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Auburn freshman receiver Chris Slaughter has worked his way into the playing rotation.
AP photo by Todd Van Emst
Auburn freshman receiver Chris Slaughter has worked his way into the playing rotation.

catching on

Auburn counting on first-year players

By Ross Dellenger ∑ 340-2462

AUBURN — Offensive lineman Lee Ziemba sported a blue New York Yankees shirt with a white interlocking NY logo on his chest. But on his head he wore an Atlanta Braves hat.

"This is (Ryan) Pugh's shirt. I stole it out of his closet," Ziemba said with a chuckle, clearing up the confusing combination of rival Major League teams.

Pugh, Auburn's backup center, didn't wear a hat Tuesday during Auburn's first media day of the season. Instead, he flaunted a recently cut mohawk.

"You got to get a little bit of attitude out there on the field," Pugh said, "get some people fired up."

Stealing a friend's clothing and getting a mohawk are truly freshman things to do, but on the field, these two leave the buffoonery behind.

Ziemba and Pugh are two of at least eight true freshmen who could see substantial playing time this season for Auburn — a program that usually redshirts incoming freshmen.

Only seven players on the roster did not redshirt in their true freshman seasons, and three of those have redshirted since their initial season with the team.

This year, it's different. Auburn has named Ziemba and place-kicker Wes Byrum as starters, though Tuberville said Tuesday that Ziemba's status as a starter will be a game-time decision.

Four more incoming freshmen are listed as second team, including Pugh at center, Bo Harris at linebacker, Mike McNeil at free safety and Chris Slaughter at receiver.

Coaches say two more freshmen — defensive end Antoine Carter and linebacker Brent Slusher — are scheduled to play.

The graduation of 17 seniors left holes on Auburn's depth chart, leading to position competitions during the preseason.

"This freshman class came in with the determination that they were going to make a push for the starting jobs," Pugh said. "Coach made that very clear that everything was going to be wide open, and the best players would play."

Although Ziemba and Byrum are the only ones to win starting jobs during preseason practice, others will compete throughout the season with a chance to steal those cherished starting spots.

Senior quarterback Brandon Cox attributes the abnormal
expectations for this year's freshmen to Auburn's lack of depth. Cox said in his five years at Auburn all of the recruiting classes have had the talent
to play, but this year the newcomers will be needed immediately.

"In the past, we had some experienced guys, and we just redshirted all of them," Cox said. "This year, we need some of the guys to step up and play."

Guard Leon Hart, receiver Robert Dunn, running back Ben Tate and defensive lineman Jake Ricks are the only players on the team who have not redshirted at all.

Tight end Cole Bennett got a medical redshirt last season, extending his stay in Auburn. Lineman Andrew McCain and place-kicker Zach Kutch redshirted in their true sophomore years.

The 2007 recruiting class was ranked No. 7 in the nation by, another reason so many players are competing for starting position at 18 years old. The talent is there.

"I'm sleeping fine," Ziemba said. "I've been taught, and now it's time to do it."

As Auburn's right guard, Ziemba will face Kansas State outside linebacker Ian Campbell, who has been compared to Quentin Groves. The junior had 11.5 sacks last season, ranking him 10th in the nation.

But the true freshman has been competing against Groves during practice and says he's "excited" about facing the 6-foot-4, 249-pound Campbell.

"Quentin has been giving me a real good look at practice. He's gone full speed every play," he said. "I know that if I go full speed, I'll get the job done."

Byrum likely will attempt at least one field goal Saturday. But "as of right now," he says excitement is the only thing he feels. Not nervousness.

He predicts come game day the butterflies will begin to flutter.

"I'm sure I'll get pretty nervous when I get out there," he said.

"But right now, I'm just anticipating a lot."

Tuberville doesn't even recall looking at his depth chart and seeing this many true freshmen in the No. 1 or No. 2 spots. He knows that mistakes will come with the inexperienced youths, but he's willing to take the chance with the talent-laden class.

"I don't care how good of a football player they are, or how mature they are — it's still different from what they have played," Tuberville said.

Kansas State at Auburn

6:45 p.m.

Auburnís Fab Freshmen

Auburnís true freshmen who are either scheduled to start or will see substantial playing time this season:

Lee Ziemba, RT: This 6-foot-8, 297-pounder won the starting position during the latter half of preseason practice. Coaches say he could be one of the best in the coming years.

Wes Byrum, PK: The Florida native was a shoo-in for the starting field-goal kicking job. But he also proved the strength of his leg by winning the kickoff spot, though he is being pushed by walk-on Morgan Hull, an Austin High grad.

Antoine Carter, DE: The 6-foot-4, 226-pound Floridian is the third-stringer behind senior Quentin Groves and sophomore Antonio Coleman, but coaches say he will have a chance to play.

Bo Harris, LB: Although he has been hampered by an injury, the 6-foot-2, 226-pounder backs up redshirt freshman Craig Stevens.

Brent Slusher, LB: This Kentucky native is behind Harris, but coaches say he may see playing time.

Mike McNeil, S: The Mobile native starts on the punt return and kickoff return teams. He also backs up starting safety Aairon Savage.

Ryan Pugh, C: The Hoover native may get a chance to play behind starter Jason Bosley.

Chris Slaughter, WR: This 6-foot-3, 180-pounder has impressed coaches with his speed and pass-catching skills. He eventually may take a starting spot.

Ross Dellenger

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