Freshman Takes A Licking, Keeps on Ticking

Craig Stevens is a newcomer who has a chance to make an impact sooner than later for the Auburn Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.--In a class of impressive football freshmen, one of the players who has stood out is linebacker Craig Stevens.

The 6-2, 207-pounder from Tallahassee, Fla., Lincoln High has positioned himself to play this fall and he has a good chance to see significant game time in Auburn's opener on Sept. 2nd vs. the Washington State Cougars.

"I think it is going good," he says of his first month of practice as a collegian. "I have been getting more adjusted to the speed. It is kind of moving slower to me. I feel like I am getting better every day."

With the Tigers missing key players at linebacker due to suspensions (Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon) and an injury (Steve Gandy), linebacker coach James Willis has been spending a lot of time making sure the newcomer understands his assignments. Stevens says that has been a big plus.

"When I first started, to tell you the truth, I didn't really understand anything," he says. "I just tried to learn where I had to be. Now I am starting to understand why I need to be where I need to be. I am starting to get more in-depth with the defense and I think that is starting to pay off more with my play."

Auburn's most experienced player on defense, fifth-year senior and three-year starter Will Herring, has noticed the progress Stevens has been making in preseason. "He is doing great," Herring says. "His intelligence and willingness to learn have been as impressive as anything to me.

"Craig has pushed through a lot," Herring adds. "He has been asked to do far more than I was ever asked to do when I came in as a freshman. To step in and run with the ones, as much as he has done, and to take on so much mentally is impressive, especially with how much this defense demands as far as learning the system in concerned."

Coach James Willis watches Craig Stevens in a practice at the AU football complex. He is currently backing up fifth-year senior Karibi Dede at weakside linebacker.

Stevens has worked at middle linebacker in preseason, but is spending most of his time at the weakside position where the Tigers are replacing last year's starter, Antarrious Williams. Blackmon emerged from spring training number one at that position, but is suspended indefinitely, head coach Tommy Tuberville says.

"Knowing your assignments is the key thing to playing will linebacker," Stevens says. "There are a lot of things you have to know (pass) coverage-wise."

Like many freshmen, Stevens is trying to adjust to the physical nature of SEC football. He says that he understands that is how it has to be. "You have got to get physical to play the game of football."

The pounding in practice has been taking a toll on the freshman, and he has been fighting a hamstring problem. "I have been hurting for about two weeks," he says. "I have been going to the training room three times a day. I still practice with it. I played half of my senior season with a pulled hamstring. I don't want to sit out. It makes me feel like I am missing something."

Stevens has won praise from his position coach, James Willis, for his toughness in his first month of college practice. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has also noticed the linebacker doing good things in practice.

"Craig is a very bright and intelligent kid," the coach says. "He is a mature kid. He has handled his role of what we are trying to do with him very well. Again, he understands this is an everyday process. It is not just a one-day deal. He is going to be a good player for us here at Auburn."

Although Tommy Tuberville says that only a handful of freshmen will likely play in the opener, there is a lot of evidence that the 2006 freshman class has a lot of potential. Stevens says he believes that is the case.

"We talk among ourselves about how we want to be the best class to come through here," Stevens says. "I think that makes a lot of people try to play better. I think this is a very good class. There are a lot of freshmen going out there playing good."

The Sept. 2nd opener vs. Washington State will be the first game that Stevens has ever seen at Jordan-Hare Stadium with the exception of the annual A-Day spring intrasquad contest, which he says "doesn't count." Stevens figures he will be nervous when he takes the field for the first time. "I think after the first play everything will calm down," he predicts.

Herring points out he is looking forward to seeing the freshman play for the Tigers. "To me he is going to be a great player. Whether he plays this year or redshirts that has yet to be seen, but regardless when he plays in a game I believe he will be a great player one day."

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