Auburn, Ala.--Returning both starters and three backups in the middle of the Auburn defensive line, the Auburn Tigers go into spring practice with one of the deepest and most talented units in the Southeastern Conference. Add in several talented redshirt players and you have what could turn out of be a fun time for coach Don Dunn in the 15 practices leading up to the A-Day Game on March 17.
"I'm real excited," Dunn says. "This is probably the first year in a long time we've had this many kids in spring ball healthy and ready to go. We're looking forward to a real productive spring with a lot of competition, which is good. We'll have a lot of guys pushing for starting positions. You've got to have a starting point but we always tell them spring is like starting over and if you were a backup in the fall you now have a chance to be a starter. That is healthy for everybody and makes your defense better. It's all about production. We will chart every single rep and grade them on every single rep and the guys that make the plays will be in there."
The starting point for the two interior positions actually begins with three players. Senior noseguard Josh Thompson, junior tackle Pat Sims and sophomore tackle Sen`Derrick Marks all return after handling the brunt of the work in the 2006 season. Finishing the year off strong with outstanding performances late in the year, Dunn says both Thompson and Sims head into the spring with confidence but Marks remains the steadying influence of the group.
"I really feel that Josh played his last two games against Alabama and Nebraska probably his best," Dunn says. "I'm very pleased with Pat Sims in the Nebraska game. He made plays. He had some batted balls, a sack, some big hits, made plays and played with a lot of enthusiasm. Throughout the year Sen'Derrick was probably the most consistent. You've got three kids right there I'm very excited about.
"Josh is a senior and we're expecting him to be a leader," he adds. "He's always been a leader through his actions and hard work but we're putting a lot more pressure on him to be more vocal in the locker room away from the football field and show the younger players the ropes. He's done that. I expect Sen'Derrick to be a leader and we're putting more pressure on him. Again I'm very happy with Pat. I think you can see a little different attitude with Pat even if you just meet him around campus. He's got a little smile on his face now and he's feeling good about himself. Sometimes that is what it takes. The kid was beat down for so long and now he's had something positive happen. I think that is going to be a plus for everybody."
Sen'Derrick Marks had an outstanding redshirt freshman season in 2006.
Behind that trio of players the Tigers have one veteran and a load of talented young players ready to step up and get into the action this season. Senior noseguard Tez Doolittle is the old man of the group and is looking to finish his career on a high note after being injured for much of his career at Auburn. Big tackle Jermarcus Ricks was one of just two true freshman to not redshirt last season and should be a force inside if he continues his improvement. Dunn says both should give the front some added strength and depth.
"Tez has to stay healthy and stay on the field," Dunn says. "He knows that. We're putting pressure on him to be a leader too because he's a senior and has been around but he's going to have to stay healthy. You have Jermarcus Ricks who has had a taste but didn't play as much as we would have liked late in the season. He knows what it's like to compete in the SEC and travel and be a part of the game-week routine, which is different from being a redshirt. I expect good things out of him. He's got to get stronger like they all do."
Jermarcus Ricks is a physical talent that has the size and speed to be a difference maker on Auburn's defense.
Rounding out the depth in the middle are three players that bring three completely different things to the table. One is a player most teams recruited as an offensive lineman that showed up and instantly became a player to watch on defense last fall. Another is a player that has gained almost comic book super hero status among Auburn faithful last season while redshirting as a sopohomore and despite not playing a down on campus. The last is perhaps the most impressive of a large group of freshmen defensive linemen that has shown the coaching staff his worth ethic in just one season as a Tiger.
"I'm excited about Mike Blanc, who showed us a lot at bowl practice," Dunn adds. "That was an advantage to us. He's looking good in our conditioning and winter workouts. I'm hearing good reports from Coach Yox (Kevin Yoxall) on all these kids. Greg Smith has made a lot of improvement. He's getting himself in shape. He still has to lose more weight but he's working on it. Losing weight is not an easy thing to do and it shouldn't be a quick thing. You don't want to have rapid weight loss, you want to do it gradually and we're doing it the right way. Greg has shown improvement and he's finishing all his drills in winter conditioning. He just has to take care of his academics and his weight and he'll be okay.
"Then we have Zach Clayton, who is like the old utility baseball player," Dunn adds. "He can play inside or outside. His motor never stops. Sometimes if you come to winter workouts it looks like he's dying and going to fall out because he knows one speed and that is 110 percent. If you watch him the first rep he's going as hard the last rep as the first. That is going to pay off for us down the road. It's a good group of young men. They are fun to coach. I'm excited about them. Now it's up myself and the guys to produce on the field. It's going to be a fun spring and a competitive spring. They know that and that is what makes it so fun and so good for our football team when you have competition."