Freshman delivering the blows in practice
Ziemba living up to hype on line
By Ross Dellenger
AUBURN — Like an immovable statue, Lee Ziemba’s body set planted in the practice turf, hunched over with one hand on the ground in preparation for the forthcoming whistle.
As soon as it blew, he braced for impact, back pedaling a bit to give himself leverage from the imminent collision with defensive end Sen’Derrick Marks.
The two clashed, locking helmets for five seconds: Ziemba trying to protect the quarterback, while Marks fiercely fought to knock the pass-throwers head off.
The two danced in a half circle, clawing at one another. And then finally to Marks’ chagrin, the whistle blew ending the drill.
“That a boy, Ziemba,” yelled senior left tackle King Dunlap, one of 15 players encircling the two.
Ziemba had won the battle, but he wouldn’t win the next one.
Marks’ quickness overpowered Ziemba’s strength in round 2. He slipped through the crack between the tackle and guard spots, pummeling the would-be quarterback.
A low sigh permeated the group of offensive linemen.
You can’t win them all.
And Ziemba, a likely starter, is a long way from winning many of them, according to players and coaches.
But with four starters gone from last season’s offensive line, the true freshman is the team’s only answer at right tackle, one of the most important position on the squad. The 6-foot-8, 297-pounder has the duty of protecting the blind side of left-handed quarterback Brandon Cox, a fifth-year senior who turns 24 in October.
Ziemba turned 18 in March and graduated from high school just three months ago, the same time Cox received his undergraduate degree from Auburn.
“It’s a lot to learn as a freshman,” Cox said. “He’s learning as we go.”
Ranked the nation’s fourth-best offensive tackle prospect by Rivals.com and the No. 1 recruit in Arkansas, Ziemba has lived up to all the hype.
He began working with the starters just a week into preseason camp. He and junior Antwoin Daniels have been rotating at right tackle and will continue to do so, offensive coordinator Al Borges said.
“We’ll play them both,” he said. “But we’ve begun to settle most of the other positions.”
Those four other spots on the offensive line have all but been solidified.
Left guard Tyronne Green and center Jason Bosely have held on to their spring practice starting roles, and redshirt freshman Mike Berry has snatched the right guard spot from injured Leon Hart.
Junior Andrew McCain emerged from spring practice as the starting right tackle, but has since moved to left tackle, backing up Dunlap, the only returning lineman.
A host of players have been battling at right tackle since McCain made the move, but it was Ziemba that stood out the most.
That’s not to say he’s perfect.
“The mistakes that he makes, he corrects them and usually doesn’t make them again,” Cox said.
Ziemba said he does make plenty of mistakes. Like many players, he developed bad habits in high school in Arkansas.
“Here, if I do those bad habits, I get beat,” he said.
“So, I have to do it the way I’m taught.”
His teacher, offensive line coach Hugh Nall, constantly criticizes Ziemba for “ducking his head” when pass blocking, a reason Marks may have slid by the 300-pounder during drills.
Nall said Ziemba gives 100 percent effort on everything, but “actually plays too hard at times,” a problem that can be fixed. The coach has been trying to slow down the youngster during preseason practice.
“At offensive line, you have to be fundamentally sound, and he plays past his fundamentals sometimes, which is a good problem,” Nall said. “I’d much rather have to coach a guy to slow down than to coach a guy to speed up.”
Nall says Ziemba has a chance to be a “really good one,” but first he’s “going to have to make a lot of mistakes.”
It’s unusual for Auburn to even play a true freshman, much less allow one to start. It hasn’t been done since 2002 when Marcus McNeil and Troy Reddick started.
But Borges isn’t a bit surprised to see Ziemba at the starting spot a week and a half before the home opener against Kansas State.
“If anybody was going to play and be able to play quick, it was Lee,” Borges said. “I really felt Lee and Ryan Pugh were two guys that might be able to be in the depth.”
Pugh, also a true freshman, has been working with the starting group recently because of an injury to starting center Jason Bosley. Bosley should return to practice some time this week after recovering from a knee bruise, but coaches still feel that Pugh will see playing time instead of redshirting.
Pugh, like Ziemba, was rated highly in high school. The 6-foot-4, 282-pounder was the No. 1 center prospect in the nation by ESPN.com.
But it’s Ziemba garnering much of the praise in the first three weeks of preseason practice, and he seems to be the only true freshman on offense with a solidified starting role.
“To think I might be on the starting lineup, that’s more than I could ever dream or ask for,” said Ziemba, whose parents attended Auburn. “I love Auburn. I love being here. It’s home to me.”
And he means every word. You can find his endearment to Auburn on his left shoulder: a giant tattoo of the university’s AU logo.
There is no turning back now.
“It’s a dream come true,” he said.
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