An injury to Courtney Taylor and a less than stellar preseason by Prechae Rodriguez have opened the door for several players to step up and the first to make the leap was sophomore Rodgeriqus Smith. Named to the first team ahead of Rodriguez, Smith's solid play has him on the field and expected to be the opening night starter.
It has taken a little while but it appears that Hawthorne is going to be the next receiver to move up the ranks in the rotation for the Tigers. A big, physical player, Hawthorne has as expected struggled at times learning the offense and putting it into practical use. That hasn't kept offensive coordinator Al Borges from noticing his improvement though and he says that the Homewood native is among several freshmen that could help the team early in the season.
"They are with us on the varsity so that means there is a potential they will play," Borges says. "Otherwise we would put them on the scout team. Tim Hawthorne is getting better every day as he understands it better. He's still learning how to play against college corners, which is tough, but he's everything we thought he would be in terms of athleticism. He's a smart kid that is willing to learn and as he plays more he's going to get better. How much we play him we have not determined yet. We probably won't for another week or so as we start to cut the depth. He's not with the scout team because we feel he can contribute."
Along with Hawthorne you have Benjamin Tate, Mario Fannin and Mike Berry that are all working with the offense and not holding a dummy on the scout team. Borges says that despite the wealth of talent at tailback with Kenny Irons and Brad Lester currently one and two at the position, Tate is a player they expect to help the team right away.
Tate has a different running style from any other Auburn running back and could add a different dimension to the offense.
"Ben Tate is in the same situation," Borges says. "Ben is a little ahead of Tim because he was here in the spring. The problem with Ben is that we've got a lot of good players at his position. That could change in a snap of the fingers. Right now how much we plan to play him, we'll know in about a week. We've got two tailbacks with Kenny and Brad. Tre Smith is playing a role and now we're using Carl (Carl Stewart) at fullback. We're just trying to get the best talent on the field for as many plays as we can get it."
While it's not unheard of, the play of Berry this preseason has been unusual to say the least. Normally the toughest position for a true freshman to make an impact is on the offensive line but not for Berry. Despite multiple position changes in his first three weeks of practice, the big freshman has shown Borges that he can be an anchor for the Tigers for years to come on the offensive line.
"There's a kid, this kid is going to be a really good player," Borges says. "He's got great feet. He started playing center and then we got short on tackles when Oscar (Gonzalez) got hurt so we moved him out to tackle. Today we moved him into guard. If he's going to contribute he's got to learn all of the positions. In terms of his future here, it's very bright. He'll play sooner than later."
The wildcard of the newcomers on offense is Fannin. Starting the preseason at running back, Fannin was slowed by a hip pointer halfway through the preseason but it didn't keep him from showing his potential to the coaching staff. One of Auburn's fastest players, Fannin has shown good hands and a knack for catching the ball in traffic. Because of that he made the move to wide receiver just last week. Although it was late in the process Borges says they're going to give him every opportunity to learn the position by keeping him off the scout team and working with the offense.
"Fannin is up with us because he just started playing wide receiver," Borges says. "If we put him down with the scouts he's never going to learn how to play the position. We're going to keep him there. He's another highly-skilled kid."
Several players such as Zachery and tight end Michael Goggans will begin the year on the scout team but as Borges pointed out they're just one injury away from being forced into game action. Because of that they'll be kept up to date on what the offense is doing in case they're needed down the road.