AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s depth problem is starting to rear its ugly head.
The Tigers knew they were thin heading into the season, but they are finally starting to see the repercussions from a low number of contributors, particularly on defense after a 44-23 loss to Arkansas on Saturday.
“You’ve got to really watch what you do so you don’t overload your players and force them to make unforced errors by being confused,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.
“There’s a fine line in having enough bullets in your gun to shoot to be able to do the things you need to do and at the same time not overloading your guys and making good players slow down because they’re thinking too much.”
With Eltoro Freeman dealing with what the coaches has termed “personal things,” the Tigers basically played three linebackers — Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens and Adam Herring — for all of Saturday, when Arkansas ran 82 plays and held the ball for over 38 minutes. Stevens and Bynes combined for 20 tackles.
The lack of depth has had a trickle-down effect. With its starters swamped, Auburn has been forced to play younger, inexperienced players on special teams as a result.
The Razorbacks took advantage, turning momentum around at the end of the third quarter on a 70-yard kickoff return by Dennis Johnson, who sidestepped three would-be Tigers tacklers on the play.
“You want your best guys on those cover teams and there’s no question about it, but where we are right now, we’ve got some starters on it and some that aren’t on it,” head coach Gene Chizik said. “The bottom line is at some positions if we lose that starter, there’s such a dropoff to the next guy that we’re playing a lot of young guys and we’re going to have to have some different answers. We’re just in a little bit of a bind there.”
* Chizik said there’s a chance punt returner Anthony Gulley returns this week. He missed the Arkansas game with an undisclosed injury.
* The coach gave no concrete update on cornerback Walt McFadden, who missed the second half Saturday with a right leg injury. “Obviously today he came back in and we looked at him,” Chizik said. “Right now we don’t think it’s anything catastrophic, but it will be day-by-day with him.”
* He didn’t sound optimistic that safety Mike McNeil would be back soon from a broken leg suffered last spring. “To be honest with you, I don’t know where Mike is in the big picture of coming back,” Chizik said.
New year, new attitude
Running back Ben Tate’s career-best 184 rushing yards against Arkansas gives him 742 for the season to go with four touchdowns, numbers that already top what he did in a full 12 games last year.
“I knew with coach (Gus) Malzahn’s offenses that I would have a pretty good chance to put some numbers in,” Tate said. “He told me that at the beginning of the year, it’s just all about hard work and it’s about staying humble. And if I stay humble and I keep working hard, hopefully these things will keep happening for me.”
Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline will miss at least two-to-four weeks and possibly the season after injuring his knee last week against South Carolina, Wildcats coach Rich Brooks told reporters during his Sunday teleconference
The Wildcats might use a variety of players in his place. Junior Will Fidler replaced Hartline and completed 2 of 8 passes last Saturday.
Brooks said receiver Randall Cobb, who started four games at quarterback last season, will be used in an expanded Wildcat role.
He also said freshman Morgan Newton will compete for a starting spot and might burn his redshirt.