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Auburn assistant coach Joe Whitt visits Atmore Auburn Club

By By Lori Dann
Advance Managing Editor
Joe Whitt is in his 20th year as an assistant coach at Auburn University.
During that time, he has seen four head coaches and dozens of assistants come and go. In fact, since Pat Dye came to Auburn from Wyoming in 1981, Whitt has been the only constant on the staff, the only coach to survive the turmoil of the Dye to Bowden to Oliver to Tuberville eras.
Because of that fact, Whitt has earned the gratitude and admiration of Auburn fans for his loyalty. Last week, during a visit to Atmore to speak to the Escambia County Auburn Club, Whitt said there is a reason for his loyalty.
Whitt knows Auburn fans are anxious to turn their football fortunes around. After back-to-back losing seasons (3-8 in 1998 and 5-6 in 1999), there is quiet optimism that the turnaround could begin this year with an improved offense.
Quarterback Ben Leard was breaking school and conference records before he was injured last season, throwing backup Jeff Klein into the fire with no running game. Leard is healthy again and looking better than ever, according to Whitt. Junior college transfer Daniel Cobb also had an impressive spring.
Regardless of who is calling the signals, one area where the Tigers need immediate improvement is the rushing game. Auburn's ground game was virtually non-existent for much of last season. This year, the Tigers have moved Heath Evans to fullback and are expected to start JUCO transfer Rudi Johnson at tailback. Another newcomer, Casinious Moore, has also been impressive but is still just 85 percent as he recovers from a knee injury.
A big key to the team's offensive success will be line play. The offensive line struggled through injuries a year ago and there are still several question marks due to Cole Cubelic's ankle injury. Right now, Whitt said, the line would include Ben Nowland at center, backed up by Cubelic, Colin Sears or Mike Pucillo and Tim Castro on the right side and Hart McGarry and Kendall Simmons on the left. If he can recover from a recent gunshot wound, Lorenzo Diamond will be the starting tight end.
In addition to Diamond, receiver Deandre Green and defensive back Brandon Reed have had off-season troubles, and both are currently suspended from the team. The two were arrested for firing a gun at a party in an attempt to break up a fight. Reed later turned himself in for stealing a teammate's debit card and using it illegally.
Green was perhaps the biggest star of Auburn's spring practice, earning offensive MVP honors at A-Day, and was expected to give the Tigers a deadly 1-2 receiving threat with Ronney Daniels. Whitt said he is hopeful that will still be the case this fall.
On the other side of the ball, Auburn has a number of holes to fill and will be extremely young.
There is a lot of uncertainty up front, and perhaps the biggest opportunity for young players like Demarco McNeil of Blount to make an impact. The spring depth chart had Roderick Chambers and Josh Weldon listed as the tackles and Whit Smith, Reggie Torbor and Derek Magwood as the top ends.
Two big junior college transfers, Alton Moore of Bay Minette and Javor Mills, are also expected to make an impact on the defensive line.
As Auburn's linebackers coach, Whitt gets a little more excited when he talks about a hard-hitting group of linebackers which should be the strength of this year's defensive unit. They are led by James Callier, who is returning from a back injury, Alex Lincoln and Tavarreus Pounds.
The secondary is led by veterans Rob Pate at rover, Rodney Crayton and Larry Casher at cornerback, along with Rashaud Walker at the whip position.
Auburn coaches are hopeful that incoming freshman Ned Yost will be able to handle the placekicking duties, allowing Damon Duval to concentrate on punting only.
The key to that improvement, of course, is recruiting.
Whitt said there are several projects in the works at Auburn which should help with recruiting from a facilities standpoint. One is a locker room project which he said will be "second to none." The project will include a recruiting lounge which prospects can visit during their recruiting trips. He said the project is expected to be finished by the end of the fall.
A new weight room is also in the works, with construction starting this summer, and another indoor facility with a full football field will also be built.
Whitt is considered one of Auburn's top recruiters. The Mobile native has snagged some prize Escambia County players over the years including Ron Middleton, Lee Mark Sellers, Anthony Redmon and Bob Meeks. He continues to recruit south Alabama.
Following his speech, Whitt mingled with the local Auburn supporters and urged them to "keep the faith."