Tigers Relying Heavily on Freshmen

SportsFootballColleges and UniversitiesNational Collegiate Athletic AssociationTerrence Metcalf

AUBURN, Ala. (AP) -- When Auburn coaches were recruiting Lee Ziemba, they didn't promise him instant playing time or a chance to start the first game of his college career. They didn't have to. The roster and the loss of four starting offensive linemen got the point across just fine. "They told me the situation and showed me the depth chart, and they told me I had a chance to play," Ziemba said.

Now, the freshman right tackle is virtually certain to start Sept. 1 against Kansas State for the preseason 18th-ranked Tigers. Coach Tommy Tuberville hasn't necessarily changed his preference for giving most of his freshmen a year of seasoning and maturation before throwing them onto the field in the Southeastern Conference. But lack of depth and a highly rated recruiting class mean six or more will be taking the field this season. If that doesn't sound like much, consider: The Tigers have redshirted all but five freshmen the past two seasons combined. "We like to redshirt as many as we can because I feel like it gives them the opportunity to get off to a better start," Tuberville said Tuesday. "We had an exceptional recruiting class. You also have to look at the fact of how long are they going to stay? If they're that good of players, are they going to be around after they graduate in four years? "This is a little bit unusual for us, but if you have a good recruiting year that's how it usually happens."

Necessity helps, too. Ziemba and freshman placekicker Wes Byrum are expected to open their college careers as starters. Ziemba is trying to become the first offensive lineman to start his whole freshman year for a Tuberville team since Terrence Metcalf at Mississippi in 1997. He has beaten out converted defensive lineman Andrew McCain and junior Antwoin Daniels. "I think he's the best for the job," line coach Hugh Nall said. "There's no doubt he can get it done. It's just a matter of him remembering all the things and doing all the things he's supposed to be doing at the right time," he said.

Safety Michael McNeil, defensive end Antoine Carter, center Ryan Pugh, linebackers Bo Harris and Brent Slusher and receiver Chris Slaughter are all strong candidates to see action as freshmen, at least on special teams starting out. Quarterback Kodi Burns has been battling Blake Field for the backup spot behind Brandon Cox with Neil Caudle injured. The prospect of sending all those youngsters out for a trial by fire has created a little extra anxiety for Auburn coaches. "You never know how these kids are going to react when they walk out in front of 90,000 people," defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said. "You think you do, but you don't. We're coaches, we're not doctors. I think that they'll react well. They're all pretty mature kids. We as coaches have got to put them in situations where they can play and react well in a stressful environment."

Slaughter's path to playing time requires a lot of homework. He missed most of the first week of practice before the NCAA clearinghouse declared him eligible. But the skinny 6-foot-3, 170-pounder is also at a position where the Tigers need plenty of help. The highly recruited player from Hargrave Military Academy is busily trying to master the offense with the help of receivers coach Greg Knox. "(Knox) wants me to play, and the only way I'm going to play is learning the playbook," Slaughter said. "I'm studying the playbook every night, every day, coming in before the other receivers come in. If I want to play, I've got to get in that playbook and learn it."

He's not the only freshman desperately trying to get ready. Ziemba frequently worked against All-SEC defensive end Quentin Groves in fall camp. His first blocking assignment is Kansas State's Ian Campbell, who had 11.5 sacks last season. TIGER TALES: Offensive line signee Nick Fairley was not cleared by the NCAA clearinghouse and has enrolled in a junior college, Tuberville said. "He'll go there and play and hopefully we'll see him again in a few years." ... Backup tailback Mario Fanning sat out Tuesday's practice nursing a groin injury. Offensive lineman Byron Isom and receiver Montez Billings returned from injuries. Tuberville said he expects all the injured players back by week's end, except return man Tristan Davis (toe).

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