Auburn, Ala.--Walk-ons to college football teams usually have to earn respect from their coaches and fellow players.
Ted Roof, Auburn’s defensive coordinator, said that two of the players he coaches have done that as they begin fall semester classes on Wednesday as scholarship athletes for the first time.
Senior linebacker Ashton Richardson and junior safety Ikeem Means are two of eight walk-ons who head coach Gene Chizik has put on scholarship as a reward for their performances in practices and games.
“That is a great moment for our coaches and for our team,” Roof said of Means and Richardson being awarded their scholarships. “Those guys do everything right all of the time. They are two of the first ones on the practice field every day and two of the last ones to leave.”
Means came to Auburn as a wide receiver from Wetumpka High School, but was immediately moved to safety with the Tigers having a shortage of defensive backs. He has played on special teams the past two seasons and as a nickel back in addition to lining up at safety.
Richardson, who is from New Orleans, is the son of former LSU All-American Al Richardson. He made nine tackles in 13 games as a sophomore, but played just briefly in 2010 before being lost with an ACL injury. He has bounced back and hopes to see playing time at linebacker and on special teams this fall.
“It is so neat to see kids who do everything right, who are committed 100 percent to the program and being an Auburn man, get rewarded,” Roof said. “They earned those scholarships. It is a neat time for our team because our entire team respects those guys.”
Working as a backup free safety behind Neiko Thorpe and also seeing action as a nickel back, Means has worked part-time jobs and received financial help from his mother to pay for tuition, room and board the past two years.
The defensive back said he was going to play a prank on his mom and call her and tell her he didn’t get a scholarship, but his family members had gotten word of the scholarship before Means did and had a surprise for him on Monday night.
“Once I got home and I was getting ready to call my mom, 15 to 20 family members busted out and surprised me with cake and wings,” he said. “We had a good time.”
Asked what receiving the scholarship means to him, a smiling Means said, “The hard work and dedication I put in finally paid off. I love the coaches, I love this team. I feel like I am actually a part of it. I want to thank Coach Chizik for doing this because I know he didn’t have to. I have the utmost respect for him.”
Richardson is just as enthusiastic about his scholarship as Means is.
“The first thing I was thinking was to pray to God thanking him for this and after that it was just a humbling feeling that all of my teammates got up and cheered for me,” he said. “That made me feel real good.
“I also feel a sense of responsibility now that I have a scholarship,” said Richardson, an honor student. “I need to work as hard as I can to earn that scholarship to show the coaches I am worth them paying for my schooling.”
Richardson’s coaches will tell you the senior really enjoys football, something the senior doesn’t deny. “I love it, I love it, I love it,” he said with a big smile. “Not being able to play football would hurt me almost more than anything,” he said.
The senior is working as a backup strongside linebacker and is also playing on the kickoff and punt teams. “Obviously the goal of every player is to be out on the field on either the offensive team or defensive team on game day, but having the opportunity to have my parents come to the game and see me play means a lot to me,” Richardson said. “I appreciate Coach Boulware (special teams coach Jay Boulware) giving me the opportunity to play on special teams and him looking out for me.”
When Richardson called home with the good news about his scholarship, the first person he talked to was his dad. “He was ecstatic and was telling me to just thank God,” the linebacker said. “My mom was very, very happy, too, and she was congratulating me and she was just as happy as my dad.”
Richardson is up to 6-0, 218 pounds. “My goal was to put on 10 pounds during the summer workouts and fortunately I was blessed enough to be able to do that,” he said. “I can tell the extra weight is helping me. I can tell it when I make contact with guys. I feel like I get more push when I hit people. I feel more solid.”
In addition to the two defenders, fullback Chris Humphries, center Blake Burgess, running back Davis Hooper, offensive tackle Aubrey Phillips, wide receiver Nate Taylor and kicker Chandler Brooks received good news about being put on scholarship.
“It was something I have been hoping would happen for a long time,” Humphries said. “I felt relief and excitement. It has been tough, a real strain on my family, especially coming from a big family. I have a little brother with me at Auburn and two more just getting in high school.”
