Powers paces Auburn’s secondary
By Ross Dellenger
AUBURN — Auburn’s Jerraud Powers found himself in front of Brandon Cox’s locker following a team scrimmage this week.
It wasn’t hard to do because their lockers sit across from each other.
Having intercepted the senior quarterback just minutes earlier, the Decatur High graduate couldn’t resist a little “junk talking” while in the neighborhood.
“You better be happy I’m on your team,” Powers said.
Cox replied: “Yeah, I would be scared if you were on another team.”
Powers insisted that Cox was “being sarcastic,” but maybe not. It’s not the first time the sophomore has snatched a Cox pass during fall practice, and it would be shocking if it were the last.
Those sorts of plays are keeping Powers’ grip on the starting spot from slipping away, and it’s those plays that led to Powers being christened the starting cornerback about a week ago. But the 5-foot-9, 185-pounder remains deadlocked in a heated battle every day with a host of players looking to take his job.
The same goes for the two safety positions. Although there are a selected two who have been playing with the first stringers, their jobs are not safe.
“You have to be on your ‘A’ game,” said cornerback Jonathan Wilhite, who, for now, holds down the other starting cornerback position opposite Powers. “It’s been real tough, and it’s still going on right now.”
Wilhite’s selection to the second-team All-Southeastern Conference team means nothing in practice. He knows at any point that his job could be snatched.
He saw it firsthand midway through preseason camp when senior Patrick Lee was replaced in the starting lineup by Powers.
“That’s the main reason you have to be consistent. Those guys are going out every day making plays,” Wilhite said. “I feel like we got four guys that can play.”
Those guys include Wilhite, Powers, Lee and senior Zach Gilbert.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges sees the cornerbacks in action against his receivers every day in practice. He’s been impressed thus far.
“We’ve got a couple kids back there that really make it tough,” he said. “They’re good bump-and-run corners, and they don’t play off.”
Although Lee lost his starting position, he returns to the lineup when the team plays a nickel package, which includes five defensive backs. Powers becomes the nickel back, and Lee becomes the cornerback opposite to Wilhite.
Gilbert backs up Powers at the nickel spot. The two rotate, but Powers is the No. 1 man, sometimes a disadvantage. Powers remembers recently making a mistake in a read, not covering the flat. Gilbert came in a play later and “did it right,” he said.
From the way defensive coordinator Will Muschamp talks, the cornerbacks are ahead of the safeties. Muschamp said after last week’s scrimmage his most productive safety was true freshman Mike McNeil.
The 6-foot-2, 210-pounder backs up sophomore Aairon Savage at free safety. Senior Eric Brock and redshirt freshman Zach Etheridge were co-starters after spring drills, but it’s Etheridge who’s playing with the No. 1 group.
“I feel like we’ve got four guys we can win with, that can play SEC-caliber football,” Muschamp said. “We’ll continue to evaluate all positions until Sept. 1.”
Savage emerged as the starting free safety after spring, and although he still holds that spot, the 18-year-old has presented a challenge this fall.
McNeil starts on the kickoff team and punt return team and is an extra defensive back in the team’s goal line, short-yardage package. He will creep up to the line of scrimmage, playing just outside the tight end.
“I’m definitely going to play,” said McNeil, who is one of four true freshman who could see playing time on the Tigers’ defense.
The Mobile native had 90 tackles, two sacks and three interceptions during his senior campaign in high school.
“We’re making a lot of progress. Everyone is getting more and more familiar with Muschamp’s system,” McNeil said. “We’re starting to jell together as a secondary.”
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