2006 Spring Football Preview: Offensive Line

Editor's Note: This is the sixth in a series of articles previewing spring football practice at Auburn.

Auburn, Ala.--With the losses of starting tackles Marcus McNeill and Troy Reddick, the play of the offensive line, and in particular the tackle position, will be perhaps the most watched of any when the Auburn Tigers open spring practice Feb. 28.

Two of the most important positions in an offense like offensive coordinator Al Borges runs at Auburn, the tackles are required to protect the quarterback in pass rush situations and also called upon to pull on certain plays. That requires not only an intelligent player, but one who is strong enough to take on pass rushers and also athletic enough to turn the corner in front of a ball carrier.

This spring Leon Hart and King Dunlap will get the chance to show Nall that they have all the tools to get the job done for the Tigers in 2006.

Leon Hart will be a junior this fall.

"There's no doubt that will be the biggest question mark going in," Nall says. "Both the right tackle and left tackle position will be new. We've got Leon at right tackle and King at left tackle. They got some playing time last year. Based on what I saw they certainly have a lot of room to improve, but they did some good things. They've just got to make sure that the good things are outweighing any of the bad things. The backups will probably be Antwoin Daniels at right tackle and Oscar Gonzalez at left tackle. Those two definitely have to come on."

Although they weren't full-time starters last season, both Hart and Dunlap got a good amount of playing time in backup roles. Hart did start one game at Kentucky, but it was at right guard. In his only career start Hart earned SEC Lineman of the Week honors for his performance against the Wildcats. Nall says that getting the two players on the field as much as possible last season should only help their progression as starters.

"It has to have helped a bunch because they get into game-like situations in the bowl game and different games throughout the year," Nall says. "There's nothing you can do in a practice to give them game-like experiences. It has to come in game situations. They've gotten a start and they've been there. I'm sure they'll be nervous that first game, but it's not like it's totally new to them."

Dunlap (77) and Ben Grubbs (69) are expected to be two of Auburn's starters next season.

In addition to the battles at the tackle position, the job of starting center will also be up for grabs with returning starters Joe Cope and Jonathan Palmer back to battle for the spot. Because of a minor surgery procedure to a returning starter, Cope is likely to get much of the work in the spring. Nall says that although Palmer won't see much action at center in the spring he's going remain in the competition for the starting spot because of his play last season.

"We might even try Jonathan Palmer out at right tackle some, but I really feel like he'll be in a role early, until we get Timmy Duckworth back full speed, at starting right guard. Then he'll be in competition for the starting center (with Joe Cope).

"Going back and watching the film when he came in against Georgia and then when he played against Alabama, he played really well at center. He did some good things. I think it will be a pretty good battle there. I think that will be the second question answered, but maybe that's the first question and then the tackle position is after that."

Cope started 12 of Auburn's 13 games last season at center.

At guard the Tigers look verey solid with Duckworth and Ben Grubbs returning for their senior seasons. Two players projected to be NFL prospects following 2006, the duo started all but one game last season and were two of the better interior linemen in the SEC.

Nall says that behind them are several Tigers that he feels like have the talent to be good players with some extra practice time this spring.

"I feel good about Duck coming back and having a year under his belt and also Ben coming back and having a couple of years under his belt. Tyronne Green at left guard really played well the times he was in there. He has a whole year under his belt going into spring practice. He's very, very athletic. Hopefully, he'll see more playing time next year.

"We moved Nathan Farrow over and I think he'll be in the mix at right guard. He's very athletic and talented and smart. You have Jason Bosley, too, and with Duck out he'll probably be the number two center going into the spring with J.P. (Palmer) rotating in there some."

A happy Palmer is all smiles following a win over Georgia last season.

In the spring the Tigers will have 15 practice days to solidify the play on the offensive line. While he's looking for footwork, knowledge of the offense and finishing blocks, Nall is also looking for the five guys who work together. In the end he said that's the most important thing an offensive line can do to improve their play as a group.

"To me that gives you a solid core," the offensive line coach says. "I'm big on all five of those guys having to play together and that chemistry really has to build. They would have played next to each other a little bit, but that group of five as a whole has not played one snap together really. It's a whole new world, so hopefully we can start early with limited mistakes and get better as the year goes on. If they'll play to their capability I think we'll have the chance to have an okay offensive line."

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