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August 27, 2008

Blackmon hopes to break out for Auburn

RELATED: Preseason Countdown - No. 7 Auburn | Auburn has reason for optimism

The "Little Ball of Hate" actually has been a "little ball of wait."

But the wait is over.

At least that's what Auburn junior middle linebacker Tray Blackmon says.

Once described as a "Little Ball of Hate" for his fierce playing style, Blackmon always has had tremendous promise. Now he's making tremendous promises.

"This season should be the season I really show what I'm capable of doing," Blackmon said. "My goal is to make a lot of big plays and a lot of big hits. Just look out. I'm trying to bring all the heat this year."

That's what Auburn fans want to hear. And what they want to see. But thus far in Blackmon's career, they haven't seen it nearly enough.

Talent isn't the issue with Blackmon. It never has been, not since he was rated the nation's premier outside linebacker prospect in 2005.

At 6 feet and 220 pounds, he isn't big. But he's fast, aggressive, intense and plays with well, hate, as his nickname suggests.

"That's the way most people describe the way I play because I go 100 percent," Blackmon said. "Some folks symbolized that as a ball of hate because of the way I run to the ball. I'm OK with it."

But heading into his third college season, Blackmon has played in only 15 games because of bad breaks and bad decisions.

Blackmon was suspended for the first six games of the 2006 season after he was arrested on alcohol-related charges in the offseason. Later that season, he was suspended from playing against Nebraska in the Cotton Bowl for what Auburn announced as violation of team rules.

Blackmon, who is a father, left school briefly in 2007 to tend to "family matters." He was quickly reinstated, but an ankle injury forced him to miss four games.

"I feel like I've matured a lot," Blackmon said. "I've been through a lot and overcame a lot. Everything I've gone through I've tried to learn something from that.

"By the grace of God, I'm still here playing and pushing on. I've come a long way and I still have a long way to go."

Blackmon said he sought counsel from his mother, Connie, his brother, several friends back home in La Grange, Ga., Auburn defensive lineman Sen'Derrick Marks and Tigers assistants Hugh Nall and James Willis.

Their advice?

"Just stay prayed up and continue to have faith in God and let Him lead my way," Blackmon said.

Cynics might dismiss that as typical jock rhetoric. Seemingly, hundreds of troubled athletes have claimed to be redeemed only to repeat poor choices. But Blackmon has Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville convinced.

"Tray is a good kid," Tuberville said. "He's got his head on straight, and he works hard on his academics. It's a struggle to go to college as a student athlete, and then you throw having a family on top of that. There were some times that were disappointing, but he's growing up. He's going to be a good player for us."

The Tigers are counting on it.

Though Florida and Georgia have gained the most attention as a possible third consecutive SEC national champion, Auburn opens the season ranked among the nation's preseason top 10.

Although Auburn is moving to the spread offense and has a new starting quarterback, the defense could make the Tigers serious contenders for the SEC title, which also translates to national-championship contenders.

The Tigers ranked sixth in the nation in total defense a year ago and could be better this season, even without coordinator Will Muschamp, who now is at Texas. Marks is a rock at tackle and end Antonio Coleman is a relentless pass rusher.

Losing cornerback Aairon Savage to a season-ending knee injury definitely was a setback, but the Tigers still are talented and athletic in the secondary.

A productive middle linebacker often is a staple of a strong defense, and Blackmon vows to provide that.

"Expect a strong, healthy Tray Blackmon playing hard every game," he said. "My goal is definitely to make a lot of plays and contribute to the team. I want to get through a whole season without injury. I feel real good right now. Coming out of camp I have some little nicks and bruises, but nothing major. I feel 100 percent."

He's also 100 percent sure this could be a special year down on the Plains.

"We plan to win every game we play and take it all the way," Blackmon said. "I know we have some hard games, but I think this will be one of the best teams Auburn has had in a while. We're all level-headed guys and on the same page, and I think this team could be something special."

Auburn fans have been waiting for such a year from the Tigers and from Blackmon.

ALL GAMES ARE NOT CREATED EQUAL

Some games mean more than others to fans. And they should to coaches, too.

For example, John Cooper was 111-43-4 in 13 seasons at Ohio State, but was fired primarily because of a 2-10-1 record against Michigan.

So, it was something of a shock when first-year Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez suggested the Ohio State game was no more important than the Wolverines' other Big Ten games.

"We're unique for our fans in that we have three huge rivalries," Rodriguez said earlier this summer. "To me, we even take it a step further. I always say your rivalries are your league games because that's your goal every year to win a conference championship."

Championships are the ultimate goal. But Michigan fans don't look at Ohio State the same way they look at, say, Illinois. Their coach shouldn't, either.

YOUTH TO BE SERVED?

