AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s secondary will look vastly different this fall.
Gone is Chris Davis, the hero of the Iron Bowl. What’s more, he was the Tigers’ second-leading tackler (74) and led the team in pass breakups (15). Gone too is safety Ryan Smith, whose 68 tackles were good enough for third-most on the team. Fellow safety Ryan White, an able-bodied backup who appeared in all 14 games, also moved on.
So it’s no surprise the Tigers put such an emphasis on recruiting defensive backs for their 2014 class.
Auburn brought in two cornerbacks (Nick Ruffin and ) and three safeties (Derrick Moncrief, Stephen Roberts and Markell Boston on national signing day. Then the Tigers added one more defensive back when junior college cornerback Joseph Turner verbally committed Wednesday night.
Knowing what they would lose once the 2013 season ended, Gus Malzahn said his staff did its bolster the ranks of its secondary.
“We definitely needed some help in the defensive backfield,” he said on Feb. 5. “We lost three seniors. We were fairly thin anyway. We felt like we needed to get some guys that had a chance to help us this year. And we definitely got that.”
Turner, Auburn’s most recent pick-up, was originally a Washington State commit. When he didn’t graduate from the College of San Mateo (Calif.) in December, the Cougars went in a different direction and brought in another signee. After reopening his recruitment, the Tigers were able to snag a player ranked as the No. 4 junior college cornerback in the nation by Rivals.com.
He’ll join Ruffin, a four-star prospect who played at perennial Georgia powerhouse St. Pius X in Atlanta. He was a first-team all-state selection last fall after tallying 59 tackles, snagging two interceptions and forcing two fumbles.
Melvin Smith, Auburn’s cornerback coach, praised Ruffin’s athleticism and feel for the game.
“He has the right kind of spirit,” Smith said in a release from the university. “We had coaches on the staff who had a connection with him since he was a ninth-grader. He came down here, and he liked what Coach Malzahn and all the coaches were about. He committed early. To me, he's one of the most critical guys in the class because he was a guy everybody wanted, but he chose us before we did anything (on the field)."
Bessent, a Georgia native like Ruffin, played at another one of Georgia’s top high school programs: Camden County. But his status with the Tigers is still up in the air at the moment. He was arrested in Florida on Feb. 7 on a pair of felony drug charges stemming from a traffic stop. According to his attorney, all charges against Bessent were dropped on Friday.
Ever since news of the arrest surfaced, however, Malzahn has refrained from commenting.
Should Bessent enroll in May — as his father announced in a Facebook post Friday — Smith is already well-aware of what type of player he’s getting.
“Kalvaraz is the guy I really wanted from Day 1,” he said. “When I watched all the corners, he filled the profile of what I wanted in a field corner. He's long and lean and really athletic. He has ball skills. He was a running back as a junior and handled the ball a lot. He made a lot of plays on tape.”
Moncrief is no stranger to making plays, either, recording 66 tackles and three interceptions in his past two seasons at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College. He enrolled this spring and is expected to challenge for a starting role immediately.
“We needed some safety help,” Malzahn said. “He is a big, rangy guy. He has very good ball skills and is a very good tackler. We think he could be an impact player.”
Playing just down the road at Opelika High School, Roberts is well-acquainted with Auburn. He nearly left to play for arch-rival Alabama, but flipped his commitment to Auburn in November. Though he plied his trade at cornerback last season, he’ll shift to safety for the Tigers. Auburn’s coaching staff has no reservations about Roberts making a seamless transition.
Versatility is one of his biggest strengths, after all, as he played both ways at Opelika and also lettered in both baseball and track.
“He's a hard-nosed guy, a very good tackler who will do whatever,” Malzahn said. “He played quarterback for his high school when they needed somebody. We feel really good about Stephen Roberts.”
Rounding out the incoming group of safeties is Boston, a three-star prospect from East Coweta High School in Newnan, Ga. The Tigers got on him late — he was once committed to East Carolina. But when Auburn extended an offer two days before signing day, he didn’t take long to make up his mind, pledging to the Tigers later that day.
His position coach, Charlie Harbison, was thankful they were able to bring Boston into the fold.
“He's a talented kid. He's a good kid,” the coach said in a statement. “He has ball skills. I love his size. I love his intellect. He's a guy who is a little bit like me. He can do a lot of things. I think he'll be a special player for us.”
One attribute all six players have in common?
They all stand at 6-foot or taller, a marked departure from what the Tigers fielded last season; not a single starter hit the 6-foot mark.
That lack of size led to Auburn struggling when matched up against tall wideouts.
Texas A&M’s Mike Evans set a single-game school record for receiving yards (287) and caught four touchdowns against Auburn in October. In the SEC championship game, Missouri’s Dorial Green-Beckham caught six passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. And in the BCS title contest, Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin caught the go-ahead touchdown pass over Davis with just 13 seconds remaining.
The Tigers needed to get bigger in the secondary, Malzahn acknowledged, and they did.
“If you look at this group, they're long,” Malzahn said. “Their length is very good. They all can run. They're good tacklers. They've got very good ball skills and give us some versatility.”
Auburn has already shown a willingness to play freshman from the jump.
Given the talented of its incoming defensive back prospects, Malzahn said it shouldn’t come as a surprise if any of them wins a starting job by the beginning of next season.
“It could very well happen,” he said. “We think all these guys are talented enough to help. That's the way we recruit. Nowadays you're going to recruit guys you think can come in and make an impact right off the bat.”