With starter Lorenzo Diamond returning along with reserves Robert Johnson and Jay Ratliff, the position looks to be a solid one for position coach Tony Levine and the offensive staff. Add in talented redshirt freshman Cooper Wallace and you get perhaps the most talented group of tight ends to grace the Auburn campus since the days of Jeff Parks, Walter Reeves, Lee Mark Sellers and Ron Middleton in the mid to late 1980s.
"First and foremost we're looking for guys that can learn the offense," Levine says. "A big part of this offense is being fundamentally sound--technique sound--and we have to find out which players can make that progression this spring."
Diamond and Johnson enjoy a light moment with head coach Tommy Tuberville during a practice last fall.
This spring will be a learning one for the tight ends just like everyone on the Auburn team. Getting acquainted with new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino will be the main focus and that's what the group has to look forward to beginning March 1 when spring practice begins.
A fixture in the Auburn lineup since he was a redshirt freshman, Diamond heads into his final spring training as the old man of the offensive unit. Undersized coming out of high school, the Biloxi, Miss., native has firmly entrenched himself in the lineup due to his hard work and perseverance the last three seasons. Now weighing more 250 pounds, he has become a solid blocker in the running game and a clutch receiver. Last season he had 10 catches for 105 yards and one touchdown, but came up big when needed most. In Auburn's upset win over the top-ranked Florida Gators, Diamond had two catches for 36 yards, including a clutch grab on the game-winning drive. His leadership and experience should help the tight end group transition to the new offense of Petrino.
"Lorenzo has been a very good player for us, but just needs to be more consistent," Levine notes. "That's what we're looking for out of him this spring."
While Diamond has been a constant in the Auburn lineup since he first stepped on the field, the same can't be said for Johnson. An imposing specimen of a football player at 6-6, 270, Johnson has batted injuries for much of two seasons on the Plains. That continues this spring as he will participate in practice after having surgery on a broken wrist suffered late last season.
"He's got to show more toughness," Levine says of Johnson. "He's going to go through spring with a soft cast on his wrist and it's crucial that he shows he can get the job done and play through injury."
Despite missing all or most of four games with injuries and playing in a cast in three others, he still finished third on the team with 17 receptions for 225 yards and tied for the team lead with three touchdowns. His absence this spring will give two younger players a chance to really step forward in the race for playing time.
Jay Ratliff is expected to see increased playing time this season for the Tigers on either offense or defense.
One of those players is Ratliff. The big sophomore from Valdosta, Ga., has shown flashes of brilliance since he arrived on campus last fall from Hargrave Military Academy. With the size and speed to be a dominant force at the position, Ratliff was used mainly as a blocker last fall with his playing time limited to backing up Diamond and Johnson for much of the year. He did manage to catch two passes for 20 yards and looks to improve on those numbers greatly next fall. His progression towards that goal begins this spring as does another youngster.
Ratliff spent part of his practice time as a redshirt freshman at defensive end. As Tommy Tuberville and staff make preparations for spring drills, they are discussing the wisdom of moving the sophomore to the other side of the football.
Perhaps no other redshirt stood out as much as Wallace last season on the practice field. Known for his quick feet coming out of high school, the Nashville native earned his stripes last fall by becoming a very physical blocker and pass receiver on the scout teams. At 6-3, 240 pounds, an off-season has given Wallace a chance to grow into the position and that could be a very dangerous thing for opposing defenses in the coming years.
Cooper Wallace could be the surprise of the 2001 signing class.
"Cooper Wallace is going to get a chance to show what he can do," Levine says. "He has a great opportunity. The defensive coaches said he did everything they asked last year on the scout team and I expect him to carry that over this spring for us."
While an outstanding receiver class waits in the wings to play this coming fall, this spring the position will be manned by few scholarship players or players with experience. That means the tight ends will get more than a passing glance in the throwing game under Petrino. The time spent this spring developing that relationship should carry into the fall and once again make the tight end a vital part of the Auburn offense.
Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of articles previewing spring football practice.
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