Auburn, Ala.--Playing a I-AA opponent this week in Tennessee Tech, the Auburn Tigers have changed up the practice schedule just a bit. Because of nine consecutive weeks of play, three of the last five on the road and night games, Coach Tommy Tuberville says his team and particularly his starters needed a break.
As far as Auburn freshman safety Michael McNeil is concerned the break can come at another time. One of a large group of back ups expected to see plenty of action this week, McNeil says things are a little different in practice, but the team is still working towards playing well this weekend.
"It's not so much laid back, but we condensed practice a little bit by a couple of periods," McNeil says. "We're going to prepare for everyone the same. The main difference in practice is that the twos are getting more reps than they have in previous weeks."
The previous weeks have been tough on this Auburn team. Playing without several starters on defense as well as a few key reserves, the unit has willed its way to playing well. McNeil says despite the lack of rest the team has had this season, there is a job to do that continues this week even for a player in his first year of college football.
"It's not harder than I thought it would be, but it takes a toll on your body," McNeil says. "We've got a lot of players banged up and people playing hurt, but it's a part of the game. It's something you've got to do. It's a long season. It's the SEC. It's the toughest conference out there. Only the strong survive."
Playing mostly as a dime back for the Tigers this season when Auburn goes to six defensive backs, McNeil has shown that he has a knack for finding the football. Despite limited time on the field, the Mobile native is ninth on Auburn's team in tackles with 27 this season.
He is just one of many youngsters playing well for the Tigers this season. Only four of Auburn's top 13 tacklers through nine games are seniors. Offensively only Brandon Cox, Carl Stewart and Cole Bennett are seeing significant playing time at the skill positions as seniors with King Dunlap the only offensive lineman.
While many young players are already playing big roles on defense, there are many talented freshmen and sophomores looking to get more time this weekend. Zach Clayton Mike Blanc, Jermarcus Ricks, Josh Bynes, Bo Harris, Walter McFadden and Ryan Williams are part of a large group that is anxious to show what they can do this week if given the opportunity.
"I'm definitely looking forward to getting a chance to showcase our talents," McNeil says. "All of the twos are. We've got some great young players. It will be good to get them some exposure. Some people don't get to play as much. This could give them a chance to go out there and get their confidence up."
Not only is McNeil already making an impact on defense this season, he has also become a special teams demon for Coach Eddie Gran. While the kickoff coverage team has struggled at times in coverage, the one bright spot has been McNeil. Leading the team in special teams tackles, McNeil says that's a way he can make an impact on the game while he continues to back up at the safety position.
"Coach Gran is always on us," McNeil says. "We'll go down and do it perfect, but one person will misfit and it will be out of the gate. We've got to correct that.
"Special teams are a big part of the game," he adds. "You can win on offense and defense, but if you make one slip up on special teams you can lose the game. I take pride in that. I like kickoffs because it gives me a chance to go down and hit somebody."
Saturday should be a good opportunity for McNeil and many of the young Tigers to add to their stat totals if the starters can build an early lead against the outmanned visitors. McNeil says that should make for some fun times and give a glimpse of the future of Auburn football, a future that McNeil says should be bright.
"It's always fun when you're out there watching Kodi Burns make plays or some of the other guys," McNeil says. "To see young guys in your class, guys that you live with, making plays, it tells you what type of team we're going to have down the road."