Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lutzenkirchen becoming versatile

Playing in space has never been a question for TE Philip Lutzenkirchen.

The sophomore came to Auburn as a pass-catching presence hoping to make a big impact early in his career.

He is still confident he can be a big part of the passing game, but is currently focusing on his blocking ability.

“You can see him getting confidence and getting more physical,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “We know he can catch the football, but we're asking him to do more dirty work and he's starting to really get confidence and do a better job each practice.”

Malzahn hopes to run his offense at a faster pace on a regular basis. Doing so hinges on his ability to substitute less regardless of down and distance. Lutzenkirchen’s newfound versatility, then, could mean additional playing time.

Not only is Lutzenkirchen working in the traditional tight end spot, he is also learning the H-back/fullback position. Playing both positions would keep Auburn from changing personnel when it previously needed to switch from tight end to fullback.

“I think one of the reasons I didn’t play a lot last year is because I wasn’t comfortable playing on the ground,” Lutzenkirchen said. “All last year and all this spring we’ve been working with my hand on the ground a whole lot more and I feel a lot more comfortable with that. I feel pretty even with both of them.”

Lutzenkirchen thinks he will have a bigger role in the offense in 2010, but he also faces some competition. H-back Eric Smith returns and Robert Cooper is pushing Lutzenkirchen at the tight end spot.

That’s why it was so important for Lutzenkirchen to get back from an injury he sustained earlier this spring. During a full-contact team drill, Lutzenkirchen took a hit from S Drew Cole and LB Eltoro Freeman that sent his head into the ground. He missed a few practices for precautionary reasons, but has returned for the last two sessions.

Now he’s back and fighting for a starting position.

“It’s sparking me to get better overall,” Lutzenkirchen said.

DEFENSIVE STAND: Auburn split Wednesday’s practice between individual workouts and a half-scrimmage.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof didn’t offer details, but seemed happier with his unit’s performance than he was after Saturday’s scrimmage.

“I thought the contact speed was a little bit better than it was the other day,” Roof said. “I thought that improved and certainly it's not to be confused with where we need it to be, but I thought that the overall contact speed and I thought that the procedure was better.”

LB Craig Stevens offered up little more, though he did say the defense came up with a few stops. He said the unit never forced the offense into a three-and-out, but only allowed one touchdown – a Cam Newton touchdown pass to WR DeAngelo Benton.

BULL FIGHT: Just because Freeman returns as an incumbent starter this year doesn’t mean he already has a starting spot secured.

Roof said Wednesday that he is still searching for a regular starting linebacker to team with Josh Bynes and Stevens. Freeman is among a group that includes Jonathan Evans and Jessel Curry currently competing for the third spot. Sophomore Daren Bates, who started all 13 games at safety last season, will also enter the mix when he gets fully healthy this fall.

Stevens thinks Freeman has made definite progress so far this spring.

“He's kind of calmed down a little bit and trying to actually get into the playbook a little bit more,” Stevens said. “I think we're going to see that by the time the season comes around and see his change in play.”

Though Auburn will have improved depth at linebacker, it still isn’t a strength. Therefore, the biggest theme right now comes from crosstraining the other linebackers at all three linebacker positions.

Stevens said Freeman worked behind Bynes at middle linebacker on Wednesday.

NO MOVEMENT: After two weeks of spring practice, Wednesday finally provided some quarterback news for Auburn.

Christian LeMay, one of the most highly sought quarterback prospects, visited Auburn from North Carolina during practice.

As for the four-man quarterback competition, Malzahn said there is no news on that front. Newton is still thought to be a heavy favorite, but Auburn’s coaches haven’t said anything about the race.

“Common sense would tell you you'd like to do that as soon as you can just for your team's sake, but at the same time we have the luxury of the spring,” Malzahn said. “I just want to make sure and coach (Gene Chizik) just wants to make sure that we get the right guy and give everybody equal chance.”

FANNIN IN FRONT: Malzahn said Mario Fannin got an extended workload during Wednesday’s scrimmage.

The second-year offensive coordinator hopes his senior tailback is now jumping to the front of the pack.

“We definitely would like him to,” Malzahn said. “He was kind of battling some injuries coming up to spring, so now he's getting healthy enough to really show what he can do.”

Onterio McCalebb and Dontae Aycock are challenging Fannin for the starting spot. Incoming freshman Michael Dyer is also expected to push for immediate playing time once he steps on campus.

McCalebb is thought of more as a speed back, but has added weight in hoping to prove he can be an every down back.

Fannin, a senior, has sometimes been in the starting tailback role and has enjoyed modest success.

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