AUBURN, Ala. -- In the past two years, 51 of the 52 high school players Auburn has signed to letters of intent have qualified academically, an impressive feat considering the yearly battle most teams face with the NCAA Clearinghouse.
The Tigers will need every one of them to contribute this year.
Auburn enters the season with many roadblocks, facing a brutal schedule that features seven ranked teams, and doing so with a target on its back as the defending national champion.
But the biggest challenge might be navigating the rough SEC waters with a roster that is almost 70 percent underclassmen.
Never miss a local story.
“You’ve got so many freshmen that are going to be playing,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “I mean, there’s no way around that. Our scholarship count right now is low, low, low 70s. So if you do the math, a bunch of them are going to be playing, which is no problem.
“We’re going to play the ones that we obviously think give us the best chance to win.”
It’s often overlooked that t he large senior class that was the foundation of Auburn’s national championship team -- one that included Lee Ziemba, Josh Bynes, Ryan Pugh and Kodi Burns -- was the work of Chizik’s predecessor, Tommy Tuberville, who landed the seventh-ranked class of 2007, according to Rivals.
Tuberville also saddled the program with the current senior class, the ill-fated 2008 group that because of qualifying issues, dismissals and attrition leaves the Tigers with only eight scholarship seniors.
It has had a profound affect on the roster.
Of the 105-man August practice roster, only 72 players are on scholarship, well below the NCAA maximum of 85.
Offensive tackle Shon Coleman is on a medical waiver while recovering from his battle with leukemia and does not count against the numbers until he is able to practice with the team, which is not expected to be this season.
Those scholarship players tend to be on the young side. Fifteen are sophomores, 10 are redshirt freshmen and 25 are true freshmen, comprising two-thirds of Auburn’s players receiving financial aid this season.
The past two classes, the only two filled out completely under Chizik’s watch, have been of high quality. The Tigers landed consensus top-five groups in both years, according to the recruiting websites. So, even though the youngsters lack experience, they still might play this season.
Among the signees from February, offensive linemen Christian Westerman, Greg Robinson and Reese Dismukes, defensive tackles Gabe Wright (Carver) and Angelo Blackson, defensive backs Jonathan Rose, Jermaine Whitehead, Robenson Therezie and Erique Florence, wide receiver Quan Bray (Troup) and running back Tre Mason have a solid chance of playing time.
With 16 starting spots up for grabs and the two-deep chart lacking finality, opportunities abound for the youngsters.
“We did not recruit our freshmen to watch,” Chizik said. “We didn’t recruit them to observe everybody else play. We recruit them to come in here and play. We told them that when we recruited them, and here they are. They understand that this is real and they have a chance to play here now.”
Chizik’s redshirting philosophy, at least given the circumstances, is the opposite of most coaches.
“Not one of them are we saying, ‘Look, you’re redshirted until you prove you can play,’” he said. “It’s the opposite. It’s, ‘You can play until we feel like there’s no way, and we’ll redshirt you.’
“That’s how we see it, and that’s how we have to see it right now with the numbers we have.”