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Auburn tackle Lee Ziemba, left, works against defensive end Quentin Groves in practice. Ziemba is one of three true freshmen starting on the Tigers' offensive line.
AP photo by Todd Van Emst
Auburn tackle Lee Ziemba, left, works against defensive end Quentin Groves in practice. Ziemba is one of three true freshmen starting on the Tigers' offensive line.

AU freshmen linemen no longer strangers

By Ross Dellenger · 340-2462

AUBURN — Lee Ziemba, Ryan Pugh and Chaz Ramsey are virtually inseparable.

They study together, eat together, go to class together, even make career goals together. But Pugh said there is one thing they don't do together.

"We definitely don't sleep together," he said, laughing.

Auburn's three true freshmen have something else in common: starting on the offensive line. Ziemba won the starting job at right tackle during preseason practice, while Pugh and Ramsey saw their first start last week against New Mexico State.

Coaches say all three should start Saturday when Auburn (2-2, 0-1 SEC) clashes with No. 4 Florida (4-0, 2-0) in Gainesville, Fla.

Pugh replaced left tackle King Dunlap, the only returning starter from last season and the lone senior on the line. Ramsey started at right guard in place of redshirt freshman Mike Berry, who bruised his shoulder.

Both Dunlap and Berry were back at practice this week, but Pugh and Ramsey may have permanently won the starting jobs with their fiery play.

"They brought a spark back to us that we certainly needed," Auburn offensive line coach Hugh Nall said. "They made some mistakes, and they've got to get better, but I really liked the attitude and tempo."

Pugh and Ramsey were both surprised by their vault into starting positions. For the first three games of the season, Pugh served as the backup center and Ramsey was the No. 2 right guard. Neither had played a down until last week.

In fact, Pugh began learning the left-tackle position last week, just days before starting.

"This is the first week I've played left tackle since high school," he said.

The 6-foot-4, 282-pound Pugh emerged from Hoover High as the top-ranked center prospect in the nation. Ramsey was a highly-touted guard prospect from Madison Central in Madison, Miss., and Ziemba was the top-ranked overall prospect out of Arkansas as a tackle.

Although they are each from a different part of the Southeast, they bonded once getting to Auburn this summer. Ziemba and Pugh live together, while Ramsey lives alone, but he is a frequent guest at the Ziemba/Pugh house.

"It's unique, being from not meeting each other, then moving down here the first of June and now we don't spend a moment apart," Pugh said. "If one of us goes home, we usually are all going with them. We have to always take Lee with us because he lives real far away."

Pugh, Ramsey and Ziemba set a list of goals this summer for their football careers.

"At the top of our list was we wanted to make an impact this year," Pugh said. "Freshmen sometimes don't get the chance to do that."

They almost never do for the Tigers.

Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville rarely plays true freshmen, opting to redshirt them instead. But this year has been unlike any other. With Pugh and Ramsey garnering playing time, 13 true freshmen have played this season.

Seven players on Auburn's roster were not redshirted during their true freshman seasons. And three of those have redshirted since their initial season with the team.

Ramsey was on his way to a redshirt.

He dressed out for the first two games, but didn't against Mississippi State in the third game. Ramsey said Nall moved him into the starting rotation at practice the Sunday after the loss to the Bulldogs.

"We tried to keep it quiet all through the week," Ramsey said. "I think we did a pretty good job of that."

Not so fast.

Word of the two young starters leaked on a Birmingham radio station during the week. The news spread to message boards, but it wasn't until Saturday that it became official as Pugh and Ramsey trotted out onto the field joining Ziemba and adding much-needed excitement to the line.

"The week of practice was good as a whole. I thought everyone bounced around," Pugh said. "There was a lot of yelling and whooping and hollering going on. I think coaches had as much fun as the players seeing the change of tempo."

About a month ago, just days before the season opener against Kansas State, Pugh walked into the Auburn athletic building with a freshly cut mohawk. He wouldn't divulge the reason for it at the time, but this week he did.

"Chaz told me one day in class, "Oh you don't have enough about yourself to do it," Pugh said. "I said, 'I bet I'll have it before 2 o'clock.'

"I did."

Auburn (2-2, 0-1 SEC) at No. 4 Florida (4-0, 2-0)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m.

Where: Florida Field at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla.

Line: Florida by 18.

TV/radio: The game will be televised on ESPN. The radio broadcast can be heard on FM-106.1, FM-95.9, FM-98.3 and AM-1230.

Players to watch: Auburn quarterback Brandon Cox’s performance against New Mexico State puts the spotlight back on him. But be prepared to see flashes of true freshman Kodi Burns as he comes off the bench. Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville said earlier in the week that coaches were trying to devise a system to play the two.

Florida quarterback Tim Tebow always has the spotlight. Tebow, a Heisman Trophy candidate, leads Florida in rushing and in passing. His dual-threat ability could create problems for Auburn.

Key matchup: Tebow against Auburn’s defensive line. Florida will spread out Auburn’s linebackers with talented receivers on the outside, meaning the defensive line will need to stop Tebow’s bull-rushes up the middle. The most talented area on the team, the defensive line has the most depth. Eight players rotate at the four spots. They’ll need to keep fresh with a 6-foot-3, 235-pounder Tebow coming at them time after time.

Weather: Isolated thunderstorms with a high of 87 degrees and a low of 68. The chance of rain is 30 percent.

Last meeting: Auburn 27, Florida 17 on Oct. 14, 2006, in Auburn.

Prediction: Florida 27, Auburn 13.

Ross Dellenger, DAILY sports writer

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