AUBURN, Ala. — The number of able-bodied safeties at Auburn’s disposal during the live portion of spring drills has dwindled so much the past two weeks that there is little, if any, time for players to catch their breath.
“(I’m) a starter and a backup,” sophomore Mike Slade joked. “I’ve got to play both roles.”
Slade and fellow sophomores Drew Cole and Christian Thompson are holding down the two safety positions while starters Zac Etheridge and Mike McNeil, the Tigers’ two leading tacklers from last season, are on the mend.
Etheridge hasn’t been 100 percent since having offseason surgery to clean out the AC joint in his left shoulder. Coaches have held him out of almost all contact drills this spring as a precaution.
McNeil broke his right leg during Saturday’s scrimmage. He should be ready for the beginning of two-a-days in August, but he will be out of action for at least two months.
That might mean not much will change on the depth chart come preseason practice, but, for the final week of spring practice and Saturday’s A-Day game, it presents an opportunity.
“If you go out there and you make plays and you be productive, the coaches, they recognize that,” said Slade, who had an interception in the team’s first scrimmage a week and a half ago. “Any opportunity you get is a blessing, no matter how it comes — from injury, from you just beating somebody out for a position — it’s just a great opportunity.”
While Auburn’s group of backups are inexperienced, new safeties coach Tommy Thipgen has been pleased with their progress.
Slade, a 6-foot-3, 191-pound Tallahassee, Fla., native, moved from cornerback to safety after redshirting in 2007, adding 25 pounds to his lean frame while learning a position that involves a similar skill set but requires a complete understanding of the defense.
“Being a corner, you do just whatever the safety tells you to do, pretty much,” he said. “Being a safety, your vision has to be better, because you’re more involved in the run game and the pass game as well. So you have to know which way to go and all that kind of stuff.”
Cole is in the same boat. The 5-foot-11, 192-pound Picayune, Miss., native has a history at cornerback but moved to safety this spring, drawing praise from Thigpen for his willingness to throw his body into the mix.
Thigpen said Thompson, a 6-foot-1, 200-pound true sophomore from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., is the best tackler of the group but, like the others, is taking slow steps in learning the fundamentals of the position.
“He’s just got to keep working on the little things, like technique and footwork and what his eyes are doing,” Thigpen said. “Right now, his eyes are all over the place. But he’s conscious of it, and every day he asks good questions.”
Thigpen has been able to devote his full attention to the group. After spending four years coaching linebackers at his alma mater, North Carolina, he took on a specific role with Auburn, splitting duties in the secondary with Phillip Lolley, who handles cornerbacks.
“It’s more detailed than it was when we had coach (Paul) Rhoads and coach (Will) Muschamp here,” Slade said. “It’s pretty much one-on-one with coach Thigpen. He’s always out there on the field, versus a defensive coordinator, (who) was focused on the defense as a whole. … It’s real helpful.”
Thigpen hopes that accelerates the group’s learning curve enough that even after Etheridge and McNeil are back at full speed, they won’t be his only options.
“They’re still learning their positions and learning their roles,” Thigpen said of his sophomores. “Hopefully, once they get a feel for what they’re supposed to be doing, they can push those guys for a position, not just give in mentally to being a backup.”