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Starting over up front

AUBURN – Experience matters in college football. And it matters most at the line of scrimmage, where its man against man, where physical dominance is the goal.

Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes/Phillip Marshall photo

“It’s like a fistfight,” center Ryan Pugh, who finished his Auburn career last season, said last season. “It’s brutal.”

As Gene Chizik heads into his third season as Auburn’s head coach, the Tigers will defend their national title without nine players who either started or played significant roles in the BCS National Championship Game.

Finding answers on both sides of the line of scrimmage is a priority as the Tigers move into their second week of spring practice.

Offensive linemen Lee Ziemba, Mike Berry, Byron Isom and Pugh are gone. So are defensive tackles Nick Fairley, Zach Clayton and Mike Berry, along with defensive ends Antoine Carter and Michael Goggans.

Even with the departure of the guts of one of the top offensive lines in Auburn history, there is some experience to draw on. Senior left tackle Brandon Mosley started 10 games at left tackle last season as a junior college transfer, moving into the lineup after senior A.J. Greene was lost for the season with a leg injury. Greene is back at right tackle. Fifth-year senior Jared Cooper, looking to be a starter for the first time is running first-team at left guard.

At center, sophomore Blake Burgess and true freshman Reese Dismukes are competing for the starting job. Junior John Sullen, who got significant playing time early last season, is at right guard.

Behind those players are redshirt freshman class of highly regarded signees trying to learn their way.

Cooper has waited for his chance. He says he’s determined not to waste the opportunity.

“It’s been a long time coming,” Cooper said. “It’s small things every day. We’re not talking about the grand goals. We’re taking little steps right now. I feel like I’m playing pretty well. Obviously, there are a lot of things to get better on. It’s a little different to step up to the starting role, but it’s something I can get used to.”

Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes says the competition that comes from the loss of four starters is a good thing. Losing the game experience they took with them is not.

“You have to spend some extra time,” Grimes said. “There is nothing that can substitute for real game experience, but you can do as much as you can to build in as many reps as you can to try to get them ready. You put them in as many different situations as you can.”

On the other side of the ball, the lack of experience is most critical at defensive tackle. Sophomores Jeff Whitaker and Kenneth Carter are the leading candidates to be the starters after playing reserve roles as true freshmen last season.

“They are working hard and really trying to come on,” Chizik said. “The nature of that position really entails that you have to get down in there and get dirty and get the experience. That is a different world. You have guys coming at you from everywhere. You have people coming at you from everywhere, blockers from the left and blockers from the right.”

At defensive end, sophomore Nosa Eguae returns after starting 10 games last season. Sophomore Corey Lemonier and junior Dee Ford were significant players last season. Sophomore Craig Sanders was a special teams star.

First-year defensive line coach Mike Pelton says he knows only one way to deal with the youth he sees on the field.

“We are young, but we have talent,” Pelton said. “We just have some young champions we have to build. I think they are eager. I think they are talented. We just have to get them to grow up this spring.”

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