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Tuesday, August 4, 2009

New season, new start for Auburn

Just got done speaking with players on the eve of Auburn's first practice of August. Here's how tomorrow's story starts:
AUBURN, Ala. — A series of dust-ups dotted Auburn’s football practices last August. Emotions ran as hot as the temperature on several occasions, an inauspicious sign for what proved to be the team’s most disjointed season in a decade.

This year, cooler heads have prevailed and stronger leaders have emerged if you ask cornerback Walt McFadden.

“Last year was kind of a battlefield in that no one wanted to listen because, ‘Who are you?’” McFadden said. “This year we’ve got, ‘OK, that’s Antonio Coleman. He’s a guy that’s proved something here so I can follow him.’ That’s what we’ve got going with this team.”

It’s with a fresh start and a new outlook that Auburn’s players reported Tuesday, eager to put last year’s 5-7 record behind them and begin 11 straight days of practice starting today.

The Tigers entered last season ranked No. 10 in the Associated Press poll and picked to win the SEC West. Expectations are considerably lower in what is Gene Chizik’s first season, but the coach is encouraged by the progress the program has made in the eight months since he was hired.

“Our kids have been so resilient,” Chizik said. “They’ve just been great. They’ve bought in. Our coaches have done a great job trying to nurture these relationships with the players. We, as coaches, know how important that is. I think the relationships have gotten a lot stronger.

“It’s an eight-month bond, not a four-year bond. It’s hard to do in eight months. I think we’re ahead of the curve at this point with getting to know our players and them getting to know us. It’s been good.”
Read the rest of the story here.

No video today (the acoustics were terrible), but I'll try to get some tomorrow. As a reminder, the blog does have a
Twitter account here. We'll be tweeting news as soon as it comes out of practices this August, so follow it for instant updates.

Despite the lack of video, there were plenty of nuggets to come out of Tuesday's sit-down with veteran players (we get rookies tomorrow). Here's a sampling:
  • Coleman on being a leader: "I'm looked at as a leader. I don't take any crap so I think we're definitely in a good position. I've adjusted to it and adopted to it. I'm just ready to get out there and work."
  • He said he's talked a lot lately to the newest Tennessee Titan, former linemate Sen'Derrick Marks. "He's talking my ear off," Coleman said. "'Man, what you up to? How's the team looking and whatnot?' I think I have to now, I've got a couple guys that are funny and will help me out with it." Marks just signed a four-year contract with the Titans, although Coleman joked that he hasn't been the beneficiary of all that cash. "Man, I'm trying to get some but he won't give me any," he said. "I told him to let me come up and hang out with him. He'll probably be down, I know he's working hard right now in Tennessee, but he'll probably be down for a game."
  • Chizik’s first two-a-days will be very different from Tommy Tuberville’s final one. For starters, almost every practice will be at night, a move made with Auburn’s lack of depth in mind. “You always want to beat the heat to the best of your ability, (but) you’ve got to be smart because you’re going to play some games in the heat, so they’ve got to have enough of it,” Chizik said. “But too much right now, you don’t want a player to go down with body cramps and they’re out for three or four days. There’s a fine line in there, and we’ve got to be really smart.”
  • Secondly, Auburn will conduct all of its practices on the fields behind the athletic complex. Tuberville used to hold practices on the intramural fields across the street, something most players will not miss. “I hate that field,” linebacker Josh Bynes said. “Ain’t nothing but a bunch of sand out there.” McFadden's not going to miss the walk, which is across the street from the athletic complex and past the soccer field. Coleman wasn't a big fan either. "The ants, the little ant piles. Hot, no trees, no shade," he said. He was a big fan of the watermelon that the players received once they came off the fields, though. No word yet if that practice will continue.
  • Zac Etheridge said fellow safety Mike McNeil is making solid progress four months after breaking his leg during spring practice. But McNeil still won’t be 100 percent when practice starts today. “Oh yeah, he’ll be limited,” Etheridge said. “You don’t want to put him out there too early when things could happen. So I think just holding him out will be fine.” Junior Mike Slade and sophomore Drew Cole will get the majority of reps in McNeil’s place.
  • Safety Aairon Savage appears to be in good spirits despite suffering what is likely a season-ending Achilles' injury this summer. "He really don’t play video games and lately he’s been playing nothing but video games," said McFadden, his roommate. "He’s been playing with Auburn and he’s on the game, so that’s all he’s been doing. I guess he’s using that as a sub." McFadden and Etheridge said they weren't sure what Savage's plans were beyond this year.
  • Etheridge has been mentoring T'Sharvan Bell, who switched to safety from cornerback in the wake of Savage's injury. Etheridge can relate to the move. "Actually, I did it my freshman year," he said. "It's hard, because at corner you're used to safety telling you what to say all the time. And moving to safety, you're telling everybody what to do, so the terminology and just getting everybody lined up is the challenging part. The playing part just comes easy." He said it took him about a year to get used to the position change.
  • Auburn got good news on Demond Washington from the NCAA Clearinghouse but is still awaiting word on four players — safety Daren Bates, cornerback Taikwon Paige, defensive lineman Terrance Coleman and defensive tackle Josh Jackson. “You hope to get it resolved within 48 hours,” Chizik said. “This time of year they’re so swamped because everybody is in the same position with one or two kids. Obviously we have to be patient, but we hope to have everything resolved by Friday.”
  • Florida State transfer Aubrey Phillips will begin practicing with the team. No word yet on how whether he will be granted a wavier by the NCAA for immediate eligibility. "I can't really comment on that, because I really don't have a feel for it," Chizik said. "But yes, he'll be practicing with us. We'll just have to wait and see."
  • Auburn wants to ingrain a physical mentality this August, but players have to be wary not to overdo it because of depth problems. "It's kind of hard," Bynes said. "But I go out there not thinking. As a defense and linebackers, we have to go out there and play as we normally play. Injuries come and go. If they happen, they happen. At the same time, we got to go out and play our type of ball and not let the linebacking corps being so thin to hinder what we got to do in practice."
  • Tight end Tommy Trott said Gabe McKenzie has been doing well after sitting out the spring with an undisclosed medical issue. "He’s been through some tough times but he’s a buddy and he’s been a great player for us," Trott said. "He’s always been unselfish. He’s been one of the most unselfish players on this team. The coaching staff asked him to move to defense and he did so willingly. He moved back to offense and did so willingly. He’s been out there this summer competing like everybody else."
  • Left tackle Lee Ziemba said he is up around 312 to 315 pounds. Since last December, he's put on 35 pounds.
  • QB Neil Caudle was extremely complimentary of freshman wide receivers DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake. I'm going to guess they might contribute right away. Call it a hunch.
  • Senior Ben Tate on a pair of freshmen running backs, Onterio McCalebb and Dontae Aycock: "Onterio, that's like my little brother. I'm always pickin' and messin' with him. He's pure speed out there. You can't coach speed and that's something he has. That's something we're going to try to use. With Aycock, he's a young guy. He's learning two positions. He's a little confused, but once he gets settled in he'll be a good guy. He might help us out this year."

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