Thursday, October 1, 2009

Clearing out the notebook: Early edition

When Auburn’s players get off the bus Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., they won’t go through their customary Tiger Walk.

Tennessee canceled the pre-game event earlier this week as a safety precaution.

The Opelika-Auburn News, citing an e-mail it obtained, reported Tennessee assistant athletic director for public relations Tiffany Carpenter said Tiger Walk could still be an unofficial event.

“The area where the visiting teams drops off is on a hill in a very tight space (by Gate 10),” Carpenter said. “In 2004 when the Tigers played here, we had approximately 5,000 fans show up with the band and the cheerleaders, which was a great atmosphere but a huge safety issue for the student-athletes, band, cheerleaders and fans because of the tight space. If something had happened to a fan in that area, EMT would not have been able to respond because of the crowd size.

“Auburn fans can still come greet the team as they get off the bus, we have just requested that the band and cheerleaders not set up because it does create a safety issue.”

Auburn released a statement Wednesday evening confirming Carpenter’s e-mail.

“Officials at the University of Tennessee have informed Auburn athletics that Tiger fans will be allowed to greet the team as they get off the bus, but that the band and cheerleaders may no participate because of safety and crowding concerns in the visiting team drop-off area, which is on a hill in a very tight space,” the statement said.

GRAN STANDING: CB Walt McFadden said he looks forward to Saturday’s game at Tennessee partially because he will see Eddie Gran, Auburn’s former running backs coach.

Gran recruited McFadden to Auburn. Now McFadden is using the former Auburn coach as motivation.

“He’s the guy we want to show up and play against because we know how he used to use other people and teams and talk about them when he was here with us,” McFadden said. “We know he’s saying the same thing about us.

“We can see him now saying ‘These guys are sorry. These guys can’'t do it. These guys are going to give up.’ That’s just motivation for us, so we know our old coach and how he acts on game week. He doesn’t mean any harm by it, that’s just him motivating his team.”

NEW COMMIT: DE Craig Sanders, a defensive end from Ariton High School, committed to Auburn on Wednesday night, first reported.

Sanders previously committed to Alabama, but decommitted Wednesday before announcing Auburn as his new choice. ranks Sanders as a four-star recruit and the No. 7 recruit in Alabama.

SPECIAL EFFORT: Special teams play took a turn toward the comically bad for Auburn during last week’s 54-30 win over Ball State.

Among the lowlights were a muffed punt recovered by Ball State, a fumbled punt the Tigers recovered, a failed punt that left RB Onterio McCalebb injured, a delay of game penalty while the punt team tried to confuse the defense with shifts, a kickoff out of bounds and a penalty on a punt return. The Tigers did improve on their kickoff coverage, but are still ranked 85th in the nation.

However, special teams coach Jay Boulware did not seem upset with his groups on Wednesday.

“I call them ‘the others’ – the other guys that nobody really knows on this football team and they’re allowing our team to stay fresh,” Boulware said. “They’re allowing us an opportunity to rest a Josh Bynes, a Craig Stevens, a Neiko Thorpe. On a thin football team, they’re allowing us to play guys that haven’t had any snaps in college football until this year.

“I preach to them all the time: ‘With you guys out there, that allows our team to stay fresh.’ We’re not deep. That’s been our Achilles heel all along.”

Boulware said he is pleased with the effort players are giving on special teams. Now he wants to see an improvement in their overall production.

The punt return unit has been especially troubling. Auburn has so far tried three different returners this season – Mario Fannin, Demond Washington and Anthony Gulley.

All three were fired after either muffing punts or fumbling on returns.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said the coaching staff would again revisit the situation this week. A few different names – like McCalebb and RB Eric Smith – have cropped up for the first time.

“Those guys have either got it or they don’t, in my opinion, and I haven’t seen anybody who’s got it as of yet, so we’ll see,” Boulware said.

Boulware would not confirm that he would start a new punt returner Saturday against Tennessee, but seemed to lean in that direction.

Though Boulware wants to see marked improvement, he thinks it’s a positive that the group has yet to make a mistake that crippled the team.

“They haven’t killed us yet,” Boulware said. “They haven’t done anything that’s helped us win a game, per se, but they haven’t killed us where we’ve lost one.”

To date, that might be the most positive thing an Auburn coach has said about the special teams this year.

GUARD UNKNOWN: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes wasn’t overly enthusiastic when asked to rate true freshman OL John Sullen’s starting debut.

“OK for a true freshman,” Grimes said. “That’s a tough job to be in is a true freshman to step in and start. I’ve done it at the last three schools I’ve coached at and every time it’s a challenge because there’s just so much to learn in terms of what to do and how to do it for young guys. Tough spot to be in.”

