Auburn, Ala.--Christmas is coming early for Auburn linebackers coach James Willis, and there’s a package sitting under the tree with his name on it. He’s already eyed it, shaken it, picked it up and tried to figure it out, but he’ll have to wait until 6:45 p.m. on Saturday to find out what he’s got with the trio of Tray Blackmon, Merrill Johnson and Craig Stevens.
“Anytime you’re going through game week with some guys that haven’t had a lot of game experience, you’re nervous,” Willis explains. “It’s like it’s Christmas and you get to play with some new toys now. We’ll see if they’ll bite.”
Willis knows a couple of things for certain: he has three of the most explosive and athletic linebackers in the SEC, and that they have the skill in practice to get the job done between the whistles. However, what happens before the play in front of 87,451 people is where the concern lies.
“It’s going to be our first time going out in front of a lot of people and making calls, getting people lined up, making checks and that type of stuff,” he says. “The biggest thing you worry about that first time out on the field is communication. Guys don’t really understand how loud it’s going to be on the field on game day. At practice you have to exaggerate that and talk loud and relay the calls.”
It all starts at middle linebacker with Blackmon, a player with the potential to follow in the footsteps of several other Auburn greats like Dontarrious Thomas, Karlos Dansby, Takeo Spikes or even Willis, who played in the NFL from 1993-1999. Blackmon has overcome a pair of well-documented suspensions and as a redshirt sophomore has actually emerged as a leader on the team by giving 100 percent on every play in every practice.
“I’m trying to help pull the team together and be a leader on the team,” Blackmon explains. “I try to lead by example out on the field and now focus in more because it’s game week. We’ve got to step it up from the way it’s been in camp. I’m trying to pull the team together, offense also, and just trying to be a leader out there through my actions.”
Though known as “The Little Ball of Hate” since his days at LaGrange, Ga., High School, Blackmon wore a smile through the 100-degree heat of two-a-days and was usually hooting and hollering and patting his teammates on the helmet when the going got tough.
“I was excited going into camp and now I’m trying to focus in more and make sure I know my stuff so I can just go out and play hard and not have to worry about making mistakes,” Blackmon says. “I carry my play book around with me everyday all day.
“I’m excited about going into the season this year,” he continues. “I feel like I’m focused and I’ve got a foundation I can lean on. I feel like I’m going to be able to get through a whole season for once, stay consistent in everything I do. I’m just trying to have a good season. Like I said, I’m real excited about the season and actually starting from the beginning of the season all the way to the end. I’m hoping big things will happen for me and happen for the team.”
Johnson is tough for offensive lineman to block on the weakside because of his quickness.
Johnson, similar to Blackmon in his explosiveness, is the “veteran” of the starters with 23 career games played and five starts. He’s another player that Willis can’t wait to unleash on Sept. 1 and find out how much progress he’s made since last season.
“(With Merrill), you never have to say ‘sick ‘em,’” Willis says. “It’s always like you have to slow him down, and that’s a good problem to have. I can tell he really loves the game and he loves contact.
“He’s really trying to get inside the defense and learn the little things. He gets down, he sets the front four and makes calls. What I see from him is overall effort to try to get better. He knows what he is--a fast guy, a physical guy and he can hit. As long as you have those tools right now it’s a good foundation for a linebacker.”
Starting strongside linebacker Craig Stevens passes the looks test.
Stevens played in three games last season before redshirting in 2006. As the starting strongside linebacker, he’s had a quiet but solid preseason camp for the Tigers.
Only time will tell if Blackmon, Johnson and Stevens are what Willis is hoping for.