Like the rest of the Auburn defense, the Tigers secondary in 2012 had its share of struggles.
For the fourth straight year, Auburn's secondary was extremely mediocre. The pass defense ranked No. 48 in the country and No. 8 in the Southeastern conference. Auburn surrendered over 220 yards per game through the air.
Auburn's defensive backfield recorded only one interception—a Trent Fisher pick-six against Alabama A&M. Before that interception in mid-November, LB Daren Bates had Auburn's only interception in Week 1 vs. Clemson.
With a talented and experienced crop of defensive backs returning, the group—under the tutelage of Charlie Harbison and Melvin Smith—is poised to write a different story in 2013.
There are a few reasons for Auburn fans to be excited about the defensive backfield for the Tigers in 2013. Individual improvement in 2012, experience returning and proven development of players by Harbison and Smith.
Despite the shortcomings of the group, individuals that will be returning made important strides last fall.
Freshman cornerback Joshua Holsey became a player that Auburn could trust in man coverage. He finished the season with 30 tackles and six pass breakups. Holsey's ceiling is extremely high, and he has the opportunity to become Auburn's first shutdown CB since Jerraud Powers roamed the defensive backfield in 2007-2008.
Demetruce McNeal and Jonathan Mincy were at the top of the chart for unassisted tackles (that also says something about Auburn's struggles up front). McNeal led the team with 53 unassisted tackles, and Mincy was second, with 41.
Freshman CB Jonathan Jones got his feet wet in the latter part of the season. With continued improvement in spring practice, Jones will have his chance to crack the starting lineup in the fall.
Experience is extremely valuable in the secondary, and the Tigers will have a lot of it.
Auburn will return all but one contributor in the defensive backfield. T'Sharvan Bell—whose playing time decreased in 2012, after recovering from a 2011 knee injury—is the only departure from last fall.
Auburn will look to seniors Chris Davis, Ryan Smith and McNeal to lead the unit's turnaround. Among those three, the Tigers will have 99 games of experience in the secondary before the Tigers take the field on Aug. 31.
Juniors Erique Florence, Jermaine Whitehead, Mincy and Fisher have all been battle-tested for Auburn as well.
With so much experience, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have an easier time installing his 4-2-5 defensive scheme. It's a system that will give the secondary more responsibility than most, in defending the run.
Johnson's system needs physical defenders for the much-talked-about "Star" position, that is a hybrid between a strong safety and outside linebacker. Robenson Therezie and Whitehead look like they could fit that role perfectly, along with LB Kris Frost.
Harbison and Smith have been tasked with coaching the Auburn secondary. Harbison will coach the safeties, while Smith will be responsible for coaching the cornerbacks.
Both are familiar with developing strong units in the defensive backfield.
At Mississippi State, Smith mentored Johnthan Banks, the 2012 Thorpe Award winner. The Bulldog secondary was second in the SEC in interceptions with 19 last fall.
Harbison spent the last four years at Clemson coaching the defensive backs. The Tigers, from the Palmetto state, had a very strong secondary under Harbison, in 2009 and 2010.
Smith and Harbison will attempt to accomplish the same at Auburn.
With the talent and experience that is returning to Auburn's secondary in 2013, it's not out of the realm of possibility for immediate improvement.
With question marks at every other position, it is easy to see why Auburn's secondary will be the strength of the Tigers defense in 2013.
The bigger question is whether or not the group will be a lone bright spot on another mediocre Auburn defense or if it will lead the resurgence to a defensive turnaround that Auburn fans have been yearning for.