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Linebackers to play bigger role against Bulls


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Linebackers to play bigger role against Bulls

AUBURN, Ala. --

BY CHRISTA TURNER

turnerc@ledger-enquirer.com

--­--

Kansas State did a lot of passing a week ago, meaning Auburn played a lot of nickel and dime coverage with extra cornerbacks.

The South Florida Bulls run a no-huddle offense which loves to spread the field, but the Bulls also love to run, so look for Auburn's linebackers to have a much greater role this week.

Sophomore Tray Blackmon stood out against K-State, but played only one half after injuring his ankle at the end of the first half on a 49-yard interception return. He returned to practice half-speed on Wednesday, but participated in everything on Thursday. Defensive coordinator Will Muschamp said he'll be ready to go.

That's good news for a linebacker corps which didn't score highly on Muschamp's production chart last week. Weakside linebacker Merrill Johnson scored lowest on defense, with strongside linebacker Craig Stevens just above him.

That's not great cause for worry, says linebackers coach James Willis.

"It really pinpoints some things you need to work on," Willis said. "It could be the smallest thing as far as their eye control, putting their eyes in the right spot, or just a half-step on the alignment. We grade very hard. What it does, it gives the guys more incentive to make sure they're more firm on their detail. It also makes them pay more attention to the game and focus more."

With Blackmon missing some practice time early in the week, the Tigers shifted Courtney Harden to middle linebacker and freshman Brent Slusher to weakside linebacker. Chris Evans filled in at middle linebacker after Blackmon went out and also recorded an interception.

Short workout

Auburn worked out for just under 90 minutes on Thursday morning in their final practice before Saturday night's game against South Florida.

Auburn worked out in helmets and shells and the players will have walkthroughs on Friday before heading to LaGrange, Ga.

The Tigers will have plenty of time to kill on Saturday since the ESPN2-televised game doesn't kick off until 9:06 p.m.

"It used to be when we had a game this late, we'd take them to a movie or something," head coach Tommy Tuberville said. "Players don't really like that. They'd rather lay around. A lot of them take their books with them. We'll spread our meeting out to where they'll have some time to be off their feet and not up and down going to meetings."

Rooming up

Offensive line coach Hugh Nall said he has been paring freshman Lee Ziemba and redshirt freshman Mike Berry together "on the road" to help build some chemistry.

"You've got two guys who've never played together," Nall said. "You just don't know what you'll get. That's a daily ongoing chemistry that has to grow and bond. They have to go through situations."

He also pointed out that he warned in advance that it could be a bumpy start because of the inexperience combined with little knowledge of Kansas State's defense.

"We didn't know what they were going to show us defensively," Nall said. "You can't ask for a worse case scenario than what we had last week. We didn't have any film."

Nall said he hoped to be able to get some of the second-team linemen like Leon Hart, Antwoin Daniels, Lee Isom and Andrew McCain some snaps this week, but said it would depend on the flow of the game. He said Hart has played better since returning from an ankle injury.

"He's done some good things," Nall said. "Leon's gotten better."

Catch-22

Every week, defensive coordinator Will Muschamp faces a problem: Players can't get better at tackling unless they do it "live," but that often leads to injuries, for offensive and defensive players.

The Tigers use a system Muschamp calls "thud tempo," which means they hit full-speed and wrap-up, but they don't tackle to the ground. Although it's tough to adjust to full-speed tackling in a game, Muschamp said players learn better technique by staying off the ground.

"When you leave your feet on tackles against the people in our league, you're not going to tackle them, Muschamp said.

Muschamp said there will be a big emphasis on tackling "in space" on Saturday since the Bulls run a wide-open format.

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