Veteran Tiger A Difference-Maker

Auburn senior optimistic about the Tiger offense.

The big 6-foot-4, 315-pound right guard from Brandon, Fla., says both the team and the offensive line are looking to prove themselves this fall. "I'm the most excited I've been since I've been here," the fifth-year senior says. "We have a lot of talent on this team. We don't just say that. We really mean it. And we want to prove ourselves on the offensive line--prove that last year wasn't all Rudi (Johnson). Rudi got a lot of yards, but we gave him a lot of yards, too. I think this year we'll have an even better running game. I think we'll spread the ball around more. We're putting all the pressure on us, the O-line, to make sure we have a running game. We want to prove to people that we can do it."

Mike Pucillo

Last year, junior college transfer tailback Rudi Johnson helped Auburn resurrect its running game, racking up 1,567 rushing yards. Pucillo says a lot of those yards were made possible by big holes provided by the O-line. This year, they're going to prove it, he says. In fact, the whole offense has a lot to prove. After two games, both Tiger victories, Auburn is averaging 168 yards per game. Last season, the Tigers rushed for 163.3 yards per contest.

"The offensive motto for this season is ‘Finish Business,'" he says. That unfinished business includes tough losses at Mississippi State and Florida, in the SEC Championship game and the Citrus Bowl.

"We did well last season, but we could have done better," Pucillo says. "We want to finish business this year and beat those teams. It's not enough to be glad you went to the SEC game, you've got to win it. We want to go back and win it, and win our bowl game. Usually, I look forward to playing Florida the most every year because that is where I'm from, but this year I can't wait to play Mississippi State. It makes me sick that we lose to them every year. I really want us to beat them this time."

This season, the Tigers will be attempting to exact revenge with a fresh offensive arsenal. Gone are Johnson and fullback Heath Evans to the NFL. Sophomore Brandon Johnson, a tough-as-nails fullback from Bayou La Batre, Ala., has stepped up to replace Evans when not filling in at linebacker. Four tailbacks are taking Johnson's place with redshirt freshman Ronnie Brown leading the way. Sophomore Casinious Moore appears to have overcome his knee injury problems and true freshman Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is an exciting talent. Depth comes from Nebraska transfer, Chris Butler.

They may be young, but they're awfully good, Pucillo says. "I tell you what--Ronnie Brown is doing good and Cadillac came in doing good and Casinious--they're all doing really well," he says. "We have quite a bit of talent back there. It's really surprising. I think we have a real good shot at doing a lot of good things."

Pucillo himself is almost certain to have a good season. He's already played three years and started every game last season. His strength, experience and intelligence make him a dominating force on the O-line. He was named Offensive Player of the Week by the coaching staff for his strong performance in the SEC opener vs. Ole Miss.

Offensive line coach Hugh Nall says he expects good things from the former prep All-American when he takes the field. "Mike's a good, smart player from a good family," Nall says. "He's a great kid to be around who works hard and plays hard. He has good body balance and a lot of smarts."

Nall says the experience he has on the line will prove helpful to the entire offense this season. The line has three fifth-year seniors--the most experience on the team. Pucillo says he and fellow senior linemen Hart McGarry and Kendall Simmons talked throughout winter and summer workouts about what they wanted to contribute as the leaders.

"As the seniors on the offensive line, we really just want to lead by example and keep everyone's morale up," Pucillo says. "We've been through it, and we know what we need to do. We just want to get out there and make it easier for the younger guys."

Over the two weeks of grueling two-a-day sessions that had the players up by 5 a.m. every morning and at the athletic complex until at least 9 p.m. every night, Pucillo says the Tigers began to gel together as a unit. "It's going to be a special team," he predicts.

"We definitely feel that way," he says. "Out in practice, even after one of our last two-a-days, we were tired but we still had our spirits up," he says. "That shows us that we really do have a good team. And we're a lot older and mature than a lot of people think we are. You can tell by looking at our skill players and the quarterbacks that we have a lot of really talented players."

Pucillo says the team is mature because it has been through so much. He and his signing class (1997) have certainly walked through the fire over the last five years, enduring controversy and coaching changes, losing seasons and tough injuries.

He and the rest of the linemen also survived recurring acts of "Nightmare on the Offensive Line" in 1998 when injuries all but decimated the line. Six different players tried their hand at center as man after man went down with injuries, mostly broken bones in their feet. True freshman center Ben Nowland was even forced to start against Mississippi State as tackles played guard, tight ends played tackle and guards played center that year.

Pucillo was a redshirt freshman then and broke a foot in the season opener against Virginia. He returned to play in the last five games. The line survived that cruel year, and by 1999 new head coach Tommy Tuberville had arrived. Offensive line coach Hugh Nall quickly began rebuilding the line, both mentally and physically. Pucillo started in nine games that season, six of them at right guard and three at center. He suffered an excruciating sprained elbow against Central Florida, but willed himself back in time to play against Georgia and Alabama.

Last season was even better. He started every game at right guard, despite having a sprained ankle most of the season, and played almost every snap of every contest. He graded 91 percent on assignments against Georgia and had four pancakes against Louisiana Tech. Against Vanderbilt, he graded 98 percent on assignments and had seven rodeo blocks. He posted one of his strongest games against Ole Miss, grading 98 percent on assignments and 89 percent on finishes. He also had seven rodeo blocks. He did even better against the Rebels this season.

Pucillo has endured tough struggles off the field, too. His mom, Rose Pucillo, battled multiple sclerosis and a brain tumor before passing away last June. The devoted son drove home countless times during his tenure at Auburn to spend weekends with his mom, and moved home last spring to spend each day by her bedside before she died. He also lost his grandfather during his sophomore season.

"There aren't even words to describe my career at Auburn," he says.

Pucillo will graduate this winter in health promotions. If he stays healthy, he is a cinch to be drafted by the NFL in April. He says he's worked hard in the off-season to get even faster and stronger and hopes to finish his Auburn career with a solid performance.

"I just really want to concentrate on staying healthy and giving even more effort and going full-speed out there as much as I can," he says. "I want to do the little things."

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