AUBURN, Ala. — Zac Etheridge was in good spirits when he made another appearance at the Auburn athletic complex Tuesday, a little less than a month after a suffering a scary neck injury against Ole Miss.
Still wearing a restrictive neck brace that prevents his head from moving side to side, the safety reiterated his desire to return to the football field at some point in the future.
“I expect to make a full recovery,” he said. “As for football-wise, we don’t know. Hopefully I’ll be able to play again. I’m just taking it day-by-day. I’m just glad to be walking around and doing everything I’m doing right now.”
Etheridge, a junior, tore ligaments in his neck and cracked his fifth vertebra trying to make a tackle against Ole Miss on Halloween at Jordan-Hare Stadium. He was immobilized on the field and transported to a hospital as a precaution. He was released a few days later and doctors were hopeful for a full recovery.
He’s been around campus since, making appearances at Auburn’s practices and team meetings.
“Just letting them see me with a smile on my face and just being around them in practice and just lifting them up,” Etheridge said. “I’m walking around talking to them, helping the safeties out and talking trash with receivers like I always do. Just keep them going in practice.”
He got a kick out of seeing running back Ben Tate, his roommate, wear his No. 4 as a tribute during the Georgia game, something he didn’t know about until he started getting text message from friends prior to the game.
“It was uplifting,” Etheridge said. “For him to just think of that and show support of me, it just helped out. It touched my parents and a lot of fans just to see him and what type of guy he is to wear my jersey.”
Still, it hurts him not to be able to be on the field.
“It’s definitely hard for any player that loves the game and wants to be out there and knowing you want to be out there with the guys, your brothers that you go to work with every day,” he said. “But you can’t and you’re not able to do it, it kind of hurts you.”
Etheridge, who has to wear the neck brace for a few more months, isn’t sure what the future holds. He will resume classes soon and plans to graduate on time. He’d like to play again. If that’s not a possibility, he’d like to coach.
He knows one thing for certain: he will be in attendance for the Iron Bowl on Friday.
“I’ll definitely be out there be with the guys,” he said. “Just go out there be supportive. I can’t wait for that.”
Red zone reward
A year after finishing dead last in the Football Bowl Subdivision in red zone scoring efficiency, Auburn is among the national leaders.
The Tigers are tied for sixth nationally in red zone offense, scoring 94.3 percent of the time. They have 25 touchdowns and eight field goals in 35 trips inside the 20.
Last year, they scored only 57 percent of the time, a mark that put them 119th nationally, eight percentage points below the next closest team.
“We spend a lot of practice time (on it), probably as much or more than most people do,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “I think that has a lot to do with it.”
There will be a larger issue this week going up against Alabama’s No. 1 nationally-ranked defense.
“We need to get it down there, because we think that’s one of our big strengths,” Malzahn said. “Once we do we can put the ball in the end zone. That’s a big focus of our offense and that’s a big challenge against this defense.”
Auburn won’t just be trying to win the competition on the field Friday. The Tigers hope to make inroads in the state recruiting battle as well.
Auburn expects more than 100 visitors for the Iron Bowl, including nearly all of the Tigers’ 21 commits for 2010, according to AuburnSports.com. The highest-profile in-state player will be Theodore, Ala., linebacker C.J. Mosley, the No. 7 overall recruit in Alabama, according to Rivals. His two favorites are Auburn and Alabama.
The Tigers’ coaches know recruiting goes beyond who wins the game.
“Winning makes everything easy, but if it was easy, everybody would do it,” wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor said. “The people we’re bringing in and the recruits we’re looking at is building on relationships that last longer than 60 minutes of a ballgame. ... It’s a long-term deal for us. This is not a quick fix.”
Alabama currently ranks second in Rivals’ recruiting rankings with 22 commits for 2010. Auburn is eighth with 21 commits.