and his staff made defensive back a priority in the 2014 recruiting class. They added three ESPN 300 cornerbacks, a late bloomer in Markell Boston and the nation’s No. 1 junior college outside linebacker Derrick Moncrief, who could help at both the Star and safety positions. The most intriguing player of the group is Stephen Roberts, a former Alabama commitment. The in-state product is listed as a cornerback, but Auburn plans to use him at safety where he can contribute immediately. On signing day, Malzahn tabbed Roberts, along with fellow ESPN 300 cornerbacks Kalvarez Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin, as guys who have a chance to come in and contribute early.