Why transfers Donovan Kaufman, Bydarrius Knighten are key additions to Auburn football defense

Josh Vitale
Montgomery Advertiser

Safety was unquestionably the thinnest position on the Auburn football defense when spring practice ended last month. Now, it's one of the deepest.

That's because the Tigers secured commitments from two transfers in the span of six days – Bydarrius Knighten from Southeast Missouri State and Donovan Kaufman from Vanderbilt on Wednesday.

Both are important additions because of their football ability. Knighten totaled 255 tackles, 22 pass breakups and six interceptions in 45 starts over four seasons. Kaufman was a bright spot for the Commodores early last season, recording 15 tackles in two starts to begin his career before a medical issue cut his freshman campaign short.

But perhaps the biggest thing they provide their new defense is versatility in the secondary.

Vanderbilt defensive back Donovan Kaufman (1) races up the field with a 58-yard kick return during the second quarter against LSU at Vanderbilt Stadium Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020 in Nashville, Tenn.

Auburn lost starting nickelback Christian Tutt, starting safety Jamien Sherwood and key reserve Jordyn Peters from last year's secondary, leaving only Ladarius Tennison and Zion Puckett at nickel and Chris Thompson Jr., walk-on Trey Elston and true freshmen Ahmari Harvey, Cayden Bridges and Juwon Gaston behind Smoke Monday at safety.

That depth was further depleted when Thompson placed his name in the transfer portal on May 4. He has since committed to Southern Cal.

Auburn football:Vanderbilt transfer Donovan Kaufman, Derek Mason reunite with Tigers

So, during the spring, defensive coordinator Derek Mason and cornerbacks coach Zac Etheridge shuffled things around. Because there was so much depth at corner with Roger McCreary, Jaylin Simpson and Marco Domio back and West Virginia transfer Dreshun Miller on his way in, they shifted Nehemiah Pritchett – a 10-game starter at corner last season – to nickel and moved Tennison to the safety spot next to Monday.

Elston, an Auburn High alumnus who played two seasons at West Alabama before sitting out last season, wound up playing such a big role that he earned A-Day defensive MVP honors after recording six tackles and a pass breakup playing with the second-team unit.

So Knighten and Kaufman not only give Mason and Etheridge needed depth, but also more options for how they want to align the secondary. Both are listed as safeties but have experience playing nickel, too.

Southeast Missouri State safety Bydarrius Knighten (2) tackles Missouri tight end Albert Okwuegbunam (81) on Sept. 14, 2019, in Columbia, MO.

The Tigers could put one of them at that spot and keep Tennison at safety. They could play their new additions primarily at safety and move Tennison back to nickel, where he performed well in two starts late last season. Puckett also can play both spots.

It might all come down to how Mason wants to use that nickel position, which he described as "either a safety who’s got run/pass flexibility or a corner who can guard inside and show up in the run game." Pritchett certainly fits the latter mold. Tennison, Puckett, Knighten or Kaufman could fit the former. Auburn now should have more freedom to mix and match depending on the situation.

That depth and versatility could prove crucial in an increasingly pass-happy SEC that produced three of the five most prolific quarterbacks in the country last season.

Josh Vitale is the Auburn beat writer for the Montgomery Advertiser. You can follow him on Twitter at @JoshVitale. To reach him by email, click here.