AUBURN, Ala. — A clock that counts down the days until the start of the season hangs in the Auburn locker room. As of Sunday night, the time until Tigers’ Sept. 5 opener against Louisiana Tech was down to five days and some change.
“It’s real close,” senior tight end Tommy Trott said. “It’s a lot different than the summer, when the thing says 160-some days.”
There was a different tenor to the full-pad practice Sunday night, fueled by the thoughts of an actual game breaking the monotony of preseason.
“Tonight was really kind of an upbeat practice, I thought, tempo-wise,” coach Gene Chizik said. “The guys had a little bit more of a bounce in their step as you would imagine going into game week.”
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Auburn’s preparation will differ from a traditional game week, when it devotes most of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday practices to its opponent. The Tigers began Louisiana Tech prep last week, mixing with their normal drills.
“We don’t feel like we’re in a real game-week scenario yet,” Chizik said. “So we’ll try to taper off and get our legs back under us yet before Friday.”
Junior Mario Fannin said he is the team’s No. 1 punt returner.
“It’s going to be fun,” he said. “I think it’s going to actually enhance my game more as far as focusing and being tuned into the game. It will help me make wiser decisions when it comes to other things on the field.”
Fannin, a utility back, has returned one punt during a game. It was in high school. He took it back for a touchdown.
He returned kicks last year, averaging 22.5 yards per return, but added punt returns to his repertoire this offseason.
“It’s been a learning experience,” he said. “Now, the ball is traveling higher and you have faster guys running down the field toward you. It’s mainly just focusing on the ball and making the right decision.”
The team has gone live on a few occasions, just to replicate the pressure of catching high-hanging punts with gunners bearing down.
“I didn’t drop it,” Fannin said. “That’s the main thing.”
Fannin also said he will be in the mix on kick returns, as will Onterio McCalebb, Terrell Zachery and Harry Adams.
Chizik plans to release a depth chart this week, but he already made it known that freshman safety Daren Bates will get in the game in some manner, whether it’s on defense or special teams.
The 5-foot-11, 195-pound Bates has made a quick impression after arriving to camp two days late because of the NCAA Clearinghouse process. With junior Mike McNeil still sidelined by a broken leg suffered last April, Bates has a chance to jump Mike Slade and Drew Cole for playing time at the safety position opposite Zac Etheridge.
“He got a late start, but, over the last eight or nine days, you can really see the light coming on,” Chizik said. “You can see him do some things that make you think he’s got a chance to contribute. One of those is being a physical player. I think he’s going to be that. I think he’s one of those guys that’ll stick his face in there and be an aggressive football player at the safety position — and that’s what you need.”
Chizik said offensive lineman Aubrey Phillips is “doing well.” The freshman, who transferred this summer from Florida State, had a non-football related medical episode early in camp that has kept him in street clothes since. “He’s in meetings and he’s with our football team, so we’re excited about that,” Chizik said, not offering a date for his return. “He’s doing better.” Chizik also said he has not received word from the NCAA as to whether Phillips would be immediately eligible to play this season. ... Kodi Burns said he expects to be the Wildcat quarterback Saturday. “We’ve worked on it a little bit,” he said. “We’ll see what happens in this game.”