A Tale That Won't Stop Chasing Tigers
HOOVER, Ala. -- For the fifth consecutive July, the coach of the defending national champion stepped onto the podium at SEC media days. But for the first time, the coach of the defending national champion didn't sound like a man describing the greatest achievement of his professional career.
Auburn coach Gene Chizik has charisma. He will show it in one-on-one interviews. His team has seen it. You can read it in the book he recently published, "All In," about the Tigers' improbable run to the BCS national championship last season.
But Chizik brought no joy to the microphone Thursday -- no joy, no buoyancy, no ebullience. If you read the transcript of his 40-minute presser Thursday, you will see that Chizik said the right things.
"The journey from this point in time last year to now has been incredible for us.
"I've had a blast. Our players have had a blast."
But if you watched Chizik on ESPNU, you saw that the words being spoken didn't match the guy on the screen. He rarely smiled. He sounded as if his larynx had been Botoxed -- his tone never varied. The words coming out of Chizik's mouth paired up with his body language as well as the English dubbing of a Japanese film.
That's probably because he knew what he would be asked about. Until the NCAA gives the all-clear on the recruitment of Cam Newton and other rumored Tigers transgressions, Chizik is going to be confronted with a raised eyebrow.
The Newton case, dormant for several months, arose again recently when The New York Times reported that, in a gathering of coaches and administrators at the SEC spring meetings, Chizik pressed NCAA enforcement chief Julie Roe Lach about when the NCAA would finish its investigation of the Tigers. She pretty much told him when the NCAA was good and ready to finish and not before.
"I thought there would be nobody better to ask," Chizik said Thursday. "To be honest with you, it was very informative. There were some clarifications that were made that had to do with process . She was very willing to clarify for me, and I appreciated that."
Chizik rope-a-doped several more questions. Muhammad Ali used the rope-a-dope to take back the heavyweight championship of the world. Ali let George Foreman swing at him until Foreman couldn't swing anymore.
Questions are thrown more easily than right hands wearing 16-ounce gloves. And fielding those right hands took a toll on Ali, too.
Hey, we get it. If I were Chizik, I wouldn't want to discuss this investigation, either. He tried to talk about the mixture of youth, inexperience and enthusiasm that is the 2011 Tigers. Chizik's basic strategy since the outset of the investigation has been to withdraw into the loving arms of "the Auburn family," a construct that he used again Thursday.
Auburn fans haven't stopped celebrating the national championship, one for which they waited patiently and lovingly for 53 years. Auburn fans alternate between frustration and anger when they hear the media continue to ask questions about Newton. The only corroborated misdeed regarding Newton, they say, took place at Mississippi State, not Auburn.
They are right. But the investigation remains open. And even if the NCAA clears Auburn, that won't be the end of it. The court of public opinion has ruled on Roger Clemens and Jim Tressel, neither of whom has had his case heard by the appropriate body. The court of public opinion will rule on this investigation, too.
Youth Is On The Menu At Tennessee
HOOVER, Ala. -- Derek Dooley doesn't mind saying it.
Somewhere along the way a year ago, his team lost sight of what the standard is at Tennessee.
"I thought it was very important that we turn the page after last season to redefine the standard of excellence that Tennessee has had for so long," said Dooley, whose Vols were 6-7 in his first season in Knoxville.
At the heart of that standard is winning an SEC championship, something Tennessee hasn't done in 13 years.
"The fans expect us to go out there and compete for the championship and get one of those banners, and we're going to work on that," Dooley said.
Notice, he didn't offer up a timetable.
Dooley said he got out of the prediction business a long time ago, but he does go into the 2011 season feeling like his Vols can contend for the Eastern Division championship.
Never mind that more than 70 percent of the roster will be comprised of freshmen and sophomores.
"We entered this spring saying we're not going to let our youth be an excuse for failure, and we're not," Dooley said. "So it's going to be everybody's responsibility not to act like freshmen and sophomores and not to play like them, and we'll see if they can do that."
Defensive tackle Malik Jackson is one of only 10 seniors on the team, and while he understands the Vols will be lacking in experience, he looks around at the rest of the East and says, "Why not us?"
And he means now as opposed to later.
"I know we have the talent, and we also have the leadership on this team," Jackson said. "The East is wide open this year. We just have to take care of everything right in front of us and not get caught up in what's on down the road."
Dooley has already made a pact with this team that he's not going to coach it like a young team.
It's something they all agreed on the very first meeting last spring.
"I told them we can do this one of two ways," Dooley recalled. "I said, 'I can coach you like a freshman and kind of coddle you along, and you're probably going to have to play and you'll go out and embarrass yourselves, but you might like me a little better.'"
