Reality Check Coming For Football Freshmen

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about the start of Auburn football practice and the 2004 season.

Today, they're all excited. From west to east and north to south, hundreds of freshmen are preparing for their first real taste of college football.

Most of them have dreamed of this time since they were young. You'd be hard-pressed to find more than a handful who don't expect to be playing and making a difference on their teams a month from now.

But reality is about to set in. They are about to discover that, no matter how great they were in high school and how many stars recruiting analysts put beside their names, their new teammates just view them as freshmen.

They are about to discover that the same coaches who were so charming during the recruiting process aren't so charming out on the field when the thermometer is nearing 100 degrees.

They are about to discover that playing against boys in high school is a far cry from playing against men who have been on college weight programs for years.

It's a difficult transition. Not all of them make it.

"They all get homesick," Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville says. "If they grew up in Eclectic or in Miami, when they come to school they are going to get that faraway look in their eye."

By the time Auburn opens its season against Louisiana-Monroe on Sept. 4, those freshmen mature enough to help win games this season will have stepped forward. Barring a run of injuries, the rest of them will be scout teamers and spend their Saturday mornings in dreaded redshirt workouts with strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall.

Like most college football teams in this day of scholarship limitations, Auburn will need some of the freshmen to play.

Among the most likely candidates are safety Tony Bell of Alabaster; defensive back Tristan Davis of East Point., Ga.; defensive back Steve Gandy of Waynesboro, Miss.; offensive lineman Leon Hart of Columbia, S.C.; defensive end/tight end Korey Raymond of Reserve, La.; defensive tackle Pat Sims of Fort Lauderdale and running back Jerald Watson of Morgan City, La. Another newcomer, junior college transfer Christopher Browder, not only will play but could push for a starter's job if he's as good as Auburn coaches believe he is.

Calvin Booker of Atlanta and Blake Field of Tallahassee will compete for the No. 3 quarterback job, though both could be redshirted if starter Jason Campbell and backup Brandon Cox stay healthy.

There will be surprises when practice starts Friday. Some who were expected to compete for playing time won't and some who weren't expected to compete for playing time will. So it always is.

Auburn's recruiting class, which came together under the shadows of SACS probation and Petrinogate, wasn't as highly regarded as some. But Auburn coaches like the signs they have seen. Virtually the entire class has been on campus since early July, working out with varsity players.

Though the proof will come when the hitting starts, Tuberville says offensive lineman Leon Hart has the look of an early contributor. "He looks like an upperclassman," Tuberville says. "Mentally, it's extremely difficult to play as an offensive lineman, but he's a very intelligent and very mature kid. I would expect him to play."

Some other newsy items three days before the start of practice:

Auburn's offensive coaches went to watch the Houston Texans practice Monday. The Texans run some of the same plays put in by first-year offensive coordinator Al Borges.

QB Brandon Cox is shown during spring 2004 practice.

Brandon Cox continues to write what could be one of the more heart-warming success stories ever in Auburn football. Cox signed in 2002, but left after two days of practice because of health problems. He returned for last season and was redshirted. When the offseason program started last January, it was obvious something had changed. In the spring, he quickly grabbed the No. 2 quarterback job and didn't let go.

In August of 2002, Cox weighed 164 pounds. Going into preseason practice, he weighs 204.

"He's a 20-year-old freshman," Tuberville said. "If he can stay healthy, he will be a great quarterback at Auburn."

Though the backup quarterback is usually the most popular player on the team among fans, Cox will not be a threat to Campbell's starting position.

"We had to play Jason when he was a (redshirt) freshman, but putting a freshman quarterback on the field in the SEC is really child abuse," Tuberville says.

Tuberville on sophomore defensive end Stanley McClover: "He will be an All-American at Auburn."

Until next time…

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