The Auburn coaching staff received good news in January when two of the team's top players, linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas, decided to skip the NFL draft and return for another season of college football.
Karlos Dansby (11) and Dontarrious Thomas (54) are expected to anchor the 2003 Auburn defense.
Another reason for Tuberville to be upbeat is that Auburn returns 16 starters from the 2002 squad.
Last, but probably not least in the head coach's list of reasons for being optimistic about the 2003 Tigers, is that he says the team is coming into spring drills with momentum from a good offseason workout. On Tuesday, the Tigers will return to the practice field for the first of 15 spring workouts.
"Our guys are ready to start practicing," Tuberville says. "It has been a great offseason. We have gotten a lot accomplished. We have had several guys that haven't been able to do a lot because of injuries, but we are trying to get those back healthy. We have really pushed them hard. We have had several early morning workouts where the coaches have been able to work with their players and it has been good to get Steve Ensminger out there working with a lot of the guys and just learning names."
All of the injured players that Tuberville has been keeping an eye on over the offseason are talented ones. The good news is that all should be ready for two-a-days in August even if they aren't able to do much this spring. One of the wounded Tigers, junior Danny Lindsey, is a returning starter at guard and has also started at center, the position he is scheduled to play in 2003. Lindsey will be limited in spring drills as he recovers from foot surgery back in January.
Another offensive lineman with starting experience who also had surgery, sophomore tackle Taylor Bourgeois, is expected to see very limited action this spring as he continues to recover from a shoulder problem.
A defensive player who is bouncing back from surgery, junior linebacker Mayo Sowell, will be returning to his regular position after performing admirably at defensive end last year. Sowell injured his knee in the Georgia game and is not yet cleared to practice full speed, but he will be on the field with linebacker coach Joe Whitt learning the defensive system the Tigers installed last year after bringing in Gene Chizik to coordinate the defense.
Mayo Sowell won high praise from the Auburn coaches for his play last season at defensive end. He is returning to linebacker as a junior.
Sophomore linebacker Antarrious Williams, who suffered a broken bone in his leg in the bowl game, is not expect to take part in any on-the-field drills other than as a spectator. "Most of them will do something whether it is mental or physical," Tuberville notes.
Defensive coordinator Gene Chizik was a newcomer to Auburn going into last year's spring drills. Chizik says he wants to see improved play from the Tiger defense from the start to finish of the 2003 season.
Last spring, Auburn was learning new systems with new coordinators. Offensive line coach Hugh Nall is new the offensive coordinator, but the offensive system remains the same.
"There is going to be a lot of carryover," Tuberville says. "Obviously, we didn't have a lot of seniors last year, but we do have a lot of holes to fill. Spring practice is one of those (times) when you can kind of go in and move people around and look at people in certain situations. We won't make any moves early. Most everybody will start at the position they ended up last fall. We are going to work another angle this spring. Instead of moving people early, we are going to move them late if we are going to move them. We feel like most players are in a position in an area where they are going to help us and we want to keep that continuity where we finished up in the bowl practice, especially with the younger players, and keep learning the techniques they were learning."
Jake Slaughter (44) battles offensive tackle Rich Trucks in a spring 2002 practice.
An exception to the coaching staff's plans on moving players might be at fullback, where sophomore Jake Slaughter could get a look in the spring. He played the position last fall, but returned to middle linebacker before the end of the season, which is the position he played at the start of spring drills in 2002 before moving to defensive end. Brandon Johnson, a senior, is the only returning fullback.
Looking at the big picture, the Auburn coach says that the offseason has made the Tigers a bigger, faster and stronger football team. "We have pushed them real hard," Tuberville says. "Our leadership has gotten tremendously better over the last two months. You really find out who your leaders are because the guys have to step up--especially your seniors--and become more vocal because this is their team. It has been good to see these guys take the bull by the horn and kind of run with it because we know what we have got in front of us. We have got a tough schedule. They also know we can get a lot better than we were last year because we were only in one year of this offense and defense we were running."
The Tigers will have 15 days of spring practice, including the annual A-Day intrasquad scrimmage which is set for April 5th at 1 p.m. at Jordan-Hare Stadium. "It is going to be a fun spring," says Tuberville, who will be replacing three starters on defense (MLB Mark Brown, CB Horace Willis/Roderick Hood and FS Travaris Robinson) and three on offense (TE Robert Johnson, C Ben Nowland, WR Marcel Willis) plus kicker/punter Damon Duval and punt deep snapper Michael Lindsey.
Ronnie Brown is one of eight returning starters on offense from Auburn's bowl victory over Penn State. Brown was named offensive MVP in Orlando.
"We are going to challenge our players from day one," Tuberville says. "Hopefully, when we get to A-Day we will have a pretty good idea of what we are going into the season with and if we need to make any changes going into to two-a-days we can do that from what we saw in spring practice."
Editor's Note: AUTigers.com will have in-depth reports on all 15 spring practices beginning Tuesday evening.