AUBURN, Ala. — At 22 years old, Walt McFadden feels old. The fifth-year senior is by far the dean of the Auburn cornerbacks — a wise, battled-tested veteran leader whose younger teammates have taken to calling “Daddy Walt.”
“I’m trying to get away from that,” McFadden said, feeling even older because of the nickname. “I’m still their age, you know?”
While McFadden doesn’t necessarily enjoy the moniker, he has embraced taking under his wing the youthful trio of Neiko Thorpe, Harry Adams and Demond Washington, a group of cornerbacks expected to get the majority of playing time this season.
“I don’t think there’s a weak link back there,” McFadden said.
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The defensive backfield is of particular interest to coach Gene Chizik, who oversaw the secondary while serving as Auburn’s defensive coordinator from 2002-04.
“He calls us his babies, the whole secondary,” McFadden said. “He watches over us and wants us to be the best in the country. He wants us to be the best at everything we do out there, from backpedaling to reading the wide receivers’ routes.”
McFadden knows he’s the latest flag bearer of an Auburn cornerback tradition that in the past five years has produced NFL talents Jerraud Powers (Colts), Rod Hood (Browns), Kevin Hobbs (Seahawks) and former Thorpe Award winner Carlos Rogers (Redskins).
“We’re trying to reiterate, ‘Hey, look guys, you’re not the first that’s been through this,’” cornerbacks coach Phillip Lolley said. “This is the same way we’re teaching you. We’re not changing anything.”
Although slight on numbers — and right now at Auburn, which position isn’t? — the cornerbacks have promise even beyond McFadden, who started 12 games last year and has three career interceptions.
Thorpe, a soft-spoken 6-foot-2, 176-pound sophomore, has the makings of a star, giving the Tigers a solid starting two. He played primarily as the nickelback last season but got serious playing time due to Powers’ numerous injuries. He made 29 tackles for the season, with two interceptions he returned for 101 yards total.
After watching his wideouts match up against him this August, receivers coach Trooper Taylor said Thorpe is “as good as anybody” in the SEC.
“Very seldom do you find that height with that type of speed and that type of quickness all in one body,” Lolley said. “And it’s not just that. He carries the attitude to the field as a worker. He’s very coachable.”
Their primary backups, Adams and Washington, have some question marks. Adams, one of the fastest players on the team, moved to wide receiver in the spring but was rushed back to corner after safety Christian Thompson was dismissed from the team this summer and cornerback Aairon Savage suffered a likely season-ending Achilles’ injury.
“He’s got good straight-ahead speed,” Lolley said. “What I’m trying to do (with him) is have speed left and right and cut on the breaks a little better.”
Although the oldest of the backups at age 21, Washington has the least experience, having played at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College the past two years. He still has caught on quickly.
“Very studious,” Lolley said. “Really studies the game. In the film room, he’s very attentive, very alert. Thank goodness, because he’s much-needed help. He’s going to help us a lot.”
Beyond those two, Auburn is light on bodies. Walk-ons Rodney Cofield and Caleb Blanton have worked with the group.
Sophomore scholarship players T’Sharvan Bell and Central-Phenix City grad D’Antoine Hood have split time between safety and corner this August, but both have dealt with nagging injuries. Hood just recently got back on the field in a scout-team role after being sidelined by a high-ankle sprain the past two weeks.
The low numbers don’t bother McFadden, who has learned to trust his teammates to get the job done.
“I’m not going to be the iron man,” he said. “We’ve got four DBs that can help out. You can put them in at any time of the game, and they would help out. I believe that if any one of us goes down, we’ve got a guy that can back him.”