Just last fall tailback Chris Butler was contemplating giving up the game while defensive end Jay Ratliff was trudging away as a third-team tight end. Now both are firmly planted in the two-deep depth chart with Butler the top backup to Carnell Williams and Ratliff a first-teamer at left defensive end.
While Butler is among the names at the deepest position on the Auburn offense in 2002. Ratliff is being counted on heavily this fall to step up and take over the job at a position with the least experience on the defense. There are just three defensive ends with college playing experience on the 2002 Auburn football team.
In addition to junior Reggie Torbor and sophomore Bret Eddins plus junior Dexter Murphy, who moved there from defensive tackle, nobody with playing time at the position returned for the Tigers this fall. That meant Ratliff had to grow up and learn in a hurry. His position coach, Terry Price, says that is just what he has done to this point.
"He's made some progress," Price says. "I'm proud of him. He's a guy that obviously was behind because he missed all spring. He only practiced about three or four days, but he put it on himself to work hard. He's worked his butt off this fall. He's gotten a lot better. We're proud of him. I think he's really stepped up and earned the right to run with the first team."
Ratliff's development and the defensive end position as a whole would be in serious trouble if Torbor wasn't around. A former tailback turned defensive end, Torbor has excelled this fall not only on the field but in the huddle and defensive meetings where he has become the unquestioned leader of a group searching for guidance.
"He's been tremendous," Price notes. "I walk in my meeting room and he's the one guy that's really battle tested, that has played in this league. You have to play at least four and sometimes five guys so without his leadership this group would really, really struggle, but I think he's the guy that's going to push this thing through. He's another coach on the field for me. He's another pair of eyes. He does a great job policing some of these young guys to make sure they're doing the right things."
On the opposite side of the football, the offensive line is still a concern as tackle Mark Pera remains out with a hip injury, but should return later in the week. That means he should be ready to play on Sept. 2. However, if he can't go redshirt freshman Steven Ross has shown this fall that he's ready for a chance to show the world what he can do. One of three freshmen listed as second-team right now on the offensive line, Ross has caught the eye of at least one very influential admirer.
"Steven has done a great job," head coach Tommy Tuberville says. "He has learned a lot with this extra practice time he's getting with the first team. Marcus McNeill--we want to get him in at strong guard. I think he's made a lot of improvement. Even though he did miss three days he knows a lot about the offense. He's a big body and it's easier to play inside at guard than it is tackle. Ryan Broome will get some playing time at tackle and Troy Reddick has come a long way. They just need playing time, need to learn. We'll just have to wait and see how things go."
Waiting to see how things develop has been the life story for Butler. As a running back, that is what his assignment is. He watches to see how a hole develops and decides the right moment to make a sizeable gain. That has also been a story in Butler's life. After starting his football career at the University of Nebraska, Butler returned home to try his hand at Auburn as a walk-on.
Following a redshirt year in 2000 when he earned a scholarship, Butler almost gave up the game last fall as he battled injuries plus concern about ill family members back home in the Birmingham area. Those were issues that he needed to come with grips with before he came back to the game he loved. Now he's back and ready to make the most of his second chance.
"That's just football for you," Butler says. "In life you have ups and downs, you have good times and you have bad times. Near the time when I left I was going through some things at that time. When I came back I was welcome with open arms and it has been great since that point. Good things come to those who wait and I hold true to that. I think God has a way of doing things. You can't always rush things yourself, but I think if you're just patient your time will come. That opportunity is here and I'm most definitely going to take advantage of it."