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MONDAY, DECEMBER 18, 2006
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Auburn freshman linemen Lee Tillery, left, and Greg Smith compete in drills as the Tigers prepare for the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1. Even though they won’t play in the game, freshmen like Tillery and Smith gain experience during bowl workouts.
AP photo by Todd J. Van Emst
Auburn freshman linemen Lee Tillery, left, and Greg Smith compete in drills as the Tigers prepare for the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 1. Even though they won’t play in the game, freshmen like Tillery and Smith gain experience during bowl workouts.

Young guns get a chance (in practice)
Auburn’s first-year players make use of bowl workouts

By Bradley Handwerger
bhandwerger@decaturdaily.com· 340-2462

AUBURN — You’re not going to be able to point out Tim Hawthorne on the Cotton Bowl playing surface Jan. 1.

You also won’t find Bart Eddins, Neil Caudle, Mario Fannin or Michael Goggins.

In fact, the first time any of those players or 15 others will have a chance to step onto a field for real football game action will come next fall, when the 2007 season gets under way.

No. 10 Auburn (10-2) will play No. 22 Nebraska (9-4) in the Cotton Bowl in two weeks, but for 20 freshmen, the next two weeks will be spent preparing for the next four years.

This is their redshirt season, one for learning and growing.

“I saved a year,” said Hawthorne, a highly touted receiver in the 2006 signing class. “I didn’t lose a year of eligibility. I got better. I got stronger. I got smarter. I got a whole lot better and faster.

“It’s something that’s a bonus.”

Hawthorne isn’t alone in realizing the importance of sitting out a year to grow and get better.

Fellow 2006 signee Mario Fannin, one of the top recruits in the class, is more than happy he sat out this past season.

“It’s gotten me stronger and faster,” Fannin said. “I’ve developed more as an athlete overall. At first, I didn’t like it. I look back on it now and I’m glad I did it.”

That’s not to say the experience wasn’t tough.

After all, many of the 20 who are sitting out this season came to Auburn following a prep career in which they were the main players on their teams.

“Now you’re not playing at all and you’re just practice and not getting to show what you can do in the game,” Fannin said. “The game is the test. We practice and practice and then there’s no test to prove.”

Fannin and Hawthorne can look no further than teammate and former Decatur High standout Jerraud Powers for inspiration.

Powers redshirted a year ago. This year as a redshirt freshman, he did more than contribute — he was on the field in all of Auburn’s big games.

He filled in for starting cornerback Jonathan Wilhite against LSU when Wilhite tweaked his hamstring in the second quarter.

In a win against South Carolina, he recovered a crucial onsides kick, and in a win against Florida, he blocked the punt that changed the game.

And he wouldn’t give his redshirt year back for anything.

“It helps a lot,” Powers said. “When you first come to campus, like last year, I was going against (receiver) Courtney Taylor. I was like, ‘Dang. I just saw him go undefeated.’ ”

He added, “Just going against guys that have been playing and veterans helping you out, and then the next year comes around, it’s not new to you.”

Hawthorne understands that.

In fact, even though it upset him at first that he wouldn’t play this season, his role grew on him.

“It probably was the best thing for me,” Hawthorne said. “I really can’t tell right now because I haven’t played yet, but, I mean, I think, going into next season, I’ve got a greater feel of the offense and everything else. It’s not like I’m a rookie.

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