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August 20, 2007

FREE: Freshmen filling key roles for Auburn

With the start of the 2007 season just 12 days away, there are an almost unprecedented number of true freshmen poised to play for Auburn in the opener against Kansas State.

As many as eight first-year players could see playing time this fall including two who are expected to be in the starting lineup Sept. 1 in right tackle Lee Ziemba and placekicker Wes Byrum.

Safety Mike McNeil, linebacker Bo Harris, wide receiver Chris Slaughter and defensive end Antoine Carter are all currently part of the regular playing rotation and have been tabbed by AU's coaching staff as likely to play key roles this season.

The coaching staff also believes center Ryan Pugh, linebacker Brent Slusher, and several others are ready to contribute if needed.

"That's a lot more than we normally have," said AU head coach Tommy Tuberville.

Tuberville's not exaggerating.

Over the last three seasons, only seven true freshmen have played for the Tigers including two, Andrew McCain and Zach Kutch in 2005, who ended up redshirting the following season.

Last year, tailback Ben Tate and defensive tackle Jermarcus Ricks received limited playing time as true freshmen. Both are now listed as second-team and should play a much bigger role in 2007.

Tuberville says getting most of the 2007 class enrolled in June and working under head strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall was a key. It's also no coincidence that the last time Tuberville and his staff brought in such a highly ranked class, No. 6 in 2002, they played seven true freshmen.

The 2007 class was ranked No. 7 nationally by Rivals.com.

"All of the (classes) have a different personality, but this (2007) group, I think, came in hungry," said Tuberville. "I think they were a little more in-tuned with what they were getting into."

McNeil, one of AU's most highly rated signees of the '07 class, began two-a-days as the second-team safety and never looked back. He should see playing against KSU as a backup safety, in the short yardage and goal line package, and on the punt return and kickoff coverage teams.

"I think we have a tremendous freshman class, a lot of people that can play off each other, and a lot of young talent," said McNeil. "We had a chance to be with coach Yox and getting trained and running and getting ready for camp. That's been a big advantage, plus we got six hours in the summer so it's a head start on classes."

McNeil, Ziemba, Byrum, Harris, Carter and Pugh all arrived in Auburn this summer. Slusher graduated high school early, enrolling at Auburn in January.

Only Slaughter, who arrived a week into training camp, didn't get a head start on his college career. But the No. 1-ranked prep receiver has some built-in advantages including tremendous raw ability and spending last season at Hargrave Military Academy.

"Chris is a natural. He does things easily," said Tuberville. "He's been here two weeks and will have two more weeks. He makes a lot of mistakes mentally, but he's gifted."

There are also a number of redshirt freshmen set to play major roles this season including four current starters in offensive guard Mike Berry, linebacker Craig Stevens, safety Zac Etheridge and punter Ryan Shoemaker.

Other key redshirts expected to play this season include tailback Mario Fannin, wide receiver Tim Hawthorne, offensive guard Byron Isom, defensive tackles Mike Blanc and Zach Clayton, and defensive end Michael Goggans.

McNeil sees that as a good sign for this season and his future on the Plains.

"Overall, we have a young team, not just freshmen coming in, but we have redshirt freshmen that are also going to contribute heavily to the team," said McNeil. "I think we're going get better and better down the line."

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This is just a small sample of the in-depth coverage we provide every day on Auburn's football team. If you enjoyed this article but want a little or even a lot more, now is the perfect time to join AuburnSports.com by signing up for our 7-DAY FREE TRIAL.

Since the start of two-a-days Aug. 2, we've published 55 features on preseason practice including video, photo galleries, player profiles, notebooks, position breakdowns and much more. AuburnSports.com was also the first to report AU's two commitments this month in DE Cameron Henderson and WR Darvin Adams, along with dropping tons of recruiting scoop in our most popular feature, The War Room.

We haven't turned our backs on the other AU programs including features on basketball and baseball plus updates on two top recruits that visited Auburn this weekend. In total, AuburnSports.com has produced 72 features over the last 18 days, an average four a day. You won't find that kind of in-depth coverage anywhere else.

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