Strong Senior Start Continues for Dunn

Robert Dunn is developing into a key player for the Tigers this season.

Auburn, Ala.--In game one, Robert Dunn went from Coach Tommy Tuberville's "doghouse" to taking one to the house with Auburn's first punt return for a TD in more than a decade.

In game two he did it again, but a penalty behind the play negated the senior's potential second punt return for a TD of his college career.

Dunn started game one listed fourth on the depth chart at the slot receiver spot. He had been demoted from first team for upsetting the head football coach with his practice performances, but Tuberville allowed him to keep his punt return job.

Dunn returned to good graces at his receiver spot for Southern Miss and should have had Auburn's second punt return for a score since 1996.

The six-foot, 174-pound senior from Augusta, Ga., had already run a punt back 32 yards in the first half before taking a Britt Barefoot punt back 65 yards for an apparent touchdown early in the third quarter. That return was reduced to 47 yards when freshman Eric Smith was called for blocking below the waist.

What made the penalty even more damaging is that the block was thrown well behind the play with Dunn already negotiating the final few yards to the end zone with no defenders around.

Although Dunn was probably disappointed, he kept a positive perspective on the play. "I'm not mad at him," he said of Smith. "I appreciate him going so hard to make a block."

Perhaps it's part of a maturing process for Dunn, who has encountered his issues since arriving at Auburn.

Special teams coach Eddie Grant said he doesn't think being in the doghouse for the opener was the catalyst for Dunn's performance that has netted him 171 yards on seven returns for an average of 24.4 yards a return in Auburn's 2-0 start.

"I think it started last year with Alabama and Clemson when he had big returns," Gran pointed out. "He really started taking the ball north and south and setting up his blocks. He picked up from where he left off last year and it's carried over.

"He's a senior now and has been real special doing what he's doing," Gran said. "He's had a touchdown in the first game and one the second game that was called back. A little bit might be his maturing and him growing up."

Dunn is quick to spread praise for his early-season success and didn't put himself on a pedestal when asked after the Southern Miss game if he is the best punt returner in the Southeastern Conference.

"No, I don't believe that," he said. "I just feel like I need to do what I can and need to do. I'm not worried about other returners. I'm just trying to get 10 for 15 yards for the offense.

"If I get 25 yards or a touchdown, that's all well and good. I'm not saying that I don't want a touchdown. If I get one, that's great."

Gran and Dunn talked about the punt return team having up to seven freshmen making their presence known.

"They're adding fresh legs," Gran explained. "Darvin Adams has done an unbelievable job. Drew Cole is out there. You've also got D'Antoine Hood and Nieko Thorpe. I think there's about seven of them. I've never used this many freshmen, but they did a great job in camp. They were able to show us they could do it, so we're gonna use them."

Dunn concurred with his coach.

"Those guys just want to be out on the field," the senior said. "When they are out there, they give it 110 percent. I thank those guys every time I come off the field. That's a real blessing when you have someone so enthusiastic.

"Some players might say they don't won't to go out there on the return team, that they'd rather do something else. Those guys make great blocks and put in on the line."

Dunn jokingly said he's been "lucky" this year when asked about the success of the punt return team.

"Seriously, we worked a whole lot in the offseason. Coach Gran had me watch a lot of film of other returners. He wanted me to learn to be comfortable back there."

The film study and practice sessions evidently have paid off.

"He is smarter," said Tuberville. "Last year about midseason, he started to understand how to get the ball north and south and use his blockers. It all begins with the returner and playing a punt returner with the experience factor is like having an experienced quarterback."

Dunn's contributions aren't lost on his teammates.

"What Robert is doing right now is putting the offense in a situation to score easily and the defense in a situation where we don't have out backs to the end zone," said defensive back Jerraud Powers, who had an interceptions and a team-leading eight tackles against Southern Miss.

"It's fun watching him return punts," Powers added. "Everybody's standing up when Robert goes back there. It's good to see what's happening because that means the other guys on the team are blocking their butts off for him. He's getting to the lane and doing the job."

Dunn earned the respect of Southern Miss coaches. They instructed their punter Britt Barefoot to kick away from Dunn after his near touchdown. Twice Barefoot punted far out of bounds on kicks that traveled only 26 and 21 yards.

"That's wonderful," Dunn commented. "I'd like to get the ball, but if he wants to punt the ball out of bounds and give us an extra 20 or 30 yards, that's fine and dandy. That's what our coaches expect. They don't expect it to get kicked back to me every time. That means we are doing our job. In the end, getting better field position is our goal."

Dunn also caught two passes for 21 yards and rushed twice for another eight yards, giving him 130 all-purpose yards against Southern Miss. He's hoping to keep up the good work because time is running out on his career.

"Basically, this is my last go-round," Dunn said. "When I first came in, a lot of the older guys told me time is going to fly by. I've been here four years and time has flown by. I don't think I realized it until right before the season started and I had to go to senior meetings. Right now, I'm just trying to get everybody amped up and keep myself amped up"

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