Tigers Focus on Improving Special Teams

A practice report features comments from Gene Chizik and others plus an injury update as the Auburn Tigers continue preparations for West Virginia.

Auburn, Ala.--After suffering a blocked punt and other disappointments in the kicking game vs. Mississippi State, the Auburn Tigers focused on special teams at Wednesday evening's practice.

The Tigers worked out for two hours on a rainy evening at their outdoor artificial turf practice field in helmets, shoulder pads and shorts working on the game plan for Saturday night's intersectional showdown with West Virginia of The Big East.

"We always devote a lot of time to special teams-- that's Coach (Gene) Chizik's philosophy," special teams coach Jay Boulware said. "Unfortunately, we are not reaping the benefits that you would like to see right now, but that will come.

"This is not our first rodeo," added Boulware, who also coaches the tight ends. "We installed a special teams unit from scratch at Iowa State and it was slow to come there with the guys we had there. We have much better athletes here. We have to do a good job of coaching them and getting them better...I have got to do a better job of getting those guys ready to go, ready to play and coach them a little bit harder."

Boulware said he is not happy with the punt return game. "Have you seen us go back there and catch one yet?," he said. "Until we get consistency back there, we are going trying to find our niche. We have got some guys who are working hard at it and really want to do it, but you know it is different...We don't have a guy on campus who caught a punt for us last year."

Mario Fannin, Anthony Gulley and Demond Washington are the main candidates to return punts and Quindarius Carr is also getting a look.

Boulware did have praise for his kickers. He said that Wes Byrum has been sharp in practices and games so far and that Morgan Hull is doing a good job on kickoffs. Hull strained a thigh muscle just prior to the opener and shared the kickoff duties with Byrum vs. Louisiana Tech, but looks like he will be the main man on kickoffs this season. "He has worked really hard," Boulware said of Hull.

Boulware said that Onterio McCalebb and Mario Fannin will be the starting kickoff returners again this week. They will be backed up by Terrell Zachery, Neiko Thorpe, Anthony Gulley and Demond Washington. "We have got to get those guys some room," said Boulware, who notes that a focus of practice is to improve the blocking on the kickoff return team.

Commenting on the Wednesday evening practice, Chizik said, "Today was really good work for us simply because we were able to play in some sloppy conditions and have to focus more and do the things that we don't normally get to do, but overall it was a good practice, and good tempo.

"We've got a couple more days and we need it," Chizik said. "This is a great football team we're playing, and we are a work in progress right now, but again, I thought today was a good day."

Chizik said that H-Back Tommy Trott is making progress recovering from a knee injury he suffered on Saturday night, but didn't say if the senior would be available. Chizik did note that Trott's backup, true freshman Philip Lutzenkirchen, continues to make progress.

"He felt good today in terms of just kind of moving around," Chizik said of Trott. Commenting on Lutzenkirchen, Chizik said, "It is a learning experience and there are growing pains that go with the position, but I am really proud of him. He is a really focused young guy. He really wants to be good and I think he will be a very good player here. We have got to obviously get production out of him and he is going to play more as time goes on."

Backup safety Drew Cole, who was injured on kickoff coverage vs. Mississippi State, probably won't be available for the West Virginia game, Chizik said.

Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said that junior defensive end Antoine Carter, who has missed the first two games with a knee problem, continues to make practice. However, Rocker isn't sure when Carter will be ready to play in a game.

The Tigers are still missing two of their more experienced players--junior safety Mike McNeil and junior wide receiver Tim Hawthorne. Both are recovering from broken bones.

"Mike is kind of a work in progress still," Chizik said. "Tim has come on somewhat in the last three or four days. We don't know exactly where he will fit in the whole plan, but we are hoping to slowly but surely get ready to play."

Hawthorne is practicing, but hasn't been cleared for contact yet.

Wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor said that freshman wide receivers DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake, who were pushing for starting jobs in preseason, need to improve. "They will be involved when they earn," Taylor said. "They have got to make plays. It is pretty simple. Right now, the two guys who are making plays, if it ain't broke don't fix it. Those two guys (Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery) have really stood out. Darvin and T-Zach have earned what they are getting. Until something changes in practice or one of those guys goes down or doesn't make plays."

Taylor notes that Benton missed practice time last week because of a death in the family. "It was a little different for him."

Another freshman, Anthony Gulley, is having a good week in practice and could see expanded playing time this week, Taylor said.

Anthony Gulley

In other news:

*Former Alabama head football coach Dennis Franchione will be working at Jordan-Hare on Saturday evening. "Coach Fran" will be the analyst for the ESPN National Radio network coverage of the game.

*The Auburn Network broadcast is available on XM Channel 197.

*West Virginia has a 22-17-2 record vs. SEC teams with the only meeting with Auburn coming last year in Morgantown.

*Auburn has a 5-3-1 record vs. teams from the Big East, which is WVU's conference.

*Auburn comes into the game with Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb both looking to break the 100-yard rushing mark for a third straight week. The Mountaineers have only given up nine 100-yard rushing games in the last 53 contest.

*Saturday's game will be the first time the Mountaineers have played a football game in the state of Alabama.

*In last year's game at West Virginia, the Mountaineers rushed for 271 yards on 35 carries while Auburn managed just 149 rushing yards on 45 carries. WVU passed for 174 to 111 for the Tigers.

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