Youth Movement: Tigers Counting on Newcomers

A report on the Auburn football team features comments from players and coaches.

Auburn, Ala.--Auburn could play around a dozen true freshmen in Gene Chizik's inaugural season as head football coach of the Tigers.

Chizik's team is expected to get help from newcomers on both sides of the ball. One of the newcomers who could make a big impact is running back Onterio McCalebb, a 5-10, 174-pounder, who has shown excellent speed and big-play potential.

"I can't wait for the first game," McCalebb tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "I feel like I am ready to play. I have made a lot of progress since I came in back in January."

McCalebb is a year older than most of his fellow freshman after spending last fall in prep school at Hargrave Military Academy after originally signing with Auburn the previous February.

He was able to get a head start by participating in winter workouts and spring practice. "Back then the plays weren't coming to me like they are now," he says of spring drills. "I think everything is going really well now."

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn says he hopes to be able to take advantage of McCalebb's speed and ability to make big plays. The running back is considered to be the fastest player on Auburn's offense this season, something that the freshman doesn't dispute.

Onterio McCalebb

To take advantage of that speed, the coaches could line him up as a slot receiver to try to get him in a mismatch with a linebacker or safety. He is also getting a serious look as a kickoff returner is expected to start in that role vs. Louisiana Tech. Additionally, the freshman has been getting practice time returning punts.

McCalebb has several ambitious goals for his first season of college football. "I want to lead the SEC in kickoff returns and I want to be the SEC Freshman of the Year," he says.

McCalebb isn't the only freshman running back who could earn playing time this season. Dontae Aycock, who is making the conversion from high school quarterback to college tailback, may get in the mix, especially with backup running back Eric Smith being disciplined by Chizik after being arrested for his involvement in an off-campus fight.

Nowhere on offense is the freshman influence expected to be felt more than at wide receiver. DeAngelo Benton, the 21-year-old freshman from Bastrop, La., was pushing for a starting job at one of the outside receiver spots even before senior Montez Billings received a four-game suspension that will keep him out until the Tennessee game.

Benton, a former high school All-American, signed with LSU as a high school senior and again after attending prep school, but didn't qualify either time. On his third try he selected Auburn and qualified. He has been on-campus all summer taking classes, working on his conditioning and working out the rust out after not playing football last fall.

DeAngelo Benton is expected to contribute early this season.

With good hands, good speed and the ability to make yards after the catch, Benton could bolster a receiving corps that has not been a team strength in recent seasons.

Emory Blake has impressed wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor with his talent and maturity. The son of former NFL quarterback Jeff Blake is almost certain to play early and often for the Tigers.

Another freshman receiver has been one of the big-play guys of the preseason. Anthony Gulley from Brantley High School has been effective catching passes and running the football.

If the Tigers need more help at receiver from the freshman class they can turn to Travante Stallworth, another former high school quarterback being converted to a different position. He has shown quickness and solid hands since arriving on campus from Leesville, La., High School. Chizik says both Stallworth and Gulley have a chance to contribute immediately.

One of the more intriguing newcomers is 6-4, 262 tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who is in line to see playing time this year. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn says the big freshmen has displayed good hands, as expected, plus shown the coaches that he has maturity and a good feel for how to play the game.

The most likely of the true freshmen offensive linemen to get in a game this season is John Sullen. A local product from Auburn High, the former AU coaching staff didn't offer Sullen a scholarship, but Chizik's staff took an immediate liking to the 6-5, 332-pounder who is making the move from high school tackle to collegiate guard. New offensive line coach Jeff Grimes says he likes how quickly Sullen has been learning his assignments.

Defensively, immediate help is expected from safety Daren Bates, whose play has been one of the highlights of preseason. The 5-11, 195-pounder from Olive Branch, Miss., High School could help fill the hole with returning starter Mike McNeil still recovering from a broken bone in his foot.

Bates isn't a big safety, but is establishing himself as a big hitter, an attribute that has won the freshman praise from Chizik, defensive coordinator Ted Roof and safeties coach Tommy Thigpen. "We like his effort and intensity," Thigpen says. Fellow safety Zac Etheridge, who will join Bates in the starting lineup, says, "From the first day he got to practice he has played with intensity. He has shown us he is going to be a physical player."

Nosa Eguae goes into the season as a second stringer at defensive end.

A pair of freshman defensive ends are likely to see action. Nosa Eguae is from Summit High in Mansfield, Tex., and Dee Ford is from St. Clair County High. Ford got a brief look at linebacker, where the Tigers are short on depth, but that experiment did not last long. Ford, at 6-4, 220, is undersized to play end and notes that he will have to use his hands and his speed to be effective in the college game.

The Tigers signed just two freshman linebackers. Both Harris Gaston and Jonathan Evans have great opportunities to contribute this fall. Both have gotten plenty of reps in practice this preseason and both are running second team on the depth chart.

Three other members of the 2009 signee class are expected to contribute on defense. Juco transfer Eltoro Freeman has been running first team at weakside linebacker. Nick Fairley is expected to contribute at both tackle and end. Demond Washington is running second team at cornerback.

Last season the Tigers played 10 true freshmen from their 2008 signee class, a total that the Tigers are likely to match or possibly exceed this fall.

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