BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. — Fall camp has yet to begin, but one change has already been made to Auburn’s depth chart.
On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Demetruce McNeal is “penciled in or slashed” alongside Josh Holsey as the starter at boundary safety heading into fall camp. McNeal finished second on the team in tackles last season, with his 90 trailing only Daren Bates’ 94. He set a career-high for tackles in a single game when he tallied 18 against Mississippi State last year, the most for a Tiger since linebacker Dontarrious Thomas had 19 against Syracuse in 2001. McNeal also added seven tackles for loss and a sack in 2012.
Despite his numbers and his experience (20 starts over the last two seasons), McNeal was not listed on Auburn’s two-deep post-spring depth chart after missing the final five practices of the spring for undisclosed reasons. But to Johnson’s knowledge, those issues are now resolved and McNeal is ready to jump back into the fold.
“He’s had a good summer injury-wise and attitude and work habits,” Johnson said. ” … Struggled a little bit with one course, but he’s getting it done. We’re very optimistic that he’s ready to return and be right on target.”
And Johnson’s expectations for McNeal are high. When asked how high, he caught himself. Johnson hoped — no, expected — the senior from College Park, Ga., to come back as a “starting SEC safety,” one who was named to preseason all-conference teams by both Athlon Sports and Phil Steele. Add in Jermaine Whitehead at the other safety position, and the Tigers’ have a wealth of experience at two starting spots on the back of their defense.
“You’re talking about two guys that have started a lot of ballgames here,” Johnson said. “They’ve got some seasoning to them and we need it — badly. We’ll double-teach Holsey (at cornerback and safety). We’d much rather see Demetruce come back and be ready to go.”
McNeal’s return couldn’t have come at a better time, since Johnson said depth at safety was one of his biggest worries headed into fall camp.
“When (McNeal) was gone, it was obviously pretty thin back there. We’ve got to develop some depth back there,” Johnson said. “It comes down to him coming back and having a good reentry. The kid you’ve got to look at most quickly is (Brandon) King. … We’ve heard great things, but he didn’t get spring practice. That’ll be a focal point in the secondary.”
King played at Highland Community College in Highland, Kan., last season, collecting 118 tackles. He is originally from Alabaster, Ala., where he starred at Thompson High School.
Johnson said he will start the JUCO transfer at boundary safety, but given his size, King could eventually be in the mix at the hybrid “star” spot manned by Justin Garrett.
“He’s good enough to move up to the star (position), big enough — he’s about 210 right now — but our depth issues, on paper, are at deep safeties,” Johnson said. “So we’ve got him at boundary safety.”