Auburn, Ala.—For Ben Leard these feel like the start of the best of times for the Auburn football program.
Playing quarterback for the Tigers from 1996-2000, Leard was fortunate enough to learn the position from one of the all-time greats on the Plains in Dameyune Craig. On Thursday Craig was named the co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach for the Tigers, making Leard one happy guy knowing his old friend and mentor his headed back home.
"It's extremely exciting for me after playing behind Dameyune for two years," Leard tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. "He meant so much to me in 1996 as a true freshman and in my redshirt freshman just learning from him.
"It was everything from how you carry yourself as a quarterback to what is expected of you as the leader of the offense and a football team, then on top of that how you execute when you get between the lines. I would put him in the top two quarterbacks I have ever been around.
"Number one would be Tom Brady and number two would be Dameyune Craig just because mentally how he approaches the game with the X's and O's," Leard says.
"He knows everything that can be done from an offensive perspective. He was an absolute film rat when it came down to knowing what the defense is going to do and what was expected of them.
"On top of that he was a phenomenal athlete," Leard points out. "He could do so many things with the football that it was just amazing. I'm probably excited more than most to have Dameyune coming back to Auburn."
Ben Leard with Courtney Taylor and Tre Smith at Pro Day in 2007.
One of the most dynamic players in Auburn history, Craig put up huge numbers at the quarterback position for the Tigers as both a junior and a senior. Moving on to professional football before entering the coaching ranks, Craig has quickly established himself as a prolific recruiter and also a very good football coach.
Coaching the wide receivers for the Tigers in Gus Malzahn's offense, Craig can bring something very important to the table said Leard and it's something that should pay dividends right away.
"It's going to be a tremendous benefit, not only for the receivers to be coached by someone who can truly see it through the eyes of a quarterback and that really understands how to come out of a break with a certain amount of body language," Leard says.
"How are your body languages ready before you make your break? Dameyune can express to those kids how important those summer throwing sessions are and how important it is to develop a rapport and relationship with your quarterback.
"The throws and catches between a quarterback and receiver are kind of sixth sense things," Leard notes. "You become comfortable with one or two or three guys and those are your go-to guys. For Dameyune to be able to express that to the kids on the roster now and guys coming in for years to come, I think that will pay huge dividends not only for the receivers, but most importantly the quarterbacks and obviously for the offensive production."
In addition to Craig's return, Leard said he's also pumped about the return of Rodney Garner to Auburn. The coach who found Leard on the recruiting trail, a road that would eventually lead him to Auburn, Garner coming back to the Plains along with Craig gives the staff something that should be big both on the recruiting trail and in the locker room.
"A lot of things in life and most importantly when you talk to these kids in terms of football is about experience," Leard says. "When you talk about rivalries and how to prepare for certain situations it's best to hear it from guys that have been there and done that and can truly tell you from experience because they've gone through it.
"What better guys to learn it from than Dameyune and Coach Garner and obviously with Coach Malzahn having experienced a couple of seasons at Auburn and won a national championship.
"Most importantly as a player, Coach Garner and Dameyune have experienced the Iron Bowl," Leard points out. "There are very few people that have more dislike for the University of Alabama than those two guys. They are extremely competitive and I think it will be a huge benefit for those guys, it will be a huge benefit for the team, and it's going to be a huge benefit for them on the recruiting trail. It will be one that will be huge on down the line."
With the staff almost fully complete with just the tight ends coach remaining, Auburn looks to have put together a strong group of coaches on both sides of the ball heading into the 2013 season. Leard said the experience and knowledge the group brings to the table should make for exciting times for the Tigers down the road.
"At first when you just look at the hire of Gus Malzahn I think some were skeptical and had some hesitancy in regards to Coach Malzahn," Leard says. "As any good general does or a CEO does, they're going to have leaders that surround them. That's what he's done in hiring Ellis Johnson as the defensive coordinator and Charlie Harbison with the secondary and co-coordinator.
"Then he brings in Rodney Garner," Leard adds. "Now bringing on Dameyune Craig on the staff is just phenomenal. It's a really, really strong way of capping off a staff, one that I would put up against anybody in the country. They've got such a strong pedigree and they've been in the big-time. They know how to get these kids groomed for those types of situations. It's just a matter of playing ball now."
Former Auburn quarterback Ben Leard talks about the hiring of Dameyune Craig and what he brings to the table for the Tigers.