AUBURN, Ala. — The standard mention of Auburn by any national media outlet usually includes two things — quarterback Cam Newton’s Heisman Trophy candidacy and the defense’s vulnerability, especially in the secondary.
“You hear the defense, basically the secondary, is making us weak,” safety Ikeem Means said. “We’re fed up of hearing that talk on ESPN, and that we’re weak links. We want to improve.”
There’s plenty of room to do so. After being torched for 428 passing yards by Arkansas, the majority of damage being done by backup Tyler Wilson and not Heisman candidate Ryan Mallett, the Tigers’ secondary is trying to get back to the basics.
“You note the positives, which there were some. You note the negatives, which there were many, and proceed to move on,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “You don’t belabor any of the points.”
After limiting big plays throughout the first six weeks, the Tigers allowed six pass plays of 23 yards or longer against the Razorbacks. Four went for touchdowns.
“There were some instances where we’ve got to finish the play and come down with the ball or make sure they don’t come down with the ball,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “We’ve got to find a way to do that. Arkansas does that to everybody they play, but that’s no excuse. We’re all together on this.”
Auburn dropped to 108th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in passing defense, allowing 266.1 yards a game. It has given up 13 passing touchdowns, more than any team in the SEC.
Although the league is experiencing an offensive Renaissance, with 10 teams averaging 26 points or more, there remains a disconcerting fact for Tigers fans with lofty goals: the SEC champion has not had a pass defense allow more than 200 yards a game since LSU in 2001. In fact, five of the last seven conference champions have had a pass defense ranked in the top 10 nationally.
Injuries aren’t helping the situation. Safety Aairon Savage will miss at least six weeks after breaking a bone in his right ankle. T’Sharvan Bell, who has worked into the rotation at cornerback, is day-to-day with a hamstring problem.
“That’s football,” Roof said. “The next man has to step up.”
Junior Mike McNeil, who was part of a three-man rotation at safety with Savage and Zac Etheridge, will step into Savage’s starting spot, but the Tigers need depth. Means, a sophomore, and true freshman Demetruce McNeal hope to provide it.
Means, a 6-foot, 204-pound walk-on, caught the coaches’ eyes in the spring, getting the bulk of reps while the veteran safeties came back from injuries. He’s played sparingly on the base defense this year, however, something he’d like to change.
“I just hope to, not exactly fill (Savage’s) shoes, but to improve,” Means said. “I know my playing time will increase a little bit. I think I’ll get in the rotation.”
McNeal, 6-foot-1, 176-pound freshman from College Park, Ga., hasn’t worked much on the regular defense, but he has made a name for himself on special teams, leading the group with 10 tackles.
“I think I showed the coaches I can play on this level and just contribute to the team,” McNeal said.
Said Chizik: “You can see his knack for the game.”
No matter who steps in, the Tigers know there’s plenty of work to be done in a short period of time.
“We are what we are and we are who we are. That’s not going to change,” Roof said. “We’ve got to make sure everybody has a sense of urgency to improve.”