War Eagle Extra

Auburn football: South Carolina Gamecocks present tall task for Tigers' defensive backs

S.C.’s starting WRs at least 6-foot-4



AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn cornerbacks coach Phillip Lolley listed South Carolina’s stable of big receivers as if they were on a video game roster.

No names. Just numbers, heights and weights, enough to convey the challenge facing the Tigers on Saturday.

“They’ve got a gamut of receivers,” Lolley said.

South Carolina’s receiving corps will present a tall task for an Auburn secondary that has been susceptible to the pass through three weeks.

The Gamecocks start three receivers who stand 6-foot-4 or taller — Alshon Jeffery, Tori Gurley and D.L. Moore — who have combined for 31 receptions, 419 yards and three touchdowns this year.

Jeffery accounts for a large chunk of that production, with an SEC-high 19 catches for 306 yards.

Auburn safeties coach Tommy Thigpen called him “the next A.J. Green” before coming up with another comparison.

“He uses his body,” Thigpen said. “He’s probably not a 4.4 guy, but he’s like (Terrell Owens) as far as putting himself in position to make a big play.

“Then they’ve got three or four guys all the same size. They create problems for us because of their size. When the ball’s thrown up, all of them have the ability to go and get the ball.”

Auburn has struggled in that department. The Tigers rank 11th in the SEC and 75th nationally in passing defense, allowing 224 yards per game.

Despite having more passes thrown against it than any other SEC team, Auburn’s secondary has zero interceptions.

“If I had an answer, I’d probably have a pick myself,” cornerback Neiko Thorpe said. “We all know we’ve got to get on it. We’re looking for our picks, but we’re not trying to rush it. We know they’ll come.”

Lolley said the lack of interceptions is a function of the coverages Auburn has used.

The Tigers haven’t played much zone and are committing extra defenders in the box to stop the run, meaning their corners have given extra cushion to receivers so they don’t get beat deep. The result is fewer interception opportunities.

“If that means I’m giving another 60 or 70 yards of throwing the ball underneath to try to take away some of what they do and try to get some extra guys in the box, we’ll live with it,” Lolley said.

Cornerback T’Sharvan Bell had a simpler explanation for the lack of picks.

“I just think we haven’t made as many plays as we should have,” he said. “We’ve got to be hard on ourselves about making plays when we need to.”

Auburn’s corners said technique will be paramount against South Carolina’s big receivers. Thorpe, who is 6-foot-2, is the only one who closely measures up. Bell is 6-foot tall. Washington stands 5-foot-9.

Bell said the key to defending bigger receivers is playing “through the basket.”

“Just say I’m on the receiver and I’m guarding him and I’m in good position and he looks up for the ball and I look up for the ball and his arms go out to make the catch,” Bell said. “I just want to come right through his hands, swipe between his hands, anything I can do to get the ball out of the basket.”

The Tigers likely will devote their resources to stopping South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, the SEC’s second-leading rusher, a strategy that will challenge quarterback Stephen Garcia to beat them through the air.

Garcia is a wild card. He has thrown 20 interceptions in 24 career games, but he looks more mature this year, completing 68 percent of his passes for 508 yards and two touchdowns.

“I know we’ve got a task ahead of us,” Thorpe said.