Aug. 9, 2013
Dee Ford says leadership is crucial on and off the field (Todd Van Emst photo)
By Phillip Marshall
AUBURN, Ala. - For the Auburn signing class of 2010, success came so quickly that it was easy to believe that their college football experience was going to be one celebration after another.
Analysts said their class was filled with future stars. And on Jan. 10, 2011, less than a year after most of them signed, the confetti rained down on their heads at University of Phoenix Stadium as they celebrated the 2010 national championship. All was right in their world.
But they would be tested over the next three years in ways they couldn't have imagined. Some didn't make it, moving on to play elsewhere. Two died in the tragic summer of 2012. Three others gave away their football careers and their freedom. Two years after the halcyon days of a 14-0 championship season, they had to deal with a 3-9 record that brought wholesale changes.
Quarterback Cam Newton and offensive tackle Brandon Mosley, junior college transfers, moved on to the NFL. Defensive end Corey Lemonier followed them after last season.
Tempered by adversity, 10 players from Class of 2010, joined by fifth-year defensive ends Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae and transfer H-back Jay Prosch, prepare now for their final Auburn journey. Six of their fellow signees redshirted and are fourth-year juniors.
In Gus Malzahn's first season as head coach, it is the mission of all those seniors to leave Auburn football like they found it.
"Every senior class, one thing they remember is their last year," defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker says. "It is so important for me and my classmates to put Auburn back where it needs to be."
Defensive end Nosa Eguae says Auburn's seniors proudly carry the hopes and dreams of Auburn people everywhere into their final season.
"We are family," Eguae says. "When I see somebody and they talk about last year, it's something that hurts everybody. It doesn't just hurt the players. It hurts the fans, the support staff, everybody. We just want to make sure we go out and end this one the right note. We have a good group of seniors, and we are looking forward to making that happen."
Defensive end Dee Ford is the only Auburn player who played back in 2009. He was redshirted in 2011 after suffering a back injury in the season's third game. Malzahn, he says, has challenged Auburn's seniors to show the way for their younger teammates, to share their experiences.
"It not only pushes me to be a better person on the field, but in my life," Ford says. "To be that leader, you have to live up to what you want them to do. Anything you want them to be in the future, you have to do that. It really puts a sense of urgency on what I do every day.
"Coach Malzahn is a no-nonsense guy. He came in and told us what to expect. It was the nicest way I've heard anybody say `Your first screwup you are gone.' You had to believe him, and respect it. He's not joking."
Through it all, Auburn's seniors have grown as close as brothers. Their shared mission will be with them for years after they are gone.
"It's a special bond," Whitaker says. "When we came in, we were one of the top rated classes. A lot of guys have been here and there. A lot of guys have left. Nosa and Dee have been here, what, about seven years? There is an awesome bond."
The leadership started to show in wake of the numbing disappointment of last season. Auburn players attacked strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell's offseason program with a new fervor.
"The 2012 season was just in the dumps," defensive end Craig Sanders says, "but it was a good thing and a bad thing. It was a bad season, but the bad season just fueled our offseason. It's just carried over into fall camp. Everybody is just buying in and the team is coming together. It's going to be a great year."
The challenges ahead are daunting. Three Auburn opponents - Alabama, Georgia and Texas A&M - are ranked in the top six in the preseason coaches' poll. LSU is No. 13.
"We've had some ups and downs, the best and the worst," linebacker Jake Holland says. "We know what we have to do."
Whitaker says Auburn's seniors reject the notion that this is a year for rebuilding. It is, he says, a year for winning.
"This is not a rebuilding year or anything like that," Whitaker says. "You want to leave the impression on Auburn people that you paid your dues and gave your all."
Auburn's scholarship seniors:
Jake Holland: Competing for starting position at middle linebacker or weakside linebacker.
Dee Ford: Starter at defensive end.
Chris Davis: Starting cornerback.
Demetruce McNeal: Competing for starting spot at safety.
Jeffrey Whitaker: Competing for starting spot at defensive tackle.
Ryan White: Holder and backup cornerback.
Ryan Smith: Competing for playing time at safety.
Craig Sanders: Reserve defensive end.
Nosa Eguae: Competing for starting spot at defensive end.
Kenneth Carter: Competing for starting spot at defensive end.
Cody Parkey: Starting place-kicker.
Steven Clark: Starting punter.
Jay Prosch: Starting H-back.
Phillip Marshall is a Senior Writer for AuburnTigers.com. Follow Marshall on Twitter: