Auburn, Ala.--Based on his play in spring training, one of the more anticipated debuts by a redshirt freshman this season will be the one by tight end Cooper Wallace.
The 6-3, 252-pound redshirt freshman put on a show in the 15 practice days of spring. He caught virtually everything thrown in his direction and used his improved size and strength to do a solid job as a blocker. Head coach Tommy Tuberville says that few, if any players on the offensive side of the football, had a more impressive spring training than Wallace. However, that definitely doesn't translate into a starting job in 2002 or even a lot of playing time.
"Tight end is going to be one of our strengths as a football team," Tuberville notes. "Lorenzo Diamond is one of the few seniors that we have on offense. I think with his leadership and with Robert Johnson's ability, I think these two guys can be two of the best in the conference."
At 6-3, 258 pounds, Diamond looks primed to have his best season. Johnson, a 6-7, 270-pound junior, looks like he will be fully recovered from a wrist injury that plagued him last fall and he also looks set to have his best season. Tuberville says that Diamond and Johnson will battle for the No. 1 spot this fall, but he likes what he has been seeing from Wallace.
Wallace (in blue) works on his blocking in spring drills.
"We found out a lot about Cooper," Tuberville says. "He could play a lot of different positions, but he is going to be very valuable being in the rotation at tight end.
"All three can catch," Tuberville adds. "All three have gotten better at blocking. Then you bring in (freshman) Justin Bruce. We will throw him into the mix as a reporting tight end."
Wallace says he is looking forward to the coming season. "I think for sure I will get the opportunity to play this year," says Wallace. "I don't know if it is going to be the first game, or maybe the third game. I do think that I will get in and Coach (Bobby) Petrino will give me a chance."
Petrino, the new offensive coordinator, says he is impressed with what he saw from young Wallace in the spring. It is no secret around the Tiger football team that Petrino is going to be inclined to put the football into the hands of the tight ends.
Wallace says he has made a lot of strides since arriving at Auburn in the summer of 2001. "I have added about 20 pounds and made big jumps in the weight room and have really improved my overall football knowledge. Also, I feel like I have become part of the team in my year here."
Wallace and teammate Steven Ross, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman, led Christ Presbyterian Academy to a Tennessee state championship their senior seasons. That CPA team was well coached, but the jump to college was a big one for him, Wallace says. "We were a 1A team and our competition wasn't so good so it was kind of a shock coming in where every athlete is really good. Our head coach, David Pack, was really good and he prepared us really well for college."
Pack is also high on Wallace. The coach says, "To describe what kind of an athlete Cooper is, he came in for one play at tailback in the state championship game where there was an equipment problem with our starter. On his first play, he ran 56 yards for a touchdown and showed his speed and athletic ability. He just ran away from them on that touchdown."
This summer, Wallace is continuing to work on improving his strength and speed. He is doing conditioning workouts after attending class in the mornings. He also joins a group of receivers and quarterbacks for several sessions a week throwing and catching in the afternoons.
A theme that has emerged this summer with the Tigers is that the group is expecting improvement on last season's disappointing 7-5 record. Wallace is one of the Tigers with higher expectations. "I think we look better this summer than we did last summer," he says. "I can tell that from just working out and running everyday. We have got to get a quarterback to step up and take the lead, but that is about it."
Wallace, shown in a photo taken this week, has put on 20 pounds since arriving on campus.
Wallace, Ross and their two other redshirt freshmen teammates from Nashville, offensive tackle Taylor Bourgeois and fullback Jake Slaughter, share more than just a common hometown. "We became really good friends the summer before we came to college," Wallace says. "We hang out all of the time. It was a comfort to come here and already know three other guys pretty well. When I was in high school, I didn't know the guys from Brentwood (Slaughter and Bourgeois) too well, but after we graduated we all started working out together."
In high school, Wallace was a versatile three-year starter in football. He played linebacker in addition to tight end and running back. As a senior he ran the ball 44 times with 10 of those carries ending in touchdowns. He netted 475 yards on the ground and caught nine passes for 273 more. He had his most impressive statistics on defense where he contributed 163 tackles, including 18 for losses, to lead CPA to an unbeaten season and its first state title in football.
With Auburn's lack of depth at defensive end, has Tuberville considered moving Wallace to a position where the Tigers must replace three of last season's top four players? "We can't move him and Jay Ratliff from tight end to defensive end," Tuberville tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "We will keep Jay over there, and if something happens, we'll see what happens, but Cooper is going to be valuable to us on offense. We are losing one tight end next year and we are counting on Cooper playing for us this season."
Tiger Ticket Extra: Wallace's brother, David, started at Vanderbilt as a quarterback in football before deciding to concentrate on baseball, where he was a starter at catcher...Cooper earned All-State honors in two sports. He was an outstanding midfielder in soccer, which helps explain his excellent footwork on the gridiron. He had college scholarship offers in that sport, too, and helped CPA to a state title in soccer...Wallace was recruited to Auburn by former offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, who is now a running backs and special teams coach at Oregon State. Mazzone also recruited Bourgeois, Ross and Slaughter. Last season and this past spring, Wallace was coached by graduate assistant Tony Levine, who is also gone. Levine got an offer as a full-time coach at Louisiana Tech, where he is coaching tight ends and special teams. This season Steve Dennis, a former secondary coach at Auburn under Pat Dye, is expected to handle the tight end coaching duties as a graduate assistant coach...Wallace was a four-year letterman at CPA in football and earned All-State status as a junior and senior. He was a finalist for the Mr. Football Award his senior season...In his first game as a running back in high school, Wallace was filling in due to injuries, but he had been hurt himself. He had a cast on his hand removed the week of the game, but produced 185 rushing yards and three touchdowns in that performance.