Rating The Rookies: A Look At The Football Frosh

Columnist Phillip Marshall analyzes Auburn's highly-regarded 2002 football signee class.

Just two days of watching Auburn's freshmen football players practice was enough to convince me. The freshman class that officially reported to campus last Sunday and began practice Monday is the most athletically gifted I have seen at Auburn.

How that will translate into impact on the coming season remains to be seen. How many will develop their obvious talent and become outstanding players won't be known for a few more years. But it is an impressive bunch.

Start up front, which is where any team with designs on winning big should start. Offensive tackle Marcus McNeill is an awe-inspiring physical specimen at 6-9 and 350 pounds. He has nimble feet and explosive quickness off the ball. If he reaches his potential, he will be a wealthy man one day. Troy Reddick, at 6-5 and 300-plus, and center Will Ward of Prattville are probably the most polished of the four scholarship freshmen on the offensive line. Jonathan Palmer, McNeill's high school teammate in Ellenwood, Ga., probably has the furthest to go and the most likelihood of being redshirted.

On the defensive line, Antwarn Franklin looks like a man who is ready to get some playing time at tackle. Same for Tommy "T.J." Jackson. End Kyle Derozan from Morganza, La., looks like a real find. Ben Grubbs has gained weight and has impressive speed and strength.

There has been much said about the wide receivers Montae Pitts, Ben Obomanu, Devin Aromashodu, Courtney Taylor and Lee Guess. It is safe to say no more talented group has ever shown up at one time on the Auburn campus. The move of Anthony Mix to tight end could prove to be a masterful stroke.

Look out for tailback Tre Smith. Auburn coaches whisper that he could push hard for significant playing time in the coming season. He has the speed and quickness to play early in the Southeastern Conference, and he certainly has the drive.

Perhaps the most intriguing newcomer is walk-on quarterback Josh Sullivan. A 6-4, 205-pounder from Little Rock, Ark., Sullivan is displaying a powerful arm and impressive athleticism. Successful walk-on quarterbacks are rare, but Sullivan might have a chance to be the exception. He might have gotten a Division I-A scholarship, but there was concern he would play baseball. He could even make a push for being the No. 3 quarterback this season. Brandon Cox must develop arm strength. He will certainly do that, and he has everything else it takes.

Quarterback Josh Sullivan shows his passing ability in Thursday's practice.

Linebacker Mike Sherill, plucked out of Miami by assistant coach Eddie Gran, showed spectacular athletic ability. If he harnesses it and learns to work a little harder, he could be a star. Kevis Burnam and Tyrone Martin are no slouches, either.

Safety Will Herring, a quarterback at Opelika last season, was one of the surprises of freshman-only practice. He might have played himself right out of a redshirt season.

Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville can scarcely contain his enthusiasm for a recruiting class he readily admits is the best he's been around in eight years as a head coach. "They are talented, but they are in the best shape of any group we've had and they pull for each other so hard," Tuberville says. "It's fun to watch."

Things won't be so much fun for the freshmen now that they have joined the party with the varsity for preseason drills. It won't be a normal preseason. Tuberville has made it clear that the Tigers must go into the season-opener against Southern California with fresh legs. The trip to the Los Angeles Coliseum is the first of four games in 17 days.

The guess here is that a number of those freshmen will play significant roles, perhaps even in the first game. My guess on the most likely candidates for early playing time: Pitts, Obomanu, Taylor, Reddick, McNeill, Franklin, Jackson, Grubbs, Derozan and Smith. Put Mix in that group if he picks things up quickly at tight end.

CHALLENGE FOR DUVAL

Word is that sophomore Philip Yost has been more consistent in voluntary work this summer than returning All-American Damon Duval. If that carries over to the practice field, Tuberville says he wouldn't hesitate to make a change.

"Philip can be a great kicker, too," Tuberville says. "If he's the best, he's the one we'll put out there. It would really be good if Damon could just concentrate on one, but I don't think that's what he has in mind."

UNINFORMED DECISION

Auburn coaches urged 370-pound offensive lineman Juan Garnier of Boston to come down early and get accustomed to the heat. He told them it wouldn't be a problem, that it got hot and humid in Boston, too. He quickly learned it's not the same. Garnier struggled badly with the heat in freshman practices, struggling just to get to the locker room when they were over. He's learned a hard lesson. All heat is not created equal.


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