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Personnel, scheme changes send true freshman Stevens into linebacker rotation

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Personnel, scheme changes send true freshman Stevens into linebacker rotation

Monday, August 28, 2006


News staff writer

AUBURN - Linebacker Craig Stevens showed up at Auburn with a playbook, a practice schedule and the odds stacked against him.

He's handled it quite nicely.

Stevens has overcome Auburn's reluctance to play a true freshman by forcing his way into the linebacker rotation for Saturday's season-opener against Washington State in one of a host of changes in defensive personnel, if not schemes.

Stevens will serve as a backup, but figures to play, thanks to walking into a perfect situation for a new - and talented - kid on the block. New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp had changed up things so much that Stevens didn't consider himself too far behind when he reported.

"That helped me a lot because it put me closer to the same level as everybody else because we were all learning the defense," he said.

But Stevens says learning college football wasn't easy.

"When I first came in, they could show me the play and I still really wouldn't know what to do. They had to walk me through, step-by-step, what each play was supposed to do. Then I'd go back to the room and go over it so it would stick in my head," Stevens said.

Stevens is one of the pleasant surprises. With that, here are the questions Auburn faced going into fall practice, and now some answers.

Who's going to be the starting linebackers, and what about the backups?

Stevens will serve as backup along with Chris Evans and Patrick Trahan. The starters are former safety Will Herring, Merrill Johnson and Karibi Dede. Of the six, only Dede has ever started a game at linebacker

The top six linebackers would have likely had a far different look if Tray Blackmon and Kevin Sears had not been suspended for the first few games because of offseason problems. That means depth could be an issue early in the season.

Who's going to replace 1,000-yard wide receivers Devin Aromashodu, Ben Obomanu and Anthony Mix?

There's at least one huge surprise here in one, Rod Smith, who is not even on scholarship but is slated to take over Aromashodu's wide receiver job. He beat out preseason favorite Prechae Rodriguez, but look for both to play.

On the other end of the spectrum is Courtney Taylor, the fourth member of the 1,000-yard club who will start after struggling through an injury-plagued junior season. The Tigers are revamping their slot receiver spot that was manned by Mix to get senior Lee Guess in the game. Mix was a physical player at the position. Guess will be about speed and running precise routes.

Who's going to play in the offensive line?

Four seniors, that's who, and 6-foot-9, 82-inch wingspan King David Dunlap V. Still, the Tigers are replacing Marcus McNeill, an NFL second-round pick, and dependable Troy Reddick. Joe Cope returns at center, Ben Grubbs is back at left guard and Tim Duckworth is back at right guard. Dunlap and Jonathan Palmer are the new starters, but they played plenty last year.

OK, who's going to play in the defensive line?

A bunch of new starters, that's for sure, but don't be fooled. They've all played. Chris Browder, in another fall surprise, is slated to start over Marquies Gunn at defensive end. Quentin Groves, Josh Thompson and Pat Sims round out the entirely new but experienced front line.

Groves, who made a few spot starts last season, is an exceptionally athletic defensive end who could be a pain for quarterbacks.

If Steve Gandy and Will Herring are moving from safety to linebacker, who's actually going to play safety?

Eric Brock is back with experience, but the next three players in the pecking order have only a few snaps at safety between them. Aairon Savage, a redshirt freshman, will start alongside Brock. Their immediate backups are Tristan Davis, who mostly made a name for himself as a running back last season, and Zac Etheridge, a true freshman.

Those four impressed new defensive coordinator - and defensive backs coach - Will Muschamp the most.

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