The players will take Sunday off before returning for workouts on Monday and Tuesday prior to heading home for the holiday. They will reassemble the day after Christmas in Tampa for an all-you-can eat dinner at an Outback Steakhouse followed by a trip to an NHL hockey game.
The Tigers worked out in shoulder pads, helmets and sweat pants on Saturday.
Defensive coordinator and linebackers coach Ted Roof said that he is encouraged with the way linebacker Eltoro Freeman is looking in practice. The sophomore starter was injured during the Georgia game and didn't return for that contest or the regular season finale vs. Alabama.
Roof said he appreciates having extra time to get players like Freeman ready to play as well as put in a game plan for Northwestern's complex offense.
Freeman's backup, true freshman Jonathan Evans, will also see action in the bowl, said Roof, who noted that the linebacker's confidence has "grown a lot" after having a solid performance as a first-time college starter vs. Alabama.
"I think getting a taste of that, of what that feels like on a big stage, as big a stage as there is in college football, that is usually a really good thing for a young man--especially for (learning) what it takes to do it, what it takes to play through some rough situations and also understanding like, ‘yeah, that is why they want me to do this, or that is why they tell me this in practice or that is why they want me to lift those weights or whatever.'"
"They spread you out and make you defend the whole width of the field, and that is a change from the last couple of offenses we have played," he said. "The last four games were not spread."
Roof noted that he liked what he saw from the Tigers on Saturday. "There was a ot of energy and a lot of focus," he pointed out. "They have focused every day and today was no exception. As we get close to putting in the end of the game plan, you feed them something new every day to make sure there is something new and something fresh."
Luper said he is encouraged by what he has seen from true freshman running back Onterio McCalebb, a key player early in the season who was not as effective in the second half of the season due to being slowed by nagging injuries.
"He is doing well," Luper said of back who is from Fort Meade, Fla. "Obviously, he has had time for that ankle and the toe to heal. He did well in school and is just ready to go home and play in front of some family."
McCalebb was a big-play threat for the offense early in the season.
Luper noted that McCalebb is "probably better" than he has been all season because he is healthy and experienced going into the New Year's Day game vs. the Northwestern Wildcats. "We expect big things from him on the first," the coach added.
Luper said the extra practice time the bowl provides has allowed him to give more attention to redshirting true freshman Dontae Aycock, who is making the move from high school quarterback to college tailback.
"He is really used to running as a scout team running back where all you do is dodge defenders because we can't block them," Luper said. "We have got to retrain him."
Luper noted that Aycock needed a redshirt season, but should be ready to contribute in 2010. "He knows that he wasn't ready to play so that made the adjustment (to college) easier," the coach said.
"He did well in school and he kind of re-structured his body, which is good," Luper added.
Like Luper, Roof had praise for what he has seen from a redshirting freshman. Nosa Eguae, who was expected to see action at defensive end, injured his foot the week of the opening night game and was held out this season, but he is getting plenty of attention in bowl practices.
"I have really been impressed with Nosa," Roof said. "We think he has a very, very bright future. He is very talented, but he is a relentless worker and a great young man."
Nosa Eguae is a freshman from Mansfield, Texas.
The Tigers did little substitution on defense in their last outing vs. Alabama. Roof said that should change for the bowl game because the defense will be healthier and because Northwestern's fast-paced style of play will require the backups to play more. "It is all hands on deck," the coach said. "This is our last game of the season, the first game on next season--however you want to look at it. We are counting on everybody."
While the players have the rest of the weekend off, the coaching staff will continue to work on recruiting as well as season-long self-scout of Auburn's tendencies on offense and defense. The coaches are also playing host to one of the nation's top-rated junior college prospects, Cameron Newton from Blinn JC in Texas, who is taking an official visit to check out the program.