Two Tigers Stand Out In Sunday Football Practice

One offensive player and one defensive player, both potential key performers for the 2002 Auburn football team, were impressive during Sunday's workout.

A player who could be a key to offensive success stepped up with an impressive practice on Sunday, the second of 15 spring sessions for the Auburn football Tigers.

Talented but too often injured Robert Johnson showed new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino what type of weapon he can be this fall. The six-foot-six-inch 265-pounder was catching short balls, intermediate routes and showing the speed to get deep, too.

The Tigers practiced in temperatures that dropped into the 20s on Sunday. Much of the time was spent on team drills. Shown are defensive end Steven Bouldin (48), linebacker Mayo Sowell (57) and strong safety Rashaud Walker (37).

Head coach Tommy Tuberville, who spent most of the 2 1/2-hour practice session watching the quarterbacks and linebackers, said that it was good to see the big tight end step up and put on a show.

"Robert is starting to become a leader for us, too," Tuberville said. "He is a guy who is going to really have to play well for us to be successful. He has a young guy behind him, Cooper Wallace), and I think Cooper is going to help both Robert and Lorenzo Diamond .

"Robert has not reached his potential," Tuberville added. "He has stayed injured. Everytime he has been injured, it has normally been on special teams so next season he is going to have a year to play tight. We are not going to play him much on special teams because we are going to have more depth. He needs to have a good year. He has the ability. We just have to get him in the right place and get the ball to him more."

Johnson said it feels good to be back on the practice field and healthy enough to contribute. "I have been working hard in winter workouts. Getting back to practice is what we have been waiting on as a team. We have some changes with players moving from one position to another. We have got the mindset as a team to go out there and give it all we have got this year to see what we can do.

Junior tight end Robert Johnson

"Me, personally, I am looking forward to putting the full pads on Tuesday. I have been practicing real well and hope to continue to practice that way. The Lord has been blessing me. I still have my little wrist injury (a screw was inserted into a bone to stabilize the problem), but I am pushing through that and I am catching the ball now. I am focusing on it more. It is healing real well now and I can do everything I need to do."

Johnson said that new offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino is installing an offense that should be exciting for the tight ends. "It is set up to protect against the blitz. To do that, we (the tight ends) are going out on a lot of different routes. Everything is opening up for us now, a lot more than it was last year. We can see that by how many balls we are catching at practice. This is something that we have been looking forward to.

"Hopefully, the tight ends can be go-to guys this year. We have some good receivers and quarterbacks who can do the job. We are just looking forward to getting better as an offense and getting ready for the A-Day Game and the season next fall."

Johnson towers over most defensive backs and Petrino has been having his cornerbacks throw long passes to Rojo. "I love those deep routes," Johnson said with a gleam in his eyes. "That allows me a chance to get one on one with those small cornerbacks and safeties."

While Johnson stood out on defense Sunday, another player who was limited by injuries last fall won praise for his work on defense. Senior cornerback Horace Willis took advantage of the absence of Carlos Rogers, who was held out of Sunday's practice in helmets and sweat clothes with a hamstring pull. Full pads are not allowed until practice three, which starts at 3 p.m. on Tuesday.

When defensive coordinator Gene Chizik challenged his cornerbacks to step up and make some plays against the tight ends and wide receivers on a cold and windy Sunday, nobody did a better job that the 6-0, 201-pound Willis.

Senior cornerback Horace Willis

"Horace is a lot more relaxed," Tuberville said. "Horace didn't have a chance to go through spring practice last year. Junior college players, when they don't through spring, are really not much help to your offense or defense. The first year they can help with special teams. He is catching on and now we have moved T-Rob (Travaris Robinson) to safety where he can get more reps."

Willis, who suffered through a series of injuries last year, was smiling after practice. "Things are going good--real good," he told Inside the Auburn Tigers. "It has been a good offseason. I have gotten stronger in the weight room and have gotten over the injuries that bothered me last year.

"I felt like I had a really good day out there, but I had a couple of slip-ups, too, so there is plenty of room to get better." Willis will have plenty of opportunities to improve this week with practices scheduled for Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and there is a scrimmage planned on Saturday. Last Saturday's planned practice was postponed due to heavy rain.

Roshard Gilyard (3) and Rashaud Walker (37) participate in a new pass coverage drill installed by Gene Chizik.

Tiger Ticket Extra: Redshirt freshman tight end Cooper Wallace continues to show why the coaching staff had no reluctance in moving Jay Ratliff from tight end to defensive end, where he is helping at a position critically short on players. It is debatable if any other tight end or wideout has better hands than Wallace, who is up to 6-3, 252 pounds...Tuberville went out of his way to twice praise Ratliff for good work in Sunday's practice...Auburn defensive end signee Ben Grubbs was among the interested spectators at the first practice of the spring on Friday. Grubbs is expected to have a chance to play immediately this fall for the Tigers after a standout career at Elmore County High in Eclectic where he had 150 tackles last fall as a linebacker...More than 200 high school junior football prospects were scheduled to watch Saturday's rained out practice. Auburn coaches were expecting the bad weather would have kept all but a handful from attending, however, there were more than 150 who showed up Saturday despite the nasty weather. Included in the group of visitors was the player who may be the South's most heavily recruited prospect this year, running back Ernie Simms III from North Florida Christian in Tallahassee, Fla. The 6-1, 225-pounder has been clocked at 4.48 in the 40.

Ernie Simms, III

As a junior, he averaged 9.6 yards per carry and scored 17 touchdowns on 82 runs and added 164 tackles and 12 sacks as a linebacker. FSU, Florida, Miami, Auburn, Tennessee, Georgia, Southern Cal, LSU and Alabama are on his early list...New offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Bobby Petrino has installed a net on southwest corner of the football practice fields with target areas for the QBs to work on their passing accuracy.

Marcel Willis is healthy again after being slowed by an ankle injury last fall. He is shown at Sunday's practice. New defensive coordinator Gene Chizik is shown (far left).

More Tiger Ticket Extra: Tuberville said the Tigers will continue to work heavily in the weight room through spring drills. The head coach sounded please with the new facility that opened in January. "All of our guys are getting stronger. We lift as hard during spring practice as we do during spring practice. They will continue to work in the weight room. The new weight room is really working out great. I think anytime you have something like that to work in, it really makes things a lot easier for the players and the coaches."...After practice, Tuberville said, "We had a really good day, especially considering the weather. It was really cold, but I thought our players did a good job of keeping their concentration," Tuberville said. "We did more team work today in our second day without pads.The players are excited about the things we're putting in. Everybody is bouncing around and spirits are high. The coach added, "We'll put pads on Tuesday. You can't get better unless you put pad versus pad. We'll start with light contact and work through to a little bit more heavier contact through practice. This week will be a big week for us. We'll be halfway through spring practice at this time next week. We have a lot of work to do. We have enough in that we can work on it for a couple of days before having a scrimmage on Saturday."...Karlos Dansby is picking up where he left off in the bowl game. The junior linebacker had two interceptions. On one, he lateraled to a teammate as he was being tackled on a return. Sophomore cornerback Junior Rosegreen also made an interception in the drills pitting the receivers vs.the linebackers/secondary...More than a few wide receivers slipped while trying to make cuts on Sunday. The field was still wet from heavy rains on Friday night and Saturday.

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