Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn Tigers got spring practice underway Tuesday morning with a two hour and fifteen minute practice in shorts and helmets on a beautiful day on the Plains. With the winningest senior class in history no longer a part of the program and several key areas needing major work, including the offensive line, wide receiver and linebacker, Coach Tommy Tuberville says this spring will be just the start of a long process for his team beginning from day one leading up to the season opener next year against Kansas State.
"We try to build this team each week to get better and do more things than we did last year," Tuberville says. "If we have to do what we did last year to win games we'll do it but I would hope next year we're able to be a little more flexible offensively and be able to play a few more players in situations that we feel more comfortable about. It's going to take time. We're going to have to build this team a little bit slower than what we've built in the past."
Success on offense begins at the quarterback position where senior starter Brandon Cox returns in his third year at the reigns of the offense. After being injured for much of last season with ankle and knee problems, Cox looked good on Tuesday as he threw the ball well and moved around better than at any time last season. While improved quarterback play is a must for the Tigers, perhaps the biggest questions are up front and at wide receiver.
With King Dunlap the only returning full-time starter for the Tigers on the offensive line, the front five took on a much different look on the first day of spring practice as Jason Bosley and Leon Hart at center and right guard were the only two other players with any starting experience. At left guard Tyronne Green worked with the first unit while big sophomore Andrew McCain was at right tackle with Antwoin Daniels in class.
At wide receiver returning veterans Rodgeriqus Smith, Prechae Rodriguez and Robert Dunn worked with the first unit while a big group of young but talented players got plenty of reps with the first team. Sophomore Montez Billings had a solid day catching the football as did freshmen Tim Hawthorne, Terrell Zachery and Alex Rose. The competition should be hot and heavy this spring as the three talented freshmen look to move up in the rotation heading into next fall.
Wide receiver Montez Billings looks the ball all the way in.
The running back position goes into the spring wide open as junior Brad Lester is the favorite to win the starting job but Tuberville says the race for number one is on as Benjamin Tate, Mario Fannin and Tristan Davis all have a shot at the position. Tuesday all three got a chance to work in drills as the Tigers went through the paces on offense without the pads on. Fannin was especially impressive on the day catching the football out of the backfield as well as catching punts during special team work.
Defensively the focus was at linebacker as the Tigers look to replace seniors Will Herring, Karibi Dede and Kevin Sears. With top returner Tray Blackmon out this spring while dealing with personal problems the veteran of the group is junior Merrill Johnson. Johnson lined up at middle linebacker with the first unit on Tuesday with Steve Gandy on the weak side and sophomore Patrick Trahan on the strong side. Trahan came up with the play of the day on defense with an interception in the flats as he stepped in front of the back he was covering. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp says that several of the young linebackers need to step up their play but all have the capability to do so this spring.
"I want to see all of them step up," Muschamp says. "Craig Stevens is a kid we redshirted last year. We're excited about Merrill Johnson, Steve Gandy and Patrick Trahan. We think they are all guys that have ability, it's just a matter of them stepping up and playing. Chris Evans has done some good things at times and Courtney Harden has done some good things. All of those kids need to assert themselves more because they are more familiar with the scheme. It's not an excuse any more to not know what's going on or that it's hard or difficult. They understand what to do and how to do it. Now it's a matter of doing it the right way."
Up front the Tigers are deep and talented with seniors Quentin Groves and Josh Thompson returning as starters as well as sophomore Sen'Derrick Marks. Throw in top reserves Pat Sims, Tez Doolittle and Antonio Coleman and you have a solid front group with experience backed up by a talented redshirt class. Without the pads on, Tuesday's practice consisted of technique work as the players worked on fundamentals such as stance, take off and hand placement.
In the secondary Muschamp got plenty of work for his troops as the players did a great deal of one-on-one work as well as seven-on-seven work. Both Patrick Lee and Jonathan Wilhite looked good at cornerback while sophomore Walter McFadden was more physical against the wide receivers than he's been at any time since at Auburn.
McFadden had a good day as he worked with the second team exclusively with Zach Gilbert.
Muschamp says for the first day he though things were good as a whole but that has to continue all the way through for this team to improve between now and March 17.
"It was a typical first day," Muschamp says. "The encouraging thing is that we had a lot of carry-over from last season from a terminology standpoint and from a practice/tempo standpoint. Those are positive things. Everybody is excited on the first day. Everybody is in a good mood. We'll see after day 12 how everybody is.
"The big thing we emphasize to the players is that they've got 15 opportunities to get better," Muschamp says. "You either take a step forward or you take a step back. You never stay the same. Every time out you have to get better as a coach and you have to get better as a player. You have to prove yourself and when you leave the field you need to feel good about what you did and how you performed. As long as our kids take that approach over the next 14 practices then we'll be pleased as the end of spring."
The Tigers return to the practice field for day two of spring practice Wednesday afternoon at 4 p.m.