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Friday, April 2, 2010

Full practice notes: Safety Mike McNeil still struggling in recovery from broken leg

AUBURN, Ala. — A little less than a year after suffering a broken leg that cost him all of last season, Auburn safety Mike McNeil is still not fully recovered.

“I think Mike is a work in progress still,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik conceded Friday, despite declaring McNeil, for all intents and purposes, close to 100 percent.

McNeil, a junior expected to be in the mix for a starting safety spot along with Aairon Savage and Zac Etheridge, broke his leg during a scrimmage at this time last year.

At the time, coaches were pleased that the prognosis was a “clean break” of McNeil’s leg and not ligament damage to his knee. But McNeil never got on the field last year, despite returning to the practice field late in the season.

This spring, despite participating fully in all of Auburn’s 11-on-11 and contact drills, McNeil hasn’t quite gotten back to where he was.

“He’s still struggling a little bit with the leg, but there are days when he’s real fresh and he shows a lot of burst,” safeties coach Tommy Thigpen said.

McNeil still has a noticeable limp, which becomes more evident in the latter part of practices when he’s fatigued, Thigpen said. Nevertheless, Thigpen expects McNeil to be completely ready by the time next season starts.

“I think it’s right on track,” Thigpen said. “Again, we’ve got so much time between now and game day. I think every day that he’s out there, he gains more and more confidence on it. ... As he keeps running and keeps running, it’s a fatigue thing more than anything else. So for him, he’s just got to learn how to push through it and get himself mentally tough.”

Some more notes and quotes from Friday's practice:
  • For the second time this spring, Thigpen praised the play of Ikeem Means, a walk-on safety from Wetumpka, Ala. “He probably reminds me of (Daren) Bates, except with a little more burst,” Thigpen said. The 6-foot, 204-pound sophomore played almost exclusively on special teams last season but has made plays on the regular defense this spring. Thigpen thinks today’s scrimmage will be a good measuring stick for Means. “It’ll be interesting, because if he does exactly what he’s been doing in practice and be able to execute, he’ll be competing for some starting time,” Thigpen said.
  • There was a lot of talk today about Mike McNeil's recovery. Here's Thigpen's take on Savage as he comes back from an Achilles' injury: "Savo, the first day when we went out, there were a lot of question marks. Does he have a burst? Can he run? But now, in practice four or five, he's shown that. So I'm really pleased. Savo has a real good football IQ. He picks up on concepts as fast as Zac Etheridge . When guys are that way, if he can get himself in a position where he runs with burst and with speed and low pad level, I really believe that Savo will be able to help us."
  • Thigpen has liked what he's seen in his group this spring. As mentioned earlier, Means is doing well. Thigpen said Drew Cole plays as hard as anybody on every play. It should be a better situation than the end of last year, when Auburn's starting safeties were a true freshman in Bates and a converted cornerback in Demond Washington. "It'll be a lot better than it was last year, considering last year we lost all those guys during the season, playing guys who have never played the position," Thigpen said. "You're mixing and matching, but it's better now, because you've got guys who actually play the position, understand the concepts, understand exactly what we're looking for as far as being able to transition from one coverage to the next."
  • Chizik said no leader has emerged between junior college transfers Roszell Gayden and Brandon Mosley for the starting right tackle spot. "It’s a great competition," Chizik said. "It’s a great competition at that spot. They’re both really playing hard, they’re both really trying, they’re both really doing a great job. They’re both going to help us this year, I believe."
  • Chizik, on the level of hitting this spring vs. last year: "I think the level of intensity, I like where we are now if you compare that to last year. I think our intensity level out there, our energy level is higher more consistently."
  • Whoever loses out at right tackle won't necessarily just be a backup. "They’re both talented guys," Chizik said. "They could backup at guard. They could be at different places. We’re always going to try and find our seven best offensive linemen. Sometimes you have to tweak a guy and put a guy at guard or put a guy at tackle but you want your seven best players. You’d love to have 10 or 11 but right now we’re trying to get our best seven. Whoever is No. 6 or No. 7, they’re going to have to be able to play something else."
  • Jessel Curry and Craig Sanders both graduated early from high school to enroll at Auburn in January. I'd like to get an interview with Sanders before I write a story on both of them, but Chizik said this about early high school enrollees Friday: "We embrace the guys that are willing to do that and want to do that. We don’t push anybody to do that. The more people that do that, the better for selfish reasons, for us. But we don’t push that issue. If that’s kind of where they are in their life and that’s what they want to do we would love for that to happen but we don’t push that. Those guys where already on track. Before we started recruiting them, that was their plan. A lot of young guys do have enough foresight a year or so in advance to be able to plan for that. We certainly think it helps."
  • If you haven't yet, check out the video in the post below. It's got Mike Blanc talking about the Haiti earthquake in January. Blanc is of Haitian descent. He was born in South Florida (his mother moved to the United States 30 years ago), but his father and relatives still live in Haiti. The video is better for these quotes, but here they are typed out anyway:
(On the situation in Haiti)
"Oh yeah, man. My father currently lives there. A lot of my family and the thing about it, my family is from the area where it happened, the capital Port au Prince. So my dad was affected. We went like after the earthquake hit, we went three or four days without hearing a word from anybody, my father, anybody. During that time, it was like sad but I met with brother Chette (team chaplain Chette Williams) and Chette knew my situation. A lot of people were supporting me and I knew it was going to be OK. Something like that that you have no total control of, you've just got to pray and trust in God and that's what I did."

(How difficult was it watching the images on TV?)
"It was hurtful, man. Especially to see all those kids out there and just to see my mom, too, man. My mom was like really broken down into tears. Just to see how devastated my mom was and knowing I have family there too. It was just really tough. I know before the earthquake happened ... my family, when you're a family that comes from Haiti and you make it here to the United States, you do your best to help the family that's still there. My mom and I sent clothes, money and to see that happen...they were already in a position where they didn't have that much. Now this happened. It was a hard time."

(Have you ever been to Haiti?)
"I haven't been. My mom put me on the phone with my relatives. They're like 'Hey Mike, how are you doing? We're hearing all this stuff about you and we're waiting to see you.' I'm like 'I'm fittin' to come, I'm fittin' to come.' It really got harder when I got here because we don't get that much time. I was like 'Man.' My mom is getting my passport so I can visit my family down in Haiti."

(Do they know you play football?)
"Yeah, now. They know now. After disaster and everything, my dad was there and my dad is telling them 'My son is doing this, doing that, he's trying to make the family proud. So yeah, my family they know now."

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