Lots Of Competition at Running Back

Comments from Gene Chizik and players are featured as the Tigers continue their preseason football practices.

Auburn, Ala.--The competition for playing time at running back is expected to be as hot as the weather as Coach Gene Chizik's Tigers prepare for their 2012 football season opener vs. Clemson.

One of the players in the mix to be the No. 1 tailback, redshirt sophomore Corey Grant, won praise from the head coach after Thursday's practice, something that Chizik has done regularly regarding Grant, who joined the team last year as a walk-on transfer from Alabama.

"I am enjoying the competition and they push me every day," Grant said after Thursday's practice that ran 2 1/2 hours as the Tigers worked out in shorts and helmets.

Asked what his goal is for the 2012 season, the former Opelika High star said, "I just want to help the team as much as I can and do it anywhere on the field. It doesn't matter what position."

In addition to playing tailback, he is getting a look as a kickoff returner as well as a coverage man on special teams.

Talking about the first two days of practice, Grant said, "We have been concentrating on staying focused and coming together as a team. We are working on executing the offense, since it is a new one for us. We are pushing each other to learn the playbook."

Grant, who is 5-11, 203 pounds, is competing with senior Onterio McCalebb, freshman Jovon Robinson and sophomore Tre Mason and transfer redshirt freshman Mike Blakely for playing time. Blakely ran the football well in the spring game, but did not get praise from Chizik for his overall spring performance.

McCalebb works on kickoff returns

On Thursday night the head coach said Blakely is off to a better start in preseason practice. Grant agreed and said, "We talked to Mike and we are just trying to push him along and just help him get better each and every day."

Chizik said, "Right now we are just trying to figure out at running back what these guys are capable of doing...Other than Onterio McCalebb, we have a lot of question marks there. Mike is like the rest of them. We are trying to find out what is the best role for him.

"Onterio McCalebb, we are pretty confident we know what his role is and how productive he has been over the last three years," Chizik said. "The other guys, we are still looking at that right now. Mike is one of those guys who is very talented, but a lot of things depend on how he picks up protections. It is not just him carrying the ball. We are searching for where he fits."

Chizik noted that Blakely is off to a good start in preseason. "For the first two days there is no question he came in with a better frame of mind and more of a sense of urgency in my opinion than he did in the spring."

Commenting on Grant, Chizik said, "We love how Corey works. He is a very reliable young man and he loves football. He is one of those tough guys on the team we are trying to find out exactly where he fits and what his roles will be whether it is offensively or special teams."

The coach said he likes Grant's size and speed. "Corey is still developing," Chizik said. "He is still a young guy who has got three years of football left. Every day he is trying to improve."

Commenting on practice as a whole, Chizik said, "Overall it was a very energetic day. I felt like they were very focused. We are still making a lot of mistakes, and we are obviously on top of that, but overall we are very pleased. Today was a great learning day going back and looking over last night and trying to get some stuff corrected. There is a lot of moving parts going on for these guys, but I feel like that was two days of productive work."

When the Tigers return to the practice field on Friday evening they will be in shoulder pads for the first time. "We feel like that is going to tell us al little bit more, particularly with the young guys," said Chizik, who noted the drills can be more physical despite not being able to tackle until next week when the full pads go on.

Chizik said the next two practices in shells will be important for evaluating players.

Tre Mason is bigger and stronger heading into 2012.

Chad Slade, a returning starter at offensive guard, is getting work at right tackle, the spot that 2011 senior Brandon Mosley played last season. Slade said that he expects position coach Jeff Grimes to also work him at right guard and left guard prior to the season opener vs. Clemson. "You have got to know what to do all up and down the line," Slade said.

A redshirt sophomore this year, Slade said he knows there are concerns about how the line will come together this year with no experienced players at the tackle spots unless Grimes makes the decision to play him at that position.

"There is always going to be a sense of urgency for us to get ready for the first game," Slade said. "I really don't look at it, but I know that people say that we (the offensive line) are probably going to be the weakest position. We have to go out and play with authority.

"We have to go out there with the attitude that we are all brothers working together to go out there and get better each and every Saturday throughout the season," Slade added. "I think we are going to get a lot better. The important thing is to go out every day and learn the assignments and improve."

Slade said this is a very different preseason for the offensive linemen. "What we are doing on offense is different," he pointed out, noting that offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler's system is very different than Gus Malzahn's hurry-up, no-huddle style of play.

Last year the team was short on numbers at tackle, center and guard. With an influx of seven offensive line signees and just two 2011 seniors to replace, there is a lot more competition for playing time. "The young guys came in here with the mentality that they are trying to win a job no matter who is playing at the position," he pointed out."

Five of the seven true freshmen offensive linemen are getting looks at tackle this week while Alex Kozan and Jordan Diamond are working at guard. Chizik said that where the freshmen linemen line up is subject to change. "We will continue to try to move them around and find a spot for them," he said.

In other news and notes: *The Tigers will return to the practice field Friday evening and will work out again on Saturday afternoon before taking Sunday off. The first full pads practice is set for Monday.

Sophomore defensive back Jermaine Whitehead, who played cornerback last season, is making a push to be a starter at safety this year.

*Junior defensive tackle Kenneth Carter, who missed spring training with a shoulder problem, said he is 100 percent now. He noted it was frustrating to get behind learning the new defense, but said he has spent extra time in the film room and on the practice field playing catch up and he believes that he has.

*Defensive end Dee Ford said that he has gained 15 pounds and has reached his goal weight of 250 pounds, which is the weight he wants to play at this fall.

*John Sullen, a returning starter at offensive guard, was sidelined at the Thursday practice. "Right now we are trying to rest him a little bit," said Chizik, who added the injury does not appear to be serious. "He is a little nicked up right now...We feel like he is going to be alright."

*A defensive lineman going the other direction, sophomore Angelo Blackson, said he is currently 310 pounds, which he said is where he wants to be after dropping 20 pounds since arriving on campus last summer.

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