This is the Auburn AUghts, the WBE series looking back at the decade that was in Auburn Tiger football. Today: the top 20 players of the last 10 years. Previously: the Plays. We’ll continue over the next 2 weeks or so with lists of various sizes and a couple of columns dedicated to the Auburn teams, games, coaches, and more that made the AUghts one of Auburn’s strongest decades in its 100-plus years of football. Enjoy.
Selecting 20 players out the dozens of Auburn contributors over this past decade was hard. Way hard. Because so many comparisons were apples-to-oranges and no way around it: what’s more impressive, Rudi Johnson’s single phenomenal year at running back or Sen’Derrick Marks’ three solid years on the defensive line? What was more valuable, Ben Nowland’s long-term leadership at center or Damon Duval’s game-winning heroics at placekicker? What statistic matters more, that Ben Tate finished as Auburn’s fifth-leading rusher all-time or that Quentin Groves tied for the Auburn all-time sack record?
You get the picture. In the end, I mostly went with the ol’ gut and its combination of who I felt was best, who I felt was most memorable, who contributed most for the longest, and who just plain helped shape this Auburn decade for the better. Your suggestions and/or complaints in the comments section are–as always–beyond welcome, since I’m sure I’m forgetting/ignoring a ton of people I shouldn’t be.
(One other note: I’m only taking performance this decade into account.)
THE TOP 10
1a., 1b., RB Carnell “Cadillac” Williams (2001-2004), RB Ronnie Brown (2000-2004).
For once, I’d suggest leaving the volume up for this one. (Yeah, it’s that one.)
I tried to avoid the cop-out of splitting the top spot, honestly I did. A lot of my holiday travel–in the car, in the airport, on planes–was spent pondering the best way to differentiate between the two of them. Hard as it is to differentiate between legends, the rules of list-making seemed to dictate that I pick one or the other.
So: do you go with Ronnie’s all-around skill set and his durability? With Cadillac’s explosiveness and tenacity? With Ronnie’s power? With Cadillac’s charisma? Do you knock Cadillac for his injury history? Do you knock Ronnie for the fact that when both were healthy, two different offensive coordinators gave Cadillac the greater number of carries? How do you weigh Cadillac’s advantage in stats vs. the fact that–in my humble opinion–he was never quite as dominant a player as Ronnie was as the close of the 2002 season?
So: in the end, I don’t think you differentiate between them at all. Neither one is what he became for Auburn without the other; we don’t remember either alone anything remotely like the way we remember Cadillac and Ronnie.
We’re talking about Auburn here, Running Back U. This is the position where everything for our football program begins, and that was just as true for that 2004 team as it has been any other year (including their seasons in 2001, 2002, 2003.) And that incredible team didn’t begin with either one of these incredible players–it began with them both. Both of them deserve to be No. 1 on this list, and so that’s where I’ve got them.
3. QB Jason Campbell (2001-2004).
His finest hour:
He finished that game–arguably the biggest of the season–27-of-35 for 374 yards and 3 TDs, with 57 yards rushing just for good measure.
But maybe the greatest thing about that performance was that by then, we expected it. Campbell’s numbers for the year are off the charts: 188-for-270 (69.6 percent), 2,700 yards even, 10 yards per attempt, 20 TDs to 7 INTs, a 13-0 record. No Auburn quarterback in my lifetime has had a season anything like that, almost no quarterbacks anywhere* have had a season that combines that kind of efficiency (viz. the completion rate) with that kind of big-play ability (viz. the YPA), and no other Tiger player this decade reached the level of greatness Jason Campbell did in 2004. That simple.
*Seriously: according to cfbstats.com, whose database goes back to 2004, Louisville’s Stefan Lefors (also in 2004) is the only other quarterback of the past six years to reach double-digits in YPA while completing 70 percent of his passes.
4. OT Marcus McNeill (2002-2005).
Consider: between 2004 and 2005, all three of the above players graduated, one of them to be replaced by Brandon Cox, but Marcus McNeill returned. And the Auburn offense took only a minor step backwards.
Between 2005 and 2006, Marcus McNeill graduated, while Cox and Kenny Irons and nearly every other non-receiver player on the offense returned. And the offense fell off a cliff.
I think that–and the numerous All-SEC, All-American, etc. honors–is pretty much is the best way to illustrate the impact and talent of the best lineman (offensive or defensive) Auburn produced this decade. Offensive tackles are never going to speak to our souls the way running backs or quarterbacks do, but McNeill was every bit as skilled–and arguably every bit as important to Auburn’s fortunes–as the three players above him on this list.
