Auburn, Ala.--With Kendall Simmons and Mike Pucillo hoping to make a living playing their sport in the National Football League, Auburn has some big shoes to fill in spring drills.
Throw in the loss of two-year starter Hart McGarry, and it is obvious that Hugh Nall will be one of the busiest positions coaches for the 15 practice days of spring training 2002.
Walk-on Rich Trucks has an opportunity to earn playing time this season.
With a new offensive coordinator directing traffic this spring, there will no longer be right guards, left guards, right tackles and left tackles. In Bobby Petrino's system Nall will be coaching weak guards, weak tackles, strong guards and strong tackles. In a base formation, the weak guard and weak tackle plays on the side of the formation without a tight end.
"To start the spring, the No. 1 weak guard is Nate French," Nall says. "There are a lot of questions as to who it will be when we open the season. Nate being number one is based on him continuing to develop and learn the new system and his execution on the field.
"I think David Walker is a real bright spot somewhere at either guard--weak or strong. He has athletic ability and he's got some toughness about him, He is going to have to have some consistency. Of course, consistency is going to be the deal with the whole group because of its lack of experience. David will start out at the weak guard and can definitely move to the strong guard if need be."
French is a 6-1, 311-pound redshirt sophomore who was a defensive tackle at this time last year. He made the move to offense last year when Ronald Samuel was switched to defense. Despite a major setback with a serious ankle and foot injury suffered in a summer pickup basketball game that kept him sidelined for the first half of the 2001 season, this is a move that looks like it could pay major dividends.
Walker was recruited out of high school to play offense. He spent last fall learning the system as a redshirt. He is expected to weigh in at 311 pounds on his six-foot-two inch frame. Junior Steve Goula will also line up at the weak guard spot and is third on the depth chart there.
Monreko Crittenden blocks against Alton Moore in practice last season.
Monreko Crittenden is moving inside from tackle where he started last fall to the strong guard spot to take advantage of his sheer power and to keep his less than nimble feet from being exposed on the corner vs. quick defensive ends and linebackers. The 6-5 junior is expected to play in the 350-pound range this season.
Taylor Bourgeois, a promising 6-5, 310-pound redshirt freshman, is expected to get a look at strong guard and elsewhere when he returns to action in August. Bourgeois is missing spring drills while recovering from shoulder surgery. More depth at the position comes from 6-2, 284 senior walk-on Ryan Hockett, a former defensive lineman.
"I don't know if Bourgeois is going to play guard or tackle," Nall says. "We have got to see what he can do. Anytime you have got a big kid with athletic ability you want to give him a look at both positions and I think Bourgeois has the ability to play both. With the players we signed who are coming in this August, I see Bourgeois probably being a guard, but I don't know that yet. The main thing we've got to do is get him back healthy."
Taylor Bourgeois (63) blocks against Dante Booker in a practice drill.
Lining up at weak tackle, improving redshirt sophomore Ryan Broome starts the spring as the number one contender. If he doesn't move inside to guard, Ross could also be in the mix at the position.
Ryan Broome (right) is looking to make a move for playing time this spring.
Head coach Tommy Tuberville says he plans to carefully watch Broome this spring. "He played well in his role in the junior varsity game," Tuberville says. "He has the opportunity to be an excellent football player. He has a lot to learn playing the position. He only played one year of high school football." Tuberville notes that Ross is another young lineman he will keep an eye on in the spring as the redshirt freshman gets a look at two positions.
At the strong tackle position, junior Mark Pera has recovered from mononucleosis and will be tough to keep out of the starting lineup if he stays healthy. The 6-6, 312-pound junior is backed up by big walk-on Rich Trucks, who has trimmed down to 6-8, 319 pounds. "Trucks is a great kid who will give you a lot of work, and a lot of help, and continues to get better every day," Nall says. Nall says that Crittenden could also get some work at this position.
Marcus White was going to get a look at offensive tackle, but is giving up football due to his neck injury.
Marcus White was going to be a wildcard in the mix at weak tackle. The junior-to-be played exclusively on defense his first two seasons in college. White was recovering from a freak practice injury to his neck that kept him sidelined the last month of the season. He made the decision this week to give up football and has been put on medical hardship redshirt.
Nall had planned to look at White as a weakside tackle. With White giving up football, that makes it less likely that 6-5, 272 junior Steven Ross will move to center.
"Whoever starts showing up being the starting center would get limited reps and then we would work a lot with the two younger centers. I know I'm going to have a starting center, but I want two really good backup centers, whoever that would be. If it's Jeremy Ingle and Danny Lindsey, or if it's Danny Lindsey and Steven Ross or Ben Nowland and Jeremy Ingle, whoever it is. That is what I'd like to be able to do."
Walk-ons include a former high school quarterback, 6-5, 274-pound redshirt freshman Drew Kirk from Woodbury, Ga., who will get a look at both tackle spots. Nall says that Kirk moves well. Rhett Autry, a 6-4, 273 redshirt freshman, will get a look at guard and tackle, Nall says because he "has athletic ability and toughness."
Josh Barlow, a 6-1, 277-pound true freshman from Trussville, just joined the team. "I really don't know much about Josh because he hasn't been out there so I'll have to evaluate him in the spring," Nall says. "Size-wise, he looks like he'd be more of a center-guard type than a tackle. He doesn't have the height that you want in a tackle."
Nall says he is excited about the 2002 recruiting class that includes four offensive linemen, including a trio of players he plans to look at as serious candidates for early playing time at tackle–Jonathan Palmer, Marcus McNeill and Troy Reddick.
However, what happens in spring drills is of much more immediate concern with a road test at Southern Cal as the season opener. "I think the main thing to do is to determine who that first group is this spring as soon as possible and to try to keep them together," Nall says.
"The beauty of our situation is I should have a two-deep that should have a chance to be pretty good. I will try to get them as much work as possible. In the fall, I should definitely have a two-deep depending on how this group does and how the kids that come in do.
"I'm big on playing complete units," Nall adds. "My goal at Auburn University one day is to have an A group and a B group. And we ought to be able to do that at some point in time.
"It's no different than a surgical team in an operating room. You know, if you've got a whole bunch of different folks every day in every operation there's going to be some camaraderie that's not there, some communication that's not there, some understanding that's not there. I would like to be able to keep an A Group and a B Group together--Group 1A, 1-B, however you want to say it and whoever plays the best is going to start that next week. Now I know that's a utopia, but that's what I'd like to be able to do. And we're at Auburn University so, at some point in time, we ought to be able to get to that.
"I certainly think we are headed in the right direction with this last recruiting class," Nall adds. "We've got some athletic ability. It's just going to be how they come on with the new system. There is a lot of new terminology. There are a lot of similar schemes, but there is new terminology. So the main thing this spring is finding the first unit that can fit into that system and get the job done with the continuity, the communication and the execution of the offense. After finding our first five guys, then we start trying to find as many backups as we can so we can this offense run like we want it run."
Mark Pera will be counted on as a junior this fall.