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Auburn players try not to buy into the hype

WashPost: Tigers dealing with heightened expectations, scrutiny
Auburn has built much of its offense around senior running back Kenny Irons, a Heisman Trophy candidateTodd J. Van Emst / AP
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Whenever defensive end Quentin Groves enters the team meeting room, he is reminded once again what Auburn has accomplished this year — or, more importantly, what it hasn't.

The morning newspapers might have, yet again, authoritatively reported on Auburn's rise to the top in yet another set of preseason rankings. There might be a small item highlighting the potential of, say, freshmen such as linebacker Craig Stevens or defensive back Zac Etheridge or a column on senior running back Kenny Irons's chances to win the Heisman Trophy.

But at the same time, Groves and his teammates choose not to believe the kind words.

"Our coaches tell us you can't buy into the hype," Groves said. "He brings us all the newspaper clippings about how great we're going to be and then he shows us our film to tell us how great we're not."

The clippings serve as reminders of high expectations, but Groves said the words are read, then tossed on the floor in favor of both the subtle and blatant mistakes made that day in practice.

"It's kind of like they build us up, tear us down, only to build us back up again," Groves said.

This year, much of Auburn's offense will be built around Irons. After being used as a backup at South Carolina, Irons transferred to Auburn in January 2004 and, in his first season with the Tigers last year, rushed for 1,293 yards and 13 touchdowns. He earned all-Southeastern Conference honors, and this year, his name has been mentioned for even bigger awards.

Irons's success is directly correlated with Auburn's ability to win.

"I'm looking for big things from Kenny," Coach Tommy Tuberville said during SEC media day. "We're a running team. We talk about quarterbacks and receivers. Our team is built on playing defense and running the football. Kenny has been a blessing for us to pick up running where Ronnie [Brown] and Carnell [Williams] left off."

Tuberville, who described Irons as a Deuce McAllister type of running back, said Irons will be helped by sophomore Brad Lester, senior Tre Smith and junior Carl Stewart, his backfield mates. But Auburn's success on offense mostly will depend on Irons and junior quarterback Brandon Cox given the Tigers' inexperienced receiving corps.

Wide receiver Courtney Taylor feels that Cox is ready to have a big year.

"He's been huge; he's just stepped up big-time for us," Taylor said. "I just like the way he's taken command of the huddle."

Taylor has missed parts of training camp because of knee problems after being limited by a sprained ankle for much of the 2005 season.

Tuberville believes Auburn's games are to be won with the running game and the defense, the latter of which has undergone some changes. Will Muschamp, a former defensive coordinator at Louisiana State who worked with the Miami Dolphins last year, steps in as the new defensive coordinator. The team's defensive line returns just one starter, senior end Marquies Gunn. Perhaps one of the biggest defensive changes is Will Herring's move from free safety to strong-side linebacker. Herring, a senior listed at 6 feet 3 and 221 pounds, will be counted on for leadership and experience.

In addition to the plaudits, Auburn's players are intent on ignoring on some of the less-flattering matters surrounding the team. In July, the New York Times reported that 18 players on Auburn's undefeated 2004 team took classes featuring independent-study coursework with the department's highest-ranking sociology professor. An investigation ensued. Earlier this month, Auburn cleared the athletic department of any wrongdoing.

"All that happened, nothing came of it and we've put that behind us," Cox said. "We're focusing on our season."

Then there were the alcohol-related suspensions of linebackers Tray Blackmon and Kevin Sears, who will, at the very least, not be playing in the team's opener against Washington State on Sept. 2.

Taylor said training camp has featured regular football and that any of the drama has been fairly simple to ignore. Cox said none of it has infiltrated the team.

"Nobody's mentioned it to us," Cox said. "If there is, then we don't notice it. We've been all about football. . . . We're up in the complex or the field the majority of the day so we don't hear anything."

Though the Tigers receive their fair share of cautions, Groves said that even if his coaches didn't highlight the compliments, he would probably still be aware of them.

"Every time you see your name, you want to read about it; every time you see Auburn, you want to read about it," Groves admitted.

But then, just as it has been repeated to him repeatedly, Groves continued: "But we try our best not to buy into the hype."