Auburn football: First practice of spring 'a great day' for Tigers' safeties

rblack@ledger-enquirer.comMarch 18, 2014 

Auburn defensive back Jermaine Whitehead is greeted by teammate after intercepting a Missouri pass in the first half of the SEC Championship game at the Georgia Dome. Auburn beat Missouri 59-42 to take the 2013 SEC title and a spot in the BCS National Championship game. 12.07.13

ROBIN TRIMARCHI — rtrimarchi@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

AUBURN, Ala. — Spring practice brings with it a sense of renewal for every college football team.

But for Jermaine Whitehead, the first session of the spring also brought him a sense of relief. The last time he took the field, he recalled it didn’t end under the best of circumstances. He and his Auburn teammates fell agonizingly short — a mere 13 seconds — of winning the BCS national championship. Tuesday provided the first step in trying to put that loss behind him.

“It was a great day,” the senior free safety said of the Tigers’ first session of the spring. “Had a chance to fly around a lot, see some guys make some plays, see some guys happy to be out there again.”

Many of the faces have stayed the same.

It’s the positions that have changed.

One such example was Johnathan Ford. The sophomore arrived at Auburn last year as a running back. He didn’t stay there long, as he volunteered to switch to cornerback during fall camp following Jonathan Jones’ foot injury. While Ford had hoped he would return to the backfield this spring, he was instead shifted to safety.

It didn’t take long for Whitehead to notice the new presence in his position group.

“He’s a very talkative guy. He knows what’s going on,” Whitehead said. "He’s a learner. He’s always in my back pocket wanting to know some info. He wants to know what I know, what I saw, what I think of his steps and stuff like that. He’s going to be a great player.”

Derrick Moncrief caught Whitehead’s eye as well. An early enrollee, Moncrief was taking part in his first practice as a Tiger.

The energy he brought was impossible to ignore.

“(He) flew around to the ball a lot,” Whitehead said. “Can’t wait to see him hit, though. He’s a big dude. He’s going to help us a lot.”

Whenever he regains his health, Josh Holsey will be a welcome addition to the safety corps. At the moment, however, he is continuing to rehab from a torn anterior cruciate ligament which cut his 2013 campaign. No, he wasn’t able to take part in any contact drills at Tuesday’s practice, and will likely be limited for the foreseeable future.

But Holsey has still been able to contribute in other ways.

“He’s been one of the better guys as far as helping us with what he sees, what he thinks the offense is going to do,” Whitehead said. “They put in a lot today. They hit us with a lot of different things today.”

At the time of his injury last year, Holsey was the Tigers’ starting boundary safety. Once he went out, Ryan Smith moved over from corner. Whether Holsey will be back to 100 percent before the spring concludes is uncertain.

Similarly, Whitehead said a two-deep at the safety spots won’t be settled upon any time soon.

“We switched (things) up toward the end to see who could play what,” he said, noting that he and Moncrief (at boundary) took most of the reps with the first-team defense.

Taking reps behind Whitehead at free safety were Ford and Brandon King, while Khari Harding and Mack VanGorder split snaps behind Moncrief.

Whitehead wouldn’t have it any other way.

“(We’ve) got to give guys a lot of reps,” he said. “That’s the way to learn this defense — rep it and keep repping it. We got better throughout the season. That’s kind a good thing. We’re probably going to wear down toward the end and we’ll be able to take care of our bodies.”

When asked about personal goals for the spring, Whitehead ticked off the areas he planned to hit hardest, notably improving his “ball skills” and deciphering between run and pass plays quicker.

“Especially in an offense like ours with a lot of misdirection and play-action, I want to be able to make those great decisions and not guess,” he said.

If he achieves those objectives without making his teammates better, however, Whitehead believes his gains will amount to little.

“This year is going to be a year we have to stick together,” he said. “There are going to be a lot of bumps and bruises along the road. I want to get our confidence real high.”

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