Johnson Excited About Being Back

Linebacker Merrill Johnson and Coach Tommy Tuberville talk about Thursday's practice and getting some injured players back on the field.

Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn Tigers (6-3) put the finishing touches on the game plan for Tennessee Tech with an hour and a half practice in shorts and shoulder pads. Coach Tommy Tuberville says the week has been a tough one for his team on the practice field, but he likes the effort out of the guys.

"We finished up a good week of practice," Tuberville says. "It was a little warmer today than what we expected. Our guys have responded. We had an opportunity to rest a couple of guys this week trying to get them back to 100 percent. We'll be more healthy this week than we've been in terms of defense with Merrill Johnson and Savage (Aairon Savage) back. I think they'll be starting, if not very soon.

"We had quite a bit of contact and not as much mental as we've been doing the past couple of weeks," he adds. "We eased back on our film sessions. We cut back on that a little bit to get a little bit fresher for the last two conference games."

While several players are expected back this week, Tuberville says there are also a few players that will be held out of this week's game to make sure they are ready for the stretch run. One player that is back is Robert Dunn, who Tuberville says will play. He adds that Dunn and Chris Slaughter should both see action returning punts this week.

"Ryan Pugh won't play," Tuberville says. "Brad Lester won't play. Wilhite (Jonathan Wilhite) will play. He was out practicing today. Craig Stevens won't play. Robert Dunn is back. He has been released from the doghouse."

One of the players expected back in action this weekend is Johnson. Auburn's most experienced linebacker coming into the season, Johnson has played extensively in just two games this season because of an injury to his rotator cuff. For the year he has just six tackles. For a player expected to be a big part of Auburn's defensive success, the season has been a trying one.

"It's real frustrating sitting on the sidelines seeing your teammates playing and you want to help, but injuries set you back," Johnson says. "The only thing you can do is just pray and hope for it to get better.

"It has been a whole lot tougher than I imagined," he adds. "You don't think about getting hurt. You work so hard during the summer and the smallest injury sets you back six or seven games. All you can do is try to stay positive and continue to help the team. Even if I'm not out there playing I keep trying to encourage the guys. I love to watch Chris Evans and Tray Blackmon and Craig Stevens fly around. As long as they're getting the job done I love it."

Without Johnson and Blackmon for much of the season, the Tigers have gotten by because of solid play from Evans, Stevens and a host of back ups such as Courtney Harden and Bo Harris. Johnson says it's that depth that makes the defense so good and the reason whey he knew they would be successful.

"Going into the season I knew our defense had firepower," Johnson says. "We didn't have 11 starters, every body was a starter. If one guy went down the other guy could step in and we weren't losing anything. By me going down we didn't lose anything. We had another guy that was going to step up."

This week is a chance for Johnson to get back into the flow on defense before the Tigers finish up the year with rival games against Georgia and Alabama. While his injured shoulder still isn't up to par, he says it's good enough now to give it a go.

"I'm not going to say it's 100 percent, but it's pushing towards 100 percent," Johnson says. "It's getting better. It's improving every week. It's getting stronger. I can do more with it."

The Tigers will try to take control of a game early against an outmanned Tennessee Tech team, but sometimes that's not easy to do after a long stretch of games like Auburn has endured in the first nine weeks. Tuberville says this week has been tough on his team, but they had to give the team a break no matter the opponent this week.

"It has been hard," Tuberville says. "The first nine weeks they know that any play could lose the game. When that happens it takes a lot out of them. We know we're going to have to play good this week. We're just going to try to play the best we can. It really wouldn't have made any difference what non-conference opponent we played we had to let up on them knowing these last two weeks were going to be pretty tough mentally and physically."

The kickoff for Saturday's game against Tennessee Tech is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. and there is no television. It is homecoming on the Plains where the Tigers have won 15 consecutive homecoming contests and have an all-time record of 67-8-5 on the special day.

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