Auburn, Ala.--It was like old times for Zac Etheridge and his running mate at safety, Aairon Savage, as they lined up side-by-side for the first time in a football game since the 2007 season after overcoming serious injuries and obstacles.
“It felt great,” Etheridge says. “It was a blessing just to be out there be with my teammates and play in front of 80,000 people, the best fans in America.”
Etheridge and Savage were in the starting lineup for Auburn’s season-opening 52-26 football win over Arkansas State. Many Auburn fans didn’t expect to see either player competing for the Tigers this season.
After starting 33 consecutive games, Etheridge suffered a career-threatening neck and spine injury last year against Ole Miss. His hard work and determination overcame the odds as he was given clearance to resume play shortly before preseason practice started.
“There wasn’t a lot of pressure on my back,” Etheridge says. “I just went out there to play and enjoy the game. I didn’t get nervous. I did try to hit a guy as hard as I could and ended up whiffing--the one they scored on. But that’s a thing I can correct.”
Zac Etheridge is welcomed back by his teammates after being released from the hospital following his injury.
Etheridge recorded four tackles while Savage finished with six solo stops and an assist.
“Aairon was around the ball and was like Aairon before he left,” Etheridge says about his teammate who missed the last two seasons with a knee injury followed by and Achilles injury. Savage was granted a sixth-year senior season because of medical hardship. “He hasn’t lost a step,” Etheridge says.
“I think overall I played pretty well, but not as good as I wanted,” Etheridge adds. “We can’t give up that many points and passing yards.” The senior says the defense also needs to come up with takeaways whether they be interceptions or fumble recoveries, something that didn’t happen on opening night.
A new offensive coordinator for Arkansas State led to some problems for the Tiger pass defense that allowed 323 yards through the air.
“We weren’t exactly sure what they were going to do so we prepared for everything,” Etheridge explains. “We saw a lot of stuff we worked on and a lot of stuff we hadn’t seen. Anytime they put the ball down, we should be prepared. Overall, we played well, but we’ve got to get a lot better as a unit.”
Etheridge isn’t going to panic with only a short time to prepare for a nationally-televised Thursday night game at Mississippi State for the Tigers. The contest in Starkville will be the first SEC game of the 2010 season.
“There’s time to get better,” he says. “It’s going to take a lot of mental work. That means we’ve got to watch film of the first game and correct the things we didn’t do well and move forward. We aren’t a well-oiled, great defense so we have to get in there and prepare hard.”
Etheridge says a key to success will be getting to receivers more quickly and making solid tackles against quick release passing games like Arkansas State showed. “We can’t allow yards after contact,” he says. “It’s a matter of going in and make adjustments along with quicker tackles.”
Etheridge enjoyed being part of the game day experience again, especially after not knowing until recently he would be cleared to play football. “Tiger Walk was crazy,” he says. “It was live. It felt good to go there with my teammates and see all the fans. There’s a long road ahead of us, but it’s great to be back out there playing football.”
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