Auburn, Ala.--A lack of healthy tackles was a big headache for the 2001 Auburn defense. The hangover from those problems will continue to bother the 2002 football Tigers, at least in spring training.
And because that is the case, Don Dunn is not a real happy defensive tackles coach as the Tigers prepare for the March 1st start of spring training.
DeMarco McNeil is questionable for spring practice.
The top player in this group, junior DeMarco McNeil, gutted his way through his sophomore season on a bad knee that required postseason surgery. He missed many practices and did not have his quick bursts that were his trademark as as a freshman. McNeil and fellow junior Spencer Johnson are projected to be the starters again this fall if they can get healthy.
Another injured player, junior Marcus White, is expected to move to offensive tackle this spring if he is cleared to play by team doctors. White missed the last month and a half of the 2001 season due to a freak neck injury when he was kicked while trying to make a tackle in a practice drill.
"I don't think DeMarco will be able to do anything this spring and Spencer is going to be limited in what he can do," Dunn tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "We are going to really work Dante Booker and Wayne Dickens. Those two guys have really got to step up. We have got to get those guys ready to play in the fall. They will be backed up by Dexter Murphy and Ronald Samuel and, really, that is about it."
McNeil is a 6-1, 303-pounder who was a Freshman All-America pick in 1999. He is expected to be the No. 1 noseguard in new defensive coordinator Gene Chizik's alignment. McNeil's total tackles dropped from 67 as a freshman to 33 as a sophomore.
Spencer Johnson will be a junior this fall.
Johnson made 28 tackles as a freshman and improved that total to 48, but didn't have the kind of season he was expecting due to knee and rib injuries. He missed three games and was limited in others.
Booker, a late signee last summer who transferred from junior college, is a 6-3, 273-pound senior this year. Dunn is challenging him to play better. "Dante just needs to be more in tune with what we are doing," Dunn says. "He needs more football savvy. He has got all of the physical ability he needs.
Booker makes a tackle vs. Ball State.
"He is probably one of the strongest guys on the team," Dunn notes. "He just needs to learn how to play football. I know that sounds crazy, but he needs to know how to go 100 percent every play, every rep. He needs to know what his responsibilities are and turn his motor up 100 percent. He hadn't played a lot of football before he came here and he was an end who we moved to tackle. He has got all of the physical ability. He will be a nose (noseguard), but you will seeing him playing both positions."
Johnson, a high school linebacker, is still learning how to be a down lineman, Dunn says. "Spencer needs to improve his technique. He needs to improve his pass rush and get used to carrying that amount of weight. I think he struggled a bit last year going from 240 to 280 pounds. There is a difference. He needs to become more consistent and stay healthy. What is so frustrating is that Spencer and DeMarco are not healthy. They are just banged up. They are missing a lot of winter workouts and they will be missing spring ball when they need to be there."
Dickens is 6-1, 282-pound redshirt freshman from Lakeland, Fla., who was one of the most heavily recruited prospects in the South in the 2001 signee class. "Wayne is a player who I am excited about because he is so young and strong," Dunn says. "He needs to learn the tempo of SEC football. I am anxious to see him. I understand he is doing real well in the weight room with his lifts. He has done a good job in the morning conditioning.
"Wayne just needs to let it loose and see what he can do in the spring," his coach adds. "He is a young, young player. I am going to give him a ton of reps in the spring. Right now, going into the fall, he would probably be my first guy going in behind DeMarco and Spencer. Then I would have Dante, also, and that would be four pretty solid players with some size."
Murphy, who will be a junior this fall, is a 6-2, 268-pounder who has steadily gained weight since arriving as an undersized defensive lineman. "Dexter is going to be a try-hard kid," Dunn says. "He is trying to gain weight. That is his biggest problem. He gives great effort and we are going to keep working him at tackle. He is banged up, too. He has been in an orange shirt throughout conditioning so I have got three players who have been hurt. His shoulder and his wrist are bothering him. He is just beat up from a lot of contact in practice and games last year."
Dexter Murphy is trying to get well.
The only other scholarship defensive tackle, Samuel, is a 6-3, 271-pounder who is a redshirt sophomore. He was moved to defense last year at the same time that former defensive tackle Nate French was moved to offense. French is now challenging for a starting spot at offensive guard. Samuel has not challenged much of anybody, much to Dunn's dismay.
"Ronald Samuel is a young man who is going to have to make vast improvement," the defensive tackles coach says. "He needs to become a better football player all the way around. I expect him to know a little bit more this year. It is not a new position to him anymore. There is a lot riding on this spring for him, Dante and Dexter. They have to prove to me that I can have the confidence to put them into games."
Ronald Samuel (77) runs a drill vs. walk-on tackle Rich Trucks.
Tiger Ticket Extra: Thomas Campbell, a 6-2, 268 true freshman, is the only walk-on defensive tackle on the team. Dunn says, "All I know about him is that he is a hard-nosed kid who tries hard, but he is a true walk-on who is green as a gourd. I don't know anything about him other than he is from Starkville, Miss. I need to get some more good kids in here. We need to get Tommy Jackson, Timmy Duckworth and Doug Morris in school ready to go. It is going to be down to the wire with Timmy Duckworth. It is just a shame he got behind early (with his academics)." Duckworth is a 6-4, 295-pound signee from Taylorsville, Miss., High, Jackson is 6-1, 292 from Opelika High and Morris is 6-4, 270 from Woodham High in Pensacola, Fla... Junior Marcus White (No. 99), who played defensive tackle last season, started six games as a freshman and made five tackles. He started four times as a sophomore and made 11 tackles. Auburn coaches have decided he is more suited to offense and are moving him to that side of the ball if can get a clean bill of health with his neck injury. Tommy Tuberville says that White was solid on defense, but has a chance to be much better than that on offense. The head coach says that White has pro potential as an offensive lineman if he dedicates himself to being a star at offensive tackle.
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