Auburn Tigers (2000: 9-4)
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Coach and programAuburn coach Tommy Tuberville had two running backs on his mind last December. One was Auburn junior Rudi Johnson, the leading rusher in the Southeastern Conference. The other was Carnell "Cadillac" Williams, a Parade All-American from Etowah, Ala.
Tuberville guessed there was a 50-50 chance Johnson would go pro early. But he couldn't recruit Williams full-bore until he knew for sure. So he waited.
While Tuberville waited, Alabama, Tennessee and others took their best shots at one of the best running backs in the country. Finally, Williams committed to the Vols. But the recruiting wasn't over. In fact, it was just getting started for Auburn.
Once Johnson decided he was leaving, Tuberville opted for Plan A, convincing Williams that he would be "the guy" in Auburn's running game. The strategy worked. Williams backed off his commitment to the Vols and signed with Auburn.
One of the South's foremost salesman had struck again.
Ask Tuberville about coaching, and the subject invariably turns to selling. He's now in his second year of selling Auburn football, and apparently loving every minute of it.
"There's a lot more that goes into a job than coaching on the field," he said. "Will you get the support from the fans? Will you get the support from the administration. Do you have a good recruiting base? We probably have six and seven million people in a 100-mile radius."
OffenseOffensive coordinator Noel Mazzone already has a great reputation for developing quarterbacks. It will be even better if the Tigers come up with a capable successor to Ben Leard.
On the last day of spring practice, the answer was senior Daniel Cobb (6-4, 228). He completed 8-of-12 passes for 216 yards and a touchdown. That carried him past junior Jeff Klein (6-3, 222) and redshirt freshman Jason Campbell (6-5, 213).
Cobb was lagging behind Klein and Campbell at the start of spring before soaring to the top of the depth chart with one impressive scrimmage. He completed 6-of-10 passes for 83 yards.
The battle for the starting tailback slot should be just as interesting once Williams reports for preseason practice. Williams (5-11, 185) apparently lacks only experience. He's fast, athletic and productive.
Williams rushed for more than 6,000 yards in high school. As a senior, he rushed for 1,729 yards, scored 23 touchdowns and averaged close to 10 yards per carry.
"He's a combination of Gale Sayers, Walter Payton and Barry Sanders," Etowah High School coach Raymond Farmer said.
There is s no experienced competition at Auburn. Sophomore Casinious Moore (6-0, 219) rushed for 61 yards on 23 carries last year; freshman Ronnie Brown (6-1, 226) was redshirted last season; sophomore Chris Butler (5-11, 207) sat out last season after transferring from Nebraska.
The Tigers will return four of five starters in the offensive line, including All-SEC tackle Kendall Simmons, a 6-3, 319-pound senior.
Defense and special teams
Sophomore DeMarco McNeil (6-1, 301) heads up a solid defensive front. McNeil, who was redshirted in 1999, started all 13 games last year. He led the team with 13 tackles for losses and five sacks and ranked second on the team with 67 total tackles. Nobody else on the team had half as many tackles for losses.
"He made some plays last year," Tuberville said. "As of yet, he's not a Warren Sapp, Russell Maryland or Jerome Brown [defensive linemen whom Tuberville coached as an assistant at Miami]. But he's got a chance. He's not as quick as those players at this time, but he's young."
McNeil isn't the only All-SEC candidate on Auburn's defensive front. Senior defensive end Javor Mills (6-4, 271), a former junior college transfer, led the team with quarterback hurries and tied for second behind McNeil in tackles for losses. He had his best game against Alabama, with nine tackles, two tackles for losses, a sack and two quarterback hurries.
While senior linebacker Tavarreus Pounds (6-1, 245) was recuperating from shoulder surgery in the spring, sophomore Dontarrious Thomas (6-3, 225) emerged as one of Auburn's best defensive players.
"He came in here at 190 pounds and now he's 225," Tuberville said. "He's going to be an excellent linebacker."
Stanford Simmons, a 6-2, 198-pound junior, is the only returning starter at the three secondary positions.
Junior Damon Duval (6-0, 184) gained most of his recognition as an All-SEC punter but didn't fare badly as a place-kicker. He made 14-of-18 field-goal attempts, including 6-of-9 from more than 40 yards.
Tuberville believes he has everything he needs to win big at Auburn.
When Butch Davis left the University of Miami for the Cleveland Browns' head-coaching job, Tuberville's name popped up on the speculation list. He quickly said he wasn't interested. As he put it, "I've got the best job in the world right here."
Tuberville got the best job in the world by doing a heckuva job at Ole Miss, winning 30 games in five years, then breaking the Rebels' hearts by switching to the side of another SEC West rival. Ole Miss' loss was Auburn's gain. In Tuberville's second year, the Tigers-picked to finish in the second half of their division-won the West.
Auburn fans can't expect another division title, but they can expect Tuberville to keep the Tigers competitive while building toward bigger things. The come-from-behind recruitment of Williams gives them a reason for optimism. And whatever optimism Auburn supporters have, Tuberville fans it. He can sell Auburn, Ala., like a War Eagle native.