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ON ONE OF THE FIRST DAYS OF SPRING PRACTICE, GENE CHIZIK instructed his players to gather around him and take a knee. Then Chizik asked his Auburn Tigers, the reigning BCS national champions, a simple question: "If you've started five or more games here, would you please raise your hand?"
"I'll tell you what: Not many hands went up," Chizik says, laughing as he recalls the scene. "We are going to be very, very young this season. Even true freshmen will have to help out. But that's O.K. The standard here is not changing. We're still eyeing a championship. We may have some growing pains, but the first thing we have to do is put last year's team in the rearview mirror."
Gone from the Tigers' roster are the 2010 Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton, Lombardi Award winner Nick Fairley and 15 other starters who helped Auburn win its first national title since 1957. This year's squad will be as inexperienced as any in the SEC, yet Chizik has enough talented young players to be the envy of many a coach. For the last two years Auburn's recruiting classes have been universally ranked among the nation's Top 5.
"We have players who are more than capable of filling big shoes," says sophomore defensive end Nosa Eguae, one of three returning starters on defense. "We feel like we're going to shock a lot of people."
The key to the offense will be the play of junior quarterback Barrett Trotter, who has thrown only nine passes in his college career. Trotter has a big arm—he tossed 88 touchdown passes at Briarwood Christian High in Birmingham, third most in state history—and in the spring he displayed more down-the-field accuracy than Newton had. All signs point to Trotter's taking command of the position over sophomore Clint Moseley and true freshman Kiehl Frazier.
Only two seniors, linebacker Eltoro Freeman and safety Neiko Thorpe, will start on defense. "Of course that's worrisome," says Chizik. "But the upside of having so many young guys playing is that we won't have any type of hangover from last year. Our players are hungry."
That may be so, but Auburn, for all the promise in its pipeline, is at least a year away from contending for another SEC championship.
COACH Gene Chizik (3rd year) 22--5 (12--5 in the SEC)