Humphries said when his name was called as the whole team listened it was a special time. “Everybody was cheering, high-fiving and chest bumping,” he said. “It was pretty neat.”
A physical player, Humphries has a chance to see prime time action this season at fullback. However, he said he really isn’t sure about how extensive his role will be once the season starts.
“Although technically we are ending fall camp, it really isn’t over and we will be in fall camp until the first game so we will just keep practicing and trying to get better and see what happens,” he said.
The walk-on has been around the program for a while now and said he likes what he sees. “I think we have a lot of potential. There is an extreme amount of talent on both sides of the ball, especially on offense, so I am excited about seeing what we can do.”
In other news and notes:
*The Tigers worked on special teams during the second practice of the day on Tuesday evening. The Tigers will start fall semester classes on Wednesday and return to the practice field that night.
Blake Burgess is now a scholarship player.
*Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said that other senior Brandon Mosley the starting spots at tackle, guard and center are still up for grabs. The coach noted that on Tuesday he worked Blake Burgess at guard for “cross training” purposes. Grimes said that doesn’t mean that true freshman Reese Dismukes has won the starting center spot over Burgess.
Asked about rumors that Dismukes will be the starter, Grimes said, “That would be news to me...I haven’t said anything like that to Reese. He is doing great, but Blake is also doing well, too.”
Grimes said from watching preseason he believes the Tigers will only have seven, eight or possibly nine offensive linemen ready to play so it is important that he cross-train players to have a solid two-deep. “Blake is a guy who is really valuable because he is smart enough to do that and he has played some guard in the past,” Grimes said.
A.J. Greene is shown at practice.
*A.J. Greene, who started preseason practice running first team at left tackle, has missed more than a week of practice, but was back in action on Tuesday and had a good workout, said Grimes. The coach added that Greene is still in the mix for a starting spot.
*Another offensive tackle, Aubrey Phillips, was injured nine days ago and has yet to return to practice. Grimes had high praise for the walk-on who was put on scholarship, noting that he has overcome a series of obstacles to return to college football.
*Safeties coach Tommy Thigpen had high praise after practice for true freshman Erique Florence from Valley High. “He is the most productive guy I have got back there,” Thigpen said. “Every practice he is in there something is happening.”
Erique Florence is a member of Auburn's No. 1 ranked 2011 signee class.
Florence was an Under Armour All-American in high school and is living up to his billing. “Erique is exactly what we saw on tape and exactly the same type of character we want on our football team,” Thigpen said.
Thigpen added that Florence, Neiko Thorpe and Demetruce McNeal have been the top performers at safety. “Every day he is feeling more and more comfortable back there and the communication is better,” Thigpen said of Thorpe. He also noted he wouldn’t be surprised if the senior led the team in tackles and interceptions this year.
“He has got everything we are looking for,” Thigpen said of Thorpe’s size and athletic ability. The coach said if Thorpe becomes a student of the game this fall like Zac Etheridge and Aairon Savage were last year the Tigers will have a good player on the last line of defense.
At the end of two-a-days, redshirt freshman Trent Fisher is probably the fourth safety with another walk-on, Ikeem Means, coming on strong after being slowed by an injury earlier this preseason.
*Running backs coach Curtis Luper said that freshman Tre Mason and junior Anthony Gulley Morgan are continuing to make progress. He said the coaches know what the projected starters, Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb, can do. Luper noted the focus has been trying to get Morgan and Mason ready to be complete backs.
*On the subject of Mason, Luper said he likes the freshman’s speed which he said is comparable to McCalebb’s. “We knew he was fast and he is fast,” the coach said. Luper added, “He has proven to be as tough as nails...He is going to help us.”
*Luper said that redshirt freshman Ladarious Phillips, his 290-pound fullback, is finally getting back to full speed after suffering an ankle injury in August of 2010. “He is still a work in progress,” the coach said. “We are looking for him to continue to improve and help us this year and he will do that.”
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