Auburn, Ala.--With one of the biggest rebuilding jobs on the Auburn coaching staff, James Willis got his first look at his linebackers on Thursday as the Tigers split up into two groups for a pair of two hour practices. After getting a chance to see the guys in action, he says he's pleased with what he's got to work with this fall.
"On the first day what you try to base things on is effort and attitude," Willis says. "The guys came out with great effort and had a great attitude and they hustled to the ball. Of course, everything wasn't perfect but they were trying.
"I was really impressed just by the young guys, the freshmen, lining up right. That was impressive because we put them under some pressure and tried to make everything an intense and game-time situation and I think the guys responded pretty well."
One of the differences in this year's preseason camp as opposed to past years is the split practices that were scheduled to feature the young guys in the morning with the veterans in the afternoon.
Willis works with Craig Stevens during the morning session.
It didn't quite work out that way on Thursday as established guys such as Merrill Johnson, Chris Evans and Steve Gandy all took part in the morning workout because of final exams later in the day. Because of that, Willis says they broke the groups up a little bit and he found out it was probably a good move.
"I think it was extremely helpful," Willis says. "What we really wanted was to have the young guys in the morning, but because of the exam schedule we had to bump a few guys around. Where that kind of helped was it kind of evened things out. We had some of the younger guys having to make some calls and the older guys helping them out. It worked out."
In the afternoon practice the coaches, players and fans got a chance to see Tray Blackmon in action at middle linebacker for the first time. Back in good graces after missing spring practice dealing with some personal issues, Willis says he's expecting a lot out of Blackmon both on and off the field but he believes the sophomore can deliver.
"It was good," Willis says of getting number 10 back on the field. "He was excited to be out here. He knows he's got a second chance and he understands that and wants to make the best out of it. I think (playing middle linebacker) is perfect for what he is. He's a great guy inside the box that can run inside-out. He's got good speed and toughness. I think everything we do is perfect for his body and everything he does."
With day two expected to move back to a more conventional approach with the younger guys in the morning and veterans in the afternoon, Willis says it's probably good to go that route after an introductory day on Thursday. Players such as Bo Harris, Josh Bynes and Adam Herring are all vying to work into the playing rotation out of the freshman class and Willis says the next few days will determine how advanced they are and if they're ready to move forward in the defense.
"After day one after they've seen how it is and how to work, now I think it's good to going back to having the freshmen in the morning," Willis says. "We had to do things because of exams, but I think Friday we will be how things were originally planned. The guys kind of understand the tempo and how we practice so they should be ready to go.
"Now everything has kind of snowballed," he adds. "We're going to put something on top of this and something on top of that. We'll see what kind of carryover they have in remembering the things we've already installed and also remembering the new stuff."