In conversations about potential Auburn draftees, they had as much or more to say about the kinds of people they are as the kind athletes they are. And the kind of people they are had as much to do with Auburn going 13-0 last season as did their size, speed and agility.
When a program reaches maturity, the older guys show the younger guys how it's done. First-year defensive coordinator David Gibbs marvels at how hard Auburn players compete. They do that because that's what they've learned from those who came before them.
Almost all college football players believe they play their hardest. But, unless a team is awash with NFL talent, there is another level of effort and commitment that has to be reached to contend for championships. For a few, it comes naturally. But even those players will tell you it's impossible to comprehend what it takes until you've been through it.
That's where good people come in. Young players emulate older players. I've never been around a football coach and staff that put more emphasis on heart and character than does Auburn's. Tuberville really does believe it's his job to help prepare young men for life in the world, not just for football.
Travis Williams, Anatarrious Williams and Kevin Sears learned from Karlos Dansby, Dontarrious Thomas and Mark Brown. The young linebackers waiting their turn will learn from them. Brandon Cox, Calvin Booker and Blake Field learned from Jason Campbell, who learned from Ben Leard. Stanley McClover and Quentin Groves have remarkable ability, but they learned a lot about commitment and playing hard from Bret Eddins, Reggie Torbor and Doug Langenfeld. Tommy Jackson, Josh Thompson and Wayne Dickens learned from DeMarco McNeil and Spencer Johnson. Kenny Irons and Carl Stewart learned from Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown. The list goes on and on.
Senior linebacker Travis Williams and junior defensive end Stanley McClover will be looked to as leaders on the 2005 edition of the Auburn Tigers' defense.
There were good people on Auburn's football team before Tuberville arrived. Few Auburn players have worked harder and overcome adversity than Kendall Simmons. There are a lot of other examples. But there were also some in those years--too many--who led in the wrong direction.
It takes a remarkable amount of discipline and commitment to be a successful college football player while also being a successful college student. Tuberville likes to say that a team is made between spring practice and two-a-days, and there's a lot to that. Nobody will make Auburn players go run plays on the practice field when they return from spring break. They'll do it on their own.
Auburn's 2005 team will have plenty of players with the same kind of character and heart as those who left, players who take it as their duty to lead the way on and off the field like others did before them.
That doesn't mean, of course, that the Tigers will go 13-0 or win a championship of any kind. It will be quite a feat to win another championship a year after losing two running backs who will be drafted in the first round, a quarterback who might be and the nation's best defensive back. It was quite a feat last season to be the best in the nation against scoring a year after losing Dansby, Thomas, Torbor and Johnson to the NFL.
But change is part of college football. For whatever reason, the national pundits don't think Auburn can reload as well as some other teams that also suffered considerable losses. We shall see.
Shortly before leaving for a family spring break vacation, Tuberville said he was pleased with spring practice.
"It went good," he said. "We're going to have a good football team. We have a long way to go to get back to where we were last year, but I expect that's true of a lot of teams. We'll probably have a lot of close games, and how those games go will decide whether we can get back to Atlanta and defend our championship."
The bar has been raised. The 2004 Tigers saw to that. No one realistically expects many 13-0 seasons. Those don't come along often for SEC teams. But expectations are high now, and they should be.