Auburn will hit the practice fields for the first time Thursday for what's expected to be a competitive and hard-hitting month of drills as they prepare for the opener against Kansas State on Sept. 1.
The Tigers must replace 12 starters and head coach Tommy Tuberville will be closely watching key position battles on the offensive line, linebacker and special teams.
"We have a pretty good idea going into two-a-days that there's going to be a lot of movement the first couple of weeks," said Tuberville. "We're looking at several of the young guys and a lot of competition in two-a-days.
"The challenges are going to be our offensive line and linebackers. Every position is going to be a challenge, but those are the positions where we feel there is more catch-up to do, with special teams being the No. 1 priority. We have so much work to do it's going to be an endless process."
On offense, AU returns senior quarterback Brandon Cox and a lot of talent and experience at the skill positions. But the Tigers must replace four starters on the offensive line.
The right tackle position should be one of the most spirited competitions of two-a-days. Sophomore Andrew McCain and junior Antwoin Daniels will begin practice as co-starters. Redshirt freshman Mike Berry and true freshman Lee Ziemba will also be in the mix.
"Andrew McCain, who had a good spring, and Antwoin Daniels are really going to fight it out for a starting position," said Tuberville. "Lee Ziemba is one (of the freshmen) who we could look at at tackle."
Auburn's defense, which returns seven starters, should be a strength. Senior defensive end Quentin Groves will lead the way as he chases AU's career sack record.
"We have a lot of speed and quickness on defense," said Tuberville. "This is going to be a young defense, but with Quentin Groves, Josh Thompson and Eric Brock, we have three guys who can be true senior leaders for us.
"I like the makeup of this defense."
The Tigers must replace two starters at linebacker along with '07 projected starter Patrick Trahan, who transferred to a junior college after being ruled academically ineligible. But they do return one of the SEC's most talented playmakers in sophomore Tray Blackmon along with two veterans in juniors Merrill Johnson and Steve Gandy.
"It's a concern experience-wise. It's not a concern talent-wise," said Tuberville. "We just have to get the right players in the right positions."
Another big priority for fall practice will be rebuilding the special teams after the graduations of placekicker John Vaughn, punter Kody Bliss and kickoff specialist Matt Clark.
"Special teams is going to be a major challenge for us," said Tuberville. "It was a challenge in spring and it's going to be more of a challenge during two-a-days because there have really been no decisions on who's going to be our punter, kicker or kickoff man."
Auburn will be using a new format when practice gets underway Thursday. For the first three days the underclassmen will practice in the morning while the varsity practices in the afternoon. The morning practices will consist of true freshmen scholarship and walk-on players along with many redshirt freshmen and perhaps some sophomores.
It will give the coaching more one-on-one time with the incoming players, helping them acclimate to practices on the college level.
"We want to evaluate our young freshmen very early and try to get them in positions we need them to play," said Tuberville. "We want to get them to the point where we feel like they are confident in what they're doing."
The tough challenges don't end with two-a-days. Auburn opens the season with two tough non-conference opponents and faces four of the SEC's best teams on the road in Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia.
"The schedule is going to be one of the most competitive that we've had since we've been here or since I've been a head coach or an assistant," said Tuberville. "We have two very tough non-conference games to open up with, then a very competitive conference schedule.
"The four teams we play on the road, will, at some point, probably be in the Top 10 or Top 15 in the country. We're looking forward to the challenge."
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