There's a lot of anticipation in the air as Auburn is set to open practice Wednesday afternoon on the intramural fields. The Tigers return 11 starters and 59 letterman from last season including quarterback Brandon Cox, tailback Kenny Irons and wide receiver Courtney Taylor.
"It's time to get started," said Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville. "We have a lot of bright-eyed players, especially the younger guys. They're anxious to get out there and put a helmet on and start understanding what Auburn football is all about and the SEC."
Several key players will miss the first couple of practices including offensive tackle King Dunlap and kicker John Vaughn who recently suffered deaths in their families. The returning players are also dealing with finals this week.
"I think we missed 12 players today (in meetings) because of finals," said Tuberville. "There will be a little bit more than that tomorrow. Most of them are upperclassmen and that's the reason we're going to spend more time with our younger players the next three days."
Nineteen true freshmen scholarship players plus six invited walk-ons officially reported Tuesday but two of the freshmen won't be on the field this afternoon when practice begins at 4:30 p.m. CT. Defensive tackle Jermarcus Ricks and defensive end Darrell Roseman were both late being approved by the NCAA Clearinghouse and cannot practice until their paperwork is approved by the Auburn President's office and the SEC office.
"We have a new rule in the SEC," said Tuberville. "Anybody that is late getting in has to clear the President's office and go through the SEC office."
The Tigers, who were picked to win the 2006 SEC Championship at SEC Media Days last week, begin fall drills with several key question marks including a defense that must find new starters at the safety position.
"There's going to be a sense of urgency at the safety position," said Tuberville. "Knowing that Washington State is going to throw a lot, we've got to find some guys we're confident with. That's a major question mark for us."
There is also uncertainty surrounding the linebacker position after two projected starters were suspended, prompting the move of Steve Gandy from strong safety to outside linebacker.
While Tuberville has not announced the length of suspensions for Kevin Sears and Tray Blackmon, both will be able to practice with their teammates starting Wednesday.
"They will practice like normal," he said. "They probably won't get as many reps with the first team but they will alternate some and work with the second-team and third-team quite a bit."
Auburn must also replace both starters on the interior defensive line and could look at some new schemes to overcome a lack of experience at that position.
"There's a lot of different scenarios we could look at," said Tuberville. "We could do a little more 3-man front if we're short on tackles inside. We've got a few more ends than we've normally had. We'll look a little bit different this year on defense. Probably the defensive line situation will determine how much four-man front and three-man front we play."
Most of the early focus on offense will be finding another wide receiver opposite Taylor and a new starter at fullback or the 'F' position.
Two true freshmen could factor into the playing rotation at both positions in wide receiver Tim Hawthorne and tailback Ben Tate. Tate joined the team in January and has impressed the coaching staff enough to compete for an important spot in the playing rotation at fullback or tailback.
"(Tate) did so well in the spring, that we're going to give him an opportunity," said Tuberville. "We're going to put him in there with the first and second-team and see what happens. He's worked very hard this summer. He knows the offense. I think Ben could be a factor for us."
Auburn has scheduled four practices the opening week. The first three will be in shells before Auburn dons full pads for the first time Sunday. The first two-a-day practice is scheduled for Aug. 8 while Auburn will hold a major scrimmage on Aug. 12.
Tuberville is also hoping to hold an earlier scrimmage next week.
"We want to get a scrimmage in sometime next week around Wednesday or Thursday," he said. "We want to have some kind of scrimmage on film by the middle of next week."
***Now is the perfect time to sign up for our 7-DAY FREE TRIAL to receive exclusive and in-depth coverage of Auburn football and recruiting. AuburnSports.com is geared up for blowout fall practice coverage including in-depth practice reports, practice notebooks, player and position features, daily photo galleries and our exclusive practice video and video interviews.