"The coaches have a much harder job trying to keep everybody humble," offensive tackle Marcus McNeill says. "You can really see them out there getting on people a lot earlier. If anything they're trying to make sure we lose that 13-0 season and try to come back ready. We're trying to take the momentum from that season, but all the big heads we're trying to get rid of quick. That can really affect our play the first game."
McNeill is one of the top offensive tackles in the nation and is expected to be a high draft choice in the NFL next year.
While the memories from last season's accomplishments are fading for this year's team as the Tigers head into a new schedule, the memories of how it felt and why it happened are still at the surface. McNeill says those are memories that this Auburn team needs to keep as it heads into a tough opener against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets on Sept. 3.
"You've got to have a certain level of confidence," McNeill says. "You should never go anywhere expecting not to win. We think we can play with anybody right now. As long as we practice hard I don't see why we can't reach the same level we did last year."
To reach the plateau of the elite once again the Tigers must replace a load of talent on both sides of the ball, but just as importantly they must replace emotional leaders on both offense and defense. That means players like McNeill must take a step forward and become guides both on and off the field for younger teammates, a role he says he's ready to take on in 2005.
"We had a great leader in Jason Campbell last year at the quarterback position," McNeill notes. "You have to be a leader at the quarterback position and he was a great leader. It's kind of hard trying to take that role on as an offensive tackle, but at the same time it has to be done. Brandon Cox is going to be a great leader in the huddle, but at the same time I have to help him along because he's a young guy.
"I'm going to be vocal," McNeill adds. "I'm going to be more positive, not ride you like the coaches do because I know that's what coaches do. They're going to ride you. I try to make sure I show you the right steps, especially for an offensive lineman. At the same time I want to give you a pat on the butt when you do something good to raise your confidence. All our backs and quarterbacks need that right now."
That leadership role began in winter conditioning and in summer workout sessions where it was only the players working on learning and improving in the offense. On Tuesday and Thursday afternoons the players would get together on the practice fields and the linemen would work on pass protections and calls under the direction of McNeill and fellow seniors Troy Reddick and Steven Ross. At the same time the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers worked on executing the offense and timing.
McNeill says that working all summer on the offense has allowed the unit to come into fall camp ready to pick up where things left off last year.
"That really solidified a lot of things," McNeill says of the summer. "It really bonds us and gels us as a unit."
The big lineman and his teammates won't be on the practice field on Monday, but will be back for two workouts on Tuesday as they begin the second week of preseason drills.