Needless to say, his second option was a runaway winner -- coaching the team as though it's upperclassmen and holding some expectations that younger players often don't have.
"It's going to be hard on you," Dooley told his players. "But it might make you a little bit better and give you a better chance to succeed on the field."
Georgia's Patchwork O-line Taking Shape
HOOVER, Ala. -- Entering spring practice, Georgia's offensive line seemed like one of its strengths. Now, it's an injury away from being a major weakness for the Bulldogs.
Things started with a devastating ACL injury to veteran tackle Trinton Sturdivant and have continued with attrition, as tackles A.J. Harmon and Brent Benedict left the program.
Coach Mark Richt, who has plumped down onto a hotter seat in Athens this year, isn't worried about the players who have left or the Bulldogs' diminished depth and insists he's fine with the bodies he has up front, as long as they're healthy.
"I'm not worried about the depth if nobody gets hurt," Richt said.
But in college football -- and especially the SEC -- that could be a pretty big "if."
Across the offensive line, the Bulldogs have a few veterans wedged in. Senior Ben Jones has the potential to win the Rimington Award -- presented to the nation's best center -- while converted tackle Cordy Glenn should hold up the left side fairly well. Sophomore Kenarious Gates is solid at left guard and the Bulldogs expect big things from Justin Anderson at right tackle.
Figuring out right guard is the next step. There are players to plug in, but inexperience is an issue.
So, the Bulldogs aren't insufficient when it comes to the big uglies, but Jones agreed that health is the main priority for this group.
"We've lost guys every year and that hurts as an offense because we're so close," Jones said. "Seeing one of your brothers go down, you're like, 'Man, what if that was me?' That really hurts you as a whole offensive line."
As the offensive line stands, Jones said he's pleased with the makeup. To him, there is more talent than people think and Jones is convinced right guard won't be an issue come the fall.
"We have a great offensive line," he said. "We have a lot of players who have played a lot of snaps.
"Our right guard, it could be anybody. We have five or six guys who could play right guard. The job is up for grabs and anybody could play it."
Kentucky On The Defensive
HOOVER, Ala. -- Kentucky coach Joker Phillips knows his team's defense is going to have to perform better if the Wildcats are going to survive in the SEC.
Phillips hired former Cincinnati coach Rick Minter as his team's co-defensive coordinator (he'll share the title with Steve Brown, but Minter will call plays). The Wildcats will be more aggressive, employing multiple 3-4 and 4-3 fronts, along with a 4-2-5 scheme that utilizes hybrid players.
"The thing that we wanted to achieve on defense was be more attacking, be more aggressive," Phillips said. "If you look across this league, what's winning is teams that are playing great defense. For us to take this thing to the next level -- that's being in the race as long as we possibly can -- we have to play great defense."
The Wildcats weren't very good on defense in Phillips' first season, finishing 72nd nationally in points allowed (28.4 per game).
Minter, who worked as a defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, South Carolina, Ball State and Marshall, joined the Wildcats before their bowl game last season.
Auburn Finds Elder Statesman In Sophomore
HOOVER, Ala. -- Wearing a conservative plaid suit and new cordovan tasseled loafers, Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae looked well beyond his 19 years Thursday. That's pretty much the way he played at end of last season, when he started 11 games and made 7.5 tackles behind the line.
"From a freshman to a sophomore, the biggest difference in defensive linemen is getting off blocks," Eguae said. "As a freshman, you're kind of glued on blocks. Watching my films from last year, there were games where I was glued. I didn't get off blocks very well. Toward the end of the season, I started getting off blocks and I started making plays."
The 6-foot-3, 264-pound sophomore counts as an elder statesman on the defending national champions. His advice to his younger teammates explains why he is mature enough to play at such a young age.
"We got in a room and I wanted to speak," Eguae said. "I said, 'Hold yourself accountable and do the little things right. Focus on how you become a better player and get Auburn victories. And after you hold yourself accountable, you hold others accountable.' So everybody is on the same page, getting better, and the goals are the same."
The Tigers lost 31 players from a year ago. They need uncommon maturity. They've got at least one player who possesses it.
Auburn's Gene Chizik
Tennessee's Derek Dooley
One Good Thing
Auburn: The defending national champion Tigers won't have to look far for motivation in 2011. They've heard from their own coaches all spring and all offseason that "all the good players are gone."
Not that anybody on the Plains really believes that, but it's made for some fierce competition on the practice field and in the weight room.
It's also driven the returning players to prove that the foundation of the Auburn football program remains rock-solid despite the departure of Cam Newton, Nick Fairley, Antoine Carter, Josh Bynes, Lee Ziemba, Darvin Adams and 30-some other players who were on the roster in Glendale, Ariz., in January.
