Spring position battles: Cornerback

Editor’s note: This is Part 5 in a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Cornerback was an area where Auburn struggled at times last year, and it didn’t help that both Chris Davis and Jonathan Jones missed time with injuries. Davis is gone, but Jones is healthy and ready to compete this spring.

Still, it was a position of need for the Tigers, and the coaches addressed it on the recruiting trail. Auburn’s 2014 class included five defensive backs -- three ranked in the ESPN 300 -- and height clearly was a priority as all five players are listed at 6-feet or taller.

“We feel like we have guys that can cover, and also if you look at this group, they’re long,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Their length is very good. They all can run. They’re good tacklers. They’ve got very good ball skills and give us some versatility.”

It’s an impressive group, but outside of junior college safety Derrick Moncrief, it’s a group that won’t arrive until the summer. That means highly touted cornerbacks Kalvaraz Bessent and Nick Ruffin, who are both expected to push for time next season, won’t get the chance to do so until the start of fall camp.

That opens the door for a handful of players already on campus to make an impression this spring before the reinforcements arrive.

The contenders

Jonathon Mincy (senior): He started in all 14 games as a junior and finished with 56 tackles, 14 pass breakups and one interception. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Mincy will be starting at cornerback next season. He’s expected to move over and claim the No. 1 role occupied by Davis last season, meaning he’ll draw the assignment of covering the opposing team’s top wide receiver every game. Although most remember him for giving up a 99-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper in last year’s Iron Bowl, he’s still a solid option.

Jonathan Jones (junior): As mentioned above, Jones missed the first four games last season after he broke a bone in his ankle during fall camp. He then suffered a separate leg injury his first game back that basically kept him out through the end of October. It was a trying season for Jones, who started in three games in 2012 and was expected to play a major role for the Tigers before the injuries derailed his season. He’s healthy now and looks like the early favorite to start opposite Mincy if he has a good spring.

Johnathan Ford (sophomore): When Davis and Jones were injured, Ford took advantage. The freshman came to Auburn as a running back but moved to cornerback in fall camp to help with depth. He eventually moved up on the two-deep depth chart and appeared in 12 games. The coaches haven’t said which side of the ball Ford will play this spring, but if he stays on defense, he’ll be in the mix for a starting role.

Kamryn Melton (sophomore): He’s another player who was affected by the injuries last season. If it were up to Auburn, they would have redshirted Melton, but the injuries forced him to appear in three games and waste the redshirt. On the bright side, he now has game experience that will help him this spring, his first with the team.

T.J. Davis (sophomore): Time is running out for Davis. The redshirt sophomore has yet to carve out a niche in Auburn’s secondary, and with all of the talent coming in this summer, it’s now or never.

Spring forecast

Barring injury, Mincy will start at one cornerback spot, but that’s all we know. The other spot is up for grabs and could be one of the more intriguing battles this spring. Jones has the upper hand, but both Ford and Melton will be given the opportunity to win the job. It’s an important spring for Jones, not only for him to hold off the other two candidates, but to impress the coaches and lock down the position before Bessent and Ruffin arrive this summer.