Replacing the backfield

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When Auburn begins spring practice Sunday, it will mark a new era in the Tigers’ defensive backfield.

AU must replace four scholarship seniors from last year’s secondary, including longtime standouts Patrick Lee, Jonathan Wilhite and Eric Brock. The new look for the secondary extends to the coaching ranks, where Paul Rhoads replaces Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator and secondary coach.

Rhoads’ goals for the secondary in spring practice are simple: Fill the gaps in the starting lineup, then find at least three reserves who can help the Tigers in the fall.

“We’ll get our starting four first, and then we’ll get five and six and seven,” Rhoads said.

The new era also means changes for at least one AU veteran. Junior Aairon Savage, who started 13 games at safety over the past two seasons, will move to cornerback.

Savage is penciled in as the starter at left cornerback, opposite returning starter Jerraud Powers.

Savage’s move to corner gives Auburn four players at the position: Savage, Powers, junior Walter McFadden and sophomore Ryan Williams.

“We want to get Aairon over there to give us four corners for the first day of spring practice and see where we are over there,” Rhoads said.

Rhoads expects Powers, AU’s most experienced cornerback, to provide leadership at the position. Savage has never played cornerback, and McFadden and Williams played sparingly last season.

But Powers is up for the challenge. He started 12 games last season and finished with 63 tackles, the fourth-highest total on the team. His 2007 production caught Rhoads’ eye when the coordinator watched video of last season’s defense.

“I’ve probably noticed him more on film than other people, and that’s not to slight other people,” Rhoads said. “That’s a compliment to Jerraud. He’s a dang good football player.”

Moving Savage to corner has eased the depth shortage at that position. But it’s left Auburn somewhat shorthanded at his former spot, safety.

Sophomore Zac Etheridge, the team’s second-leading tackler, returns at one safety spot. Sophomore Mike McNeil will join him in the starting lineup after a productive freshman season.

But there’s not much depth. Redshirt freshman Mike Slade, who spent last fall at cornerback, is the only scholarship reserve safety currently on the roster. Senior walk-on Jonathan Vickers heads into the spring as the other second-team safety.

Auburn signed six defensive backs earlier this month, and Rhoads isn’t ruling out the possibility that one or more will step into the breach at safety.

“When those kids get here in practice and we start practicing, I’ll go in there with the mindset that, if they’re better than what we have, then they’ll play,” Rhoads said.

Depth not a problem at linebacker
While Rhoads is searching for players to fill out his playing rotation, linebackers coach James Willis has a different problem.

Auburn will only play three linebackers in most situations. With a depth chart that features five former starters, Willis has more players than he can play at any given time.

It’s a good problem to have, of course.

Senior Chris Evans, junior Tray Blackmon and sophomore Craig Stevens will open the spring as the starters. But a deep group of reserves including senior Merrill Johnson, sophomore Josh Bynes and true freshman Da’Shaun Barnes will push the first-teamers throughout spring practice.

Evans, who started every game last season, returns as the top weakside linebacker. He leads a group of three seniors which also features Johnson and reserve Courtney Harden.

Combined, Evans, Johnson and Harden have played in 85 games and have 161 career tackles.

Blackmon is back as the starting middle linebacker. He missed four games last season with an ankle injury, but still finished with 45 tackles. The junior is Auburn’s fastest linebacker and one of the team’s hardest hitters.

Stevens won the starting strongside linebacker job last spring, but was in and out of the lineup in 2007. He started seven games and finished with 35 tackles, but will have to fight for his job this spring.

Harris, who started on the strongside against Alabama, won’t participate in contact drills due to offseason shoulder surgery. That could create an opening for Barnes, who graduated from high school in 2007 and signed with Tennessee, but never enrolled.

He sat out last season and signed with AU; he’ll have a full four years of eligibility.

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