All of the names who are gone from last season will be tough to replace, there's no question about that, but there are returning players worthy of attention as well. One of those is junior running back Onterio McCalebb.
McCalebb is a threat as a rusher, receiver and kickoff return man.
Despite rushing for 1,375 yards in two years with 13 touchdowns on just 200 carries, an average of 6.9 yards per attempt, McCalebb doesn't get much press from people outside the state of Alabama. Now bigger, stronger and more mature, McCalebb says he feels like the best is yet to come for him starting with Saturday's season opener against Utah State.
"To tell you the truth, I'm a lot better," McCalebb says. "I have learned a lot from the previous two years. My weight is up. I think I'm a lot better."
It's not just on the field with his play that McCalebb has improved. Now wiser and one of the veterans on the offense, Auburn running backs coach Curtis Luper says the Fort Meade, Fla., native has stepped up when his team needed him the most this preseason.
"He has come a long way in the two years-plus that we've been here," Luper says. "It's night and day for him. He's doing great in school. He's obviously a great football player and helps our team in many different ways. What he's done for us is he's added leadership for us, on and off the field.
"We had a lot of leaders on last year's football team, not just Cam Newton, but the receivers and the offensive line and guys on defense. I could name 20 of them or maybe 30, but he's helping in that sense. He's going a really good job of being a vocal leader."
McCalebb is one of the most experienced players on the 2011 Auburn offense.
Along with McCalebb in the Auburn backfield is sophomore Michael Dyer. The offensive MVP in the BCS title game, Dyer broke Bo Jackson's freshman rushing record at Auburn in 2010 with 1,093 yards on 182 carries with five touchdowns. Those two give the Tigers a formidable duo in the running game and throw in true freshman Tre Mason and you have a very solid group for Luper to work with.
McCalebb says that he's been impressed by Mason's attitude and effort this fall and he believes there are big things ahead for the speedster.
"Tre is a freshman, but he's smart and a tough guy," McCalebb notes. "He goes out there every day and works hard and does everything the coaches ask him to do. I think he's going to help us in a lot of ways."
With four new starters on the offensive line and a new quarterback in Barrett Trotter, don't be surprised if the Tigers rely on the ground game early and often on Saturday. If that is the case look for McCalebb to have an even bigger role in the offense as he continues to grow as both a player and a person for Auburn.