Auburn trying to fortify its depth with youngsters Print
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Thursday, 16 August 2007 09:46
NCAAF Headline News

 AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -It's a good time to be a young player at Auburn.
If you can catch, kick or block, then there might just be a spot for you on the Tigers' depth chart even if you're a new recruit still finding your way around campus.
The team that has averaged 11 wins in the past three seasons is hardly depleted of talent or expecting the dreaded rebuilding year. But there are some ``depth wanted'' signs out, particularly at wide receiver, offensive line and in the kicking game.
Coach Tommy Tuberville is just hoping some of Auburn's recent winning ways will continue, like last year's team that won 11 games even with injuries slowing quarterback Brandon Cox and tailback Kenny Irons.
``The one thing I think our football team has done over the years is we've learned how to win,'' Tuberville said. ``If you learn how to win, then sometimes it filters down to your younger guys. Sometimes even though you might not be the best team on the field, you find a way to win the game. We're going to have to do some of that this year.''
First things first.
The Tigers will have four new starters on the offensive line blocking for a new tailback, and Cox will no longer be able to look for reliable receiver Courtney Taylor.
Auburn also had to pick out its latest star tailback - or tailbacks - to replace Irons, a second-round NFL draft pick. That, at least, does not appear to be a problem.
Junior Brad Lester ran for nine touchdowns and 510 yards last season, and Ben Tate showed plenty of potential as a freshman. And redshirt freshman Mario Fannin has an enticing mixture of speed and power.
But Lester is expecting to get the starting nod Sept. 1 against Kansas State. He got his first start early in 2005 against Arkansas but was injured. After that, Irons took over, with Lester getting starts only as a fill-in when Irons was hurt.
``I've just been waiting ever since then,'' Lester said. ``It seems like now I'm about to get that chance, and there's no looking back from there.''
Tuberville plans to let all three get plenty of action.
Still, there are an unusual amount of question marks for a team that often seems to defy expectations. Picked high, the Tigers sometimes stumble along the way. They have been adept at exceeding more modest expectations like the 2004 season when they went 13-0. LSU is the popular pick to win the Western Division and the Southeastern Conference. Alabama has hogged headlines after hiring Nick Saban as coach.
Then there's Auburn. The Tigers' 33-5 record over the past three seasons trails only Southern California and Texas.
``I like them getting all that attention,'' All-SEC defensive end Quentin Groves said. ``Everybody's eyes are on Alabama; whose eyes are on Auburn? While your eyes are on Alabama, we're over here doing what we have to do to get bigger, faster and stronger.''
Younger, too, though. And at key positions.
The Tigers won't likely have a placekicker or punter who has played in a college game. Freshman signee Wes Byrum and redshirt freshman Ryan Shoemaker are among the candidates vying for those jobs.
On the offensive line, 6-foot-9 left tackle King Dunlap is the only returning starter. Freshman Lee Ziemba has been one of several players to take turns at No. 1 right tackle in an ongoing competition.
The biggest void was at guard, where Ben Grubbs was a first-round NFL draft pick. Like Grubbs, first-year starter Tyronne Green is a converted defensive player.
Even with Taylor and the other five departed starters, the Tigers ranked 10th in the league in passing offense, ninth in scoring and eighth in total yards last season.
Cox was bothered by leg injuries in a season that included a four-interception game in a loss to Georgia. The Tigers also allowed 35 sacks, partly because of his limited mobility.
``I don't want to go through that again,'' Cox said.
The only proven receiver is former walk-on Rod Smith. The other likely starters include Robert Dunn (five catches last season) and Prechae Rodriguez (14).
A defense that struggled against Georgia and Arkansas last season in the Tigers' only two losses has far fewer questions. Groves needs four sacks to become Auburn's career leader, returning for his senior season instead of entering the NFL draft.
Linebackers Merrill Johnson and Tray Blackmon are a pair of 6-footers with 10 career starts between them, but high expectations.
``If we're going to have a good football team defensively, Merrill's going to be a big piece of it,'' Tuberville said.
Blackmon, meanwhile, is a sophomore playmaker with talent who has already been suspended twice and left school for the spring semester to deal with personal issues.
All that doesn't add up to a rebuilding year, but it does at least mute the outside buzz somewhat. And the Tigers seem OK with that.
``When we went 13-0 (in 2004), we weren't ranked real, real high,'' Thompson said. ``We like it. It gives us an edge. We think about it every day, and the coaches remind us about it. The players remind each other about it.
``We haven't lost that many games in the last 3-4 years. We ought to be contenders each year. It doesn't matter what the press says or what the fans think.''
 

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