HOOVER, Ala. - The most difficult offseason in at least a generation has ended for Auburn.
Now comes football.
The Tigers made their appearance at SEC Media Days on Wednesday afternoon as coach Gene Chizik and three players made the rounds with more than 1,000 reporters. Topics ran the gamut - one reporter even asked defensive end Corey Lemonier about his bow tie - but the shooting tragedy that claimed the lives of three Auburn students in June remained the most important theme.
"We're still working through some tough times," Chizik said. "As a whole, it was a very devastating event. We still have some roads to travel on that. It's good timing for our team to start football. It's a new focus."
Wednesday's appearance at the Wynfrey Hotel represented the first time players were permitted to discuss the events of June 9. Lemonier, who roomed with Phillips, said he was in Opelika when the shooting occurred.
Still, word travels fast. A teammate who attended the party texted Lemonier to say things didn't look good for Phillips.
"I rushed to the hospital - to see if everything was OK," the junior end said. "It was a tough thing to deal with. Everybody has come together and we're a pretty tight-knit group now. We had to lean on each other a lot."
Auburn clearly won't let its memories fade.
Players believe the 2012 season can be a tribute. Lemonier was joined by tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen and wideout Emory Blake in saying the June tragedy has fostered an unusually strong bond among players.
A bond existed before, Lutzenkirchen said, but now it's different.
"It makes us want to work harder because the next breath can be your last breath," he said. "When you lose two brothers like that, it really makes you appreciate what you have, the opportunity you have."
Chizik dedicated the first minute of his opening statement Wednesday to praising everyone who showed support for Auburn during the past six weeks. He said players are moving in a positive direction and hopes that healing will continue.
His optimism didn't end there.
Chizik then discussed the significance of Auburn's win against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Bowl last winter. He believes that game, which featured substantive contributions from several young players, set a meaningful precedent.
The 2012 season can be a great one on the Plains.
"We're in a much stronger position as a football team that we were a year ago," he said. "We finally, after so many years, have developed some depth."
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