Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville put his team through 40 minutes of special teams drills in a Thursday practice that lasted nearly two hours. The session in helmets and shorts was the first non-contact practice of the week for the Tigers.
"They are good on special teams," Tuberville says of the Rebels, who come into Saturday's 11:30 a.m. game with a 4-4 overall record and a 2-3 mark in the SEC. Auburn is also 2-3 in the league and 4-4 overall.
"Their punter is doing a good job," Tuberville says. "Their coverage teams have been very good. I think they gave up one long return against Samford. Their kicker does a great job of kicking the ball in the corner--deep left corner. He is very accurate."
Junior Joshua Shene is the kicker and he has hit 12-13 field goals this year, by far the best of any player in the conference.
Speedy Mike Wallace is averaging 26.8 yards per kickoff return and has run one back for a touchdown. Marshay Green has a punt return for a score and is averaging 11.4 yards on his 14 returns this season.
"They have got a lot of good athletes on the team," Tuberville says. "All of these guys playing have been playing for a couple of years. They have been kind of loading up. They have taken their lumps. They are at the point now they want to give somebody else some problems and it starts on special teams."
Tuberville says that Thursday's practice concluded a good week of workouts that continued the emphasis started prior to the West Virginia game of being more physical. Thursday's practice was the only one of the week that the first team offenses and defenses didn't compete against each other in contact drills.
"We have challenged each group on defense and offense and it has gotten better," Tuberville says. "The practices have been longer and we have had a few more guys in the training room. That is part of it.
"I think it has helped us," he adds. "I think it has helped our chemistry. It has gotten us together more on the field. Guys are pulling for each other. If somebody drops the ball even the defensive guys pat them on the back and say ‘catch the ball next time.' Stuff like that. It is more of a team concept by going against each other as much as we have."
Tailback Ben Tate, who has been battling a hamstring problem this month, should be closer to full speed on Saturday. "He's probably not quite 100 percent, but he took all of his reps all week long," Tuberville says of the junior. "He didn't miss a rep, he didn't have to warm up on the bicycle."
Cornerback Neiko Thorpe, who injured an ankle last week, will not play this Saturday and the head coach says he hopes cornerback Jerraud Powers will be able to contribute vs. the Rebels as the junior continues to rehab from his hamstring problem. Noseguard Tez Doolittle, who has been rehabbing a groin injury this week, is expected to play.
Robert Dunn, who has been recovering from an ankle problem, is doing better physically and in addition to playing receiver he could return punts this week.
Clinton Durst, who was given a shot at the field goal duties this week, is expected to stay at punter. Wes Byrum, who has been slumping with his kicking, had a good week in practice and may have held off a challenge from backup Morgan Hull. However, if Byrum struggles in pre-game warmups the coaches may decide to go with walk-on Hull for both field goals and kickoffs.
Defensive end Antoine Carter, who has missed the past two games with an ankle injury, should be ready to help the Tigers at Ole Miss, says Terry Price, his position coach. "We can't say much about injuries, but we are going to try to get him in there and see what he can do," Price says.
The Tigers spent approximately an hour tuning up the game plan vs. the offensive and defensive scout teams. Tuberville says a theme for the week has been playing with confidence.
"I keep telling the players they have just got to keep believing in themselves," he says. "We have just got to gain some confidence. We are not very confident right now."
Another issue the Tigers are dealing with is their uneven performances on game days. Auburn has led every contest at halftime and played much better the first two quarters than in quarters three and four.
"We did a lot more physically and mentally in terms of running and getting them ready and trying to find an answer to that second half," Tuberville says. "Still, you have got to play that first half, too. We don't want to get that mixed up.
"We want to come out of the blocks and play well and play more consistent. But again, it is about believing in what you are doing, and how you are doing it, and believing in the guy next to you and going out and playing for four quarters.
"We need something good to happen to us when we first go out there," Tuberville says of beginning play in the third quarter. "We have gone back and looked and it looked like we are waiting for things to happen instead of making things happen--coaching and playing. We have got some things in mind we want to try to do if the situation arises, but there is no miracle formula. We just have to go out and player better, play for four quarters, coach better and coach for four quarters."
Part of the agenda this week has been preparing for the Ole Miss version of the wildcat formation that puts speedy receiver Dexter McCluster at quarterback. "You have to have a couple of ways to play so if one doesn't work you can go to the other," says Tuberville, who adds that the Tigers still have that formation in their playbook with Mario Fannin at quarterback.
Going into Saturday's game, Ole Miss is a lot happier football team than Auburn because the Tigers went into the season with high expectations while the Rebels have struggled in recent seasons.
Tuberville says it hasn't been easy for his players to deal with a 4-4 record. "They start doubting themselves and you don't want them to do that," he notes. "Of course, they can read things and they hear things and that is tough to overcome because nobody on this team since they have been here has gone through a three-game losing streak that consisted of two conference games back-to-back. It is a growing experience. There will be a lot of good things that come out of it. It will pay dividends for a lot of them down the road."
In contrast, the Rebels are not as down about being 4-4 overall with just two SEC wins. "I don't think they had won a conference game for a while," Tuberville says. "It's all relative to what you have done in the past and what you are doing now. Obviously, everybody looks at us and says something is wrong, we have lost four games, because you look back and we have won 50 games in the last five years so it is tough for us to take.
"If you think it is hard for the fans to take, it is harder for the players and coaches than the players to take it than it is for fans. It eats at us because we know we are better than how we have played. We know we have played a lot of good teams, but I put them in a bind in the middle of the year and I have told everybody that. We should be a lot better right now. We are kind of like we are in the third or fourth game of the year instead of the eighth game in terms of what we are doing on offense and defense so hopefully we get better."
Saturday's game will be televised regionally by Raycom Sports. Auburn is looking for its fifth consecutive victory over the Rebels in the series. The last loss for the Tigers vs. Ole Miss was in 2003 when Eli Manning led the Rebels to a 24-20 victory at Jordan-Hare Stadium.