Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn Tigers opened preseason practice on Tuesday with a long practice in shorts and helmets as they got the first of 29 scheduled workouts in the books before the season opener against Washington State. While many questions have to be answered before they take the field, perhaps the biggest is at linebacker where projected starter Tray Blackmon and senior Kevin Sears will both miss an undetermined amount of games this season following their suspension by Coach Tommy Tuberville.
That means that Coach James Willis has his work cut out for him trying to get the young players up to speed in time to face a powerful Washington State offense. Wednesday the first team defense had seniors Will Herring on the strong side and Karibi Dede in the middle flanked by sophomore Merrill Johnson. Other players such as Steve Gandy, Chris Evans and Courtney Harden worked with the first unit at times as well.
Thought to have the inside track to the top spot heading into the spring, the 6-0, 208 Johnson suffered an injury that kept him out of the majority of the action and allowed Blackmon to earn first-team status. With Blackmon now out Johnson said it's time for him to step back up and take over the position.
"If you get injured then the next man steps up," Johnson said. "That's how it is, it's a business and that's what we do. Now I'm back at number one. I'm just there trying to hold it."
A solid contributor and a player that has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years at Auburn, Johnson isn't the big, physical linebacker that the coaches have been looking for but that doesn't matter to him. Johnson said that having the opportunity to be a starter has made him realize he'll do whatever it takes to get the job done.
"It pushes you to do your best and step up," Johnson said. "It's going to push us to compete, work harder and try to take care of business."
Linebacker Courtney Harden gets instruction from position Coach James Willis.
As for the claims reported by ESPN on Wednesday that both Sears and Blackmon would be suspended the first three games of the season, Coach Tommy Tuberville disputed those claims and again stated that the punishment hasn't been decided for the pair.
"Nay," Tuberville answered when asked if ESPN had the story correct. "I don't know what they're talking about and neither do they. They're wrong, I haven't made my mind up yet."
Sears said that whatever comes his way he'll deal with it because it could have been avoided. "I really don't know what the punishment is so I don't know if it's fair or if it isn't," Sears said. "I have to take what they give me. I can't be picky. I made the mistake."
With a full squad on the field after both Jermarcus Ricks and Darrell Roseman were cleared by the President Ed Richardson and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive to participate, the Tigers went through a very spirited two-hour practice on Wednesday that Tuberville said gave him a glimpse of the kind of athletes he has on the field starting his 30th year of coaching.
"It was a good start," Tuberville said. "There were a lot of nervous guys out here. We looked sharp and we're going to push them hard the next three or four days. We probably had seven or eight guys miss because of classes. The next few days we'll go in shorts and helmets and try to find out about some of these young guys. We'll put our base stuff in and go from there."
Some of the young guys didn't disappoint, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. While quarterbacks Steven Ensminger and Neil Caudle struggled at times with the speed of the game and tempo, receivers Tim Hawthorne and Terrell Zachery as well as running back Mario Fannin all showed they have the talent to play on this level.
"I watched Mario Fannin," Tuberville said. "I have heard a lot about him and Tim Hawthorne. It's a lot easier to watch offensive young guys than defensive young guys. I watched them a bit but we'll go back and look at them on film and see a little bit more of them. They looked good in shorts. That's a long way from pads."
Tim Hawthorne tucks away a reception during Wednesday's practice.
Offensive coordinator Al Borges echoed the thoughts of Tuberville. After putting his guys through the paces on Wednesday the third-year coordinator said that he definitely saw some talent on display and now they just have to learn what they're doing on the field.
"We've got some talent which is kind of nice," Borges said. "We don't really know what we're doing yet, some of the young guys, but you can tell there is some real skill out there. That's what we recruited. We recruited some guys we felt can help us. I think there's a few that are going to help us, if not this year then down the line.
"It's too hard to say what contribution they're going to make but they are every bit as athletic as we though," Borges added. "From that perspective it's a plus. We'll see as it goes. We're just trying to get them used to the offense and let them make some mistakes so we can iron out the wrinkles. Right now there is going to be so much paralysis by analysis because they don't really know what to do and they're not always going full speed. As they learn the offense better you'll get a more legitimate effort mentally."
The Tigers will return to the practice field Thursday for a 4:30 afternoon practice on the intramural fields. The practice is open to the public.