Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Countdown to Spring, No. 5: Savage and the secondary

With spring practice less than two weeks away, I'm counting down five things the JCCW will be "watching" from a thousand miles away and via the Internets.

So here's something weird to think about--at the end of the 2007 season, Auburn wasn't just happy with how the two-deep looked at safety, it looked like one of the most stacked positions on the roster. Zac Etheridge was coming off a season in which he'd finished third on the team in tackles and received several league and national All-Freshman honors. Aairon Savage had missed time with injuries during his sophomore season but had been productive when on the field and had already developed a hard-hitting reputation from his own All-Freshman season in 2006. Highly regarded true freshman Michael McNeil had already seen time and more than held his own as well. So highly did the Auburn coaching staff think of McNeil that Savage was moved to cornerback entering last year's fall practice to shore up that part of the secondary and give McNeil the starting free safety assignment.

You know the rest of the story--Savage tore his knee to pieces, true freshmen Neiko Thorpe and D'Antoine Hood were pressed into service at corner, Etheridge never seemed to regain his aggressive form of 2007 (despite leading the team in tackles, thanks to issues in front of him), McNeil looked lost in coverage on more than one occasion, backups Mike Slade and Jonathan Vickers did little in their brief time on the field, and by the time the secondary (mostly) found its footing against Ole Miss and Georgia, the season was lost. Here's Acid Reign describing the safety play against West Virginia:
Our safeties were pitiful. PITIFUL! Bad technique, bad position, bad decisions. How did it come to this? As much as I cussed him five years ago, I would KILL to have Will Herring back there, right now. At least he would hit somebody, and didn't play scared.
I wouldn't disagree: my own little amateur charting system called Etheridge the worst played on the defense that night, and there was a lot of blame to go around.

Here comes the good news: on paper, we won't see a repeat of that situation in 2009. Walt McFadden and Thorpe give Auburn two seasoned and talented corners, Etheridge will be entering his third year of starting, and there really seems like nowhere for McNeil to go but up.

Of course, as Auburn learned the hard way last year, four players aren't enough to build a successful secondary around. You need more--particularly a third corner in the age of the spread, but a safety who could give the first two guys a blow or at least push them to be better than last year's pairing were (lest they get benched) would be awfully nice as well. And that's where Savage comes in.

If Savage is healthy and back to something approaching his All-Freshman form from all the way back in 2006, Auburn will have plenty of competent corners--Hood showed promise and will surely improve, and incoming JUCO Taikwon Paige should be able to handle spot duty at the minimum (or I'm wondering why Roof thought highly enough of him to drag him to Auburn after having first tried to bring him to Minnesota). If corner seems ably filled and McNeil continues to struggle, Savage may even be able to slide back to his old spot at safety. His versatility and talent could very well be the difference between just having another secondary and having one that's actually, you know, deep.

But all of that hinges on whether Savage's knee is actually even in the ballpark of 100 percent, and we start finding out about that when spring practice begins. Maybe--I'm assuming that with the injury having occurred at the very beginning of August, nearly a full eight months ago, Savage will be going through drills and workouts at least. But we're also not talking about a run-of-the-mill ACL injury: with the kneecap dislocated and the MCL torn as well as the ACL, recovery time is guaranteed to be longer than usual. Thanks to the wonders of Google, I found this mini-report from Jay G. Tate deep in January's HABOTN comment threads:
I saw Aairon Savage about two weeks ago. He said things were going well with the rehab.

He kinda shrugged when I asked about spring ball. My guess is that he'll do some light stuff ... and leave the serious cutting to summer conditioning.
So we'll see, one way or the other. Either Savage can give us something positive to look at and we can start penciling him in for the fall ... or he doesn't, and we start to figure out if guys like Hood, Paige, McNeil, and Slade are going to be ready to carry the load without him.

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