Spring ball is little more than a month away. With so many players returning from last year’s team, the faces and names will largely remain the same. Here is a look at the 10 under-the-radar players fans should know/remember going into spring practice.
LB Jessel Curry
RB Dontae Aycock
DE Craig Sanders
QBs Tyrik Rollison and Clint Moseley
TE Philip Lutzenkirchen
DE Nosa Eguae
S Mike McNeil & Aairon Savage
Both of these should be names Auburn fans already know. However, McNeil hasn’t played since breaking his leg during a spring scrimmage last year. Savage hasn’t seen full-contact action since tearing knee ligaments early in preseason camp in 2008.
This year, they could be full-time starters.
The coaching staff expects S Zac Etheridge to be able to resume his football career, but Auburn coach Gene Chizik said contact drills are almost certainly not in the cards. With Daren Bates moving to strong-side linebacker to compete with LB Eltoro Freeman, that leaves McNeil and Savage as the likely starters heading into spring.
Safeties Mike Slade, Drew Cole and T’Sharvan Bell provide depth, but look for McNeil and Savage to get the first cracks at the safety spots.
Savage was a two-year starter before then-coach Tommy Tuberville moved him to cornerback in hopes of keeping him on the field more. The move backfired when Savage tore up his knee, costing him his junior season. Savage returned last year only to tear his Achilles heel during summer workouts. The day after National Signing Day, Auburn announced that the NCAA granted Savage a sixth-year of eligibility.
McNeil missed all last year with a broken leg despite coaches originally saying he could be back early in the season. He instead wasn’t ready for practice again until November, at which point the coaches decided to keep him on the sideline and use his redshirt season.
McNeil started at free safety the previous season, playing opposite Etheridge.
Regardless of who mans the safety spots, it is imperative that they start creating more turnovers for a defense that thrives off the takeaways. The position has had its hand in just seven total takeaways over the last three seasons combined – three in 2009, two in ’08 and two in ’07. Remember that Junior Rosegreen had four interceptions by himself during the regular season Tennessee game in 2004.
For Auburn’s attacking defense to be its best, the safeties need to make the most of turnover opportunities. Savage and McNeil will get first crack at showing the unit has the game-changing abilities necessary.