Auburn, Ala.--For the Auburn offense and the offensive line in particular, opening day of the 2007 season against Kansas State is five and a half months away. That's a good thing. On the other hand, A-Day is just around the corner and the offensive line situation, where four starters must be replaced, has been up and down throughout spring practice.
Left tackle King Dunlap is the only returning starter but he only has one year of starting experience under his belt. Coach Hugh Nall says that even Dunlap has a ways to go as an offensive lineman and his learning has continued during spring practice.
"Right now I'm not comfortable with any of them," says offensive line coach Hugh Nall. "It's not a unit that's working together like they should. King is one who has more experience than anyone else, but that's just one year. That's not a long time at the offensive line. He's still young, too."
The heir apparent to replace Ben Grubbs, who will likely be a first day selection in the NFL draft, is up-and-coming fourth-year junior Tyronne Green. The former defensive tackle has been strong this spring and Nall says he's helped to form the best side of the line to this point.
"He's had a good spring so far," Nall says of Green. "He really has. He's done a lot of good things and I think the left side is probably a little ahead of the right side with King and Tyronne over there."
Dunlap adds that he has also been impressed with what he's seen while lining up right next to Green.
"In the end I think Tyronne will be better than Ben Grubbs," Dunlap says. "I know Ben might not like me saying that, but I really think so. Tyronne is the best technician we have on Auburn's line. He uses the technique to a ‘T' that coach Nall teaches us. He takes it, does it and he looks good when he does it right."
Running at first team center is Jason Bosley, who started four games in 2006 in the absence of an injured Joe Cope. Bosley struggled at times with his size and strength last year as a sophomore, but like Cope he makes up for that with his fight. Now bigger and stronger, Nall says that Bosley is improving.
"What you like about Jason is that he competes so hard and he works so hard," Nall notes. "He's still got some things we have to work on recognition-wise and technique-wise, but he's really done a lot of good stuff."
On the right side of the line Nall is looking for consistency from senior Leon Hart at guard and somebody to claim Jonathan Palmer's old spot at right guard. Hart was the blue-chipper of the 2004 class but has shown flashes of greatness and weakness since he's been at Auburn while backing up every position on the line.
For Wednesday's practice Hart continued his work with the first team at guard and also ran with the second team at center while Mike Berry swapped and played second team right guard.
At right tackle is Andrew McCain, who is still learning the ins and outs of blocking technique after playing tight end and defense as a freshman in 2005 and redshirting a season ago.
"Simple stuff like his pass sets are so much better," Nall says of McCain. "He uses his hands better on pass rush, his steps on run blocking and pad level on run blocking. He was just really, really raw on fundamental stuff. Sometimes he just opens that hip two inches too much, and that's enough to get your beat. You just have to keep working on those little things to get better, and he's getting better."
Also getting reps with the ones at right tackle is Antwoin Daniels.
"Antwoin jumped in and did a good job," Nall explains. "Antwoin is a good solid player, but he's got to be more and more consistent just like Leon. Antwoin gives you some ability to change at left tackle, right guard, right tackle. The only thing I wouldn't put him at is center. I'd put him at any other position. He gives you a little bit of depth.
"He's competing for a starting job," Nall adds. "It's still wide open as to who the starters are."
Daniels is also seeing a good amount of time at right guard.
Dunlap is having a good spring, but Nall says that all of the starting jobs are open for competition.
The backup positions have been subject to change on a daily basis with injuries to left tackle Oscar Gonzalez (MCL sprain), Nathan Farrow (broken hand) and Daniels missing practice because of classes. Also, Rudy Odom has re-joined the football team and is in the mix at guard.
"I really think Rudy has a chance to be a good offensive lineman.," Nall explains. "He's does some things naturally with body balance and body control--the kind of things you look for when you recruit a kid. I really think that he could be a good offensive lineman."
Farrow, a right guard who has also gotten a look at center, is expected to miss the remainder of spring after surgery on Monday. That gives Nall less options with trying to get the right five on the field.
"I was hoping to maybe move Leon over to center some earlier and get Berry to guard and tackle, but I haven't been able to. I haven't had a full plate any day. Somebody is missing here, somebody is missing there."
Berry redshirted last season and has backed up Bosley during the spring until playing some guard on Wednesday. He is also a candidate to eventually take over the opening at right tackle if McCain or Daniels doesn't get the job done.
"Mike's one of the most impressive young guys that we have," Dunlap says of the redshirt. "He's got the size and athletic ability to play anywhere. He's learning plays and getting a lot better, too, but he'll end up starting here for a long time before it's all said and done."
Another young player who has shown some good things with his get-off in the running game is redshirt freshman Byron Isom, but he still has a ways to go according to Nall.
"He's getting better," Nall says, "but he's still a long ways away with fundamentals. When something is called in the huddle you've got to have a lot of scenarios in your head when you go to the line of scrimmage and right now that is spinning a little bit for him."
Former defensive tackle Bart Eddins got a brief look at center early in spring practice and is now flip-flopping with the twos and threes between right guard and right tackle.
With the end of spring practice near, the Auburn Tigers are looking for a strong finish heading into summer workouts. The veteran of the group, Dunlap says the line is getting closer and that will only help them when the time comes next fall.
"(Spring) is going well," Dunlap notes, "but we still have a lot to improve on. We still have to find a solid starting five that can work together. We're still trying to get the gel going but we've gotten better as the weeks have gone on. We can tell because we're starting to run the ball a little more effectively and protect (Brandon) Cox a lot better."