A couple weeks into preseason camp, true freshman Anthony Gulley figured he would probably redshirt this season.
Three games into the season, he has already established himself as Auburn’s top punt returner.
“It’s a dream come true,” Gulley said after averaging 12 yards per return on Saturday. “I never thought in a million years from 1A football to playing at an SEC school, starting.”
Gulley restored credibility to a punt return unit that had none through the first two games. The Tigers muffed a pair of punts and struggled to gain any positive yardage on returns.
The former Brantley High School standout said his hometown turned out several fans for his debut. He joked the entire town showed up, adding that accounted for “about 50 people.”
Gulley has stuck to his rural roots since coming to Auburn.
“He is the most country guy I know,” receiver Tim Hawthorne said. “The most country person I’ve known in my life.”
In addition to returning punts, Gulley has also made his way into the offensive rotation at times this season.
Hawthorne sees bright days ahead of the freshman.
“He has a lot of potential – a raw athlete,” Hawthorne said. “The sky is the limit for Anthony Gulley. It’s just a matter of confidence. I think being back for punt returns has given him a lot on that, and as a receiver, also.
“He got his feet wet last week. I think his confidence will continue to grow.”
HOT RETURN: Defensive end/aspiring journalist Antoine Carter has asked more interview questions than he has played snaps so far this year.
The junior visited the interview room and asked DT Mike Blanc what he thinks of Carter’s return to the team.
That return, Carter said, is coming this week when the Tigers host Ball State.
Carter, once considered a pass-rush specialist, was supposed to challenge Michael Goggans for the strong-side defensive end position. Instead, he missed the first three games with a knee injury.
Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said Carter had returned to practice last week, but wasn’t sure when he would return. Apparently that comeback is slated for Saturday.
“He’s been doing good,” LB Craig Stevens said. “He’s been out there running around, he’s still trying to get used to running full speed and things like that but he’s back.”
Stevens also said LB Spencer Pybus, who had been sidelined with a concussion, has also returned to practice.
Speaking of Blanc, we’ve now gotten to the bottom of his suspicious absence during the first half of Game 1. Blanc said he was suspended for the first half of the game because he showed up late to that Tuesday’s practice. Nick Fairley started in his place.
RUNNING CLOCK: Through most of Saturday’s game, West Virginia shut down the Auburn run game.
In the fourth quarter, though, RB Ben Tate saw his opening. The grueling pace started wearing on the Mountaineers, leaving Tate and the Auburn offense ready to run some clock.
“I couldn’t really sense them getting slower, but I could tell their defensive line was getting a little gassed,” Tate said. “They weren’t as bad as the other two teams were in the fourth quarter, but you could still sense that they were pretty tired.”
Tate responded by gaining 25 yards on five carries in the ensuing possession, helping the Tigers run 3:53 off the clock.
“When you see their hands on their knees – I might be a little tired, too, but I’m used to it, I can push through it – that’s definitely a time when you look to pound them and add on the yards in the second half,” Tate said.
UNDECIDED: QB Tyrik Rollison and RB Dontae Aycock have not played through the first three games of the season.
That doesn’t necessarily mean they are on their way to redshirt seasons.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik said during his Tuesday press conference that the coaching staff has yet to make decisions on those true freshmen.
“It’s just a long season, and we’re only going into game four,” Chizik said. “One play Saturday could change all of our ideas. Obviously, Tyrik and Dontae have not played yet, and if we continue on that path, then redshirting will be the idea. But we’re just taking it day-by-day and seeing where our team is.”
CHANCE OF REST: After several defensive players suffered minor injuries during Saturday’s win over West Virginia, Chizik acknowledged he hopes to rest some of them.
DT Jake Ricks, DE Antonio Coleman and S Zac Etheridge all found themselves needing attention from trainers during the game.
All returned to the game after missing a few plays and are expected to play this weekend.
Chizik said he hopes to give them all some rest, but doesn’t plan on that being a possibility.
“If it was a perfect world and it ended up that way, we would be OK with it, but we’re certainly not looking at it like that,” Chizik said. “We prepare for every game to be a last two-minute of the game win, and this won’t be any different.”
BECOMING ‘EXACT’: In his first career start, LB Eltoro Freeman struggled at times during Saturday’s game.
It started right away when a blitzing Freeman seemed to have a clear shot at Jarrett Brown, but whiffed once the West Virginia quarterback made a move.
The high-motor linebacker found his way to the ball carrier several times, but couldn’t always bring him down.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof acknowledged Freeman has work to do.
“We’ve got to get a little more exact with him,” Roof said. “He certainly has the right attitude and he’s giving great effort. We just have to continue to work on being exact and he’ll do that because it’s important to him. He’s got a lot of pride in the way he plays and I have every confidence in him that he's going to get better.”
Roof said Freeman specifically needs to improve on alignment, proper angles and timing.