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Countdown: Reloading at LB

AUBURN – Linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are gone, taking the experience that came from starting a combined 80 games with them. No one questions that they’ll be missed.

Daren Bates returns for his third season as a starter.

But the Tigers are not without weapons and not without experience at linebacker as they head toward Wednesday’s opening of preseason practice.

Junior Daren Bates returns for his third season as a starter and second as a starting linebacker. He’s not buying the gloom and doom talk.

“It doesn’t bother me at all,” Bates said. “People don’t see what kind of players we have out there and the competitors we have coming in. I think we are going to be real good, a lot better than what people think.”

Bates, junior Jonathan Evans and senior Eltoro Freeman are set to show the way on the outside. Sophomore Jake Holland, who played in nine games as Bynes’ backup last season, is the heir apparent in the middle. Freeman also will work in the middle.

Freeman signed out of Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College in 2009 as one of the nation’s top prospects. He had a bumpy two seasons on and off the field, but Roof says he likes what he sees.

“He had a good spring and he’s taken care of business off the field,” Roof said. “He’s really turned things around. I can’t tell you how proud I am of that kid. I think he’s going to have a big year.”

Behind those four, sophomore Harris Gaston, redshirt freshman Jawara White, senior walk-on Ashton Richardson and true freshmen Justin Garrett and Chris Landrum will compete for playing time. True freshman Kris Frost, who had shoulder surgery last week, could get into the mix when he returns.

The big question that must be answered is who will emerge to join the top four.

“We’re going to have to play young guys, probably including some freshmen,” Roof said. “You’d like to not have to do that, but that’s where we are. It’s not a surprise.”

Holland says he and other relatively young linebackers won’t back down, not in practice and not when the season begins.

“I think what is going through fans’ and other people’s minds is that we are young,” Holland said. “But I think our athletic ability takes over. I don’t think it’s a rebuilding year at all.”

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