Auburn is 4-0 and we all know the players and coaches responsible: Chris Todd, Heisman candidate. (I can’t believe that’s, like, 4.6 percent not-joke.) The Chiznick and his Lantern Jaw of Justice. Trooper “Everybody Have Fun Tonight” Taylor. Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery, the new Obomanu and Aromashadu. Antonio Coleman. Ben Tate. Craig Stevens. Jake Ricks. Onterio McCalebb. Kodi “Leadership” Burns. And of course, Mad Dr. Gustav and his Three-Ring Circus of 56-yard Touchdowns.
Now: there’s not an Auburn fan out there who won’t tell you that there’s a ton of “unsung heroes” on the team that “do the dirty work” and “do the things that don’t show up in the box score.” But still, when it comes time to write the post-game wrap-ups and reviews, does anyone actually mention those unsung heroes’ names? Not usually.
I’m as guilty as anyone, so this post is an attempt to rectify that a little bit. Here’s 5 people or pairs of people or units or whatever that deserve a lot more credit for Auburn’s success than they’ve gotten so far:
1. The offensive line. It’s really a shame that for every plaudit this unit has gotten, there’s been a “Quit committing penalties, Ziemba!” post-it attached. You would think that with everybody and their grandmother (yours truly certainly included) agreeing “it all starts up front,” the guys who are actually up front for the offense now third in the nation in total offense would get more pub.
The statistical rankings really are staggering: fifth in rushing. Third in scoring. Top 10 in red zone touchdown percentage. In a tie for first with just 2 sacks allowed through 4 games. Tied for fifth in yards-per-play. Those numbers would be good if they were just Auburn’s ranking in the SEC, much less nationally, and if Auburn hasn’t faced a defense yet as stout as the one they’ll face Saturday, they also haven’t played a game against I-AA competition.
No matter how good your offensive coordinator is, no matter how well your quarterback is playing or how explosive your running backs are, those sorts of numbers just don’t happen unless your offensive line is going out and dominating people. So take a bow, Zimeba, Berry, Pugh, Isom (yes, him too), and McCain. You guys have more than earned it.
In a related story …
2. Jeff Grimes. Grimes’s hire didn’t make nearly the waves that the hiring of most of his colleagues did, and he’s still pretty invisible as we talk about what Malzahn’s done with Todd, Taylors’ done with the receivers, Rocker’s doing with the defensive line, etc.
But the offensive line was a discombobulated wreck last year, and if Grimes has more natural talent to work with (at least in the first string) than his counterparts at wide receiver or linebacker, he also had more damage from ’08 to repair. His unit has been as impressive as any on the field anyway, and Grimes deserves a ton of credit for it.
3. Wes Byrum. It’s not that Byrum’s perfect start hasn’t gone unnoticed, exactly, but it’s easy to take for granted just how huge some of these kicks have been. The 49-yarder just before the half against La. Tech? The 46-yarder to get Auburn on the board when it looked like WVU might just overwhelm them? The 42-yarder to trim the ‘Eer lead to 21-13 when it looked like they might pull away again?
Those are all game-changing, momentum-swinging, have-to-have them kind of kicks, all three of them came from beyond 40 yards, and Byrum made all three with what looked like ease. I can’t imagine there’s much that’s more demoralizing for an offense than seeing a long drive go to waste because of a missed kick; I also imagine there’s not much more encouraging than getting stopped outside the opponent’s 20 and still seeing points go on the board because your kicker is the new/old Wes Byrum.
(By-the-Byrum: Auburn is one of only four teams in the country to have attempted six field goals (or more) and made them all. You can’t be happy with Jay Boulware’s performance to-date as the special teams coach, but Byrum did mention somewhere along the line that Boulware’s tweaks to his kicking motion had been a big, big help. You have to tip your cap to Boulware for that.)
4. Neiko Thorpe. Zac Etheridge is the tackle machine, Walt McFadden is the quotemaster and senior leader, and Daren Bates is the precocious freshman and best story …
… but I’d argue it’s Thorpe who’s been the secondary’s best player, leading the team in passes broken up and quietly surpassing even Etheridge in tackles made. The Auburn secondary ranks in the top 30 nationally in opposing QB rating and opponent’s yards-per-pass attempt, and if Thorpe’s teammates in the secondary share in those accomplishments, Thorpe hasn’t had the pass-interference problems that have plagued McFadden, has been more active than Bates, has seemed like as sure a tackler (from here) as Etheridge. Oh, and he’s one of Auburn’s best special-teams players to boot.
Thorpe’s all that, and he’s still just a sophomore. Watch: he’s going to play on Sundays one day. And in another related story …
5. Tommy Thigpen and Phillip Lolley. Of all Chizik’s assistant hires, it was Lolley—-a crusty old former Alabama high school coach who Tubby had shelved from on-field coaching–who moved the needle the least. But Lolley has Thorpe and McFadden playing about as well as any pair of starting corners in the SEC, and after that hiccup against Mississippi St., Demond Washington has come on to become a productive nickelback despite being one of Auburn’s latest fall arrivals. Lolley’s obviously doing something right.
The same goes for Thigpen, who has the luxury of having Etheridge to spearhead his safety pairing but has also had to get a true freshman (and a late-arriving, lightly-regarded one at that) up to playing speed in a big, big hurry. Bates hasn’t had a huge impact just yet (though the Ball St. performance was hella promising), but since that means he also hasn’t had a huge negative impact, that counts as a thrilling success.
The bottom line is that right now, Lolley’s and Thigpen’s secondary is outperforming Roof’s linebackers and even Rocker’s defensive line, and it’s time to applaud them for it.
Guys who have gotten a certain amount of pub but could use even more: I’d like to think they’ve gotten their due here at WBE, but in the world at-large the outstanding blocking on the egde by Tommy Trott and Jay Wisner deserves more notice … Craig Stevens has that SEC Defensive Player of the Week Award, but I think Josh Bynes has been Auburn’s best linebacker by a clear margin … That Auburn has consistently won the second half is a testament to the team’s conditioning, and Kevin Yoxall deserves a heaping helping of credit for that.
Photo via al.com.