Auburn, Ala.--The new look Tigers will hit their new practice fields for the first time on Wednesday night to prepare for the start of Gene Chizik’s third season as head football coach at Auburn.
Chizik and his staff head into the 2011 campaign with a 15-game winning streak, the longest in major college football. They will also start the season as the defending SEC and BCS champions.
However, eight starters on offense must be replaced and eight more on defense are gone. Also, kicker Wes Byrum and punter Ryan Shoemaker were seniors in 2010.
Rebuilding is the task facing Chizik with a squad that will rely heavily on sophomores, redshirt freshmen and even true freshmen this year. Making the challenge tougher is a demanding schedule that features road tests at Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia as well as home contests vs. Mississippi State, Florida and Alabama.
The Tigers open on Sept. 3rd with a home game vs. Utah State and play at home a week later vs. Mississippi State to start SEC play. The first road test is in week three vs. Clemson. The Tigers return home to play Florida Atlantic on Sept. 24th before wrapping up the September schedule at South Carolina.
“We would like to have early success,” Chizik says. “I think that is always a key early in the season so the players gain confidence.
Gene Chizik addresses his team on Tuesday night. Chizik won multiple national coach of the year awards for the unbeaten 2010 season.
“That is not a deal-breaker though,” the head coach adds. “That doesn’t mean that we can’t overcome some early struggles because I feel with this team, with it being young, we will get better and better. We will have challenges there.”
The Tigers posted a 14-0 record last season with a team that relied heavily on seniors. This year’s roster features a small senior class so Chizik and his staff are looking for leadership from juniors like T'Sharvan Bell on defense and Emory Blake on offense.
“I am just eager to get out there on the practice field and put a new face on this new team,” says Bell, who is a favorite to step into a full-time starting role at cornerback after starting three times in 2010.
Blake, who started eight games last season, is the leading returning receiver for the Tigers. “We have very high expectations,” he says. “Expectations don’t change for us. We are going to look to win every game we play and work hard to do that.”
Blake caught 33 passes for 554 yards and finished with a team-high eight touchdown receptions last year, including one in the national championship game victory over Oregon. The junior says Auburn fans should be able to watch an improved Blake this fall.
“I put a lot of work into it this summer so I want to see results from that,” the wide receiver says. “I think I will definitely be a better player this year.”
Bell, who was in on 38 tackles as a sophomore, notes he has put in long hours in the offseason to become a better player. “I am expecting to compete every day and be the best teammate I can be, the best leader I can be and the best student of the game I can be.”
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof says he has seen signs that Bell, who was a standout quarterback in high school, is taking a leadership role on the 2011 defense. “That is something I have always wanted to do,” Bell says. “This is a top university and who wouldn’t want to be a leader at Auburn.”
Despite preseason projections that the Tigers will struggle this year after such heavy losses from last year’s team, Bell says he isn’t buying low expectations for his team. “We definitely have talent this year so we can be as good as we want to be,” he says.
The cornerback says that is also the case in the secondary where senior Neiko Thorpe is the only returning starter. “We have got a lot of talent and potential back there,” Bell says. “Everybody will just have to wait until Sept. 3rd to see.”
Blake spent a lot of time working out with his teammates on campus over the summer and says that went well for the team and personally. “I have had a good summer,” he says. “I have caught a lot of balls and have tried to bring the young guys along and teach them the way so they can be successful on the field.
Emory Blake is a junior from Austin, Tex.
“I have gained a lot of upper body strength over the summer,” Blake adds. “I came into the summer with a new mentality that I was going to get stronger and bigger. I am about five pounds heavier and I feel a lot stronger than I was last year.”
Perhaps the biggest question for the 2011 Tigers is who is Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn going to select as the starting quarterback to replace Heisman Trophy winner Cameron Newton. Junior Barrett Trotter and sophomore Clint Moseley finished spring drills with Malzahn not ready to chose a starter. True freshman Kiehl Frazier, a five-star signee from Springdale, Ark., has been on campus this summer trying to get into the competition for the starting assignment.
“All of them are throwing the ball well,” Blake says. “Kiehl just got here so we will see how does when two-a-days start and Malzahn throws him in there with pace and everything. Barrett and Clint have been here so we will just have to wait and see what happens.”
A view is featured of the new practice fields and the new fieldhouse.
The Tigers will work out on their revamped practice fields under the lights on Wednesday to avoid conflict with final exams that are taking place this week. The new fields are part of a $16 million project that includes a fieldhouse that contains a regulation size football field with room to spare.
The Tigers will have late afternoon practices Thursday, Friday and Saturday this week before taking the day off on Sunday.
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