Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Not necessary to add the insults here, we're just into injuries

I want a refund. Pre-season is supposed to be a magical time spent dreaming of sugar plums, SEC titles, undefeated seasons, Vandy ripping the Tide by 30 and Bobby Johnson and saying "This one's for the beat writers" afterwards ... you know, all the usual things.

But Auburn's pre-season to date has been less about players making breakthroughs on the practice field and more about, well, players just breaking, period. You could call it a MASH unit, but at this point, that's selling it short. It's more like a MASH ... brigade? MASH platoon? MASH battalion?

We'll go with that. The always handy Phillip Marshall handily catalogued Auburn's entire MASH battalion after Tuesday evening's practice, and it's not pretty. I'm not sighing and daydreaming about Tray Blackmon hitting Blake Mitchell so hard in Atlanta Dec. 1 Spurrier's visor falls off by itself anymore; I'm worried we're going to end up asking Michigan St. if we can borrow their concert pianist (he's like Rudy, sort of, but he plays piano and starts) to fill out the linebacking rotation.

But at least that worry can be put to good reasonable somewhat questionable use: namely, a list of which of Auburn's many injuries has me most worried. You could say it's a ranking of the ones I think are most important to the team, but it's really just about which has done the most harshing on my treasured preseason mellow. Your worry may vary.

Ranked from least to most worrying:

15. Steve Ensminger, shoulder. I'm sure his injury was painful and I'm glad he's already back at practice. But this also a shoulder injury to the de facto fifth-string quarterback who's already back at practice. I just seriously doubt that if the season goes off the rails, Tubby's going to look back and say, "The turning point was when Ensminger missed that week of practice ... it was all downhill from there."

14. Kyle Coulahan, broken finger. DT is a sore point right now, but not so much an injury that didn't keep a true freshman who only just switched from o-line to d-line out a few days is going to have me tossing and turning in my bed all night.

13. Montez Billings, hamstring. A could-go-at-any-time injury like a bad hammy is a problem for speed-merchant WRs like Billings, but Auburn has approximately 27 other highly-touted speed merchant WRs on the roster. Sucks for Billings, but I doubt he'll be missed too terribly much even if he doesn't recover fully.

12. Ryan Shoemaker, unknown. Even though Tubby his own self said Shoemaker got PWNED by Wes Byrum in punt practice yesterday, I'll still wager he ends up Auburn's starting punter when Byrum wins the PK job. Even so, if his injury isn't even serious enough for Marshall to name it, it's not that serious.

11. Jermarcus Ricks, hamstring. That it's a hamstring isn't good news (you'll hear that a lot on this list) and that's why he ranks above Coulahan, but he's back at work already, at least.

10. Gabe McKenzie, hamstring. Apparently not too bad a pull since he's practicing again, and Auburn has a flotilla of tight ends to deploy ... but this is the first guy on the list who's presence will be decisively missed if he's not available.

9. Bo Harris, shoulder. No, nowhere near as good a player at this point as McKenzie ... but AU's nowhere near as deep at linebacker as they are at tight end, and Harris was being talked up at the head of the non-Craig Stevens freshman LB corps.

8. Jason Bosley, knee. Just typing "Jason Bosley, knee" sent shudders down the ol' spine. Just a scare, supposedly, but it's not the type of scare to go away easily.

7. Merrill Johnson, knee. That Auburn's second-best linebacker continuing to struggle with what seems to be an unending and unnerving series of setbacks only ranks as my seventh biggest injury concern should tell you how miserable Auburn's injury bug has been the last two weeks.

6. Leon Hart, ankle. I'm confident the AU offensive line will hold together. But it just won't be possible if guys like Bosley and Hart (who will be counted on sooner rather than later even if he doesn't hold onto his starting guard position) aren't able to go. Tyronne Green also missed practice Wednesday, meaning Marshall ended up reporting this:
The No. 1 line in the first period of 11-on-11 included Ziemba and King Dunlap at tackles, Isom and Mike Berry at guards and Jason Bosley at center.
If you're keeping track, Tiger fans, that's one true freshman and two redshirt freshmen on the current healthy first-team line. I ... I, uh ... I think I'd better go lie down for a while. Don't feel so good all of a sudden.

5. Neil Caudle, separated shoulder. All right, now we're into the injuries that just make me go AW GOSH DAMN IT TO HELL every time I read about them. Caudle's injury isn't so bad on its own merits. So AU loses one of three virtually equal potential backups to a guy who's missed one hand's worth of snaps in two seasons. The problem is Kodi Burns. He's got prospects. He's bona fide. I for one want my four full years of Burns more than ever ... and an injured Caudle only brings that redshirt one step closer to incineration.

4. Tez Doolittle, torn Achilles. Out for year. Along with Gandy's forced retirement, the cruelest injury by far on the list. But as strong a year as Doolittle might have jad and as big a part as he'd have played in the rotation, he'd still have been a second-stringer behind Thompson and Pat Sims. The situation couldn't possibly blow any more than it does from Doolittle's standpoint, but the team's probably still a little better off than if it had been one of the starters. Like, say ...

3. Steve Gandy, concussions. Career over. The last line of defense between the Auburn linebacking corps and the Invasion of the Freshmen, and it's gone.

2. Carl Stewart, hamstring. The worst hamstring injury of the bunch, and of course it belongs to the most irreplaceabele guy on the offense in my oh-so-humble opinion other than Cox himself. Every metaphor you've ever heard regarding glue that holds a team together or a player who makes his team tick or does all the little things apply to Stewart. If that hammy flares up again in mid-season (as hammys are wont to do), a big chunk of what Auburn's offense will want to will go right to the locker room with him. The guy's a senior. I would be just fine, myself, with Stewart taking his sweet, sweet time in rehab and coming back ... oh, let's say about 30 minutes before the Kansas St. kickoff.

1. Tristan Davis, broken toe. Kickoffs have never been more important than they will be in 2007, both across the NCAA and at Auburn: Davis was the one special teams weapon Auburn had, the one trump card they could play when it comes to flipping field position, finding extra yards, grabbing or stopping momentum with a big special teams play. Byrum and Shoemaker may be satisfactory, but they will not be weapons. Unless Fannin is even better than his early reviews, Auburn's special teams are officially the team's biggest vulnerability until Davis returns ... and depending on how that toe heals, could continue to be even afterward.

p.s. I know Tubby seems unfazed by the injury list and maybe I'm exaggerating the severity here, but a) from the coaching standpoint, it's always better for the confidence of the replacements to hand them a lollipop and tell them they're just as good as the guys they're subbing for b) would we even be fans if we didn't worry excessively about these sorts of things? c) lists and rankings = fun.

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