By all accounts, this will be a pivotal season for Washington coach Tyrone Willingham, who is 11-25 in three years in Seattle. Speculation is Willingham needs to reach a bowl to retain his job.

He'll be counting on a young team to make it happen.

In Saturday's opener against Oregon, the Huskies are expected to have 10 starters who are either sophomores or freshmen. That includes sophomore quarterback Jake Locker, a starter last season. But it also includes true freshman tailback Chris Polk and true freshman defensive tackle Senio Kelemete.

If the Huskies do manage to reach a bowl, Willingham should have an experienced team returning in '09.

SPEAKING OF YOUNG GUYS

Texas defensive coordinator Will Muschamp has indicated that at least five true freshman will play in the Longhorns' opener.

Among the newcomers expected to see action against Florida Atlantic are defensive tackle Kheeston Randall, linebacker Emmanuel Acho, cornerback Aaron Williams, safeties Nolan Brewster and Blake Gideon. Furthermore, redshirt freshmen safeties Earl Thomas and Ben Wells also are expected to play.

Ishie Oduegwu, Texas' only returning safety with playing experience, had shoulder surgery Monday and is out indefinitely.

QUICK HITTERS

Redshirt freshman Russell Wilson was named N.C. State's starting quarterback for its opener against South Carolina on Thursday night. Wilson will be the third NC State freshman quarterback to start in his first college game since 1971 and the eighth freshman overall to start at any time during that span.

Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy announced he will call plays in the Cowboys' opener against Washington State. Gundy relinquished play-calling responsibility when he was promoted from offensive coordinator three years ago. Previously, plays were called by Larry Fedora, who left Oklahoma State to take over as coach at Southern Miss. Gundy calling his own plays isn't that unusual unless you consider the fact that he has two offensive coordinators. Trooper Taylor left Tennessee to become co-offensive coordinator with Gunter Brewer.

Baylor coach Art Briles still hasn't named a starting quarterback, saying that position isn't any more pressing as deciding who will start at left guard. Returning starter Blake Szymanski, true freshman Robert Griffin and junior college transfer Jeremy Sanders are considered the top candidates. Chris Griesenbeck and Courtney Greene are top candidates at left guard.

Colorado tight end Riar Geer had arthroscopic knee surgery last Friday and is expected to miss the Buffaloes' first two games. Geer also received two years' probation and 50 hours of community service after pleading guilty to misdemeanor assault stemming from a March 14 brawl.

Lingering effects of a neck injury may prevent Texas A&M fullback Jorvorskie Lane from playing against Arkansas State. Lane, who needs one touchdown to take sole possession of A&M's career record, hasn't participated in contact drills since suffering a stinger Aug. 13.

Indiana got a break last week when the NCAA granted a waiver that allowed transfer Jerimy Finch to play right away. Normally, transfers have to sit out a year, but the NCAA ruled Finch could play because of "extenuating personal circumstances." Those circumstances were not revealed. Finch could start at safety and could also return punts and kickoffs.

Because of unspecified eligibility issues, Minnesota freshman quarterback MarQueis Gray has been dropped from the team. The Gophers are hopeful those issues will be resolved and Gray will rejoin the team. He was expected to sit out as a redshirt this season.

Arizona tight end Rob Gronkowski will miss the opener against Idaho, and may miss a few more games. Gronkowski has been diagnosed with strep throat, and tests have been scheduled to determine if he has mononucleosis. Gronkowski had 28 catches last season for 525 yards and six touchdowns. He'll be replaced in the starting lineup by sophomore A.J. Simmons, who had one catch for 3 yards last season.

Tavita Pritchard, who led Stanford to a huge upset of USC last season, has been named the Cardinal's starting quarterback.

Alabama is expected to start three newcomers in its opener against Clemson. Heralded true freshman wide receiver Julio Jones, true freshman linebacker Don'ta Hightower and nose guard Terrence Cody, a junior college transfer, were listed as starters on the depth chart released Monday.

Auburn offensive coordinator Tony Franklin hasn't decided whether sophomore Kodi Burns or junior college transfer Chris Todd will start at quarterback. Franklin indicated both could play about 50 percent of the time in the opener against Louisiana-Monroe.

Mississippi State may have to juggle its offensive line for Saturday's game against Louisiana Tech. Sophomore left tackle Derek Sherrod is bothered by a foot infection and his availability is unsure. If he cannot play, sophomore Mark Melichar will move from right tackle to left tackle. In that case, redshirt freshman Quentin Saulsberry likely would start at right tackle.

South Carolina junior tailback Taylor Rank has been given the starting nod over senior Mike Davis. Rank, who outplayed Davis in camp, has made one previous start in his career; in 2006, he rushed for 101 yards on 15 carries against Florida Atlantic. Davis, the Gamecocks' top returning rusher, has been slowed by shoulder injuries and a virus.

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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