AUBURN, Ala. — Justin Albert hesitated for a second, took the handoff on a draw play and burst past the offensive line for a long run during Auburn’s scrimmage Saturday, giving no mind to the torn right ACL that cost him his freshman year.
“I really didn’t even feel it,” he said. “I know it’s there, but I try not to pay attention to it. Just run, cut. Just block everything out.”
Albert is simply happy to be on a football field again after sitting out a year. The Prattville, Ala., running back blew out his knee during the first playoff game of his senior season in 2007, an inglorious end to a high school career during which he accounted for nearly 5,500 all-purpose yards to go with 65 touchdowns.
Auburn did not offer him a scholarship like Clemson or Ole Miss did, but the 5-foot-8, 169-pound running back agreed to come to the Plains as an invited walk-on.
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“I just feel like Auburn was the place for me and the home for me and just fit me just right,” he said. “So that’s why I made the choice to be here.”
Albert has worked with the first and second team because of the Tigers’ scarcity at running back.
“He’s got some play-making ability,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “I like his attitude.”
If nothing else, he might have found a niche returning punts. He’s one of four remaining candidates for that job, joining receiver Quindarius Carr, H-back Mario Fannin and cornerback Walt McFadden, using his high school baseball skills (he was a center fielder) to look the ball in. Anything to get in the action again after a long layoff.
“Wherever I can get on the field, that’s where I’ll be,” Albert said. “Wherever I can play first.”
Looking for a breakout candidate on the defensive line? Defensive end Antonio Coleman says to look out for senior tackle Jake Ricks.
“He’s stepping up big time and making plays that I’ve never seen from him before,” Coleman said.
Ricks, who has 16 career tackles, spent last year in a backup role to Sen’Derrick Marks and Tez Doolittle on the interior line. He made seven tackles, two of which were for a loss, and was fortunate enough to pounce on fumble in the end zone for a touchdown against Tennessee.
With Marks and Doolittle both NFL bound, the 6-foot-4, 296-pound Ricks is rotating with at tackle with junior Mike Blanc and sophomore Zach Clayton, neither of whom have Ricks’ experience.
Teammates hope that translates to a senior breakthrough much like Doolittle, who returned for a sixth year following an Achilles’ heel injury and finished with 28 tackles and eight for a loss last season.
“(Jake’s) not in anyone’s shadow anymore and he understands that this is his senior year and he needs to step up and make plays,” Coleman said. “Maybe it’s an eye-opener for him.”
Auburn might not like its offense being referred to as the spread, but that’s not the case with its punt unit.
The Tigers have experimented with a spread punt formation this spring, with three deep blockers standing in front of the punter. It’s something the team practiced prior to the Alabama game last year.
“So it’s not completely new and it’s not entirely different,” junior punter Ryan Shoemaker said. “It’s still a matter of just punting the ball.”
Just who that will be remains a mystery. Shoemaker, a second-team All-SEC pick in 2007, and Clinton Durst, a walk-on who returned to the team after briefly leaving during the offseason because of a scholarship dispute, are neck-and-neck for the job.
They battled it out last year as well, with Durst winning the job during two-a-days in August.
“It’s almost the same thing,” Shoemaker said. “The only thing that’s different is both of us have gotten a lot better as the year’s gone by.”