Making matters even more pressing this preseason for position coach Terry Price was the loss of redshirt freshman Steven Bouldin over the summer when he decided to leave the team and return home. Although he wasn't physically ready to play, early high school graduate Brian Kuhn's decision to give up football after spring drills cut the defensive end depth even more.
Unfortunately for Price, there are other concerns at his position heading into the season opener on Monday vs. the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. The loss of freshman Kyle Derozan just days into fall practice depleted the already thin depth at the position and put an emphasis on getting another freshman ready to play.
Former middle linebacker Ben Grubbs, a 6-4, 260-pound impressive physical specimen from Elmore County High, came to Auburn this summer hoping to learn enough to get into the playing rotation as a true freshman. Now, just days before his first college game, Grubbs says that he's ready to see what he can do on a college football field.
Ben Grubbs (90) works in a drill during Sunday's practice.
"Two-a-days went pretty good," Grubbs says. "It's just mental right now. We're trying to get reps in so we'll know what we have to do to execute well. The coaches are giving us the plays, we just have to run them.
"I'm getting better, but it's a slow process," he says on the subject of learning his technique at the position. "I've progressed in ways as far as putting my hands on the ground and shooting my hands coming out of my stance. Instead of sitting back there and reading the play, now I'm going straight to it."
While the freshman has all the physical tools to be a successful defensive end on the collegiate level, he still has a way to go to be a player the coaches can count on for every down in a game.
"He's made some progress, but he still has a lot of work to do," says Price. "He never played defensive end in his life and he has a million things to learn. He's making progress daily, but obviously he's not where we want him to be, but he's eager to learn and he's trying. He just has to keep on working harder than anyone else on the defensive line because he's never had his hand on the ground before."
When Grubbs steps onto the turf at historic Los Angeles Coliseum on Monday night in front of a national television audience against one of the most historic programs in college football, the freshman says he won't be nervous. Never mind that one year ago he was preparing to play a football game in front of a couple of hundred fans.
"It's hard to imagine but you don't have time to think about it because it goes by so quick," he notes of his transition to a college player. "It seems just like yesterday that I was talking to Coach Pearson (high school coach) getting ready to play on my high school field. It went by quickly, but I think coach prepared me and I have prepared myself to play on Monday. I'm ready for it."
Just how much he plays against the Trojans could depend on the health of Reggie Torbor and top backup Bret Eddins. Torbor missed Sunday's practice and even though he will play on Monday he might not be 100 percent after suffering a strained tendon in his knee. Eddins is trying to overcome a nagging groin pull problem. Price says the coaches must get Grubbs ready to play in case he's needed even though they are counting on having both Eddins and Torbor ready for the opener.
"It all just depends on the injury situation," the defensive ends coach says of Grubb's playing time. "We're just so banged up right now. Injuries will dictate how much he plays. One thing he's been forced to do is play both sides. That's helped his learning curve a little bit. It's a lot to throw at a freshman. A lot of his playing time will be dictated by how our injuries settle up."
If he does have to play, the competitive nature will likely take over for Grubbs. A ball-hawk on the high school level who his high school coach favorably compares to Spencer Johnson when Johnson played for him at Southern Choctaw High, Grubbs says that he'll be ready but he's not trying to dwell on that at the moment.
"It doesn't put any extra pressure on me," he says. "What's the use of putting pressure on yourself because you might mess up or something like that. I just want to go into the game ready to play."
Tiger Ticket Extra: If needed, the Tigers can swing junior Spencer Johnson outside from tackle to end to add more depth. Junior Dexter Murphy made that move earlier this preseason.