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Coaches hope Dunlap holds up

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Coaches hope Dunlap holds up

If giant tackle King Dunlap succumbs to back trouble, Auburn would scramble to fill the void

Wednesday, August 23, 2006


Sports Reporter

AUBURN -- When you're 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds, like giant Auburn offensive tackle King Dunlap, every twist and turn on the turf can send a surge of pain.

Every snap, every explosion off the ball and every hit can rattle weary bones.

Factor in nearly 100-degree heat and a relentless daily practice schedule, and the approach of game week seems like a refreshing reward.

"We're hitting every day on every play," Dunlap said of the offensive linemen. "It wears on us, but after a while you get used to the soreness and everything. We complain about it, but we all know it makes us better in the end."

Dunlap, whose colossal size makes him stand out even among linemen, is the lone junior starter on an offensive line filled with seniors.

Auburn's experienced first team is among the best in the conference. However, the Tigers' backups might be among the least experienced.

That's why coaches could be excused for being panicky when Dunlap went down with back pain on Saturday. Bad backs can be creaky and painful for many offensive linemen, who must bend down uncomfortably hundreds of times a week on an oversized frame.

Although he missed a few days, Dunlap said the problem was not serious and he didn't expect it to recur during the season.

"It just got torqued when I fell the other day at practice, and I fell kind of funny," Dunlap said. "It hurt when I did it, but I've been getting treatment and everything, so I'm fine now. They said I hyperextended it, because I fell funny. I'm good now. I'm back where I need to be."

A serious injury to Dunlap -- or any offensive lineman -- could cause a ripple effect and seriously disrupt the Tigers' line.

In the event of an injury, the first move would likely involve a current lineman.

Starting guard Ben Grubbs is flexible enough to move over and play tackle. Starting tackle Jonathan Palmer could play either position, as well as center.

Off the bench, junior Leon Hart is the most logical first choice, since he has experience at both guard and tackle. But offensive line coach Hugh Nall said Hart's absence due to an abdominal strain has forced him to consider other options.

True freshman Mike Berry, who has had a very strong preseason camp, has been working at several positions in an effort to be ready to move up if called upon.

"I'm trying to use him in every spot," Nall said. "I've still got him taking snaps before practice, so if something did happen somewhere I could try to make some adjustments, whether it be (Palmer) at center, him at right tackle or whatever."

Nall said he would still "love" to redshirt Berry, but that might no longer be possible.

"I just think that he is just a real natural talent," Nall said. "He's very gifted and talented in body control and body balance. That's hard to teach. You work on it and teach it, but you can only get so much better. You've either got it or you don't. He's got a lot of ability."

Berry and Dunlap both hail from Brentwood (Tenn.) Academy. The suburban Nashville school has become a reliable Auburn pipeline in the Tommy Tuberville era.

Dunlap said he was impressed with Berry's physique when he first saw him at Auburn.

"He came in and I saw him put on pads, and I was like, 'You've been working since high school,'" Dunlap said. "He stood out, and he did better than I thought he was going to do. Coach Nall loves him, and he's in the running to get some playing time this year."

Dunlap has been a reserve contributor for the last two seasons, but the Washington State game will be the first start of his career. That makes him stand out on a line filled with seniors.

"I tell everybody, 'I'm the big question mark on the O-line. I'm replacing big Marcus (McNeill). I'm only a junior. I'm stepping in to fill big shoes,'" he said.

Next year, the situation will be reversed, as Dunlap will be the lone senior with any starting experience.

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