A Look At The NFL Draft And The Tigers

<b>Tiger Ticket</b>

Columnist Phillip Marshall writes about Auburn football.

For the first time in 27 years, the NFL draft came and went last weekend without the name of an Auburn player being called. The question in the aftermath is just what that says about Auburn's football program.

Travaris Robinson

First, and most obviously, it says the Tigers went 9-4 last season with a team dominated by underclassmen. There are plenty of future NFL draft picks on Auburn's football team, including some likely first-rounders. They are the reason the Tigers will be a preseason top 10 team. But it says more than that.

If anyone doubted what a bleak situation Tommy Tuberville inherited when he arrived as Auburn's head coach in November 1998, this year's draft should wipe out those doubts. Tuberville inherited a program on the fast track to the bottom of the SEC. He has rebuilt it patiently. Last season's class was what was left of Terry Bowden's last recruiting class and part of Tuberville's first, abbreviated recruiting class. The most of talented members of Tuberville's first group will be fifth-year seniors next season. It's somewhat amusing to hear speculation that the lack of Auburn players in the draft speaks to the overall level on the Auburn football team. At least seven rising seniors figure to be drafted next year, and that doesn't include any juniors that might come out.

Robert Johnson

Tuberville talked carefully about the subject Monday morning. He was careful not to show disrespect for those who waited vainly all weekend. They have been, after all, the foundation of the program he built virtually from scratch. "I don't think there's any doubt three or four of these guys will be on NFL teams," Tuberville says. "Just because they're not drafted doesn't mean they can't play. The truth is, if you haven't gone by the third round, you are better off not being drafted. You can pick a team that has a need for what you do. If I didn't go on Saturday, I'd change my phone number and leave for a couple of days."

Mark Brown

The most disappointed Auburn player had to be tight end Robert Johnson, who bypassed his senior year and was left to sign a free agent deal with the Falcons. "I thought Robert would get drafted," Tuberville says. "I thought they'd all get drafted. When they called me from the Falcons and asked about Robert, I told them they'd be crazy not to sign him if they could." Tuberville says free agent signees safety Travaris Robinson (Falcons), center Ben Nowland ('49ers) and linebacker Mark Brown (Jets) all will have fighting chances of making teams.

Ben Nowland

"Unfortunately, because of the situation we were in, we had to play Travaris as a true freshman," Tuberville says. "He made All-SEC this season and would have made it again next season if he had another year. He can do so many things, he'll make a team. Ben is a true center, a smart guy who can play. Mark Brown really just came on this year and had his first big year."

The saddest story, at least for now, is Johnson. He has all the tools to be a great tight end, but he was never more than a good one at Auburn. Whether he will blossom in the NFL remains to be seen, but it can be scarcely be debated that he would have been far better off to return for his senior year and dedicate himself to reaching his potential. He got some bad advice from somebody. Instead, 13 tight ends were taken in the draft and he wasn't one of them.

CRUNCH TIME

After a second straight disappointing weekend, Auburn's baseball team is faced with perhaps the most critical series of the season when Florida comes to town next weekend. The Tigers were at a high point two weeks ago, having just won two of three at Mississippi State. Since then, they've lost two of three to Arkansas at home and two of three at Vanderbilt.

I thought the Razorbacks were the best team I'd seen, but they promptly went to Tuscaloosa and were swept unceremoniously out of town. With three series to go, LSU has command of the West. Auburn is in second, 2 1/2 games behind, but is only two games out of last. The clutch hits that came so regularly early in the season have been missing recently. Auburn left the bases loaded twice Sunday in a 3-0 loss to Vanderbilt. It left runners on third base a startling five times. Vanderbilt managed just 13 hits in three games, but five of them were home runs.

It would take a total and unlikely collapse for Auburn to miss out on postseason play. There is still plenty of time to win enough games to be a host for a regional and even a super regional. But it's crunch time.

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