When Auburn starts practice a week from today, Jeff Grimes will have to replace four multi-year starters. The Tigers offensive line coach will be looking to find four players to step in for four former players all now with NFL teams.
It's a challenge most offensive line coaches don't face once in a career.
This will be Grimes' second.
In 2002 at Arizona State, Grimes' second season as offensive line coach/running game coordinator, he was in the same predicament. He lost four starters from the 2001 team. Both tackles, Levi Jones and Kyle Kosier, were gone. So were guard Travis Scott and the center Scott Peters. All went to the NFL. Just like the four from Auburn's 2010 team.
The only difference in the Arizona State foursome and the four from Auburn: All four Sun Devils were drafted. Jones was a top 10 pick. Peters and Scott were selected in the fourth round. Kosier in the seventh round.
Only one of the Tigers was drafted, tackle Lee Ziemba, and that was in the final round. Center Ryan Pugh and both guards, Byron Isom and Mike Berry, signed free agent contracts.
"It's not an ideal situation to be in," said Grimes. "But I have been here before."
And handled it well. In '02, Arizona State, with four new starters along the offensive line, won eight games, four more than it did the year before. The Sun Devils rushed for approximately 1,500 yards and threw for over 4,000.
Grimes hopes he has more success in 2011 when he replaces the four at Auburn. He thinks having an extra year working with the potential replacements will help.
"We are going into our third year so some of the guys, even though they haven't played a lot, have been around our offense, understand what I expect, they have been trained up in the techniques that we are going to use for the last two-and-a-half years," said Grimes. "They have experience within the system so they know what we are talking about."
Experience within the system, unfortunately for Grimes, is nearly all the experience the candidates have. Of the 20 offensive linemen listed on Auburn's roster, only three have started a game in college. Senior right tackle Brandon Mosley started 11 games in 2010 and senior left tackle A.J. Greene started three. Junior guard/tackle John Sullen started one game as a freshman in 2009.
Three players with a combined 15 games started is quite a difference from a year ago. Going into the 2010 season, Ziemba, Pugh, Berry and Isom had combined to start 108 games.
There is some good that comes with losing four long-time starters. Mosley, a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, is penciled in as the starter at right tackle, but there are still four spots to fill and 19 players vying for them.
"In my two years here, we pretty much knew who was going to start and what position they were going to play," said Grimes. "We had a little competition last year at right tackle, but that was about it.
"One of the things that I really like about this group is that I sense a real hunger for guys to compete and play. There is some excitement with some young guys coming in and I think there is some hunger among the older guys."
But he doesn't have a lot of "older guys" to choose from. Grimes will have to replace the four starters from a pool of mostly underclassmen. Auburn has only three scholarship seniors on the roster (Mosley, Greene and Jared Cooper), one scholarship junior (Sullen) and zero scholarship sophomores. Auburn has 12 freshmen on the roster, 10 of the 12 signed scholarship papers to Auburn.
"We have a few older guys and a lot of younger guys, but we don't have a lot of those guys in between," said Grimes. "And to only have four (scholarship) upperclassmen is not the way you would like to set it up."
The lack of upperclassmen is a concern Grimes could do without in the future. It's why he and the Tigers have made offensive line such a high priority in recruiting. In the last two recruiting classes, Auburn signed 11 offensive linemen, 10 of which are still with the team (Roszell Gayden being the exception).
Of the 10, Grimes said he could see a starter emerge. Maybe two.
"We have recruited some good players the last couple of years that will possibly win one or two of those jobs," he said. "Or at the least, add some competition, which makes everybody better."
One of the freshmen that could win a starting job is center Reese Dismukes. The former Spanish Fort (Ala.) standout, rated by Rivals.com as the nation's No. 1 center in the 2011 class, has already been battling for it for seven months. Dismukes graduated high school early and enrolled at Auburn in January allowing him to go through spring practice.
"That was big," said Grimes. "It's so hard for a freshman to come in the fall and play right away. Having him here in the spring is an unbelievable advantage for him and for us."
Dismukes is competing with sophomore walk-on Blake Burgess to fill the spot left vacant by Pugh. Redshirt freshman guard Tunde Fariyike, Sullen and Cooper have also worked at center and will continue to, according to Grimes.
Replacing Berry and Isom at the guard spots will come down to two upperclassmen, Cooper and Sullen, trying to fend off a half-dozen youngsters. Cooper, the senior left guard, and Sullen, the junior right guard, received most of the work with the first-team during the spring.
But that was by design, said Grimes.
"What we decided to do in the spring was give the guys with the most experience most of the reps with the first group so the young guys would learn from them," said Grimes. "We will also do that in fall camp, but we will also inject a little more competition."
"(Westerman) could probably do either," said Grimes. "I'm not sure where we will play him, yet. We will probably look at him at both."
Freshman Greg Robinson is another player who could compete to replace Isom or Berry, but the No. 2 guard in the 2011 class will get his first shot at replacing Ziemba at left tackle.
Robinson, listed at 6-foot-5, 305 pounds, will compete with Greene, the senior and former starter, redshirt freshman and former four-star signee Aubrey Phillips, and the versatile linemen group of Sullen, Cooper, Slade and Westerman. Senior walk-on Bobby Ingalls, 6-foot-7, 340 pounds, and junior walk-on Donnie Riggins, 6-foot-8, 307 pounds, are also in the mix.
More on Auburn's 2011 OL
Dismukes, 6-foot-3, 300 pounds, battled with Burgess in the spring, both getting work with the first-team, but a starter wasn't named by the time the 15 practices were complete. The two will continue their competition next week when fall practice begins. Auburn could have a true freshman at center Sept. 3 when Utah State arrives on the Plains…or a walk-on sophomore if Burgess has anything to say about it.
Grimes on Aubrey Phillips: "He did a good job in spring ball. We challenged him to really get himself in shape this summer. He came in having been away from football for a while so he had a ways to go. We will see where he has gotten when we start next week."
Coleman continues battle: Former five-star offensive tackle Shon Coleman continues chemotherapy treatment after being diagnosed last year with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Coleman, who will redshirt this season, is in the third and final phase of the treatment. He plans to be ready to play in 2012.
Grimes on Shon Coleman: "He's working hard, getting in better shape. Hopefully, if he can continue on track, he will be in great shape a year from now. We are just telling him to keep up with his treatments, stay in shape, and he has done that and is also doing a nice job in school. It's just great to see him around here everyday working hard."
For the Star Gazers, Part I: Auburn has 12 freshmen offensive linemen on the roster; seven redshirt freshmen and five true freshmen. Of the 12 freshmen, half were rated four-star prospects or higher by Rivals.com out of high school: Coleman, Dismukes, Mack, Phillips, Robinson and Westerman. Coleman was rated a five-star.
For the Star Gazers, Part II: Auburn has just one player in the sophomore, junior and senior classes combined that was ranked a four-star prospect (Mosley as a tight end in 2010).