AUBURN, Ala. — Ryan White wasn’t even afforded a day of practice.
When Josh Holsey got injured on the final play of Auburn’s practice last Thursday, the coaching staff wasted no time. White would move from his normal cornerback position to Holsey’s boundary safety spot prior to last week’s game against Texas A&M. Though he didn’t start — that designation went to the “other” Ryan, Ryan Smith — White played a majority of the snaps there. That permitted Smith and Jermaine Whitehead the chance to rotate at field safety.
Ellis Johnson said people never would have known White was seeing time at the position for the first time in his Auburn career.
He was so good, in fact, Auburn’s defensive coordinator said he “didn’t change anything” to compensate for White’s lack of experience at safety.
“In fact, I might have called too much of our dime package,” Johnson said. “I felt like fatigue was an issue and looking back at the game when it was over, there are certain coverages we cannot run with the Will backer out there. I didn't want to get handcuffed. Frankly, we could have played a lot more base defense, base personnel.”
White finished with five tackles, tying a career-high he had accomplished on two previous occasions. He also picked off a pass for the first time in his career, stepping in front of a Johnny Manziel pass at the Tigers’ 3-yard line in the first quarter.
Johnson said the senior played about as well as could be expected given the circumstances.
“I think we had one busted coverage and one where he got out of position a little bit — played the right assignment but wasn't in the right place leverage-wise,” Johnson said. “I really give him a lot of credit. He did a great job when he had to step up.”
And according to Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, it won’t be a one-game abnormality. White impressed the coaching staff enough at safety that he will likely stay there for the rest of the year, especially since Holsey is out with a season-ending knee injury.
“(White) just did an outstanding job in a tough situation against one of the better offenses in college football on Saturday,” Malzahn said. “He'll kind of move into that role moving forward. He's an experienced guy and did a great job.”
While others might be surprised with how well White played, Smith wasn’t. Being a defensive back, moving around in the secondary is second-nature.
“The defensive backs know the defense like the back of our hands,” Smith said, “So we just needed him to go out and play ball, and he did a good job of that.”
White may have played at safety for the first time last Saturday, but he had already been a solid backup for Chris Davis at corner this season. In addition, he started two games (Mississippi State and LSU) while Davis sat out to heal from a ligament injury in his ankle.
Johnson was pleased that White was able to fill in so admirably — and that the rest of the unit could be shuffled accordingly — but believed the unit still needs to rotate more to try to negate further injuries. It has reached the point that Johnson said when the defensive backs get tired, “we don’t have anybody to sub” in, alternating only every four or five series.
The return of Jonathan Jones should help, but Johnson made one thing clear: the secondary can’t afford to lose any more players.
“These injuries are costing us some of our best special-teams players,” he said. “It's great to get Jonathan back and I'm really proud of the way Ryan stepped up, but we lost a safety at the beginning of the year to off-the-field issues. We've lost a corner for about half the season. Now we've got him back. We lost another safety who was our dime linebacker — now we've lost him for the rest of the season. It's hard to build consistency and high productivity when you have all that happen."