Auburn will be without its most experienced defensive back when it takes on Kansas State. Jermaine Whitehead, a senior with 12 tackles and two interceptions in the Tigers’ first two games, did not travel with the team to Manhattan, according to multiple reports.
His absence will obviously factor into tonight’s much-anticipated game. Question is: How much?
I haven’t watched enough of Auburn to know whether losing Whitehead is similar to K-State playing without Ty Zimmerman at times the past two seasons or if the Tigers are perfectly confident in their next man up.
But I found this quote from Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to AL.com on Sept. 7 telling.
"He's had two really good games," Johnson said of Whitehead. "He's obviously the old man back there who can keep things settled down, and he's got to be 100 percent for us. We've got young safeties playing beside him who need help every now and then."
That suggests Auburn will have to scramble to replace Whitehead, much like K-State did in 2012 when it threw Dante Barnett in the secondary against Baylor while Zimmerman watched on crutches from the sideline. The Bears responded by going straight at Barnett on their opening possession, beating him for an easy touchdown.
Perhaps K-State coach Bill Snyder and offensive coordinator Dana Dimel will take a similar approach and run Tyler Lockett at Whitehead’s replacement early and often.
Without Whitehead, Auburn seems likely to turn to freshman Stephen Roberts to fill in at free safety. But he doesn’t have much experience at this level, making one tackle in his first two college games. Auburn beat writer Brandon Marcello wrote Wednesday that cornerback Josh Holsey, a junior, or freshman corner Kalvaraz Bessent could also move over in place of Whitehead.
Regardless, Auburn will be using a new defensive lineup against K-State. It will be interesting to see how the Wildcats try to take advantage of the change.