Auburn, Ala.--The sixth-ranked Auburn Tigers (8-1) wrapped up preparations for the Arkansas State Indians Thursday morning with a two-hour practice in shorts and shoulder pads. With center Joe Cope expected to be back in the starting lineup this week after missing four games because of an injured knee offensive coordinator Al Borges says you can see a different attitude on the practice field with him running the show for the line.
"I think as much as anything it's more leadership than anything," Borges says of Cope's importance to the offense and entire team. "Not that he doesn't have ability because he does, he's a tough smart player. The biggest thing that Joe gives you is a great example of what all players should be like, forget all the 40 times and bench press. He does a great job of setting a nice example for us with his toughness, intelligence and leadership. You can tell the difference when he's in there."
Borges isn't the only coach that sees a difference in the team when Cope is at center. After watching him play the last two seasons and lead the offensive line, coach Tommy Tuberville says that Cope is the tie that binds the offense together and particularly up front.
"I think all of them are real pleased that he's got an opportunity to play the last few games of his football career," Tuberville says. "There's a lot more confidence from the guys around him. There's a lot of team camaraderie on the offensive line, it's like a family within a family. Those guys don't ever get any credit but they get a lot of blame…having Joe back kind of gives them that extra shot they're going to need these last few games."
While Cope is back this week running back Kenny Irons is still bothered by an ankle injury that has been one of the many bumps and bruises he's dealt with this season. Borges says that Irons is practiced and looks good but there's still some question whether or not he will get the starting nod Saturday against Arkansas State.
Kenny Irons and Ben Tate work on ball security at a recent practice. With Irons still banged up Tate could get more action this week against the Indians.
One player that is doubtful for the game is senior linebacker Kevin Sears. Held out of Thursday morning's practice because of a strained hamstring, Sears isn't likely to play says Tuberville. Other than him though Tuberville says the team is pretty healthy and ready to get back on the field.
"It was a good week of practice," Tuberville says. "The guys are fired up and there's a lot of intensity. It's a lot more relaxed than we've been the last six weeks. I like the attitude of the team. We're healthy. Kevin Sears probably won't play. He didn't practice today.
"Hamstrings are so hard to get going," he adds. "He'll be able to go next week. I just wish he could have gone some this week to kind of get the rust off. He hasn't played a whole lot this year."
Without Sears once again this week there is a strong possibility that redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon will see even more playing time with Merrill Johnson the back up in the middle behind Karibi Dede. Tuberville says Blackmon is coming along very well and he's beginning to learn more and more of the defense.
"He's getting a lot more active because he knows what he's doing and how he's doing it," Tuberville says. "He's having fun. It's hard to have fun when you're thinking every snap not knowing if you're doing the right thing. He's always played full speed. I can't wait until he gets full speed and knowing what he's doing every down."
The kickoff for Saturday's game against Arkansas State is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and can be seen on a pay-per-view basis only in Alabama and Arkansas. Before the game though the Auburn coaching staff will be busy hitting the road for the final two times during the regular season. They will resume visits on Dec. 1. Tuberville says that so far the recruiting class is shaping up well but they're looking for a strong finish to round out what could be one of the top classes in the country this year.
"I think it's real good," Tuberville says of the class. "We've got a chance to keep adding to it. We've got a lot of interest from a lot of players. I wish we had 50 scholarships but we don't. We've got to make the most of what we've got. The ones we have now are excellent. We've got a lot of interest from linemen and we've got to keep working on defensive linemen and receivers. That's two areas we have to keep evaluating and recruiting."