The fight for a starting spot matching 6-4, 290-pound redshirt sophomore Blake Burgess and 6-3, 300-pound true freshman Reese Dismukes to replace Ryan Pugh is as close as it gets with both splitting reps at center with the first team during the first week of practice.
Both players went to work after spring training ended and have worked on getting bigger and stronger. Burgess and Dismukes have each made progress in that area.
"It's very close," said Burgess of the competition to be the starting center. "I think it is still as close as it was in the spring, and I think we will need all of camp to really evaluate it and really see who is going to come out on top."
Dismukes, who enrolled early at Auburn in January after leading his Spanish Fort High School team to its first ever state football championship in December, shares Burgess‘ assessment of the competition as the battle that started in the spring has carried over into preseason camp.
"Blake's a real good player," said Dismukes, who was rated the No. 5 ranked center prospect in the nation last year. "We are real good friends, we are working every day together during practice.
"It's a good competition: he is a good player, I guess I'm a good player, too, so we'll see who wins the job," Dismukes added. "It's going to be close though."
Burgess, a theater major who played football at Vestavia Hills High School before walking on at Auburn, said both he and Dismukes know what is expected of them.
"You know what you need to do," said the redshirt sophomore, who saw action on special teams in every game last season. "You know what you have to get done. You know what you have to work on to really get the first job and we both know it.
"The coaches sat us both down and told us this is what we need to work on," Burgess pointed out. "It is apparent in meetings that we are trying to work on that. We are both trying to win that job."
Burgess deferred to his position coach, Jeff Grimes, when asked what, in particular, he needs to do to become a better center. "There are some things I need to work on, and there are some things Reese needs to work on, but we're definitely going through it during meetings and on the practice field," the Vestavia Hills native said.
Dismukes said he feels like he has made progress since spring practice and has reached a comfort level at the position this fall. He added that working on his pad level and playing low are the biggest things he needs to focus on in preseason.
"I feel like I'm being a lot more aggressive just knowing the playbook as far as being here that long," Dismukes said. "I have a feel for Malzahn's offense, and that kind of thing, and I get to go out there and play hard like Coach Grimes likes and not having the fear of messing up."
Dismukes (left) and Burgess (right) are shown at Auburn's new practice fields.
Both Burgess and Dismukes said the other true freshmen competing for playing time on the offensive line are doing well through four practices. Dismukes added that learning the playbook is the most important obstacle to playing time right now for the freshmen.
"They are good," Burgess said. "They are a rough bunch and they love to hit. There is no hesitation, which is great. One of the things you worry about when you get new guys in is whether or not they'll be ready to play with the speed and the power of the game, but they really are."
Burgess noted being able to quickly adapt and correct problems is what most stuck with him about watching Auburn's veteran offensive line last season. He called the senior dominated group "an offensive line that could run on its own." He also called them "a group of guys who could see a problem mid-play and be able to fix it for the next one."
The redshirt sophomore added, "That is something that is hard to learn and coaches try to teach us that, but I think this program, what the coaches have got going on right now, is really facilitating us and really will make us as good a line as they are."
Grimes, who is in his third year as Auburn's offensive line coach, said he likes the effort he is seeing from both players, but noted it is too early to tell who is ahead in the competition or to name a leader.