5. CB Carlos Rogers (2001-2004).
For my money, there’s really only one candidate for the most dominant individual defensive performance of the decade by an Auburn player: Carlos Rogers, vs. Georgia, 2004. It’s usually a bad sign when your corner leads the team in tackles (since it means they’re not breaking up passes tossed in their man’s direction), but when Rogers led the Tigers with eight stops against the Dawgs, it was just because Rogers was as close to being literally everywhere on the field as any player I’ve ever seen. He finished the game with not only the eight tackles but two TFLs, one sack, and one critical pick in the end zone. He was unstoppable that day.
And that’s a big part of why he wound up as Auburn’s only player this decade to win a national award, taking home the Thorpe in 2004. But beyond the acclaim or Rogers’ stunning consistency (he started 9 or games all four years he was at Auburn), there was the simple fact that that 2004 unit finished No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense … despite the fact the next-most recognizable starter was … ummm … Tommy Jackson? Junior Rosegreen? Jay Ratliff? Travis Williams? Awesome players all, certainly, but there was no question then and there’s no question now who was the single biggest weapon on that defense.
6. LB Karlos Dansby (1999-2003).
You don’t need any more examples of how big a dork your humble Auburn Blogger is, but it still seems worth mentioning that back in 2001 a buddy of mine and I were watching Dansby tear some poor punching bag to shreds and decided he ought to be nicknamed “Hopper”–you know, after the grasshopper villain from A Bug’s Life.
Now here’s the really embarrassing part … I still think the nickname fits. We initially picked it just because Dansby was–like Hopper–tall and rangy, but it stuck with me over the next two years of Dansby’s career because of how violent his style of play could be, how big a hitter he was, how constantly disruptive and intimidating and terrifying he must have been for opponents. To opposing offenses, he must have seemed like a cartoon villain, right?
And in the end, I can’t think of another Auburn defender from this decade with his combination of athleticism, power, and speed. He was a terror, through and through.
7. Quentin Groves, DE (2003-2007).
It’s one thing for Groves to have finished his Auburn career having tied with Gerald Robinson for the most sacks all-time in school history. That alone would have him pretty high up this list.
But even more significant is that Groves didn’t come by that record with one huge season. He was there in 2004, picking up four sacks and forcing two fumbles against Kentucky. He was there in 2005, helping remove various limbs from the body of poor Brodie Croyle. He was there in 2006, terrorizing Tim Tebow and serving as the unquestioned Iron Bowl MVP. And he was there in 2007, beginning the year by saving the Kansas St. win and ending it by doing this:
I’m not sure if that totally made up for his midseason injury and admission that he’d ignored defensive orders to chase the sack record … but it comes close.
8. Kendall Simmons, OT (1998-2001)
So Simmons only played two years in the Aughts, and he played them on the offensive line, quite possibly the least glamorous position on the entire field.
It doesn’t much matter when you make consensus first-team All-SEC both of those years, pave the way for one of the all-time great seasons by a running back (see below) and a divisional title, and emerge as the strongest member of a dominant 2000 line also featuring the likes of Monreko Crittenden and Ben Nowland.
9. Antonio Coleman, DE (2005-2009)
You can make an argument for Coleman ranking this high on his stats and honors alone, easily: his 24.5 career sacks (third-most all-time behind only Groves and Robinson), his back-to-back first-team All-SEC selections, his SEC-leading sack/TFL total in ’09 despite wearing a cast half the year, his three consecutive seasons spent leading Auburn in both sacks and TFLs.
But the most memorable moment of Coleman’s career, in my book, didn’t even come on the football field–it happened about this time last winter, when fellow defensive stars Jerraud Powers and Sen’Derrick Marks were in the process of leaving the listing Auburn ship for the NFL rather than take a chance on the Gene Chizik era, recruits were fleeing, the nation was laughing … and Coleman decided he’d come back and play his senior season for Auburn’s new coach. It’s been nothing but good news for Auburn since.
10. Ben Tate, RB (2006-2009)
I’ve already written a sonnet about him.
THE NEXT 10
11. Brandon Cox, QB (2003-2007).
Yeah, yeah, hate all you want. Dude won 20 games in two years, finished 29-9 as a starter, beat ‘Bama 3 times out of 3, beat Florida 2 times out of 2 (outplaying Leak the first time and Tebow the second), finished in Auburn’s all-time top five for career yardage (third), completions (third), completion percentage (fourth), and TDs (third), and was generally as clutch as clutch could get.
