One of the best and biggest athletes has been one of his biggest questions. Junior offensive tackle Marcus McNeill has made preseason All-SEC teams, but with recurring back problems Nall hasn't been sure that McNeill will even be in the starting lineup. Through the first two days of practices, the big fellow has looked nimble and quick while showing no signs of his back woes that limited him in spring training.
"Marcus McNeill has worked real hard on his back," head coach Tommy Tuberville says. "He has had back problems since he has been here. He has strengthened his stomach muscles and worked really hard on conditioning his lower back and his stomach. Hopefully, he can go through more practices.
"Last year he could only go through one practice and then play in a game," Tuberville notes. "It really held him back from improving. There is some competition at the position. He has all the ability. He just needs to keep his fingers crossed on his health."
Devin Aromashodu makes a catch in Saturday's practice.
Tuberville says that having a healthy McNeil at left tackle will be a key to having success on offense this year. The head coach says in his early opinion that Nall looks to have some quality depth to work with this season, too.
"I think we have got a group that is talented, but they have a lot to learn," Nall says. "So many of them haven't played offensive line since high school. A lot of fundamentals, a lot of techniques have to be learned. You can't tell anything in these shorts deals (practices). We are really focusing more on assignments--being in the right place at the right time. We are waiting until the pads go on (Tuesday) where we will learn more how to do it."
Nall jokes that McNeill has looked more lively in the Friday and Saturday practices because he is having to share the first team reps with a big redshirt freshman. "I think it is because King Dunlap is 300-something pounds now," Nall says with a smile. "Really, that is good news about his back improving. He has worked hard, the trainers have worked hard and Yox (Kevin Yoxall) has worked hard on getting him in shape, but mainly that kid has worked hard.
"I know that kid wants to be out there," Nall adds. "There is no doubt in my mind he was hurt last year, but it hurt the team. He has worked hard to get it back right. I am trying to rotate him and King at first team, not giving him as many reps in the early part of practice, to save him."
The second team reps are all going to true freshman Leon Hart, a 6-4, 285-pounder. "Leon needs that," Nall says. "He needs more reps than the other two. He is very talented, but there are lot of things he has got to learn, mainly in run blocking. He has got some real good pass pro fundamentals. He is not as big as he needs to be. He needs another year in the weight room, but he is very talented."
Tuberville singled out Hart and Antwoin Daniels as freshmen offensive linemen who have a chance to play this season.
The Tigers again avoided the normal August heat in their practice that ran nearly three hours on Saturday. To put some strain on the group, Yoxall ran the entire squad in a wind sprint session. McNeill, questionable back and all, showed his athletic ability by leading the way among the linemen.
"As long as we are in one-a-day practices we need to do a little extra," Tuberville says of the extra running. "Right now they are too relaxed. It is not easy, but you need to start finding out who our leaders are before we get into pads."
The Tigers will be back on the practice field on Sunday at 4:30 p.m. and will be in shorts, helmets and shoulder pads. "We will have shells on so we will have more contact," Tuberville says. "You can work on using hands coming off blocks so we can get a little more done."
One thing that the head coach says he can tell from the early practices in shorts is that the wide receivers, as a group, are improved. "Since spring practice, they have made a lot of progress," he says.
Junior wide receiver Devin Aromashodu agrees with the head coach. "I think the receivers as a group are getting more comfortable with our offense and gaining confidence," Aromashodu says. "I feel like I am catching the ball better. I am going to try to stay focused and keep working on getting better.
In other news:
*Tight end signee Korey Raymond has not been academically approved for freshman eligibility, but Tuberville says he is optimistic it will happen later this month. "Korey will not be here until school starts," Tuberville says. "After being out for so many days, we will not have a spot for him on the 105 (roster) so we just have to wait and see what happens. We have decided to go ahead and do everything with the clearinghouse and get him here when school starts (August 18th)."
*Cooper Wallace worked out on the side and didn't participate in the tight end position drills. "It is a tweaked ham, not a pulled hamstring," Tuberville says. "We want to get it completely well before we get him out there and he does something to to pull it all the way."
*Special teams members stayed after the regular practice ended. They will have meetings on Saturday night to go over their assignments.
*Cornerback David Irons dislocated a finger on Saturday, but is expected to practice on Sunday.
*Middle linebacker Kevis Burnam made several nice plays in the skeleton passing drills. He intercepted a pass thrown by Brandon Cox and made an athletic move to deflect another pass. He is running second team at middle linebacker if Travis Williams plays outside and is third team if Williams plays in the middle. Position coach Joe Whitt says that Williams will start, but it is too early to know at which linebacker spot--middle, weakside or strongside. Who starts alongside Williams is still to be determined, Whitt says.
*Auburn's latest verbal football commitment for 2005, running back/defensive back and linebacker Ali Sharrief, made the trip from North Jackson High in Stevenson to watch the practice.
*True freshman tight end Charles Mullen made a very impressive diving catch in the skeleton drills.