AUBURN - The aftershocks of safety Demetruce McNeal’s dismissal this past weekend will be felt throughout the coming season, most prominently at cornerback.
After missing the first 10 preseason practices this month with an injury, McNeal returned to the field last week and assumed his starting job at safety. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said McNeal, Auburn’s top returning tackler, allowed sophomore Josh Holsey to move back to cornerback when fellow sophomore Jonathan Jones broke a bone in his ankle.
Holsey is a natural cornerback. He would’ve given Auburn needed depth in Jones’ absence. Instead, he’s moved back to safety, where he’s expected to be the starter.
Johnson said the Tigers will heavily rely on freshman Kamryn Melton, a former Dothan High standout, and former safety T.J. Davis for the third cornerback spot. Freshman Johnathan Ford moved from running back to corner, clearing space in Auburn’s crowded backfield. Cornerback, one of the most important positions on the field, is now much younger and inexperienced.
“It was a double whammy,” Johnson said Monday night, speaking to the media for the first time since McNeal’s dismissal Saturday following an arrest on charges of marijuana possession.
A double whammy, and it came at a horrible time for Auburn’s defense
The injury report on that side of the ball reads like a horror story. At one point last week, Johnson said the Tigers practiced without their top pass rusher, top returning tackler and three of their top four cornerbacks. Five defensive linemen have missed practice time with injuries. Defensive back Justin Garrett has missed practice time with his left foot in a walking boot.
Johnson said Garrett will be ready to play before Auburn’s opener Aug. 31 against Washington State. He said senior defensive end Dee Ford and Jones will miss “probably more than the first game.” Ford injured a knee ligament, while Jones needed surgery Monday morning after breaking his ankle on a flight of “wet steps.”
Johnson called Jones’ injury a “heartbreaker” because the sophomore had a great camp and was going to be a significant part of Auburn’s secondary.
“The injury bug, that’s just part of football,” Johnson said. “It’s something that, it comes along with the nature of football. It’s a game of collisions, and we’ve had some unfortunate situations.
“So it is what it is. It’s real, and it’s something that’s going to affect our ability of how well we play. But somebody is going to have to step up. Somebody else is going to get a chance, and they’re going to have to answer the bell.”
Fortunately, Johnson said, Ford and Jones are the only two defensive players expected to miss the first game. The injury plague stunted the defense’s improvement last week, but Johnson said his group got healthier over the weekend.
Johnson said it’s showed in practice.
“We’ve had some improvement,” Johnson said. “I’ve been most pleased with the past four practices, we’ve gotten a little bit better each practice. We stalled out and hit neutral about a week ago with the loss of so many players that were in the playing picture.
“It’s just one of those things. You never know what’s going to happen. You can’t try to sit there and say it doesn’t matter, but you can’t try to sit there and say it’s not going to give us an opportunity because you’ve got to work through it.”
Johnson prefers to look on the bright side. Injured players make way for youngsters to shine, hopefully developing into starters down the road.
Then there’s McNeal’s situation. Hard to put a positive on the loss of what was a promising senior season — both for McNeal, and Auburn’s secondary.
“It’s not good,” Johnson said. “You don’t want to lose your leading returning tackler, but at the same time you’ve got to be a team player. I feel bad for him and I feel bad about him. You’ve got a responsibility to your teammates and not just yourself.
“It’s very sad. Very sad.”