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Stevens quickly moves into LB rotation

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AUBURN REPORT: Stevens quickly moves into LB rotation

By Jay G. Tate

Montgomery Advertiser

AUBURN -- Craig Stevens has done the unthinkable.

And he doesn't totally understand how he did it.

The 18-year-old freshman has emerged as a useful option at linebacker, and is expected to play a significant role this fall. That's major news at a program that collects linebackers and rarely affords young players a chance to play a meaningful role.

Stevens changed all that with an unusual approach.

"Before I got here, I ran outside until I couldn't really run anymore," said Stevens, a native of Tallahassee, Fla., "I'd say it went four or five hours everyday. Just me and some friends. In high school, we didn't have anything to do after school. We'd just go out and practice."

The preparation has paid off.

Stevens didn't suffer the heat problems that beset many of his classmates. As the other true freshmen were criticized for being clueless about what to expect from the next play, Stevens was drawing rave reviews from coaches.

The praise was subtle.

Rare was the talk about Stevens' awareness or an unusually strong tackle. Instead coaches seemed to savor Stevens' ability to avoid catastrophic errors.

"What I like best about him is that he'll make mistakes, but then he'll come back out and he'll have learned," linebackers coach James Willis said. "He corrects the mistakes. He stays positive. You can yell at him. You can scream at him. He bounces right back. He's the same."

Willis is an important part of Stevens' quick emergence.

Stevens signed with Auburn in February, and became close with former linebackers coach Joe Whitt during the recruiting process. Willis was hired shortly after National Signing Day.

Put together with no prior knowledge of each other, Stevens and Willis quickly gained a mutual appreciation. Stevens has built a reputation as a coachable, intelligent player who doesn't succumb to the usual freshman penchant for over analysis.

Willis, 33, played at Auburn during the 1990s.

He's no curmudgeon.

"I look at him and I see a guy who knows what I'm going through," Stevens said. "If you're hurt, he knows that and he goes a little easier. He doesn't really get mad at me when I make the wrong play. He likes it that at least I'm trying to make a play."

Stevens grew up cheering for both Florida and Florida State, but felt his feelings for the Gators growing stronger last fall. Yet Auburn, the school that was out of the picture initially, maintained an intense interest in the young linebacker.

As Florida and FSU flirted with other options, Auburn remained steadfast in its position.

The Tigers wanted Stevens.

He eventually came to savor that interest.

"Something happened and I started thinking about Auburn a lot more. It led me here," Stevens said. "I didn't want to stay in Tallahassee. I wanted a home away from home that was still close to home. Auburn felt like that. I think I came to the right place."

Stevens currently is splitting time with senior Karibi Dede at weak-side linebacker. Redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon, projected as a long-term answer on the weak side, is facing a suspension for off-the-field problems.

That all but guarantees Stevens a spot in the playing rotation.

Coach Tommy Tuberville said he doesn't mind the risks.

"He's going to be a heck of a linebacker," Tuberville said. "He's learning the speed of the game. When you're 18, everything is so much faster than three years later when you're 21 and everything kind of slows down for you. If any of these guys play that are freshmen, they're just going to have to adjust and we've got to bite the bullet and know that they're going to make some mistakes."

Cox makes the list

Quarterback Brandon Cox on Wednesday was one of 22 players named to the 2006 Manning Award watch list.

The award is given annually by the Sugar Bowl Committee to the nation's top quarterback. The Manning Award includes each nominee's bowl performance as well.

Previous winners include USC's Matt Leinart and Vince Young of Texas.

Rose in the clear

Wideout Alex Rose has been cleared by the NCAA, and is expected to practice today.

At issue was a 10th-grade math class. After a long appeal process that included Rose sending a hand-written note to the NCAA, Rose finally has realized his dream to play college ball.

"I wasn't planning on redshirting, but now that it took so long and I've missed so much, I'm just going to practice and get ready for next year," Rose told AuburnSports.com.

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