That has been especially true at Auburn since the arrival of Tommy Tuberville. Offensive line coach Hugh Nall, a firm believer in keeping the five starting linemen together as much as possible, wasn't known for liberal substituting until this season. Searching for the right combinations at several positions, he found one that has turned out to be a perfect complement at strong tackle with redshirt freshman Taylor Bourgeois and true freshman Marcus McNeill.
Bourgeois came into the season looking to stay healthy after having shoulder surgery over the winter. A talented player, the Nashville native started the fall strong before injuring the opposite shoulder (old injury from high school) during two-a-days. That opened the door for McNeill to play, but Nall, worried about McNeill's lack of knowledge of the offense and experience, put Monreko Crittenden at tackle for the USC game, moving McNeill inside to guard, and things seemed to be settled.
When the Tigers returned home Bourgeois was ready to resume playing and, looking for some push up front, Nall moved Crittenden back to his natural position at guard. That meant McNeill would be better served back at tackle. Seeing his first action of the season against Western Carolina, the big 6-9, 347-pound freshman played a significant role against Vanderbilt the next week when Bourgeois' shoulder problem flared up again. Following a solid combined outing against Mississippi State last Thursday, the duo said they're happy with the way things have worked out so far this season.
"Taylor is a real big help to me," McNeill said. "I don't know if I would have caught on to some of the stuff as fast as I have if Taylor wasn't there because he's been here already and he knows the plays. It really helps me to be able to turn around or look out on the field and ask him questions like, ‘Why did you do that?' or ‘What am I supposed to do in this situation?'"
Needing someone to take on part of the load the last few weeks, Bourgeois said that McNeill has really been important not only to him, but the entire offensive line.
"It's been nice," Bourgeois said. "Marcus has been a blessing in the fact that he's been able to step up and do so well. It's also been a blessing that it (shoulder) stayed in last game. It's been almost two weeks now since the last time it popped out. It's feeling good and hopefully it will stay in.
"For a true freshman, coming in and playing like he's playing is pretty impressive. He's a giant. He just mauls people."
After earning his first start against the Bulldogs, McNeill said that everything fell into place for him during the game. Following a rough start against the blitzing style of Joe Lee Dunn, he said that he picked up on the stunts and blitzes and from that point was ready to face anything they could throw at him.
"I'm feeling pretty good about what we're doing now," McNeill said. "I'm learning the system a lot better. We change our system a little bit depending on what kind of game plan we need to go against a defense. I'm pretty much settling down a little bit."
Spencer Johnson and the Tigers worked out with shoulder pads and shorts on Thursday.
The Tigers put the finishing touches on the game plan for Syracuse with a 90-minute Thursday practice in off-and-on rain showers thanks tropical Storm Isidore. Back practicing was defensive tackle Spencer Johnson, who has been bothered by a sprained ankle suffered against Mississippi State. His return, along with several days rest for DeMarco McNeil and the move of Dexter Murphy inside from end, should give the Tigers a healthier defensive tackle position than they've had since the opener in Los Angeles.
The Tigers also spent a large portion of practice time on the special teams. Working on blocking and coverage assignments on both the punt and kickoff teams along with punt protection, coach Eddie Gran put the players through the paces to make sure they understand the plans for Saturday's night game against the Syracuse Orangemen.
The Tigers will head out of town to LaGrange, Ga., on Friday afternoon as part of their normal routine. They return for Tiger Walk at roughly 5:50 p.m. with special guests leading them down Donahue Drive towards Jordan-Hare Stadium. Members of the 1957 National Championship Team and NFL stars Stephen Davis, Fred Beasley and Marcus Washington will be leading the Tiger Walk.
Tuberville said he was pleased with the Thursday practice and noted that he thought the team looked quicker this week with three days off following the 42-14 victory over Mississippi State a week earlier. The Tigers and Orangemen game will be televised on ESPN2 with the telecast starting at 8 p.m.