Saturday, August 20, 2011

Reading the tea leaves from Auburn scrimmage

By Charles Bennett

AUBURN - It is Auburn coach Gene Chizik’s preference to speak in generalities and avoid specifics when discussing his football team, particularly in the preseason.

Auburn held its final scrimmage of fall camp on Saturday, and while generalities were abundant and specifics harder to find, careful reading of the tea leaves unearthed small nuggets of information.

Chizik was asked following the scrimmage(which was closed to the public and to the media) to elaborate on the search for a third tailback to go with regulars Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb.

“Everybody that’s eligible to play is in the mix at tailback,” Chizik said. “So we’re counting on all of them to have a role.”

Later in the questioning, Chizik was asked specifically about freshman tailback Tre Mason

Chizik hemmed and hawed a bit before saying: “Most of the guys who we know are going to play, they didn’t get a lot of reps in the scrimmage.”

Tea leaves 1, Chizik 0.

Chizik quickly evened the score, and when it was all said and done, very little hard information about the makeup of this year’s Auburn football team was divulged, even though the Tigers clearly know more than they’re letting on about their two-deep heading into the Sept. 3 season-opener against Utah State.

On a more experienced team, the tea leaves would be easier to read, but the Tigers lost 24 seniors off last year’s national championship team, and there are 54 freshmen or redshirt freshmen on this year’s 105-man fall camp roster.

Of the players who were in the starting lineup for Auburn’s season-opening game last year against Arkansas State, tackle A.J. Greene and tailback Onterio McCalebb return on offense, while defensive back Neiko Thorpe and linebackers Daren Bates and Eltoro Freeman return on defense.

The coaches don’t offer much in the way of helping the media fill out a depth chart, and the players are instructed to follow their lead.

Jeffrey Whitaker, a projected starter at defensive tackle, was asked who stood out among the younger players on the defensive front in Saturday’s scrimmage.

In textbook coach-speak, Whitaker said: “I’d hate to single anybody out, but I think we’re going to be OK up front.”

Still the occasional tea leaves’ moment does occur.

It doesn’t exactly come as a shock, but sophomore Demetruce McNeal, who played in a backup role last season, confirmed that he’ll be a starter at one of the safety positions.

“Right now I'm in the starting role,” McNeal said, in explaining why he didn’t play in Saturday’s scrimmage. “They're trying not to get anybody hurt on the first team and focus on Utah State. They were seeing what the backups could bring to the table for the first game. We were on the sidelines and just coached them a little
bit. We're just trying to make them play better and play faster. That's what it was all about today.”

And if McNeal’s comments about freshman wide receiver Quan Bray are any indication, expect Bray to be a factor for the Tigers this season.

“What I'll say about that kid is that he's electric,” McNeal said. “He's quick. He's
fast. On the offensive side of the ball, he's great. You saw what he can do when he catches the ball. He knows where to go. His eyes are on the end zone every time he touches the ball. You saw it in the scrimmage. You saw how fast he is when he breaks out. He's hard to tackle because he's so quick. He's a great addition to the offense.”

Meanwhile, Chad Slade, a redshirt freshman offensive lineman, sounds hopeful he’ll be in the starting lineup at right tackle when the Tigers open the season.

“I’ve been working with the ones a lot,” said Slade.

Since when?

“Since the start of fall camp,” he said.

Are you a starter?

“I hope so,” Slade said.

At Auburn that’s as close to real as it gets.

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