Luper Looking For "Breakout" Performance

Curtis Luper talks about Auburn's running backs, recruiting and the urgency to improve as the Tigers prepare for their home opener.

Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn Tigers wrapped up on-the-field preparations for their football home opener vs. ULM with a light workout on Thursday as they try to get the offense and defense performing at higher levels than in games one and two.

Coach Gene Chizik's Tigers will be looking for their first win as they take on ULM in Saturday's non-conference game that kicks off at 11:21 a.m. CDT at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The game will be televised on the SEC Network.

Running backs coach Curtis Luper said he is hopeful the tailbacks are ready to step up and play well as the Tigers take on the Warhawks.

"We had a couple good weeks of practice," Luper said. "We had some injuries during camp that set us back and we weren't able to get in sync with the offensive line and get into a rhythm."

Now that the backs have had a chance to get a feel for their offensive line, Luper said he is hoping to see that show up on Saturday. "I am waiting for us to have a breakout game," he said. "Hopefully, it will be this week."

Tre Mason, Mike Blakely and Corey Grant all missed practice time with injuries in August. Grant has yet to play yet and is also expected to miss the ULM game. "He had a lower leg injury and they are slow--they just take time to get back to 100 percent, but he is close," Luper said.

The running backs coach pointed out that he liked what he saw out of Blakely last week.

"I was proud of Mike," he said. "He ran tough, protected the football. There was a lot of learning for him. He had not played a football game in two years so he was anxious to get back in the film room, critique himself, have me critique him and learn. I think he will be a lot better in the immediate future based on just playing his first college football game."

Mike Blakely follows fullback Jay Prosch in last Saturday's game at Mississippi State.

The coach said Mason, Blakely and Onterio McCalebb are battling to earn reps at tailback.

"It is basically even until someone decides to make it lopsided," Luper stated. "It is on them. If Tre is in and gets going, Tre is going to go.

"If Mike is in and gets hot, and is really feeling the game, he is going to go.

"If Onterio is feeling it then he will play," Luper added. "I am looking for one of those guys to take over and say, ‘I am the tailback at Auburn University.' That is my challenge to them, but we will do it by committee if we have to and we will still get it done."

Luper, who doubles as the coaching staff's recruiting coordinator, said that when the coaches talk to the recruits about the team's slow start they tell them, "If we had them we wouldn't be 0-2."

Luper, who is in his fourth season at Auburn, said, "Everyone knew this would be a season in which we would grow and learn because we have a new offense, a new defense and young players on both sides of the ball. It takes some time for us to get in sync.

"We are still the same coaching staff that won the national championship two years ago. This is still the same Auburn. The charge for us as a football team and as an organization is to continue to get better and better every week. In week 10 we want to be better than we were in week two, week four or week five. There are some teams that just go the other way.

"With Coach Chizik as our leader we will be a better football team a month from now than we are now, and we will be a better team two months from now than in a month," Luper said. "That is progress and that is moving in the right direction. That is what our recruits who are committed to us want to see, and that is what they are going to see."

A key for Auburn's defensive success on Saturday will be containing the passing of Kolton Browning, who put the football in the air 67 times vs. Arkansas and completed 42. The Warhawks finished their 34-31 victory over the Arkansas Razorbacks with 412 passing yards and 550 total yards.

Auburn's first-year secondary coach, Willie Martinez, said the defensive backs realize they will be tested this week. "They are aware of it just watching the film," he said. "They know how good Louisiana-Monroe is and how good their offense is. It starts with their quarterback and obviously excellent receivers."

Martinez noted it is important for Auburn's secondary, and the defense as a whole, to be in sync working together. "It is a team game," he said.

The coach said he thought the Tigers performed well as a defensive group for the first two quarters vs. Mississippi State. "The thing that was the most disappointing was the third quarter and how we played.

"If you look at the game they were 1-10 on third downs, but the one that they got was obviously costly," Martinez pointed out. "We had two penalties where we could have got off the field that led to points. Those little things we can't let happen in a close ball game."

Last week's leading tackler was a different starter in the secondary, Demetruce McNeal at safety, who finished with six solo stops and 12 assists after replacing fellow junior Ryan Smith in the lineup. Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said earlier in the week that all 11 starting spots on defense are still not solidified. Asked if there could be additional changes in the secondary lineup for the ULM game, Martinez avoided answering the question.

Erique Florence is a sophomore from Valley High.

He did note that sophomore Erique Florence and freshman cornerbacks Jonathan Jones and Josh Holsey are pushing for playing time.

Florence was expected to make a strong push for a starting assignment, but a preseason injury put him behind schedule. "He is getting a lot more reps," Martinez said. "He started last week getting a lot more reps with our ones and twos. We will keep on working him in there."

In other news and notes:

*The Tigers will leave town at 5 p.m. on Friday on buses going to Montgomery for their traditional pre-game night away from campus before returning on Saturday morning.

*Fans in town early for Saturday's game can attend the Autumn Nights Downtown Concert. The free event starts at 6 p.m. and will feature Aubie, the AU cheerleaders and live music from the band "The Swingin' Medallions."

*From 4-6 p.m. on Friday, fans can tour the Auburn football locker room at Jordan-Hare Stadium and the Tigers' Den recruiting lounge area. They can also walk onto the field through the stadium tunnel. Admission is free for the tour. Go to Gate 10 at the south side of the stadium to participate.

*Free campus tours are being offered on Friday to anyone interested. The War Eagle Girls and Plainsmen tours will begin at 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. and each lasts approximately 45 minutes.

*Auburn's Saturday opponent moved up from Division I-AA to Division I (now the FBS) in 1994. On Saturday the ULM Warhawks will be looking for their first 2-0 start since 1993, their final season of Division I-AA play when they where known as the Northeast Louisiana Indians. They finished 9-3 that year.

*ULM made Sun Belt Conference history last week as the first team from that league to defeat a Top 10 opponent with the 34-31 victory in Little Rock vs. Arkansas.

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