AUBURN, Ala. -- Defensive coordinator Ted Roof answered a question about Auburn’s linebackers but could have just as easily been referring to the rest of the Tigers’ depleted roster.
“Opportunity abounds,” he said, after the team’s first practice of the spring. “We’ve got opportunity all over the place, and everyone’s competing. And it’s going to force everybody to be better.”
It wasn’t a Who’s Who at the first of 15 Auburn spring practices Wednesday. It was a Who’s That.
In a little over two months since the Tigers capped a perfect 14-0 season by winning the BCS national championship in Glendale Ariz., they have seen 34 scholarship players depart from the roster for various reasons.
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Twenty-two scholarship seniors graduated, including virtually the entire offensive and defensive lines.
Three star players -- quarterback Cam Newton, defensive tackle Nick Fairley and wide receiver Darvin Adams -- submitted their names for the NFL draft a year early.
Five players were dismissed, including H-back Eric Smith, who was arrested for a second time in February, and four others -- safety Mike McNeil, wide receivers Antonio Goodwin and Shaun Kitchens and tight end Dakota Mosley -- who admitted involvement in an armed robbery March 11.
And four players who would have had eligibility remaining -- wide receivers Derek Winter and Philip Pierre-Louis, tight end Robert Cooper and offensive linemen Andre Harris -- are no longer on the roster. (Another scholarship player, offensive tackle Roszell Gayden, opted to transfer in the middle of last season and could be counted as a 35th departure.)
The Tigers are left with 53 scholarship players this spring, including offensive lineman Shon Coleman, who won’t participate after undergoing treatment for cancer last year.
That means dozens of unfamiliar faces filling new roles.
“It’s not that there’s new guys on the team; it’s that there’s guys who have been here for only a year,” said tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, a veteran at the ripe old age of 19. “They’re getting an opportunity to make plays and step up and show the coaches what they can do, and they need to take full advantage of that.”
It will make for an unusual monthlong stretch of practices.
Simply glancing at the Tigers’ stretching lines, which are usually led by veteran players, shows Auburn’s turnover. Of the 12 groups, five were led by seniors, only two of which were starters last year. Five were led by juniors and two by sophomores.
The turnover also means Auburn’s coaches likely will spend more time this spring getting back to basics. During a simple wide receivers drill at the start of Wednesday’s practice, assistant coach Trooper Taylor scolded those players he thought weren’t paying attention to something as elementary as looking the ball into their hands.
“Some of y’all are just going through the motions,” he barked. “I can tell those of you who played and those of you who haven’t.”
“The standard will be high, but at the same time as a coach we’re going to have to be a little patient,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “We’re going to be an inexperienced team, but we have some options.”
The challenge for the coaches will be slowing down to teach an inexperienced group without lowering expectations.
“I want us to expect to be good and expect to be great, but we’ve got a lot of work to do before that happens,” said Roof, who stood in during post-practice interviews for ill head coach Gene Chizik. “Last year is so far in the rearview mirror.”
Roof’s message to the players is simple:
“Let’s get better every day,” he said. “Because it’s in them. We’ve got some talented guys. They’re just very inexperienced.”