Tigers Practice and Celebrate Thanksgiving

A report on the Auburn football team is featured as the Tigers put the finishing touches on their preparations for the Iron Bowl game.

Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn football team practiced for more than an hour on a sunny Thanksgiving Day in its final tuneup for Saturday's road trip to face top-ranked Alabama.

The players and coaches followed the workout with dinner at Sewell Hall with the menu including fried turkey that head coach Tommy Tuberville helped prepare the previous evening.

"It has been a good two weeks of practice," Tuberville says. "We needed the open date. We have more guys healthy over this stretch. Nobody is on campus and so it has been a good week of being able to just work with the players and be around them during the week of Thanksgiving."

The Tigers go into the game a two-touchdown underdog against an 11-0 Alabama team that hasn't beaten Auburn since 2001.

"It hasn't been a great year for us, but we know this is a big game for everybody involved and our guys have worked very hard to hold up their end of the bargain," the coach says. "We know we have got a tough assignment. Alabama is probably playing as good as anybody in the country and we have got to go play them at their place so we know we have got to be well prepared.

"The thing we have talked about is how we have played this year and the times we have played well," Tuberville notes. "We have tried to put together videotapes of our best plays, our best defenses, our best hits--things we have done well in the kicking game. We have tried to dwell on those, duplicate those, and try to play better and more consistently.

"We haven't played a complete game all year for some reason," he says. "One week we will play good defense and we won't play good offense. The defense might be off the next week. We are just trying to play a complete game."

Tight end Gabe Mckenzie is expected to make his first start of the season on offense this Saturday replacing fellow junior Tommy Trott, who had knee surgery a week ago after being injured in the Georgia game. McKenzie moved from tight end to defensive end in preseason to help at position the Tigers were short on depth at due to injuries. McKenzie returned to offense for the Georgia game and caught two passes for 27 yards.

Kicker Wes Byrum is considered questionable for Saturday's game so sophomore walk-on Morgan Hull could be handling the field goal duties in addition to kicking off.

Auburn's starting front four on defense has been plagued by injuries this year, but after missing the Homecoming game Sen'Derrick Marks, Antonio Coleman and Tez Doolittle returned to action for the Georgia game. Although none are expected to be 100 percent, they should be quicker than they were against Georgia. "I think we are healthier up front than we have been in a long time," says Doolittle, a senior noseguard, who overcame a serious Achilles injury that caused him to miss the entire 2007 season and made his return this fall a pleasant surprise for the Tigers.

The Tigers go into the contest 5-6 as they try to improve their all-time record in games play at Tuscaloosa 7-0. However, to do that would take would be considered a major upset when comparing how the Tigers and Tide have played this year.

"You can't really worry going into a game," Tuberville says. "You can't really worry about Alabama and where they are ranked, how much of an underdog you are. You can't control any of that. What we try to control is how well we play, how well prepared we are going be, how emotional we are going to be, all of those kind of things."

The last time the Tigers went to Tuscaloosa as a big underdog was in 2002, a game won by Auburn 17-7. "I think that is good talk about the past, but it really makes no difference going into this game," Tuberville says. "This is totally different personnel, a totally different situation."

Tuberville talks to his team following Thursday's practice.

Despite losing 17-13 to Georgia prior to the off-week, the Tigers played one of their better games of the season against the Bulldogs. With the Tigers becoming healthier on the defensive side of the football, Auburn players say they are expecting a better performance in game 12 than they have had in recent games and Tuberville agrees that could happen.

"I think we are going to be a better football team this week," he says. "I think we were a better football team two weeks ago (against Georgia). Players win games for you. They are the ones who have to go out and get it done. We are not making excuses, we just weren't physically healthy in the middle of the season in a lot of important areas. And we have just had no consistency at all in any phase of the football team.

"Are we going to play that way this week? I don't know, but we have got a better chance because we do have more consistency in practice. We have got more experience on the field. We have got, obviously, a lot of guys from this state that they know they will have an opportunity to play in this game only a certain amount of times and they will lay it on the line so we will see what happens."

The Tigers should be close to as healthy as they have been all season at cornerback where they lost potential starter Aairon Savage for the year in preseason and backup cornerback Ryan Williams has been in the coach's "doghouse" all season and is redshirting this year. The Tigers also played without junior Jerraud Powers and freshman Neiko Thorpe at times this year, but both of those players are ready for action for Saturday's 2:30 p.m. game at Alabama.

"We weren't able to run our nickel and dime defenses the way we had in the past," Tuberville says. "We just didn't have enough depth there. We were trying to play safeties in our nickel position, which you don't do. You have got to have another corner. We didn't have one. There were some areas we were between a rock and a hard place. The first quarter of the Vanderbilt game (due to injuries that evening) probably had a tremendous impact on the next four or five games for us in terms of being able to play the defense that we normally like to play."

Putting more pressure on the secondary has been injuries to starting defensive linemen Michael Goggans, Marks, Coleman and Doolittle as well as backup Antoine Carter. Also, newcomers Jomarcus Savage, Raven Gray and Andre Wadley are all having to redshirt due to injuries.

"They have come at inopportune times," Tuberville says of the injuries. The coach watched one of his most impressive new players, wide receiver Philip Pierre-Louis, get injured on the first play of the season, a kickoff return that sidelined him for the season after having surgery.

"It seemed like all year long, in areas we needed performance out of that we were less in depth, that is where we got injured," Tuberville says.

Tigers (left to right) Chris Todd, Jonathan Vickers, Neil Caudle and James Swinton line up for food on Thursday at Sewell Hall.

More than 40 Tigers missed games or practices with injuries in preseason or during the season and others played at less than full speed on Saturdays. Is Tuberville considering changing the way the Tigers practice in 2009?

"We had very physical practices, and we have always done that here," he says. "We lost some players in practice to high ankle sprains and groin pulls, the minor things that might not be season-ending, but you can't practice and might miss a game or two, and might not be 100 percent.

"I wouldn't change anything," he says on how the Tigers prepare for the season and individual games. "It is kind of the luck of the draw what happens to you. There have been seasons when we haven't any injuries. Guys have gone the entire season and practiced and played in games and you had the same guys.

"This year has been a challenge, we've learned from it, but again you can't change your philosophy in terms of how you practice or how you play just because of that. Everybody has those things happen to you. You just have to fight through them."

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