Arkansas Natives Return To Face Razorbacks

FAYETTEVILLE — Kodi Burns' introduction to college football didn't consist of a bobbled snap, booted football or any other embarrassing moment.

The former Fort Smith Northside High player and Auburn quarterback didn't absorb a punishing blow dished out by 300-pound linemen or have his helmet twisted backward by a blitzing linebacker. He didn't bumble around the field like most freshmen quarterbacks thrust into early roles and, really, didn't even have to fight off a bad case of nerves.

"I just ran the ball up the middle and I'm like, ‘Hey, this kind of feels like high school a little bit,'" said Burns, remembering his first play at Auburn in its 19-14 loss to Mississippi State on Sept. 15. "So after a few snaps, you kind of get used to it.

"It's a little bit like glorified high school."

The first play has been symbolic of Burns' smooth transition from Arkansas' high school fields to the Southeastern Conference. The same goes for his Auburn teammate and former Rogers High lineman Lee Ziemba, who is starting at right tackle for the Tigers.

The Arkansas natives — and former 7A-West stars — are among a handful of freshmen that have been key figures in Auburn's youth movement this season. The two, who shrug off their quick starts like it's no big deal, will get a chance to show off in their home state when the 22nd-ranked Tigers (4-2, 2-1 in SEC) play at Arkansas (3-2, 0-2) on Saturday.

"It's going to be great to be able to play in front of your home crowd for the first time," Burns said of the homecoming. "Me and Ziemba have been talking about it for awhile now.

"It's pretty much like a dream come true."

Burns became the first freshman to start at quarterback for Auburn since 1998 when he was under center against New Mexico State on Sept. 22. It was his only start, but he has made an impact as a change-of-pace quarterback. Burns has rushed for 116 yards and two touchdowns and thrown for 123 more with a score as senior Brandon Cox's backup.

Ziemba has been in the lineup since the opener, winning a starting job in the trenches during the preseason. The state's reigning Gatorade Player of the Year has started every game and is one of three freshman starters on Auburn's offensive line.

The Arkansas natives are among 11 freshmen and 15 redshirt freshmen that have played for Auburn, helping the Tigers stave off a disappointing start and climb back into the Top 25.

"It's surprising how young this team is and how well we're doing and how well we're gelling," Ziemba said. "Everybody knows we have three freshmen on the offensive line and you don't see that in many places and I think that's a special thing."

But their high school coaches said nothing has been surprising about their performances.

Burns was handed a small portion of the playbook to absorb and perfect early in the season and gave the Tigers a valuable boost at quarterback when Cox struggled. He rushed for 87 yards in the Mississippi State loss. Even though Cox has bounced back and remains the starter, Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said Burns' role will continue because of his versatility.

"I made the statement last year, wherever he goes, he's going to put pressure on wherever it is because of his ability," said Darrell Henry, Burns' high school coach. "He has that kind of ability. Obviously, Auburn feels the same way. He has the ability to make an impact right now."

Tuberville called Ziemba an aggressive, intense player who won a starting spot because of his competitiveness. The 6-foot-8, 297 pounder is starting on the right side, but Auburn is planning to slide Ziemba to a more high-profile role at left tackle next season.

"The biggest thing that has helped Lee has been himself," said Ronnie Peacock, who coached Ziemba at Rogers High. "He works really hard on his strength and being 6-7, 300-plus pounds with the strength he has lends him the opportunity to go in there as a freshman, with his mentality and his confidence, that he can get the job done."

The freshmen proved it with their performance during Auburn's 20-17 upset win against defending national champion Florida two weeks ago.

Burns didn't play as much as he had in the previous two games, but did score the first touchdown on a six-yard run. Ziemba was part of an offensive line that kept the Gators defense at bay most of the night. Both said the experience in The Swamp was incredible.

"Florida is extremely loud," Ziemba said. "Communication was real tough. But we had to grow up. That's what this is about: Growing up and getting the job done when you're needed."

They're looking forward to their first trip to Arkansas, but will be prepared for a hostile reception. Ziemba and Burns were among the state's most coveted prospects last season and considered scholarship offers from Arkansas. But both turned them down in favor of Auburn.

Family ties was a big factor for Ziemba, whose parents both attended Auburn. Peacock also said Ziemba — who has attended between 20 or 30 Arkansas games in his life — meshed with the coaching staff and several offensive linemen during his visit.

"I still think it was a struggle," Peacock said of Ziemba's decision. "I don't know to what extent, but, obviously, what's been going on down there could've played somewhat on his decision.

"After his visit and having the background of his family being from that area and everything, he just decided pretty early that he was definitely interested in Auburn. Obviously, they were definitely interested in him and thought he was going to be one of their best recruits."

Ultimately, Ziemba said Auburn was the "best fit." So did Burns, who also said part of his decision was the opportunity to experience new things by leaving the state.

Burns denied the notion he didn't attend Arkansas because the program had freshman Mitch Mustain, who, at the time, was wrapping up his first and last season with the Hogs.

"He had nothing to do with the fact of me coming to Auburn," Burns said. "I looked at it as, (former Arkansas offensive coordinator) Gus Malzahn was somebody I really wanted to play for my whole life. He's a great guy. Even after talking to him, I still felt like Auburn was the right place for me. ... Making the decision had nothing to do with Mitch Mustain."

Henry — who regularly attends Arkansas games — said the decision of both players to leave the state to play college football shouldn't overshadow their impact.

In fact, he said their early success at Auburn speaks volumes about the region.

"It makes our conference look good," Henry said. "It makes Northwest Arkansas look good, in my opinion, that those guys can go on the biggest stage in college football and perform as true freshmen the way that they're doing."

Henry and Peacock said they'll be rooting for their players during Saturday's game. They're hoping the Razorbacks play well, too. So count them among the crowd that will be applauding Ziemba and Burns as they make their homecoming against the Razorbacks.

Will they be among the minority? Burns and Ziemba aren't sure. But they don't mind, either.

"I don't know," Burns said. "I'm on an opposing team. Florida, we got booed. I'm not saying going into Arkansas I'm expecting that, but if it happens, that's part of the game.

"It's not going to get me down at all if they boo me. Actually, it will make me smile a little bit."

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