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Countdown to kickoff: Who is Auburn’s leader in the secondary?

Auburn safety Tray Matthews visits with fans at the program's annual Fan Day on Sunday, August 14, 2016.
Auburn safety Tray Matthews visits with fans at the program's annual Fan Day on Sunday, August 14, 2016. mniziolek@ledger-enquirer.com

Editor’s note: T-minus 18 days and counting until Auburn opens the season against Clemson on Sept. 3 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Check back every morning as we break down the roster, profile key players and look at unanswered questions coming out of training camp.

Auburn doesn’t just have to worry about replacing Jonathan Jones and Blake Countess production in the secondary this season.

The veteran defenders were strong leaders in the Tigers’ locker room. The team had so much respect for Countess they voted the graduate transfer from Michigan as the defensive MVP at the year-end banquet.

It’s an important role considering the relative inexperience of Auburn’s secondary. Nine of the Tigers’ 17 scholarship players in the group are underclassmen. Only four of the student-athletes have more than 10 career starts and one of those players (Marshall Taylor) has missed all of fall camp.

Who is filling that leadership role? Auburn coaches see former Georgia safety Tray Matthews as an emerging voice on the defense.

”When you communicate and be the quarterback on defense, we get guys in the right spot,” Auburn secondary coach Wes McGriff said during preseason camp. “One guy that’s definitely doing that is 28, Tray Matthews. He’s grabbing the bull by the horns, he’s communicating, he’s getting guys lined up.”

The junior played in 10 games last year making seven starts, but spent the season dealing with torn labrums in both his arms. He suffered one of the injuries in the fourth quarter of Auburn’s season-opening win over Louisville.

“I just kept on playing with it until I really couldn’t play anymore,” Matthews said.

Matthews had offseason surgery to repair both injuries four weeks apart. The recovery process forced him to miss spring practice, but his focus in meetings helped him learn the nuances of Auburn’s new defense without seeing the field.

“He has got natural instincts,” Steele said. “Obviously, it is not too big for him. I didn’t know that — I had never coached him before — I had seen on TV, I had seen him on video, he had played in this league, but it is there, it is real. He understands conceptually the game.”

Matthews opened preseason camp feeling healthier than he has in more than two years. He’s climbed up the depth chart pushing Stephen Roberts for playing time at strong safety while helping develop many of the team’s younger defensive backs.

“Tray has always been that guy that flies around with energy,” Auburn defensive back Josh Holsey said. “He wants to hit everything moving with the football. He’s still that same Tray and that probably won’t change no time soon. He’s working hard. He’s got a vengeance and I don’t think he’s thinking about those shoulders anymore. He’s out there still wanting to hit everybody moving.”

Extra point: What is Auburn’s projected starting lineup in the secondary?

Fall camp has shaken things up in the secondary from the first team lineup we projected out of spring practice.

Defensive back Jamel Dean looked like a lock to start opposite Carlton Davis, but the former Ohio State signee’s latest knee injury has scuttled those plans.

Position Player Defensive back Carlton Davis Defensive back Javaris Davis Strong Safety Stephen Roberts OR Tray Matthews Free Safety Nick Ruffin Nickel Rudy Ford

With Josh Holsey set to rotate throughout the secondary, Javaris Davis is in position to jump into the starting lineup. Javaris (5-foot-10, 182 pounds) doesn’t have the size that Dean (6-foot-2, 209-pounds), but he has the speed to match up against any opposing receiver.

The competition at safety has also tightened up with Tray Matthews gaining ground on Stephen Roberts.

Auburn’s coaches identified Roberts as someone they could see playing multiple spots similar to Holsey giving the staff some flexibility in balancing snaps between the two.

Stat of the day

Auburn’s problems in the secondary pre-date coach Gus Malzahn’s reign on the Plains.

The team hasn’t held its opponents to less than 200 passing yards a game over a full season since 2008. The defense finished last in the conference twice during that span (2010, 2011) and hasn’t managed to crack the top half of the conference in a single season.

Auburn’s pass defense improved as the season went on last year under Will Muschamp giving up 222 passing yards per game, the lowest total in three years.

The improvement kept Auburn from having the worst pass defense in the conference over the past three years (236.8 yards per game).

Arkansas is the only team that’s given up more passing yards than its SEC West rival (239.7 yards per game). SEC Pass Defenses

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