Auburn, Ala.--As the Tigers prepare for their 15 days of spring training football practices, Auburn defensive line coach Don Dunn is looking for a new starter at tackle and depth at noseguard.
The Tigers must replace senior starter Jay Ratliff, who had by far his best college season in 2004 after making the move from end to tackle last season. Ratliff performed so well at the position he is now considered an NFL prospect.
“Going into the spring I feel pretty confident about the noseguard position,” Dunn tells Inside the Auburn Tigers. “We have got Tommy Jackson, who is being pushed by Josh Thompson. There is not an inch of difference between them right now. Either one of them could be a starter.
“Both of them have to continue to work hard because the other one is pushing him, which is excellent for our program,” Dunn says. “Josh makes Tommy better and Tommy makes Josh better. Both are very capable so I feel really good about the noseguard position, although I do have to develop a number three at nose. I am not quite sure yet who that is going to be. We are going to have to let that shake out. I am not sure if it is going to be Tez Doolittle or Tyronne Green.”
T.J. Jackson is expected to be a key player in Auburn's defense this season.
Jackson is a 6-1, 305 senior who has seen extensive playing time for the Tigers. Thompson is a 6-0, 301 redshirt sophomore who may be the team’s physically strongest player. Doolittle is a 6-3, 289 sophomore who was disappointing last fall and Green is a 6-3, 306-pounder who didn’t get much work on scout team last fall while being redshirted as a freshman.
At the tackle (three technique) spot in Auburn’s 4-3 alignment, there is less certainty, Dunn notes. “My biggest concern is the three technique, where I have Wayne Dickens, a senior who has played quite a bit for us, backed up by Neil Brown, who played as a true freshman,” Dunn says. “We also have Pat Sims, who seems to be having good winter workouts. After him it is kind of an open area. Wayne has got to step up. Nobody has that starting position yet. Neil has to gain weight, but he has shown a lot of promise. He works hard.”
Brown, a 2004 signee out of Buford, Ga., High, currently checks in at 6-2, 264 pounds.
“I really want to get at least a five-man rotation going at the two positions,” Dunn says. “I would love to get six into the rotation, with three at each position, but that is kind of hard to do. It is going to be a real big spring for a lot people.
“It is going to be a big spring for Wayne Dickens and Neal Brown and a huge spring for Tez Doolittle and Pat Sims. Tez Doolittle has to get it done or I don’t know what is going to happen. He has to really step up, mature and show us he really wants to play. The same with Pat Sims, who I am real proud of so far in the winter conditioning.
“Then we have Nathan Farrow, a big walk-on kid who shows promise. Then, of course, we have Tyronne Green, who unfortunately for him was hurt a lot last year. He had a sinus problem and a knee problem last year.” Green, a 2004 signee, is from Pensacola, Fla. Farrow, a redshirt freshman from Birmingham, is 6-3, 310.
“We have got some good young kids,” Dunn says. “We just have to find the right spots for them and find out who is going to step up. We have even talked about playing Josh some at the three technique on run downs. You want to get your best players on the field. Right now, that would be Tommy and Josh. Other than that, we have the young kids (2005 signees) coming in later this year who will be freshmen.”
From observing the winter workouts, Dunn says it looks like his interior linemen are making progress physically. “All of them have changed their bodies,” he notes. “Some of them needed to lose a little bit of weight and others needed to gain some weight. Coach Yox (strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall) seems to be happy about what they are doing. We talk about it every day in staff meetings.
“The biggest thing we have to do is develop some leadership. We do have two seniors, Tommy Jackson and Wayne Dickens, who really have to step up. We lost some good ones from last year’s team. Jay Ratliff was a silent type leader. (Defensive end) Bret Eddins was an excellent leader. We have to develop that along the front. We are still pretty young on the front, particularly at the end position.
“Right now Josh Thompson is probably having the best winter conditioning. His motor runs and he is going to be hard to keep off the field. Tommy better keep one step ahead of him or he is going to be passed up. I will have no problem starting Josh Thompson at noseguard over Tommy Jackson. Whoever does the job in the classroom, the film room and practice field is going to be out there.”
Pat Sims is shown as a true freshman last fall.
Dunn has good things to say about true sophomore Brown, who saw limited duty last year at both end and tackle. “He is about 265 now and he needs to be about 275 by fall. I think he can do that. He is a great technician. He came from a great program. He busts his tail. He is very intelligent and he knows the game. He uses his hands well. His biggest problem is his weight. Unfortunately, we had to play him last year. One of these days I want to get into a position so we can redshirt everybody who signs.”
The Tigers will take the practice field on Tuesday and have workouts scheduled every day that week through Saturday when the team will have its first scrimmage.
“I think we will be as good as anybody in the country at noseguard, but we have to find a three technique,” Dunn says.