With just one experienced player in Reggie Torbor and two other scholarship players (Brett Eddins, Jay Ratliff) returning, the battle for playing time is wide open and there are several candidates among the freshmen to get into the rotation before the Tigers travel to Los Angeles on Sept. 2 to face the USC Trojans.
Perhaps the defensive lineman who has the best shot of earning a great deal of playing time out of the true freshman class is Eclectic native Ben Grubbs. A middle linebacker by trade in high school, Grubbs will make the transition to down lineman this year and much like current defensive tackle Spencer Johnson, he probably has the size and strength to handle himself on the line in his first year out of high school.
Weighing around 240 pounds for much of his senior year, Grubbs began hitting the weights religiously following the end of football season and it began to show. But things didn't get dramatic until he arrived in Auburn in early June to work with Coach Kevin Yoxall and the strength and conditioning staff on a regular basis. Putting on size at a steady rate, Grubbs says he's already much bigger than he thought he could get this year.
Grubbs and Kyle Derozan take a break during a tough summer conditioning session.
"I didn't have any idea," he notes about getting bigger. "Working out and eating like I did, I didn't think that I would be this size. I'm now 264 and I hope I get bigger."
He also says that being on the campus this summer helped him work on the transition of playing with his hand on the ground for the first time in his life.
"I learned a lot," says Grubbs. "We had some meetings in the afternoon before we went on the field and I learned a lot of technique. I learned different moves and I think that helped me out a whole lot...We worked hard over the summer and we prepared well enough to go into the fall and be ready to win some games. I'm ready for it."
While Grubbs looks the part, another newcomer could wind up being the surprise of the fall camp. When he arrived on campus in June, Kyle Derozan looked more like a basketball player than a defensive end. But, like Grubbs, that has all changed with a lot of work with Coach "Yox." Now 6-4, 245, Derozan has the size to hold his own against the physical offensive tackles in the SEC and should challenge for a back-up role behind starter Reggie Torbor at weak end.
"It was about what I thought," Derozan says of the summer work. "It taught me a lot of things I didn't learn in high school doing the different drills and techniques. I think it's going to help the whole team as well as the freshmen coming in. Some of the things we haven't ever seen before...It just makes me want to put forth my best effort into competing and getting the job done so I can be one of those guys playing on the defensive line."
Another player who could see time at defensive end but may wind up moving inside is Doug Morris. At 6-3, 273, he has the size to play inside but his quickness and foot speed might allow him to also play defensive end. Expected to get a shot at both positions, he tells Inside The Auburn Tigers that it doesn't matter to him as long as he's on the field.
"I'm just going to come in and do the best I can do from day one," Morris says. "I want to get a lot of playing time and possibly start as a freshman. They're looking at me at left end right now...I'm looking forward so much to having a good chance to show what I can do on the field. I was just very anxious to get here."
Although the need isn't as great at defensive tackle, there is still a chance that both Antwarn Franklin and Tommy Jackson will get a shot at playing time this fall. With the lack of defensive ends going into the fall, either Dexter Murphy or Dante Booker or both could get a look at moving outside. If that happens then both Franklin and Jackson will be in line for a great deal of playing time backing up starters Johnson and Demarco McNeil. No matter what happens the always outgoing Jackson says this freshman class could be special.
T.J. Jackson works on his technique and fundamentals during a summer workout session indoors.
"Antwarn is a good player," Jackson says. "He's a year older than me and he knows more. It's amazing what you'll learn from other people from different schools. He's from Woodlawn and they have a pretty good program up there. He has different techniques and I have different techniques. We always talk about them. He's a good player. I know Ben Grubbs and he's a great player. He's a big guy. I feel like he will get to play early. I'm pretty sure. He has good size and good speed...There are a lot of guys that came up this summer and worked hard. I think there are a lot of guys that will get to play."
Both weighing over 300 pounds but with the agility of much smaller players, Franklin and Jackson could bring something different to the backup tackle spots for the Tigers--size. That is something they've been missing in recent years and searched for during the recruiting season. While Franklin sat out last season getting qualified, Jackson was busy leading the Opelika Bulldogs into the state playoffs.
While many expected him to play offensive tackle, Antwarn Franklin worked hard to get in shape and enters the fall at a solid playing weight of 305 pounds.
But following his final game, he says that almost every waking minute has been spent preparing for his chance to play this fall. For Jackson and the signee class of 2002, that begins on Monday morning with the first of two practices at 9:30. If he does the job Jackson says that he's ready to step in a play against anyone on Auburn's schedule.
"I hope so," Jackson smiles when he was asked if he was going to play early. "I hope a lot of guys get to play early. I hope that we can just help the team out. I hope by us being able to play we can actually add something to the team. I hope we have a little competition for the jobs so that way other players might play harder...I'm hoping that I can contribute and help out.
"I just love football," Jackson adds. "No matter what I'm doing football is a great game. It teaches people a lot of things and I've been doing it for a while. I'm just glad to be doing it for another four years. It's going to be fun...I know it's going to be hot and it's going to be real hard. I think you have to close all that out of your mind for you to be able to perform and be successful because I want to show coach that I can play and I know everybody else can play. I hope we can accomplish a lot in two-a-days beginning tomorrow."