And oh yeah, dude did it all battling a degenerative muscle condition and taking an ungodly pounding behind 2006’s underachieving line and 2007’s bunch of freshmen. When he wasn’t behind one of those lines and had non-walk-on receivers to throw to, all he did was help turn the 2005 offense into one of the most explosive unit’s Auburn’s ever had.
Did we want more from Brandon Cox? Yes. Could he really have given us any more than he gave? Nope.
12. Courtney Taylor, WR (2002-2006)
As consistent a receiver as Auburn’s ever had, a four-year starter who finished with the Auburn record for career receptions, ranked fourth in yardage, and was the receiver-in-question for two of the biggest Auburn plays of the decade.
13. Rudi Johnson, RB (2000)
Only one season at Auburn, but what a hell of a season: 324 carries, 1,567 yards (second-most in a season at Auburn), 13 touchdowns, 10 different 100-yard games, SEC Player of the Year honors. Finally, the Auburn running back had made its emphatic return.
14. Dontarrious Thomas, LB (2000-2003)
Thomas set the standard for Auburn’s long line of tackling machines to come, leading the team with 122 tackles in 2001 as a sophomore and eventually tag-teaming with Dansby for a one-two All-SEC linebacking punch.
15. Ben Nowland, C (1999-2002).
The bridge between the dominant lines of 2000 and 2002, Nowland started 34 games at Auburn and was a Rimington finalist and consensus All-SEC player in 2002. Tre Smith’s big day–and, arguably, the entire 2002 upset– started with him.
16. Kenny Irons, RB (2005-2006)
Like Rudi, essentially a one-season wonder–or, in his case, a three-quarters-season wonder–but that one season ranks amongst the most exciting in Auburn history (1,293 yards, 12 TDs, unanimous All-SEC honors). And as easy as it is to forget his disappointing injury-riddled 2006 season, we shouldn’t–Irons still picked up 941 yards in 10 games and posted the most impressive 70-yard performance I’ve ever seen in the 7-3 war against LSU.
17. Tommy “T.J.” Jackson, NG (2002-2005)
If Rogers was the star of that 2004 defense, Jackson was its engine, finishing fourth on the team in tackles (and leading the defensive line in stops) despite playing nose guard. There would be more of the same in 2005 (as he led the d-line in tackles again), but it wasn’t anything new–Jackson had already picked up nine TFLs as a freshman, good for third on the team.
18. Stanley McClover, DE (2004-2005)
The Predator only played two years at Auburn and never became a full-time starter, since he only had one trick–crushing the quarterback. But holy hell, was that trick ever good: 7.5 sacks and 10 TFLs in 2004 (good for first-team All-SEC), 8 sacks and 13.5 TFLs in 2005.
19. Devin Aromashodu, WR (2002-2005)
Aromashodu doesn’t have the career stats of some of Auburn’s other leading wideouts–he doesn’t crack the program’s top 10 in receptions, yardage, or touchdowns–but no Tiger receiver this decade provided a bigger big-play threat. Aromashodu’s 24 receptions in 2004 averaged a whopping gain of 21.38 yards, a number that dipped only slightly to 19 yards even in 2005.
20. Will Herring, S/LB (2002-2006)
Stop with the snickering–if all you remember about Herring is his repeated gaffes at the end of the Tennessee and Va. Tech games in ’04, that’s a shame, because you should remember he a) started a school-record 49 consecutive games b) led the team in tackles for two straight years in 2005 and 2006 c) made second-team All-SEC both those seasons d) should have been playing linebacker the whole time. So other Auburn defenders might have been more athletically gifted (though not that many–Herring also wound up getting drafted in the fifth round, remember) or more prone to big plays; only a tiny select few contributed more to Auburn’s cause for longer than Herring.
This could go on for days, but here we go anyway, broken down by position. (These aren’t in any kind of order, by the way.)
QB: Ben Leard
WR: Ben Obomanu, Rod Smith, Tim Carter
FB: Heath Evans
OL: Danny Lindsey, Monreko Crittenden, Ben Grubbs, Tim Duckworth, Lee Ziemba, Ryan Pugh
DL: SenDerrick Marks, Demarco McNeil (just for the record: he’s No. 21), Wayne Dickens, Jay Ratliff
LB: Travis Williams, Antarrious Williams, Josh Bynes
DB: David Irons, Junior Rosegreen, Travaris Robinson
K/P: Damon Duval, Wes Byrum