Aairon Savage has not had it easy in his career at Auburn. The last time he played in a game was in 2007. Now Savage, 23, will return to the field in his sixth season at Auburn after being granted a second medical hardship waiver by the NCAA.
While Savage, Mike McNeil, and Zac Etheridge all return from injury this year to provide depth to Auburn's secondary. The rest of the Tigers defense will mostly rely on incoming freshmen to give the starters a rest.
When Auburn played Northwestern in the Outback Bowl this past year, they only had three scholarship linebackers available to dress out. Linebacker Josh Bynes and defensive backs Neiko Thorpe and Daren Bates played every single defensive snap, over 100 plays, against the Wildcats.
The combination of Auburn's fast-paced offense and a shortage of scholarship players was highly detrimental to the Tigers' defensive production last year. In 2009, they ranked 68th in total defense, allowing an average of 374 yards per game. Scoring defense was even worse. Ted Roof's defense gave up 27.9 points per game, bad enough for 79th in the nation.
There are many factors that contributed to Auburn's fall from grace on the defensive side of the ball last year. Many believe that defensive coordinator Ted Roof is to blame, while others argue that there just isn't enough talent on the Plains. While one or both of these statements may be true, it is hard to field a competent SEC defense when numbers are so depleted.
This past year's recruiting class brought in many defensive players that could help with this issue.
Joel Bonomolo was one of Auburn's first commitments of the 2010 class. He is a transfer defensive end from Fullerton C.C. in Fullerton, CA and could step in and contribute immediately.
Bonomolo is just one piece of a very solid defensive line class that Gene Chizik and staff put together. Also signed were defensive ends Corey Lemonier of Hialeah, FL and Craig Sanders of Ariton, AL, and defensive tackles Kenneth Carter of Greenville, AL and Jeffrey Whitaker of Warner Robins, GA.
To shore up linebacker depth, Auburn went out and signed four linebackers this year, including one early enrollee.
Jessel Curry of Buford, GA enrolled at the university in January and got some experience under his belt in spring practice. Jawara White comes to Auburn from Troy, AL, while LaDarius Owens, perhaps the Tigers' best defensive recruit, will leave Bessemer, AL to call the Plains his new home. They are also joined by Jake Holland of Pelham, AL, who played a key role in helping recruit players to Auburn last year.
While it is still unclear what exactly plagued the Auburn Tigers defense last year, one thing is clear. The starters needed a break. This year, coaches and fans hope that can be remedied.
The offense will score points for the Tigers, but it is the defensive side of the ball that will make the difference between seven and ten wins.
As the age old saying goes, offense sells tickets but defense wins championships.