Commentary

Title is ancient history on The Plains

Originally Published: April 15, 2011
By Ivan Maisel | ESPN.com

AUBURN, Ala. -- Redshirt junior Barrett Trotter's answer is true at face value, and also as a metaphor.

"No," the Auburn quarterback said, "I am definitely not wearing No. 2."

They wasted no time on The Plains. The crystal football is already on display in the Rane Room of the Auburn Athletic Complex. The football rests atop its inscribed pedestal in a towering wood-and-glass case that looks as if it didn't exactly come unassembled from Ikea.

Let us hope that the memory of that unexpected run to the national championship still resonates among the fans, some 50,000 of whom will be in Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday for the Tigers' spring game. The team they will see will resemble the 2010 team that went 14-0 in uniform only.

[+] EnlargeBarrett Trotter
AP Photo/Dave MartinDefending national champion Auburn announced that Barrett Trotter would be its starting quarterback.

Trotter, No. 14, is battling redshirt sophomore Clint Moseley, No. 15, to replace the aforementioned No. 2, Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton. He is gone, as is Outland Trophy winner Nick Fairley. Head coach Gene Chizik can't remember whether Auburn has lost 30 or 31 scholarship players from last season. At that amount, it really doesn't matter.

There are three returning starters on defense. There are three on offense. Even the kicker and holder are new. The coaches put a good face on it. Coaches love spring ball because they get to teach. The Auburn staff this spring has had fun.

"You almost went back to zero, square one, with Football 101," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said.

Which brings to mind one of the best football anecdotes ever told. Legendary Notre Dame coach Frank Leahy used to start every season with a team meeting. "Gentlemen," he would say, holding the object of his attention aloft, "this is a football."

One year, lineman Ziggy Czarobski interrupted. "Hold it, Coach. Not so fast!"

That's about where Auburn began the spring. The defense, Roof said, will be "sophomores backed up by freshmen." The Southeastern Conference tends to favor juniors and seniors.

Including walk-ons, snappers, backup kickers and every other supporting role extant, Auburn lists 16 seniors. One of them, corner Neiko Thorpe, has started 27 games, only two fewer than the rest of the seniors combined. Only four others have started, period. And Thorpe is moving from corner to free safety this season.

By default, Thorpe will be a leader. Senior offensive tackle Brandon Mosley will lead. So, too, will junior tailback Onterio McCalebb, who split time last season with Michael Dyer, the offensive MVP of the BCS Championship Game. Chizik said junior corner T'Sharvan Bell, who made all of three starts last season, "has come on as a vocal leader and tried to become that guy."

Everyone knows that leadership is important. Bell, who has a quick smile and an engaging way about him, explained why.

"Just trying to teach the guys," Bell said, "inform them what it's going to be like, what kind of things you're going to see with 90,000 [people in the stands], versus just out here in practice and trying to act like you're in a game."

At practice Monday, Bell heard freshman corner Jonathan Rose call out the defensive signal, "Read." Rose repeated it. Bell all but rolled his eyes.

"I said, 'Rose, they're not gonna hear you. [With] 90,000 people, you can open your mouth and a lot of times they're not gonna hear you even if you're yelling at the top of your lungs. You better give some kind of signal."

Bell put his hands up, as if he were reading from a hymnal.

"There's no substitute for it," Bell said, referring to an SEC Saturday. "You got to be out there and experience it. It's a whole different ball game."

Rose, by the way, enrolled in January. He made every list of top recruits in the state of Alabama. He is a marquee member of a freshman class that Chizik expects to contribute this season. Rose is 17 years old. That's your defending national champion. That's why Bell, asked to described the defensive huddle this spring, called it "Puppyville."

[+] EnlargeT'Sharvan Bell
Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRET'Sharvan Bell, who started just three games last season, will be counted on as a leader this season.

Bell can lead, three starts or not, because he knows he's going to play. But so many jobs are open that it's difficult for even the older guys to step forward until they know they will be in the lineup.

Trotter resides in that middle ground. He may be there for a while. Chizik preempted any inquiry regarding a decision about a starter. "My answer is always, 'We're going to name a starting quarterback when we're ready to,'" the head coach said. "And there's no timeline on that."

So Trotter works. And waits. And tries to lead.

"You think, 'I'm not the guy yet.' But you have to try and be that guy, try and be that leader so the coaches know that you can do it," Trotter said. "There is some reservation. I don't want to be too overbearing on the other guys when I'm not the starter yet."

Chizik and Roof both said that the coaches have stepped in as leaders this spring. Spring football ends Monday. The players must take over as leaders on Tuesday. They must organize the summer workouts. They must goad each other into improving between April and August. The coaches will worry. And they will wait.

"The reality of it is," Chizik said, "this time next year, you're going to see a lot more leadership because there will be some defined roles out there that aren't necessarily solidified right now."

It appears as though Auburn will be fortunate to win enough games to make a bowl. Of course, a year ago, no one predicted there would be a crystal football in the Rane Room. Three months after the Tigers won it, the trophy represents ancient history.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com and hosts the ESPNU College Football podcast. Send your questions and comments to him at Ivan.Maisel@ESPN.com.

Ivan Maisel | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com