"We lost some great players, no doubt," Auburn defensive end Nosa Eguae said. "But we have a lot of other talented players who've just been waiting for their shot. Nobody expected us to do what we did last year, so why would this year be any different?"
Georgia: It's no secret that Georgia's depth on the offensive line has taken a considerable hit.
It started with Trinton Sturdivant's third torn ACL in the spring and continued with A.J. Harmon and Brent Benedict both leaving the program.
Georgia coach Mark Richt, though, is more interested in who he will have this fall up front, and it's a unit that's anchored by a guy, Ben Jones, whom Richt calls the "best center in America."
Richt knew from the time Jones attended Georgia's football camp that the Bulldogs were getting a great one.
"We're doing a little pass-rush drill," Richt said. "He's just whooping everybody. Finally, I stepped in and said, 'Look, I want every defensive lineman to line up. One by one, I want you to go against Ben, play after play after play.
"After about I don't know how many, 10 or 12, he was finally exhausted and somebody beat him. But he's a fierce competitor. He's mean as a snake on the field, but he knows what he's doing. He's a great leader. He's a great football player. I'm glad we got him."
This year, it might not be as flashy offensively for the Wildcats (unless you like the big guys up front), but they enter the 2011 season with one of the best and most experienced offensive lines in the league.
"Everybody knows that's where it starts in your offensive line," said Kentucky junior quarterback Morgan Newton, who enters his first season as the full-time starter.
Stuart Hines and Larry Warford form perhaps the best guard tandem in the SEC, while center Matt Smith and left tackle Chandler Burden are also returning starters.
"We've all played together for two years now," Hines said. "We trust each other. We rely on each other, and we want it to be on our shoulders this year."
Tennessee: Quarterback Tyler Bray did a lot of things right last season as a true freshman.
He threw 16 touchdown passes while starting the final five games and led the Vols to a 4-1 record.
He also threw seven interceptions in his last three games and beat up on four teams (Memphis, Ole Miss, Vanderbilt and Kentucky) who won a combined 13 games.
Tennessee coach Derek Dooley is as anxious as anybody to see what kind of encore his strong-armed sophomore has and whether he's ready to enter the next stage as a quarterback.
"He's made a tremendous investment in getting better, having a better command of the offense, being able to make better decisions and putting our offense in better positions," Dooley said. "It's only going to come with experience."
Auburn's Emory Blake
Best Of Day 2
Best story: At the conclusion of the Mark Richt Camp during Aaron Murray's senior year of high school, he was tossing the football around with a girl when offensive lineman Ben Jones, then a freshman at Georgia, informed Murray's father that Murray's girlfriend was "gorgeous." Murray's father then delivered a classic, stone-faced line.
"My dad turns to Ben and says, 'Son, that's my daughter right there,'" Murray said.
Best self-endorsement: Tennessee might not have to search too far to find its next athletic director. When asked who he thought might make the best choice for the hire, Vols coach Derek Dooley didn't hesitate with an answer: "The best athletic director I ever worked for was at Louisiana Tech." Of course, he meant himself.
Best analogy: Kentucky linebacker Danny Trevathan nominated Florida's Jeff Demps as the toughest running back to bring down because of his blistering speed. He's faced Demps since high school and likened his size and speed to a rascally rodent.
"It's hard to chase a rat," he said.
Best hair: Tennessee offensive tackle Dallas Thomas has been growing his hair for six years and had it up and in huge, thick braids going down his back. It takes roughly an hour and a half to braid it up, but don't worry: He doesn't have issues putting his helmet on.
"I don't have any problems," he said. "I just braid it back or put a skullcap on and it just slides right on."
Best chance to make "Dancing With the Stars": Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen's Riverdance-type dance routine he showed off during last year's Alabama game is gaining more popularity. There is even a video on YouTube named "Teach Me How to Lutzie" that has more than 50,000 views.
"It's pretty much everywhere," Lutzenkirchen said. "I go somewhere and someone says something about it. It's funny that it's what I'll be remembered for, that touchdown more than any others, but it's all fun and games."
Best piece of advice: When asked what he thought Kentucky had to do to make a push to compete in the SEC East, quarterback Morgan Newton advised his teammates to stay off one of the most popular social media outlets: "Don't tweet as much. That Twitter will get you."
Best record: Dooley and his Volunteers might have been 6-7 in the win-loss column last season, but he has another way of looking at the season after games against LSU and North Carolina ended in clock controversy.
"I told everybody I was 8-7 in postgame handshakes last year," Dooley said. "It was a remarkable feat."
Tracking SEC Media Days
Tennessee's Tauren Poole