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Friday, Apr. 09, 2010

Auburn football: Ziemba hones game, closes in on record

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Three-year starter wants to improve NFL draft stock

By ANDY BITTER

abitter@ledger-enquirer.com

AUBURN, Ala. — By the time Lee Ziemba’s Auburn career is over, he’ll have accomplished what few, if any, offensive linemen have in the program’s storied history.

Barring injury, he’ll have started more games than anybody in school history, a streak that began when he was a wide-eyed freshman, persisted despite an injury-plagued sophomore year and continued through an All-SEC junior season.

Yet it seems fans are just as quick to point out the left tackle’s penalties as they are to applaud his accomplishments.

Does he hear it?

“Heck yeah,” he said. “I hear it going to have supper with my girlfriend. Somebody stops me. It’s ridiculous.

“Whatever. You get in this position, you’re going to hear stuff like that. We’re trying to get it fixed. I’m always trying to improve. I come here every day and work my tail end off to try and improve myself. That’s my job.”

It’s hard to imagine a tackle of Ziemba’s talents being underappreciated, but he just might be. The 6-foot-8, 320-pound senior has started all 38 games of his career, entrenched on the left side of an offensive line that returns four seniors and should be among the SEC’s best next season.

Yet his constant presence might not be appreciated until he’s no longer protecting the Auburn quarterback’s blind side, a thankless job that only enters the spotlight for the wrong reasons.

So is he underappreciated?

“Not by us,” coach Gene Chizik said. “We’re extremely proud, happy and excited that Lee decided to come back because he could have left for the NFL. Everybody that doesn’t appreciate it, they need to know that, too. He came back because he loves Auburn, and he wanted to play another year. We appreciate it very much.”

Ziemba submitted his name during the offseason to the NFL’s draft advisory committee, a group that evaluates a player’s draft stock and approximates a round of where he might be drafted. Ziemba declined to reveal the grade he received but decided another year in college would do him well.

“I gave it a thought,” he said. “I decided it would be in my better interest to come back. I was 20 years old, and I wasn’t ready for another change. This is my first year being in the same offense for two years in a row. I love Auburn too much. I just wanted one more year.”

Ziemba has set lofty goals for himself. He wants to be one of the best offensive linemen in the country, something offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said will require the tackle to pay closer attention to detail.

“The small, technical differences in footwork, hand placement, balance, control,” Grimes said, listing things that separate good linemen from great ones. “The difference between stepping six inches instead of three inches may be the difference in knocking a guy off the football enough for us to make a first down.”

And, yes, Ziemba’s development includes cutting down on penalties, a few of which occurred at inopportune moments last season.

“I didn’t think they were … as bad as everybody makes it seem,” Ziemba said. “Watch an NFL game. How many false starts do you see? Yeah, I messed up a few times. There’s a lot of factors. It’s a tough thing, but we’re trying to get it fixed and corrected so it doesn’t happen again.”

As for winning over the fans, it’s not a concern.

“I’m not doing it for appreciation,” Ziemba said. “I’m doing it because I love playing football and I love Auburn University. I’m not doing it for anything other than that. I don’t feel underappreciated. I feel good. I love being here. I wouldn’t change anything about it.”

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