Auburn’s Demond Washington fired off a list of positions he’s played in his career: cornerback, wide receiver, running back, quarterback, punt and kick returner.
Safety had never been one of them until Tuesday.
“First time ever,” he said.
Washington, a transfer from Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, has been thrust into a starting role at safety, charged with the unenviable task of having to fill the shoes of Zac Etheridge, who is out for the season after suffering a neck injury against Ole Miss last Saturday.
He’ll be paired with true freshman Daren Bates, the unlikely veteran of the group with all of nine games experience.
“As you make your stretch run, you’d rather be putting in experienced (players),” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “But that’s where we are.”
How did Auburn get here? It’s been a rocky few months for the safeties, one of the deepest groups on the team entering the spring. Since then ...
— Projected starter Mike McNeil broke his leg during Auburn’s second scrimmage in April. He hasn’t played since and will likely redshirt this season.
— Senior Aairon Savage, who played safety earlier in his career, had his comeback from a knee injury derailed by an Achilles’ heel injury in June.
— Christian Thompson, part of a trio of reserve safeties, was dismissed from the team in late June for disciplinary reasons.
— Backup Drew Cole injured his foot on special teams against Mississippi State on Sept. 12. He’s missed the last seven games.
— And lastly, the Tigers lost Etheridge, a three-year starter who was the team’s fourth-leading tackler.
“It is a big loss,” Chizik said. “It is a communication gap. Zac is such a smart football player. He understood everything and watched film constantly. He is always in the film room, he always knows what the offenses are going to do based on formations and he always knew what we were trying to do within our defense.”
His absence has left Auburn will few options. Sophomore Mike Slade is the lone player remaining who practiced at safety in the spring, although coaches have been lukewarm about his progress. Redshirt freshman T’Sharvan Bell moved to safety in August but was slowed by knee injury.
Enter Washington, a junior from Tallassee, Ala. His crash course at safety began early Tuesday with a 5:30 a.m. wake-up call to start film work.
“It’s a lot different because at corner, you’re basically receiving the call, but at safety you’re giving the call,” Washington said. “You’ve got to read the defense and know what you’re going to do.”
Washington isn’t a prototypical size for a safety, the most physical position in the secondary. Etheridge stands 6 feet, 212 pounds. Bates, although only 5-foot-11, is a stocky 195 pounds. Washington is generously listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds.
Washington’s switch means more responsibility for Bates, who has performed admirably as a play-maker since seizing a starting job in August, with 51 tackles, 1 1/2 tackles for a loss and an interception.
He’ll stay at free safety but will assume more play-calling duties.
At the very least Auburn has the benefit of easing Washington and Bates into their new roles against Furman, a Football Championship Subdivision opponent.
“It gets challenging if your first time is against Georgia,” Chizik said. “This is probably the best time for us.”