AUBURN, Ala. — Tracy Rocker stood shocked as Auburn opened spring practice, taken aback that his newly-inherited defensive linemen skirted physical confrontations by dodging blockers and frustrated that his star end, Antonio Coleman, went about his business in a quiet, self-contained manner.
The outspoken Rocker voiced his displeasure, specifically targeting the slow-starting Coleman. Rumors swirled, and the Internet was abuzz when an anonymous report made its way onto the message boards. It said Coleman walked off the field in a huff following the exchange.
Labeled a “misunderstanding,” the incident proved to be a turning point for Rocker and Coleman, one that’s fostered a bond between the former Auburn legend and current All-SEC lineman.
“I just thought that he wasn’t giving his best, and we sat down and we ironed it out,” Rocker said, blunt as usual. “You don’t know how a kid’s going to react. And in the process, he approached it in a very mature way. ‘I didn’t know this. How do I lead?’ Well, hell, I’ll help you lead. ...
“I think that was the turning point for him. After that, I said, ‘OK, that’s the guy I keep hearing about.’”
Coleman hopes to etch his name in the Auburn history books after opting not to enter last spring’s NFL draft with fellow juniors Sen’Derrick Marks and Jerraud Powers.
Despite battling a variety of injuries, the 6-foot-3, 261-pound end still earned first-team All-SEC from the coaches last year with 46 tackles and six sacks. He is one sack shy of 10th place on the school’s all-time list.
But Rocker, who left his job as Mississippi’s defensive line coach this offseason for the same position with his alma mater, wants more than just stats from his star pupil.
“A lot of guys will go, ‘Coach, I just do everything I’m supposed to do, and I try to lead by example by practicing hard,’” Rocker said. “Well that’s fine. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But sooner or later, you’ve got to open your mouth. ... If he wants to have a great year, he needs to make sure Michael Goggans is having a great year. Jake Ricks needs to be having a great year. Mike Blanc. Zach Clayton. So it’s not about you. It’s about all of us.
“We (coaches) are not ever going to be on the field. We’re on the sideline. So who’s the guy that’s going to lead the team in between those hashes? I want Coleman to be that guy.”
It’s something Coleman never really considered. He didn’t have to be vocal in the past, not with the effervescent Marks on the interior line. Nobody had pressed him on the issue until Rocker came to town.
“He challenged me when he first got here, and I was kind of slow starting off in the spring,” Coleman said. “People didn’t know what to expect, what type of coach he was. If you sit down and talk to him, he doesn’t hold anything back. He’s going to say what’s on his mind. You have to be a man and stand up and take that.”
After a contentious start, Coleman has bought in. Rocker, after all, is a legend on the Plains, a College Football Hall of Famer synonymous with Pat Dye’s defenses of the late 1980s. A picture of a smiling Rocker next to the Outland Trophy and Lombardi Award graces a wall in the school’s trophy room, making it clear to Coleman that the coach knows what he is talking about.
“(It’s) father/son, and I haven’t even known him that long,” Coleman said of their relationship. “I call him with any problems. I see him every day and call him, sitting around on the couch, call him to see how he’s doing. We’re just close, man — real close.”
Rocker has mentored his share of standout players, most notably Jamaal Anderson and Jeb Huckeba at Arkansas and Peria Jerry and Greg Hardy at Mississippi, but he likens Coleman to Philadelphia Eagle Trent Cole, a nose tackle during Rocker’s one year at Cincinnati, primarily for his quickness and ability to be physical.
Coleman is far from a finished product. Rocker would like to see him use his hands better to shed blocks and get his run-stopping on par with his pass-rushing.
But Coleman already has overcome the biggest hurdle, developing into the leader Auburn’s defense and Rocker need him to be during what he hopes will be a special senior season.
“It will be something that he remembers for the rest of his life,” Rocker said. “I’m just glad to have him.”