Already thin at the position the Tigers saw both Will Herring and Merrill Johnson get banged up during the 104-play scrimmage to further deplete the ranks at Willis' disposal. Throw in senior Karibi Dede's shoulder sprain that has kept him out of contact and you had a totally new first-team for Saturday morning's practice. Despite that Willis says the group still looks good to him.
"It's football and it's training camp," Willis says. "Those things happen during training camp. We've got some guys and have moved people around. The best thing about our guys is, athletically, their bodies are kind of made to do a little of everything. We've just got to move guys around and make things happen on the run. We've had to do that lately and it's working out though. We'll be okay."
Without his starters Willis used a much different first-team with Courtney Harden in the middle, Patrick Trahan on the strong side and true freshman Craig Stevens on the weak side. Behind them were Chris Evans and Alonzo Horton both got a lot of work. Willis says he expects everyone to be back in time for the first game but right now they don't want to push them after a hard day like Friday.
"Trahan has stepped up at Sam," Willis says. "We had Courtney at Mike and over all Will we had Craig Stevens. It's a huge combination of guys. Like I said earlier we've got to get everybody reps that we can because these things happen during the season also so you never know. We would rather it happen now than during the season.
"That was more of a precautionary thing," Willis says of keeping Herring out of Saturday's practice. "He felt his ham was a little tight. He worked hard yesterday and got some good work in with a lot of reps. It was my choice to pull off him some and give him a little rest."
Harden has shown Willis what he hoped to see out of the redshirt sophomore.
As for Johnson the day off Saturday was a little more serious as he was getting x-rays on an injured ankle suffered during Friday's scrimmage. Willis says he expects everything to be fine for the sophomore and he hopes that is the case because of his play this preseason in the middle.
"First of all he flies around," Willis says. "He makes a lot of plays just doing that much. He's cut his mistakes down tremendously and I think he's also proved something to himself. Being a young player he got a little gassed early and was probably cramping up but he stayed out there and pushed through it. He went into the scrimmage with a bruised foot but he pushed through it. You never would have known. He took a huge step forward as a young player understanding what he can play through."
One of the players taking advantage of the absence of Johnson and several of the other linebackers is the sophomore Harden. Missing time during two-a-days himself because of the death of his grandmother, Harden has come back strong and had a good scrimmage Friday. Willis says he's pleased with the job Harden has done this preseason.
"Yesterday was a big test for him," Willis says. "I challenged him as well as the other guys. Especially with Courtney I challenge him every day to be more physical. As linebackers we always want to be the most physical guys on the field. For him that was his challenge early. Yesterday he came out in the scrimmage and made some plays and a lot of plays coming downhill."
Stevens is a physical player that has adapted quickly to the college game.
While many of the guys called on the play now have at least been on the field for a SEC game in some capacity, that's not the case with Stevens. Expected to have a slight chance of playing his first year when he signed, Stevens has been thrust into the playing rotation because of the injuries and suspensions on the weak side. Willis says while those things have been a factor in his rise, his ability has had just as much to do with it.
"He's still moving up," Willis says. "That guy is special to me because he's got a hamstring, a back, a hand (injuries) and constant headaches because of the hitting, training camp blues, but he pushes right through it. You may see him in the training room getting some ice, but he's in and out and then back on the field. My hat's off to him. Some guys may choose to try to use that ticket and take a day off but he doesn't. He pushes right through it. I think in a year or two he's going to be a really good player."
Two weeks from Saturday the Tigers will take the field for the first time against Washington State in front of a national TV audience. With a very tough preseason behind them the Tigers should be close to full strength by that time with the starting lineups resembling more of what the fans expected when Auburn opened camp two weeks ago. While that could happen, Willis says no matter what eventually happens at the position the last two weeks have been nothing but positive for his group and its entire production down the road.
"It's always a blessing in disguise," Willis says. "We've had a chance now to rep some of the younger guys to see what they can do. We had to push them a little harder earlier. That's a good thing for the team now because when you get later in the season and you have some injuries you won't be hesitant about putting those guys in the game. That's huge for us and them."