AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes issues the same warning to his high school signees every year: Be wary of an inactive offseason.
His advice generally goes unheeded.
“It happens to so many offensive linemen, particularly if they’re not playing basketball, they’re done with every sort of physical, organized activity that they’ve been involved in,” Grimes said. “And then they balloon up and gain a lot of weight.”
John Sullen fell into that trap. It has taken him more than a year to work his way out.
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Sullen looks slim and trim in his second season, weighing in at a svelte 305 pounds after reporting at 357 last summer.
“It was a long process,” Sullen said. “It seemed a lot longer than a year. But it came down to a point where I lost weight or I wasn’t going to be able to produce.”
As a result, he is in the mix for serious playing time on the offensive line.
Sullen has taken reps this August at right tackle, where he and junior college transfers Brandon Mosley and Roszell Gayden are battling for the only vacant job on the line, replacing the graduated Andrew McCain.
“That thing is still completely wide open. I’m not going to rule out anybody yet,” Grimes said. “I don’t have any allegiance to anybody, other than the best guy.”
Sullen’s transformation and newfound versatility gives Auburn options on a line still lacking depth.
“Let’s say he did win the job at right tackle — he’d still need to be a guy who could move inside for us if we had an injury,” Grimes said. “He’s a guy smart enough to cross-train a little bit, but we’re trying to give him most of his work at tackle.”
That Sullen is even in the picture is remarkable. The Tigers signed him late in the process after Gene Chizik was hired in December of 2008, taking a chance on the three-star recruit in the Auburn’s backyard.
Many classified Sullen, who weighed 340 pounds his senior season at Auburn High, a project at the college level.
He didn’t help himself by reporting nearly 20 pounds heavier than when he signed.
His freshman year was almost a lost cause. Sullen started at guard against Ball State during the fourth week in place of a suspended Byron Isom and handled himself fine, but he was replaced the next week by Bart Eddins.
Sullen’s biggest contribution beyond that was as one of Auburn’s personal protectors in the punt formation.
“I wish I could have last year back, but it’s in the past,” he said.
Sullen committed himself to shedding weight in the offseason. He exercised more, doing extra cardio work under the supervision of strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall.
He also overhauled his diet, eliminating the grease and replacing it with vegetables and grilled items. Forty-two pounds later, all of his clothes are too big.
“Coach Yox does a great job with our strength program in really curtailing people’s diets and added in with weight training, he’s able to do that with a lot of guys,” Chizik said. “But they’ve got to want to do it. And he did. That does say a lot about John’s commitment to what he wants to do here.”
The results are noticeable. Sullen’s footwork has improved by leaps and bounds. He retained his power but is more nimble, able to get to linebackers quicker and more confident in his ability to block in space.
“On top of that he has really grown up and matured, and shown a lot more toughness and effort than he showed at any time last year,” Grimes said.
Said Sullen: “It’s just a completely new game for me now.”