On Sept. 4, 1999, more than five years removed from receiving my degree at Auburn, and just 13 months after marrying my wife – whose two degrees came from a non-football playing school and one that plays Division II ball in the northeast – I decided it was time to introduce her to real football. Auburn football.
My expectations weren’t high. It was Game 1 of the Tuberville era but a sure win was ahead. Appalachian State, eight years before the Mountaineers pulled off the Big Upset at the Big House, was going to be on the receiving end of a typical I-A vs. I-AA blowout to kick off the season.
So I hauled my wife midway up the upper deck. It should be noted that she was pregnant, too – like Sept. 21 our first child was born pregnant.
If you recall – and I hope you don’t – it wasn’t the experience I was her hoping her first experience would be. Not until the final minute when Ben Leard connected with minor league baseball player-turned freshman All-American receiver Ronney Daniels for a 38-yard score was Tuberville’s first win in the bag. And to this day, my wife, a North Carolina native, reminds me of the close call.
“I remember it,” Daniels recalled. “It was an out and up and Ben hit me.”
Thirty-eight yards and a not-so-scintillating 22-15 win – the first of a three-game winning streak, mind you – but not a scintillating season. The Tigers finished 5-6, but it was a step toward at least sharing the SEC West crown for five of the next six seasons.
So Daniels knows a little about comebacks. And he’s watched this year’s Auburn team pull off one rally after the next.
Daniels, who coaches slotbacks at Locust Grove High in Georgia (Karsten Bailey coaches receivers), said it took a little while, but when he was in Jordan-Hare Stadium to see Auburn beat LSU, he knew this team had something special brewing.
“When they played LSU in Auburn,” Daniels recalls. “LSU was playing good football, too. They were ranked high. I was at the game and saw how the defense stepped up, made the stops when they had to and I thought, ‘Man, Auburn, they got it.’ ”
Daniels had a monster season as a freshman. He caught 56 passes for 1,068 yards (an Auburn single-season record) and nine scores. No doubt, it was one of the single-best seasons – if not the best — for a receiver in Auburn history.
Daniels knows offense and he really likes what he sees.
“That’s when I tipped my hat off to (Gus Malzahn). He’s real good. He’s putting guys in good situations to succeed and the players are responding to everything they’re putting out there. They’re making big plays in big situations,” Daniels says. “If you have players doing that, that’s championship-type guys and I hope they go on and finish it off.”
In fact, you get the feeling Daniels wishes he was back in pads, lining up alongside Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery and Emory Blake.
“Oh man, I would have loved playing in (Malzahn’s) offense,” Daniels gushes. “What I definitely like about him is that he sticks with his gameplan regardless if they’re down 21-0 or winning 21-0. He sticks with the gameplan. That lets you know the type of coach he is. And don’t get me wrong, Cam Newton is making big plays week in and week out, too.”
No disrespect to Leard, but Daniels says he loves watching No. 2.
“Oh yeeeeah, I would have caught plenty of them balls (from Cam),” says Daniels. “He has a strong arm and he’s very accurate. I watched him and at first, I thought maybe he’s not a throwing quarterback. But he’s accurate – way more accurate than I first thought.
“A lot of times, he’ll throw a ball off his back foot and it will still be right there.”
And right there often is right between an 8 and a 9. Adams poses the biggest threat to Daniels’ record for receiving yards in a season. With 909 entering the BCS title game, Adams needs 160 – a little short of the 217 he piled up in the SEC championship game — to break the mark.
“I see a lot of similarities (between Leard-Daniels and Newton-Adams),” says Daniels. “You can tell that they trust each other. It’s the same way that Ben trusted me and he knew he could throw a ball in a certain spot and I would jump up and get it. I see the same thing with Cam and Adams. He throws it out there for him to make a play. You can tell that they have been working together. I saw times when Cam would throw it across the middle well before Adams would be there and you just see him show up in that area. I would just sit back and think, They’ve been working on that.”
It’s that type of communication and camaraderie that has Daniels believing the 2010 version of the Tigers can bring home Auburn’s first BCS title.
“The players are playing together. Everybody is doing their job. There’s nobody worrying about what the next man’s job is,” Daniels points out (after all, he is a coach now). The coaches are really communicating. The players bought into the coaches’ system. Everything is clicking. Everything is clicking.”
Ken Bradley is the senior editor at Sporting News. A 1994 Journalism graduate of Auburn University, he still proudly claims — somewhere in a box — an Auburn shirt declaring “Auburn, the Best Team on Radio” from the ’93 season. A journalist for more than 15 years, he worked at several media outlets, including an internship with the Birmingham News right out of college (and yes, was to Tuscaloosa) and a three-year stint at the Gainesville Sun where he was working the desk when Damon Duval booted “the kick” to beat the Gators and then again when Grossman-to-Jacobs ruined a (near) perfectly good comeback. He currently lives in Charlotte, N.C. with his wife and kids. Write to him at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter.
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