NCAA Football: Mercer at Auburn

Sep 16, 2017; Auburn, AL, USA; Auburn Tigers receiver Noah Igbinoghene (4) gets past Mercer Bears defensive backs Stephen Houzah (3) and Jamar Poole (6) during the second quarter against the Auburn Tigers at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

AUBURN — At first, Kodi Burns remembers being heartbroken. Auburn signed only two wide receivers in his first season as a full-time assistant on his alma mater’s staff, and one — JaTarvious Whitlow — had already moved to running back.

But he still had Noah Igbinoghene, a former four-star recruit who Burns said “really improved toward the end at receiver last year.”

And then he didn’t.

Gus Malzahn announced on the first day of the spring in March that Igbinoghene would spend the first few practices working at corner. It was supposed to be a trial run. The Tigers were deep at wide receiver and less so in the secondary, and this was a way to get a player the head coach described as a “special talent” on the field as much as possible. They could always move him back to the offensive side of the ball if need be.

But it wasn’t long until Igbinoghene’s time on defense began to feel less like an audition and more like he had already gotten the part. When the sophomore stayed at cornerback even after wide receivers Eli Stove and Will Hastings tore their ACLs, the writing was on the wall.

“I was, like, borderline depressed,” Burns said. “I was like, man, I lost Noah.”

Burns’ loss, though, appears to be a significant gain for defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and secondary coaches Greg Brown and Marcus Woodson. Igbinoghene isn’t just additional depth in the secondary — when No. 10 Auburn opens the season against No. 6 Washington on Saturday in Atlanta, he’ll be a starting cornerback and one of the key pieces on the Tigers' defense.

“What’s the saying? Like a duck to water? He’s a natural at it,” Brown said. “Obviously, he can run. He’s got big-time speed, he can open his hips, and then he’s got a competitor’s mentality. He’s a tough guy. Individually, this is one tough man. Players love being around him. It was a good fit and was a match made in heaven for us. We’re ecstatic to have Noah playing corner for us.”

Woodson had the opposite reaction Burns did, as you might expect. Discussions about moving Igbinoghene from offense to defense had already begun by the time he officially joined Auburn’s staff as the 10th assistant responsible primarily for coaching the team’s cornerbacks, and he did nothing to dissuade them.

When Malzahn told the staff officially that Igbinoghene would be staying at cornerback, Woodson said it “was music to my ears.” The Tigers already had Jamel Dean at corner, Javaris Davis at nickel and Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas at safety. Igbinoghene was just an added bonus.

It didn’t matter that he had almost no experience playing the position, at least not since before his days at Hewitt-Trussville High. The Huskies did have a few defensive packages for him in the playbook, coach Josh Floyd said, but he was so busy racking up more than 1,700 all-purpose yards and 18 touchdowns as a wide receiver, running back and return man that they rarely used them.

If they had, Igbinoghene — who caught six passes for 24 yards and averaged 23.8 yards on 24 kickoff returns as a freshman for Auburn last season — probably would have excelled.

“I think Noah was born to be a defensive back,” Woodson said. “He has the mindset that you want from a physicality standpoint and just a competitive nature standpoint, as well, to go along with the skill set. He's made that transition look as smooth as you could possibly make it with as little experience he has at the position and how polished he'll make it look.”

Hearing that comes as no surprise to Floyd or David Dobbs, who was Igbinoghene’s track and field coach at Hewitt-Trussville. Nothing about the 5-foot-11, 196-pound two-sport athlete ever did. There was nothing they could throw at him that he couldn’t handle.

“He’s got some natural ability that’s God-given ability that he has, obviously, in no matter what he does,” Floyd said. “But he’s a sharp kid mentally. I think that helps. Offensively, for us, we moved him around a lot. He basically played two or three different spots, so you got to be able to handle that mentally, so he was always able to do that. It never fazed him.”

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