News from the Tennessee Valley Sports

Six for kicks
Special team spots
up for grabs at Auburn

By Ross Dellenger 340-2460

AUBURN — They spend nearly all day together, hanging out in between meetings and playing video games. But they are all immersed in the most competitive, critical job-opening on the Auburn football team.

"It's rough. The competition is real good," said Ross Gornall, one of six kickers fighting for either one, two or all three of the special teams jobs: kickoff, punting and field goals.

"We're all right at the same level. It's going to come down to the wire," he said.

Gornall, a walk-on redshirt freshman from Jupiter, Fla., is involved in two of those three races. He is competing for the kickoff spot to replace departed Matt Clark with walk-on Patrick Tatum and true freshman Wes Byrum.

He is also in the mix to become the field-goal kicker with Byrum, junior Zach Kutch and true freshman walk-on Graham Sutter.

"Someone's going to have to fill John Vaughn's shoes and take it over," Gornall said, clearly focused on winning the field goal battle.

The competition at punter to replace Kody Bliss involves Tatum and redshirt freshman Ryan Shoemaker.

But no matter who wins those jobs, it will be hard to replace the trio that graduated last season. Vaughn scored more points in a season (94) and career (312) than any field-goal kicker in school history.

Bliss ranks second in school history, averaging 43.8 yards per punt in his career. He finished last season ranked third in the nation with a 45.7 yards per punt average.

The little-known Clark booted 51 of 66 kickoffs for touchbacks, leading the nation last year.

"We're putting pressure on them every day in practice," Tuberville said of the kickers.

With the team gathered in a half-moon formation, the four kickers end nearly every practice by attempting four field goals each.

As if 100 players, several fans and the media were not enough pressure, sometimes the
outcome of their kicks determines if the team runs sprints or not.

"If you can't kick in front of the team, how are you going to do it in front of an entire packed stadium?" Byrum said. "If we miss, (teammates) are going to rise us up. If we make it, they are going to praise us for not having to run."

The four field-goal kickers are virtually even up to this point, but the kickoff spot isn't.

Tuberville said this week that Byrum has moved ahead of the other two kickoff candidates because of his strong leg, but like everything in preseason practice, that is not set in stone.

"He gets more hang time, a little bit more depth," Tuberville said. "But that could change as we go, too."

The punter battle wasn't much of a fight coming out of spring. Shoemaker seemed to have the job, but that's before Tatum arrived in Auburn. Tatum is now competing for the starting job.

"I think he's got a chance to add a little pressure to Ryan Shoemaker," Tuberville said.

The two will compete for the next three weeks and throughout the season for the starting job, but Byrum may join them.

"He could punt, he could kick off, he could be our field-goal guy," Tuberville said of the 6-foot-1, 213-pound Byrum. "He's got what it takes."

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