Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn Tigers will be without three key players when they face the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the Cotton Bowl on New Year's Day as coach Tommy Tuberville announced on Friday the suspensions of linebackers Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon as well as the suspension of running back Brad Lester.
The suspension ends the career of Sears while both Blackmon and Lester are expected to be back for spring practice. Tuberville says that the punishment is a suspension and not a dismissal from the team meaning both will continue their careers with the Tigers.
"I'm going to suspend indefinitely for a violation of team rules Tray Blackmon, Kevin Sears and Brad Lester," Tuberville says. "We'll go from there. They won't play (in the bowl game). I hate it for Kevin because it's his last game."
Saying he won't elaborate on what caused the suspension, Tuberville says that he has some simple guidelines that his players must follow and that is the reason for the suspensions. "Breaking rules," Tuberville says. "My rules. You've got one boss here and that's me. Everybody has to do it the same way, it doesn't make any difference if you're a starter or you're a walk-on."
Without Sears and Blackmon the Tigers will go back to the formula that worked well the first half of the season when both were out because of a previous suspension. That means both Merrill Johnson and Steve Gandy will get the bulk of the work on the weak side at linebacker and Chris Evans will get more work in the middle behind Karibi Dede. At running back Tre Smith, Ben Tate and Carl Stewart will pick up the slack in the absence of Lester.
"It just hurts your depth and on special teams," Tuberville says. "It's not as big a problem going into one game as it is knowing you've got three or four games. We'll work through it. Somebody just has to step up as they have all year long."
Merrill Johnson has starting experience and should be a solid replacement for Blackmon on the weak side.
Back on the practice field for the second day as they get ready for Nebraska, the Tigers once again focused on fundamentals as the veterans spent the first hour and a half of practice working on special teams and running through the offense and defense. Tuberville says that a beautiful weather day with temperatures in the 70's gave his team the opportunity to get a lot of good work in.
"It was a good practice today," Tuberville says. "The weather is nice. We'll do the same thing tomorrow and won't start on Nebraska until Monday. We're getting a lot of work in doing fundamentals and techniques. It's good to have this kind of weather to get your speed down. The guys' enthusiasm is good. It's good to be back on the practice field."
Along with the suspensions several players also missed Friday's practice because of graduation. Starting tailback Kenny Irons and starting safety Eric Brock both received their degrees Friday and were allowed to miss the practice to spend time with friends and family. Without them Tate got a lot of work running the football while Tristan Davis and Jerraud Powers worked at safety. With a key component of the offense out for the game coach Eddie Gran says they'll just have to utilize the depth they've built this season at the running back position.
"That's the beauty of having a lot of running backs," Gran says. "Carl is a guy that can go in there and get you out of a game. I think we're okay depth-wise. What a great opportunity to get Ben in the game. Going into next year we'll see where he's progressed. I'm going to watch that in practice to see where he's at mentally. Tre would be the guy right now at number two."
The Tigers will practice Saturday morning before taking Sunday off. They will resume practices on Monday and go through Thursday before breaking for Christmas. The team will resume practices on Dec. 27 at SMU in Dallas.
Tuberville spends some time with Detroit Tigers' pitcher and Pell City native Todd Jones. An avid Auburn football fan, Jones has corresponded with Tuberville throughout the last few seasons and came to Friday's practice to see the Tigers in person.