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SUNDAY, JULY 29, 2007
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Auburn relying on senior QB again
Brandon Cox back for his final year

By Ross Dellenger
sports@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

DECATUR — Ben Leard’s seat in Sanford Stadium was about 30 rows up from the 45-yard line, “right in the middle of some long-time Georgia season ticket holders,” said the former Auburn quarterback.

It was 2005. That year’s game in Athens, Ga., between the Deep South’s oldest rivals — No. 9 Georgia and No. 15 Auburn — was already one for the record books and the ending had yet to unfold.

“I had a great view,” Leard said.

It was fourth down and trailing Auburn had no choice but to go for it.

Down by two points with a little more than two minutes left on the clock, the Tigers needed 10 yards to continue a possible game-winning drive.

First-year starting sophomore quarterback Brandon Cox aligned in a shotgun formation.

“The snap was low,” Leard said, recalling the event clearly. “It was from a second-string center.”

But it didn’t matter. Cox “nonchalantly took it” and threw “a perfect pass right over the middle of the field,” Leard said.

About 20 yards away, receiver Devin Aromashodu was breaking free over the middle. He made the catch in stride, broke a couple of tackles, raced for the goal line and then fumbled. Auburn’s Courtney Taylor, downfield blocking, recovered the ball in the end zone.

The fumble couldn’t be advanced, so Auburn didn’t get a touchdown, but it did get the ball at the Georgia 3, more than 65 yards from where Cox had stood in that shotgun formation. After running the clock down, kicker John Vaughn nailed a chip shot field goal and Auburn won 31-30.

“Everybody wearing red and black couldn’t believe that happened. They were not believing what was going on,” Leard said.

“To me, that was the epitome of how good Brandon (Cox) is and how composed he is. The success of Auburn’s 2007 football season hinges on the success and health of Brandon Cox.”

This season, Auburn returns to Athens, Ga., and so does Cox. The senior from Trussville will attempt to join a line of senior quarterbacks who have led Auburn to unquestioned success during the last 20 years.

Starting with Randy Campbell in 1983 and ending with Jason Campbell in 2004, Auburn has had nine senior quarterbacks start full-time. Most won some kind of championship in their final campaign and none posted a losing record.

Leard attributes that success to comfort and maturity.

“There is something about the comfort of being the oldest and most experienced player on the field,” Leard said from his new home in Opelika where he lives with his wife and three daughters.

As the captain of the 2000 Auburn team, Leard, now 29, led the Tigers to an SEC Western Division title and a birth in the Citrus Bowl.

He knows exactly how Cox is feeling as the senior quarterback heads into his final year at Auburn.

“Expectations are high, but he can rely on what he’s gone through and what he has done,” Leard said in a phone interview Saturday. “He’s got two years under his belt. It’s just a matter of execution.”

Apparently, it was just a matter of execution for all of those senior Auburn quarterbacks who brought the school four SEC championships, two undefeated seasons, four bowl victories and five final AP top 10 rankings.

“It’s a world of difference even from your junior season,” Leard said.

Only two of those nine senior starting quarterbacks had started more than a year before their senior season. Stan White, remarkably, started every game from his freshman year in 1990 to his final season in 1993, and Jason Campbell started his last three years at Auburn.

Having started his sophomore and junior seasons, Cox will be in Campbell’s seat when he lines up behind center for Auburn’s first game against Kansas State on Sept. 1.

“You win in this league with experience,” coach Tommy Tuberville said.

Leard, who hosts a radio show before Auburn home games, passed for 2,158 yards in his senior year, throwing 10 interceptions and 12 touchdowns. He completed 60.5 percent of his passes and led Auburn to a final AP ranking of 18.

Last season as a junior, Cox’s numbers were similar. He passed for 2,198 yards, had nine interceptions and 14 touchdowns and completed 60.5 percent of his passes. And that’s with injuries.

Cox lost nearly 20 pounds last season because of the injury bug, slipping to 190. He sprained his left knee and ankle in the third game of the season against LSU. He then injured a ligament in his right knee during an October game against Ole Miss.

“I don’t want to go through that again. That was tough,” said Cox, who packed on muscle during the offseason and now weighs about 210 pounds.

Coach Tommy Tuberville blames Cox’s injury-plagued year on a century-old trouble for quarterbacks in the SEC: holding onto the ball for too long.

Tuberville said that because Cox got too confident in his abilities, he held the ball too long.

“When you hold the ball in our league, you might get it off and complete it, but you are also going to get hit pretty good,” Tuberville said.

Through the setbacks, Cox still started every game and led the Tigers to an 11-2 mark. That’s why Leard thinks he is “one of the best quarterbacks to play at Auburn.”

He said Cox is a tough player, mentally and physically, and epitomizes an Auburn play-caller.

“Auburn has always been the blue-collar team,” Leard said.

Just days ago at SEC media days in Hoover, Tuberville described this year’s team as just that, blue collar — no real all-stars or fancy playmakers, no big names that jump out when the average Joe looks over the roster or the preseason all-SEC selections. The coaches and the media both failed to pick Cox for any preseason team — first, second or third.

As a team, Auburn was chosen by reporters to finish third in the SEC West. LSU was picked first, and Alabama — a team that has a new coach and a team Auburn has beaten five straight years — was picked to finish second.

Auburn linebacker and lone all-SEC first-team selection Quentin Groves said that he and Cox discussed the quarterback’s lack of exposure on their way to Hoover for media days.

“He said he was upset. I was like, hey, Cox, better to be under the radar than to be flying above it,” Groves said.

Cox then said to Groves: “We’re going to shock a lot of people.

20 years of senior quarterback success at Auburn

Year

Senior starting quarterback

Record

Result

1983

Randy Campbell

11-1

SEC title, 3rd in final AP poll

1985

Pat Washington

8-4

Played in Cotton Bowl

1987

Jeff Burger

9-1-2

SEC title, AP No. 7

1989

Reggie Slack

10-2

SEC title, AP No. 6

1993

Stan White

11-0

AP No. 4, best record in SEC

1995

Patrick Nix

8-4

AP No. 22

1997

Dameyune Craig

10-3

SEC West title, AP No. 11

2000

Ben Leard

9-4

SEC West title, AP No. 18

2004

Jason Campbell

13-0

SEC title, AP No. 2

2007

Brandon Cox

???

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