Auburn, Ala.--Saturday’s Auburn football scrimmage wasn’t as big a production as the previous three, but for senior safety Zac Etheridge it was the big one.
Seriously injured against Ole Miss last fall with the strong possibility he would never play football again, Etheridge was cleared to begin practice with his teammates when full squad practices began in early August, but it wasn’t until Saturday the team’s medical staff gave him the green light to go full speed with no limitations.
“I enjoyed every moment of it,” he said with a big smile. “Today I was just out there having fun and enjoying being out there with the guys. My teammates were talking to me and messing with me every time I came to the sidelines because I was finally playing, but I enjoyed it.”
Saturday’s lengthy session at Jordan-Hare Stadium was more like half of a scrimmage with much of the session focused on individual drills.
The first team defense was allowed to hit offensive players, but not tackle them to the ground. However, when the reserves got into the scrimmage the Tigers played regular football as Coach Gene Chizik and his staff collected more video as they continue to make evaluations on which young players and reserves will be ready to help two weeks from now on opening night vs. Arkansas State.
Etheridge is looking forward to being back on the field with what he is expecting to be an improved defensive group this season. “We are getting there,” the senior safety told Inside the Auburn Tigers. “We are going out there with the intention of getting better every day. I?think we are a long way ahead of where we were at this time last year.
“I think we are getting better every day on defense and I believe Coach Roof (defensive coordinator Ted Roof) and Coach Chizik are doing a good job of preparing us,” Etheridge added.
Etheridge worked with the first team on Saturday along with another safety who is coming back from an injury, sixth-year senior Aairon Savage who has missed the last two seasons.
Both Etheridge and Savage have earned praised from Chizik, Roof and safeties coach Tommy Thigpen for their play on the field and leadership off the field.
“Aairon and I have a leadership role on this team because a lot of guys listen to us and follow our footsteps because we have been through adversity and we have been in the big games,” Etheridge said. “I think we bring a lot of experience on the field.”
Chizik has consistently mentioned throughout preseason that he likes what he is seeing from his scholarship freshman class that includes 26 newcomers and he is hoping to see as many of them play this year as possible to bolster depth on both sides of the line of scrimmage.
Barrett Trotter throws a pass in Saturday's scrimmage.
“We got a lot of reps at the end in the scrimmage with some young guys,” Chizik said. “We’re trying to make some final decisions on who we think can help and who can’t. It was really productive in working towards making some more decisions, and we’ll continue to evaluate, but today will help us.”
The head coach singled out freshman safety Demetruce McNeal, who had an interception in the scrimmage and several impressive open field tackles. Another defensive player, redshirt freshman middle linebacker Harris Gaston, had a good scrimmage the coach said. He also mentioned freshman fullback Ladarious Phillips.
McNeal and his high school teammate, fellow freshman Shaun Kitchens who is playing H-back, are two of the newcomers who could see action on opening night.
Kitchens made an impressive catch in the Saturday scrimmage and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn noted that the 6-3, 217-pounder is making progress.
Malzahn said after four scrimmages the coaches have “a lot of information” about making decisions on who will play. Malzahn declined to say who the top backup at quarterback is behind Cameron Newton, who threw a touchdown pass in the scrimmage, but said he feels “solid” about Auburn’s quarterback situation. All three backups--Barrett Trotter, Neil Caudle and Clint Moseley--got to play quarterback during Saturday’s scrimmage.
Freshman fullback Ladarious Phillips runs in the scrimmage on Saturday. He was one of the newcomers who got plenty of playing time in the session and the 6-0, 291-pounder showed his power on short yardage plays.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof, who was not happy with any aspect of the defense’s play in scrimmage three on Wednesday, was singing a different tune on Saturday. after the linebackers as a group had a solid day.
“We are getting better,” the coach said, who noted that his four freshmen linebackers are making a positive contribution to the depth situation behind the first group that includes senior Josh Bynes in the middle, senior Craig Stevens on the weakside and sophomore Daren Bates on the strongside.
Asked if the group of freshmen that includes Jessel Curry, Jake Holland, LaDarius Owens and Jawara White will all be ready to play for the opener, Roof said, “They will have a chance. Some are at different places right now and I am not ready to talk about which ones are where, but I?have seen them all get better. Everybody handles the transition a little big different.
“For instance, I think it was a big benefit for Jessel Curry to be here in the spring because he had already been through to experience it before, not to say the other guys haven’t done a good job as well,” Roof said. “Just experience and reps. What we are starting to see that some of the reps that we have banked up are starting to pay off because we are starting to get some better execution.”
The Tigers will return to practice for a Sunday evening workout.
Last year the Tigers had three scrimmages before opening the season vs. Louisiana Tech. Chizik said he wasn't sure if the Tigers would scrimmage again between now and the opener, but said it isn't going to rule out the possibility of a fifth one.
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