On a team full of positions that can’t afford injuries, Auburn’s offensive line is probably the most desperate group to keep the starters on the field.
Line coach Jeff Grimes knows, barring injury, exactly who will start this year. There is no probably contender for a starting job outside of those five. I asked both Grimes and center Ryan Pugh which player is most likely to come off the bench. Neither of them could give me an answer.
Then again, Grimes said, this isn’t the worst depth situation he has inherited. When Grimes took over at Colorado, he had only five linemen on scholarship.
Playing through injuries will not be important for the starting five this year. It will be imperative. Ask Pugh. “It’s do or die every week,” Pugh said. “You can’t sit out a week with a bruise when you could be playing… We spent the 15 days in the spring showing the guys how tough we can be without depth. It’s something I think is going to pay off for us at the end.”
That could explain why Pugh spent the final week of spring practice playing through a broken femur. It’s also a major reason why tackle Lee Ziemba played through a significant knee injury throughout the 2008 season.
There is little doubt this line can be good enough to help Auburn run the ball. The question is: If injuries occur, where do the Tigers turn?
OPENING DAY PROBABLE STARTERS:
LT – Lee Ziemba, Jr.
LG – Byron Isom, Sr.
C – Ryan Pugh, Jr.
RG – Mike Berry, Jr.
RT – Andrew McCain, Sr.
OL – Bart Eddins, Jr.
OL – Kyle Coulahan, So.
OL – Rudy Odom, Sr.
T – A.J. Greene, So.
T – Vance Smith, So.
OL – John Sullen, Fr.
OL – Andre Harris, Fr.
OL – Darrell Roseman, Jr.
OL – Charles Bates, RFr.
T – Aubrey Phillips, Fr.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW:
Ziemba says he’s healthy after undergoing surgery shortly after the 2008 season. That’s great news for the Tigers. After a breakout true freshman campaign, Ziemba disappointed last year. He gave up some crucial sacks and committed some momentum- and drive-killing penalties. Auburn desperately needs Ziemba to be the dominant tackle he has already proven capable of being.
Pugh split time between tackle and center last year. He will spend the entire season at center this year. Grimes likes Pugh’s ability and his leadership. Grimes has also worked Mike Berry and Bart Eddins at center in case of emergency.
Grimes also feels good about Auburn’s guard tandem. Both Byron Isom and Berry spent time in the starting lineup a year ago. This year they both know they have big leads for starting jobs.
Andrew McCain is the newcomer along the starting unit. The right tackle spent the last three years buried on Hugh Nall’s depth chart. McCain has made the most of the coaching change and has seized the starting spot.
Grimes wants to redshirt both true freshmen John Sullen and Andre Harris. He knows, however, that might not be possible. For the same reason, Aubrey Phillips could be in the mix as a primary backup if he gets a waiver from the NCAA.
The list of guys on standby in case of injury is long. Many reserve linemen spent significant time on the sideline with injuries. Fall camp will be important for players vying for top reserve jobs. The primary prospects seem to be Eddins, Kyle Coulahan and Rudy Odom. A.J. Greene missed all spring with mono and Darrell Roseman has struggled through shin injuries throughout his career.
Vance Smith, a converted tight end, probably still needs to gain significant weight before entering the conversation for playing time.
KEEP IN MIND:
Grimes said he saw constant improvement along his line throughout the spring: “They’re much more physical. I think they’ve learned how to go harder longer. That’s something that’s important to us in this offense because our goal is to go as fast as we can and wear down our opponent. We can’t do that very well if we’re the ones getting worn out. I think we’re further along in terms of technique. We’re still in the middle of that progression where I feel like we can jump on the field and feel comfortable about where we are.”
Grimes saw Ziemba’s potential over the second half of spring practice: “I think he was pretty healthy from the first day but there was a point somewhere around the mid-point of spring ball where he just kind of took off – where he just kind of made a decision that it was really important for him to play hard and play physical and get ready to play. I saw a different side of him once he made that decision.”
Grimes on why McCain seemingly walked into a starting spot: “I looked at enough of him. I just went back and found the games where he played a little bit last year. I think I saw enough to see that this guy has the potential to play offensive tackle and we didn’t have a lot of other guys at the time.
“I think he was one of those guys that really took full advantage of getting a fresh start. For whatever reason the light bulb flashed on for him this spring. Even though he doesn’t have as much experience, he’s playing like a guy that does have a lot of experience. He’s very intelligent. He can take coaching and can apply it to his game and get better in a short amount of time. He really works hard. He’s got a great work ethic and we saw that even before we got to spring. He’s got a good frame. He moves his feet pretty well.
“He’s a guy that just has, in a lot of ways, surpassed a lot of guys’ expectations but he may have benefited from the fact that I told him when I got here that I didn’t have any expectations – ‘You’re starting fresh with me.’”
Pugh on Auburn’s need to return to a power run game: “I think you still have the run game and that’s been, over the years, something that’s never changed. As far as football has gone, there have been different ways to get to the run game, but if you look at the success of teams across the country, the teams that can run the ball the best tend to be playing for championships and tend to have a good record. When you run the ball it’s hard for the other team to score because you’re eating up the clock and if you have a good defense combined with the run game you’re going to be successful.”
Pugh on if there was a new level of energy upon Grimes’ arrival: “There was definitely a new level. There comes a point where you’re going to have a relationship with your position coach. Coach Grimes definitely brought in a new level of energy and at the same time he brought in a completely different coaching style.
“That’s something that maybe favors the players a bit more than the way coach Nall did things, but that was the way – coach Nall had a way that we was going to do things and he wasn’t going to get off track with how he did things and he was a very successful offensive line coach. There was no urge for him to change. Maybe his coaching style didn’t work with this group of players. Oftentimes that happens. That’s just part of the game.
“Coach Grimes has brought in a new style, a new energy. There’s always going to be a new energy with change. Coach Grimes has brought in a positive aspect on the offensive line. I think he’s made a good relationship with all the guys whereas in the past you might have some guys that felt like they didn’t get the chance they deserved. I think everyone just hit it off well with coach Grimes. He has a different style, different personality, completely different than what we’ve had in the past.”
Pugh on differences between Grimes and Nall:
“They’re polar opposites.”