Sullen started at right guard in place of Byron Isom, who was suspended for a violation of team rules.

Chizik said Isom practiced with the team earlier in the week, but neither Chizik nor Grimes said whether the junior would play this week.

If Isom does not play, Sullen is one of three options at guard. Jared Cooper and Bart Eddins have also tried out for the starting spot this week.

Grimes refused to say who would start.

“I would say I’ve got to be confident in who I put on the field,” Grimes said. “If not, I haven’t done my job as a coach.”

ON THE MEND: Approximately a week ago, LB Spencer Pybus seemed to be on the comeback trail.

The sophomore missed most of the preseason after suffering a concussion, but returned to practice last week.

Chizik carefully avoided saying Pybus suffered a setback, but acknowledged “Spencer has had some health problems.”

“We don’t know exactly where that’s at right now,” Chizik said. “Like everybody, we just kind of take it day-by-day with each one of those guys. He’s trying to get back and he’s trying to get healthy. It’s just in a situation where time is the only thing that’s going to be the great healer for him.”

Since Pybus has already missed the first four games and doesn’t seem to be nearing a return, Chizik admitted the coaching staff is contemplating a redshirt for him.

REDSHIRTING AFTER ALL: When Grimes read that Andre Harris played on Saturday, it was news to him.

The true freshman offensive lineman was listed on Auburn’s participation chart. During his weekly Sunday teleconference, Chizik confirmed that Harris played.

Harris had not played through the first three games and seemed on track for a redshirt.

When asked about the decision to burn Harris’ redshirt, Grimes took the opportunity to set the record straight.

“He didn’t play. There was some report out there where someone said he did but he didn’t play,” Grimes said. “He didn’t play a snap and has not played a snap all year.”

Auburn media relations confirmed Wednesday that Harris, in fact, did not play.

TRAVELING MAN: With Saturday marking Auburn’s first road game, it is the first time this season the new coaching staff is required to determine which players would travel.

Chizik hadn’t quite finalized the list after Wednesday’s practice, but confirmed that QB Tyrik Rollison would make the trip.

“We’re pretty far along in that as far as knowing where we’re going to go,” Chizik said. “It’s really coming down to one or two guys that are backups, but right now I think we’re in good shape.”

Rollison, a true freshman, has not played this season and appears destined for a redshirt. He seemed a potential candidate to stay home for the trip.

Chizik said that while most decisions have been made, WR Philip Pierre-Louis makes up one of the remaining choices.

Pierre-Louis has not played a game this year, nor has he been on the sideline for a game.

“We just kind of take it day-by-day with him and he’s been out there practicing and working every day,” Chizik said.

McCalebb said Pierre-Louis has spent time in practice this week returning punts.

The redshirt freshman started the season as a return specialist, but injured his knee on the first play of the season. Pierre-Louis had surgery a few weeks later and missed the entire season.

Regardless of whether Pierre-Louis makes the trip or not, receivers coach Trooper Taylor plans to bring all four true freshmen on the road.

Two of those freshmen – DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake – were supposed to make immediate impacts in 2009. Four games into the season, neither player has recorded his first career reception.

Taylor said injuries have played a factor with Blake whereas inconsistency has plagued Benton.

“If Emory hadn't had an injury – he’s been hurt the last two games where he wasn’t 100 percent – he probably would have played more,” Taylor said. “D’Angelo knows I’m disappointed with him in the drops he’s had.”

Though neither former highly sought prospect has made the splash originally expected, Taylor said he had no regrets about playing them instead of giving them redshirt seasons.

“There’s no substitute for experience – whether they played two plays or 200,” Taylor said. “Just traveling with the team will make them better next year. Being at these stadiums and going into these hostile environments like they’re about to see at Tennessee will make them better for the future.

“I believe those two guys will get more playing time.”

Taylor credited the strong play of starting WRs Terrell Zachery and Darvin Adams as the primary reason none of the freshmen have seen more consistent playing time.

TWITTER TRACKER: LB Craig Stevens is one of several Auburn players who use Twitter as a social mechanism.

“I just did it just to get on it,” Stevens said. “I just got on it to see what it was because everybody was talking about it. I got on it just to have fun. I don’t know. I kind of like it.”

New technologies, such as Twitter, enable both professional and amateur athletes to more easily communicate with fans and other people.

After a loss and some subsequent poor decisions, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach decided to ban his players from Twitter.

Stevens said if he were put in that position, he would “be kind of mad for a while.”

However, he also added he understands Leach’s position.

“He doesn’t want his team out there saying bad things about their team and have fans looking at this and saying, ‘Man, they gave up on us as a team. So why should I have faith in them?’” Stevens said. “I understand where he’s coming from.”

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