With three returning starters and the backups also returning, the Auburn football team should be in solid shape at offensive tackle this season. The Tigers also returns both starters at guard and key backups there, too, although one of those players, Danny Lindsey, is making a move to center as a junior.
Line coach Hugh Nall says although the Tigers were much better on the offensive front in 2002 than in 2001, there is still plenty of room for improvement. "We are going to be working this spring to get better in everything we do thing," says Nall, who will also serve as offensive coordinator for the first time this season.
Marcus McNeill is one of the top young players in the SEC.
One of the players that Nall says has plenty room for improvement is young Marcus McNeill, who had about as impressive of a true freshman season as possible. "He had a really good year for a freshman, but there are a lot of things we have got to continue to improve on," Nall says. "He has got to get better in a hurry with fundamental technique stuff. We didn't expect him to be in the playing rotation, but he had to and I am glad he was here. He did a great job for us, but there are a lot of things we have got to fine-tune."
McNeill, who is 6-9, 329 pounds, earned Freshman All-SEC honors last fall as he played in 11 games and started six after Taylor Bourgeois was lost for the season with a shoulder injury. Bourgeois, who will be a redshirt sophomore this year, is expected to be back in the competition for a starting job when preseason drills start in August.
In the spring, the backup to McNeill at strong tackle will be 6-6, 309 redshirt junior Ryan Broome. "He did some good things towards the end of the year, but he's still got to step up," Nall says. "Ryan Broome is a physical specimen that could be a big-time player. He has just got to get more productive on a play-by-play basis of being more physical in his production. Ryan, for the most part, is going to go to the right place. He is a smart kid with almost a 1300 SAT. That is pretty impressive. He has just got to get more productive once he gets to the right point, the right place."
Ryan Broome played well in Auburn's bowl victory over Penn State.
On the other side at weak tackle, 6-5, 312 senior Mark Pera is the returning starter. "I thought he played well last year," Nall says. "Just going back through the cut-ups, there are a lot of things he has got to get better at, especially in pass protection. I thought he was playing really well during two-a-days. Once he got that injury he was never the same.
"I am looking forward to seeing him back out there and hopefully keeping him healthy and regaining the way he was back during two-a-days," Nall says. "His injury was like a hip flexor. I don't know if that hurt his flexibility and his mobility, but he was never the same. There are some things that have got to improve with him, but he is a smart kid who works hard.
"The backup at that position is a big question," Nall says. "There might be some flipping of some guys, having to play both the weak tackle and the strong tackle until we find the right combination. I really feel like if Taylor Bourgeois was healthy that there is a chance for him to be your fifth starting lineman somewhere. It just depends on how the weak guard position does, but he was, by far, one of my best five last season early in the year. If we can get him back healthy, it will give me some flexibility whether it is Pera at guard or him at tackle. Whatever the combination is, if he is in the mix, I feel pretty good."
Taylor Bourgeois was shut down last season to have shoulder surgery.
Nall says it is doubtful that Bourgeois will practice in the spring. "I don't think so," the coach says. "If there is any question, then he won't. He has got to get better fundamentally. There is some stuff we can work on with his fundamentals without having to go full speed, but I need him in the fall. I don't need him in the spring. He has proven to me he is not scared of contact, he isn't scared of work. A lot of times, in the spring, you are trying to find out who understands the game of football and who thinks they are a football player."
Nall will also be keeping an eye on 6-6, 280 redshirt sophomore Drew Kirk, who practiced well last spring but missed the 2002 season due to injury. "He is a good player," the coach says.
Steven Ross, a 6-6, 282 redshirt sophomore, could also see some action at weak tackle this spring in addition to his duties at tight end and possibly at center. Rich Trucks, a 6-8, 323 junior walk-on, will be a swing player who could see action at either tackle or guard. "Trucks is a great kid who will work hard," Nall says.
Troy Reddick saw prime time action as a true freshman.
At weakside guard, sophomore Troy Reddick, a 6-5, 297-pounder, will line up as the first stringer on the opening day of spring drills on Tuesday. However, the starting spot is vacant with Lindsey moving to center. Reddick is expected to be pushed by fellow 2002 signee Jonathan Palmer, a 6-5, 298-pounder. Reddick played in seven games last fall as a true freshman and started three. Palmer didn't see game action and took a redshirt, but showed that he has potential to compete for playing time this fall.
At strong guard, Monreko Crittenden is the returning starter as he heads into his senior season for what is expected to be his third year as a starter. Taller but lighter, Thomas Anderson, a 6-7, 320 transfer from Butler County Community College in Kansas, goes into the spring No. 2 on the depth chart behind Crittenden.
"The starter at the weak guard position is something we have got to identify," Nall says. "Of course, Troy Reddick will go in being that guy. We will probably put Jonathan Palmer in there behind him. Jonathan has really had a real good winter workout. He looks good out there in the morning drills. He has gotten bigger. He has got a chance to be a big-time player.
"We also want to come out of the spring with a starter set at strong guard. In my opinion, if Monreko does what he is supposed to do day in and day out he could be as good as there is in the country. He can be as bad as there is in the country, too. We have got to make sure we keep his weight off. I think he put on some weight during the bowl trip and the first part of the year. We are working to get that back down. When he is around 330 to 335, somewhere in there, he does pretty good. He really did well last year keeping it under 340. I think he came back at 352 so, needless to say, the bowl trip was good to him, but he is working hard. Of course, Yox's working him hard to get it down.
Thomas Anderson redshirted last season after transferring to AU.
"Thomas Anderson is behind Monreko. Anderson has a lot of talent and is a big kid. We are expecting him to make a run for playing time and compete for the number two spot."
Also at guard, 6-2, 328 junior Nate French is going to have to perform better than he did last season to make a run at playing time, Nall says. Rhett Autry, a 6-4, 288 sophomore walk-on from Jay, Fla., returns at guard. The only player the Tigers must replace at either guard or tackle is Ryan Hockett, a walk-on who started the opener at guard against Southern Cal and saw action in nine other games as a reserve.
Mark Pera is the returning starter at weakside tackle.
If the Tigers get through spring drills without major injuries and make the type of progress Nall is looking forward to seeing, the offensive front should be an Auburn team strength in 2003.
Editor's Note: Part 15 of the series will be posted on Sunday.