Working out by positions in the afternoons led by upperclassmen such as Ben Nowland and Mark Brown, head coach Tommy Tuberville says this team is ahead of schedule heading into a tough opening stretch to the year.
"Everybody is back," he notes. "This group, you can tell by our first meeting, is fired up about this season. They are looking forward to the opening game. We have a lot to do in the next few weeks, but we have some real good leadership on this team. Obviously that showed during the summer with all the workouts. I'm proud of the seniors. They've come in and mainly have gotten this group ready to play as we speak. Now we've got to do a lot of mental stuff."
That means more time working on the learning side of the game. To do that Tuberville and his staff have decided to use the mornings, at least for the first few days of two-a-day practices, to help the players learn at a faster rate on both offense and defense. The afternoons will be reserved for making this a more physical football team at the point of attack, something Tuberville is adamant about making happen.
"We've changed our strategy in two-a-days," Tuberville says. "We're trying to do more teaching in the morning. We've taken the pads off. It's not that we're being easy on them. We want to teach a lot more early and have them a little bit fresher as we go through two-a-days. Last year we had half our starters at one time in the training room after heat exhaustion. We're trying to stay away from that. We can't afford to lose too many guys to the training room early because every day is important and we have to have that continuity.
"We'll try to be more physical," the coach adds. "The things we will do in the afternoon will be a lot more physical than we've done the first couple of years because we have more numbers. We can go out and have a little bit more contact. Our philosophy is to get a lot more physical on the line of scrimmage and be prepared to play a physical game all 12 games and not just one or two."
Gene Chizik, the new defensive coordinator, is shown at Thursday's practice.
Something that Tuberville is also serious about is making the special teams a larger part of Auburn football this season. Because of added depth on both sides of the ball, he believes he now has the numbers needed to make group a weapon in 2002. Working seven different players at kick returner Thursday morning, the coaching staff is out to leave no stone unturned in their search for the right players at each spot.
"We're going to spend extra time the first week on special teams," Tuberville says. "We're going to do all the little things we need to do to pick out the right people. There's going to be an extra emphasis this year on different parts of the special teams because we have a lot more depth. We're going to be able to play a lot more of our younger players in that role and our starters on offense and defense will be on special teams, but not as prevalent as in the past."
Several freshmen could get a look on special teams in key roles. Players working on returning kicks Thursday were wide receivers Ben Obomanu, Montae Pitts and Lee Guess while running back Tre Smith was also in the mix. While a freshman could easily see time on special teams, one of the places that a newcomer has trouble breaking into the rotation is on the offensive line. However, Tuberville says the Tigers may have a couple of players that could see some playing time this fall if they can make a move early. If Thursday is any indication, Marcus McNeill and Troy Reddick are the most likely candidates to become the first freshman offensive lineman since Victor Riley to see significant playing time.
"We're going to pick probably two of these guys out and try to mix them in with the second unit," the head coach notes. "Mentally is where it really takes a toll on the offensive linemen. There are so many things that happen so quickly and they're so close to you. Whether you block a guy to the left or the right or change the play and you have to totally change. If they move the defense and you change the play then it really blows your mind. There has to be a lot of common sense and experience factors that go into playing the offensive line."
On the opposite end of the spectrum is wide receiver where a freshman can and will make an immediate impact this season. Which ones and how many remain to be seen, but there is no question that Obomanu, Pitts, Courtney Taylor and Devin Aromashodu will get a long look during two-a-days to see if they can help the team come Sept. 2 in Los Angeles.
"It's not quite as hard to play wide receiver because it's not as mental," Tuberville says. "Basically, it's more of just physical ability. You can see the competition from the older guys to the young guys, but there's a lot of patting on the back. That's one thing about this group of players. There are not a lot of selfish people. There are not a lot of stars. We're not looking for one player to make this football team. We've got pretty good players now at almost every position. We just need to keep them all motivated and everybody playing as a team and pulling for each other because if you start getting personality conflicts and people getting a little jealous then that's when your problems start. We haven't had that."