AUBURN, Ala. -- Like so many of Auburn’s freshmen this season, Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead could be brought along slowly for only so long.
For Auburn’s young cornerbacks, the moment came when T’Sharvan Bell was injured against Georgia.
Mincy and Whitehead, who had been playing in limited action, have had to fill the role of Bell, who was Auburn’s most experienced cornerback and the leader of the secondary.
Both players already have made a start in Bell’s absence. Playing versus an array of multiple wide receiver sets against Samford, Mincy stepped into Bell’s spot on the outside. Whitehead played nickelback in the slot when Auburn needed a fifth defensive back.
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Against Alabama, Whitehead made the start at corner to get a more physical presence on the field.
Both will figure prominently into the game plan against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
“They have me starting right now, but (Whitehead) is at the nickel position,” Mincy said. “Me and him both are at the field (corner), so he can come in and I can go to nickel.”
Mincy and Whitehead have moved into Bell’s spot at field corner in Auburn’s defense, meaning that they line up on the wide side of the field when a team is on the hash marks. On the field side, a corner plays more zone coverage and faces more multiple-receiver sets.
On the other side, Chris Davis is Auburn’s boundary corner. Playing on the short side of the field, a boundary cornerback usually faces one receiver at a time, plays more man coverage and has to be more physical in the running game.
“The field corner, you know, you’re going to get a lot of receivers,” Whitehead said. “The boundary corner, you might have the tight end a lot, and you might have to take on the (pulling offensive lineman).”
Whitehead’s place in the nickel for the Chick-fil-A Bowl is becoming a more important part of defenses all over the country.
Working in the nickel is where LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu, the defensive player who finished fifth in the voting for the Heisman Trophy this year, lines up most often. As teams move to multiple-receiver sets, offenses have learned to move their receivers around to get favorable matchups, and Virginia is no different.
Kris Burd, who is Virginia’s leading receiver with 60 catches for 810 yards and a touchdown this season, often operates out of the slot in the Cavaliers’ offense.
“He’s good at catching the slant and getting (vertical) a little bit, so I’ve been working a lot there,” Whitehead said.
Of the two cornerbacks, Whitehead has shown the most willingness to attack the line of scrimmage in the running game, another necessary quality to play the nickel. With a linebacker pulled off of the field, teams sometimes try to exploit the size matchup against the defensive back on the outside.
Whitehead finished with 29 tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss. Mincy made 23 tackles this season. But neither player is Auburn’s most physical freshman on the outside. That honor falls to true freshman Robenson Therezie, who is working as the No. 2 boundary corner behind Davis.
“He likes to get after it,” Whitehead said. “He likes to strike. He played safety in high school, and he said he didn’t have no real position, just run around and hit.”
Therezie is still learning to play within the defense, which has limited his playing time this year.
Mincy and Whitehead were ready to jump into the lineup and help when Bell went down.
“You really grow up by them just throwing you into the fire,” Mincy said. “Me being nervous and me being kind of hesitant about making sure I had the right alignment, all that went out the window after that first game.”
Neither player feels like a freshman anymore.