Heading into Saturday's annual A-Day spring game, three defensive linemen have not only improved their level of play, but are developing into key components for next season's defensive front.
Coming in to Auburn with stellar reputations for their exploits on the football field in high school, Octavious Balkcom, Tez Doolittle and Pat Sims were all expected to be prospects who had a chance to contribute early in college. Two years removed from joining the program none have made an impact on defense to any extent, but that appears to be changing for the good this spring and at no time was that more apparent than in last Saturday's scrimmage.
Balkcom has been a major surprise at defensive end since spring drills began.
Despite the total numbers the offense put up in the 147-play scrimmage, it was once again easy to see that all three players have improved dramatically since last season. For Balkcom and Doolittle the change has been more steady after time spent working with the defense last season.
Sims' story is a little different. After problems caused him to give up the game last season, he asked for a second chance and returned to the team this winter and has been a model player this spring.
Saturday the trio combined for 18 tackles, four sacks and seven and a half tackles for losses for their best performances since they've been at Auburn. For Balkcom the day was especially good. Playing a great deal, he had three sacks and pressured the quarterback all day. He said that the day was just part of a process for him as he tries to become a better player heading into 2006.
"I tried to go as hard as I could go and go hard every play," Balkcom says. "I just come in with the mentality of trying to get better each day. That's all I can do."
For Sims and Doolittle the change has been more sudden. While Balkcom has shown flashes of what he can do in the past but been limited by injuries, neither tackle had shown much in the way of the kind of effort and consistency needed to be successful at Auburn. That has changed in a big way this spring after a rough year in 2005. For Sims coming back and proving himself has been his goal this spring.
Much of the proof has come by not only his play on the field, but his commitment to doing right off the field. That means attending meetings, workouts and other obligations. Still, it has been his play on the field that has pushed him into the playing rotation this spring. One area he has improved is toughness and that showed Saturday as he played through a sprained knee and still had a good day.
"I played well in the first half," Sims says. "I tweaked my (left) knee early, but I came back and gave it my all. It's not 100 percent right now, but I go out and do what I can do. At first I was getting all of my reps with the ones. Then I moved back down to the twos after I got hurt."
Defensive lineman Tez Doolittle has shown an improvement in toughness and technique this spring.
Fighting through injuries has been the name of the game for Doolittle. A fullback and defensive line prospect coming out of Opelika High, Doolittle was moved to the defensive line because of his combination of size, quickness and strength. While the move looked like it should pay dividends early for the Tigers, an injury to his knee kept him banged up early in 2005. He finally got healthy towards the end of the season and finished by playing in eight games as a sophomore.
Then the injury bug bit again. Practicing for the Capital One Bowl in Orlando, Doolittle dislocated his kneecap for the second time in less than two years. Already with one surgery under his belt to fix the problem, Doolittle is trying to get back to full speed this spring and play through the discomfort. Although it's easy to see he's not close to full speed, he had made strides and is playing his best football at the moment.
" I'm improving, but I'm only about 70 percent trying to fight through it," Doolittle notes. "On a few plays (in the scrimmage) they got the best of me because I'm not 100 percent. On some of the double teams they pancaked me because I can't put any pressure on my leg (left knee)."
Gradually improving day by day, the development of the trio of linemen could be a big key for the Tigers next season as they don't have an off-week in the 12-game schedule. Depth will be a key and with Josh Thompson firmly entrenched at the noseguard position as well as Marquies Gunn and Quentin Groves at end, Auburn has a solid foundation to build on in 2006.