With the chance for immediate playing time one of the players taking advantage of the opportunity is redshirt sophomore Courtney Harden.
"It's a blessing to get the chance to go out and play," Harden says. "At the same time it's a curse to our team for it to come at such an expense with all the players getting hurt and the suspensions. I love it, but I didn't want it to come with this situation."
A 6-0, 230-pounder, Harden is one of the biggest of Auburn's group of linebackers and fits the mold of what you think of when picturing a middle linebacker. Currently Harden is running with the second team behind fellow sophomore Merrill Johnson in the middle.
Harden is shown during a summer workout.
Despite missing four days because of the death of his grandmother, Harden says he feels very good about how he's progressed in the defense, but notes that his size doesn't necessarily give him an advantage over any of the other contenders when looking for playing time.
"I'm actually very comfortable with the defense," Harden says. "I feel like I can move freely within the defense. Once I know my stuff I feel like I'm able to conquer anything inside the defense. Here it's really not the size. Every linebacker we've got is very physical. In order to play the middle I don't really know what it takes. I can't say what it is.
"It's going real well," Harden adds. "At times I do real good, but then at times it seems like I make some mental mistakes and fall back. Other than that I'm doing well. I'm progressing very well and catching on to the defense."
Harden is a physical player who made six tackles in eight appearances last season.
It wasn't just Harden who was affected by his grandmother's passing because younger brother Jermarcus Ricks is also on Auburn's team as a freshman defensive tackle. One of the players who has impressed the coaching staff among a large group of freshmen, Ricks' being on the team has brought back some old memories for Harden.
"It's a little bit different because in high school I used to always push him," Harden says. "I still push him, but back in high school I was the only one pushing him. Here we've got other people giving a hand and being a big brother to him. It's much easier on me and I think it's much easier on him. It has been a blessing to have my brother here with me."
With sophomores Harden, Johnson and Chris Evans as well as true freshman Craig Stevens all expected to see action in the season opener in addition to redshirt freshmen Patrick Trahan and Alonzo Horton, Coach James Willis has his work cut out for him getting the inexperienced group ready to play. Harden says that if anyone can do it then Willis can because he's a teacher and communicates well with his players.
"Coach Willis is a great coach," Harden says. "He's very laid back, but he stresses being physical and all the techniques of being a linebacker. He stresses everything. He really wants to coach his players. He's a hands-on coach that is going to show you everything and teach you how to do it."
One player who believes in Willis and the linebackers is veteran defensive end Quentin Groves. Having lined up with the youngsters every day since preseason practice started, Groves says that he's seen some things he really likes out of the group and believes they'll get the job done when called upon.
Courtney Harden arrived at Auburn with a knee injury that got him off to a slow start in college, but he is healthy now.
"I'm seeing great leadership to be so young," Groves says. "Craig Stevens has shown leadership by the way he plays. We've thrown a lot at him expecting him to learn a new defense. It's his first time even playing college football. He's taken it and ran. Merrill Johnson is a great middle linebacker for us. He's doing everything we ask of him. Then you have Chris Evans and Courtney Harden. Courtney has stepped in and done a great job. They're just following the leadership of Karibi Dede and Will Herring. It's something I think is going to be a plus for us to have those young guys ready and experienced and producing."
Harden knows the time is now. With Sears expected to play in the middle once he returns, Harden says that he must make his hay now so he'll be established when the time comes that the Tigers are full strength once again. "I've got to," Harden says. "I don't have any other choice. If I don't take advantage of the opportunity it's going to pass me by."