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No. 10 Auburn grooming youngsters – for present

AUBURN – Auburn’s young cornerbacks have done just about everything wrong at times in practice, from footwork to positioning. Everything except failing to make the play.

The 10th-ranked Tigers will be relying heavily on freshmen to cover Louisiana-Monroe’s receivers in Saturday night’s opener and just hoping their speed and athleticism can overcome rookie mistakes.

“The No. 1 thing at corner is you’ve got to be able to play there,” coach Tommy Tuberville said. “You’ve got to have speed, you’ve got to have quickness, you’ve got to be able to break on the ball. I really like the three young guys that we’re working with now. We’re going to have to play most of them.”

That will be just the most prominent role Auburn’s newcomers will figure to play. Tuberville estimates 10 freshmen will play in the opener, including some combination of corners D’Antoine Hood, Neiko Thorpe and Harry Adams along with safety Christian Thompson.

Graduation and injuries took a toll on the secondary behind the starters.

Receiver Philip Pierre-Louis, a 5-foot-8 speedster, could be used on offense and in the return game. Tuberville has likened running back Eric Smith to former Auburn and current NFL player Rudi Johnson, and he could see action behind Ben Tate and Brad Lester.

Tuberville said Thorpe has some similar characteristics to NFL corner Carlos Rogers, another former Auburn star.

“Neiko’s just got so much athletic ability,” he said. “He’s big, he’s tall, rangy. He has tremendous upside. He can make up for a lot of mistakes. In that position a guy that can do that can make up a lot of ground.”

If the Tigers do play 10 freshmen, it still won’t be much compared to last season when three of them started on the offensive line. Auburn had six freshman All-SEC players last season.

“Last year, we played 18; that’s the most I’ve ever played,” Tuberville said. “But we needed to do that, because we were short in some areas. Every year, the better your recruiting is the more players are going to have the ability to come in and play like a Neiko Thorpe. He doesn’t have a clue what he’s doing but he’s got the ability to come in and make up for his mistakes.

“It’s really going to help our depth this year with these guys playing.”

Not only playing but playing for a preseason Top 10 team.

Pierre-Louis has drawn praise from coaches and teammates for his speed and has made big plays in scrimmages. There’s room for a bigger receiver rotation than past Auburn teams because of Tony Franklin’s new spread offense.

On defense, the knee injury that will sideline corner Aairon Savage for the season opened up another spot on the depth chart for newcomers to battle over. Jerraud Powers and Walt McFadden are the starters.

“Every day we’re getting more and more confident with the younger guys,” Powers said. “We’ve had a few injuries, but we’ve still got five corners that the coaches are going to feel comfortable with and we’re going to feel comfortable with.

“There’s not too much room for major injuries, but right now we’re confident with the group.”