Closer look at a few relatively unknown Tigers
By ANDY BITTER
AUBURN, Ala. — As Auburn prepared to break camp last August, Daren Bates was stuck in limbo.
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The NCAA Clearinghouse went down to the wire before approving the freshman to play. The relative unknown missed the entire summer workout program, arrived a day late to camp and performed so poorly on his first day that he apologized to the coaching staff.
He responded by having an All-SEC freshman season, grabbing a starting safety spot and never looking back.
Such surprises can make or break a team. Sure, the stars will likely perform to their abilities, but what about the lesser-knowns and role players? They can be just as vital to a team’s success.
Here are a few less-celebrated players who were on the team last season who could play big roles for Auburn:
HB Eric Smith
The Tigers don’t have anyone else quite like him — a big, bruising back who can carry the ball, block and catch passes out of the backfield.
With Mario Fannin now a full-time tailback, that leaves Smith as the only player with this particular skill set (not counting 290-pound freshman Ladarious Phillips, who will play fullback but whose role remains unknown).
Smith’s 2009 season was all but lost because of assault charges in August and an academic suspension for the bowl game, so the junior should be plenty motivated this year with a fresh start.
DT Nick Fairley
The junior college transfer’s production grade last year was often higher than his assignment grade, meaning he would make plays but wouldn’t always get lined up in the right spot.
He spent the offseason focusing on technique and alignment, hoping to get the mental side of the game on par with his physical skills.
At 6-foot-5, 298 pounds, he’s got the size to be a force at tackle. He showed signs of breaking out, with 11 tackles, 1.5 sacks and three quarterback hurries in Auburn’s final three games. If he can carry over that success, he could have a breakout year.
LB/S Daren Bates
How can Bates make this list if he had so much success as a freshman? Easy. He switched positions.
Auburn plans to use him in a hybrid safety/linebacker role, getting him in the box to make more tackles while taking advantage of his speed.
The sophomore had offseason shoulder surgery and didn’t practice last spring, so no one knows exactly how this experiment will work. But if he adjusts to the more physically demanding role closer to the line, he could put an end to the Tigers’ long search for a reliable third linebacker to complement Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens.
WR DeAngelo Benton
Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery still have the starting receiver positions locked down, but the Tigers will need more options. Benton, a 22-year-old sophomore, figures to have the best shot at emerging as that No. 3 threat.
Coaches marvel at the 6-foot-2, 201-pound receiver’s physical tools, contending he needed last season to knock off the rust of two years spent on the sidelines because of qualifying issues.
Wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor said Benton will re-write the record books at Auburn. He will need to get on the field for long stretches of time first.
DE Nosa Eguae/Dee Ford
Both are second-year players — Eguae redshirted after injuring his foot, Ford played as a third-down pass rusher — but both are expected to provide much-needed depth at defensive end.
Seniors Antoine Carter and Michael Goggans figure to grab the starting spots, but defensive line coach Tracy Rocker likes to rotate players on a regular basis, which requires a lot of bodies.
Both sophomores are better-equipped to play this year. Eguae is up 14 pounds to 258. Ford is up 26 pounds to 240. That added bulk should help them stay in the game for more situations.
CB Anthony Morgan
The former Anthony Gully/Anthony Gulley-Morgan is exclusively a defensive player this year after paying a variety of spots as a freshman.
Beyond starters Neiko Thorpe and Demond Washington, the Tigers don’t have much depth at cornerback. Junior D’Antoine Hood (Central-Phenix City) transferred to Alabama State this summer, leaving T’Sharvan Bell and Morgan as the only scholarship backups who aren’t freshmen.
As the Outback Bowl against Northwestern showed, a team can never have enough cornerbacks at its disposal, meaning Morgan’s development as a viable option is crucial.
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