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Wednesday, Apr. 14, 2010

Auburn football: Freshmen try to get head start by enrolling early

Growing trend lets rookies gain edge

- abitter@ledger-enquirer.com
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-- The major moments of a high school senior’s final semester didn’t particularly interest linebacker Jessel Curry, who graduated early to enroll at Auburn this winter.

After all, he said, what’s there to miss? He’ll go back for graduation, but that’s in a couple of months. As for prom, he never had been and didn’t really want to go.

“That’d be a waste of money to me,” Curry said

Instead, Curry traded the cushy high school senior lifestyle for college, complete with a full class load and 3 1/2 weeks of football practice at a level he never has experienced.

“It was not a tough decision,” he said. “I wanted to get to college as soon as I possibly could, and by doing that it helps in school as well as the football. It helps on both sides.”

Historically, players have graduated high school in May or June and begin practice with their college team in August during two-a-days. But by completing their high school degree early and enrolling for the winter college term, they get the benefit of going through 15 spring practices.

It’s a growing trend in college football. Florida and Alabama, the two teams that met in last year’s SEC championship game, have respectively 11 and six early enrollees from high school participating in drills this spring.

Auburn has two — Curry, from Buford, Ga., and defensive end Craig Sanders from Ariton, Ala. — although coaches caution that making the early jump isn’t for everyone.

“We embrace the guys that are willing to do that and want to do that, but we don’t push that issue,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “Those guys were already on track. Before we started recruiting them, that was their plan.

“A lot of young guys do have enough foresight a year or so in advance to be able to plan for that. We certainly think it helps.”

Curry, the son of former NFL All-Pro linebacker Buddy Curry, has added depth to a linebacker position in desperate need. After playing middle linebacker his senior year at Buford High, he has worked at both outside spots this spring.

He has had to adjust to a whole new defensive philosophy — one that requires a linebacker to cover like a defensive back and hit like a lineman — and quickly realized he wasn’t in high school anymore.

“Everybody is just as good or better than you out there,” Curry said. “You just can’t go play high school ball. You’ve got to do what (coach is) telling you to do every play or you’re going to fail.”

But Curry is a quick study, by all accounts, and has made the adjustment to the college pace and physicality well.

“In high school, you don’t have to be as physical,” senior linebacker Josh Bynes said. “But the SEC, this type of ball, you have to be more physical, you have to get downhill and you’ve got to hit somebody. So that’s what he’s been doing this spring.”

Sanders, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound defensive end, has made progress as well, despite facing a tougher task. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof contends that the closer a player is to the line of scrimmage, the bigger the adjustment, because of less reaction time.

However, there is less of a pressing need at defensive end, where second-year players Nosa Eguae and Dee Ford are working behind seniors Antoine Carter and Michael Goggans, allowing Sanders more observation time.

“(I’m) teaching him and trying to get him to go forward,” Carter said. “As a freshman, you’re kind of tentative, but he’s getting better.”

While it’s difficult to gauge how much the additional spring practices have benefited Curry and Sanders, they are unquestionably further along than if they joined the team in August.

“If you look at kind of evolution of the last three months for them,” Chizik said, “I think they would tell you that it’s been night and day.”

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