Four years after faxing his national letter of intent to the Plains, Shon Coleman is getting his first shot at a starting job for Auburn.
He is locked in a position battle with rising junior Patrick Miller to be the first-team left tackle for the Tigers, who are looking to replace potential top-five NFL draft pick Greg Robinson.
Although the former 4-star offensive lineman from Olive Branch, Miss., will graduate from school in May, Coleman will enter Auburn's upcoming season as a redshirt sophomore—the mark of a battle that dwarfs one for the top spot on a depth chart.
Four years before the start of Auburn's current spring camp, Coleman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
The life-threatening disease kept the Class of 2010 signee from enrolling at Auburn until January 2011 and away from football for two full years.
But toward the end of spring practices in 2012, Coleman was cleared by his doctors at St. Jude Children's Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., to practice for the first time as an Auburn Tiger.
He still had to work back up to the size and strength that made him one of the nation's most prized offensive line prospects over the next year-and-a-half, but he finished the Tigers' 2013 fall camp as Robinson's backup at left tackle.
In Auburn's game against Arkansas State last September, Coleman's three-and-a-half year journey from cancer patient to active college football player was complete when he stepped onto the field for his first in-game action.
“It’s great to see a guy that’s battled cancer come back and have a shot to start in the SEC,” Auburn left guard Alex Kozan said. “He’s been through some real hard stuff, and to come back and be able to do the things he’s done is impressive.”
But the 6'6", 310-pound Coleman is more than just an inspiration to Kozan and the rest of his teammates on Auburn's offensive line. He is now a serious contender for a position on one of the most experienced units in the SEC.
“The thing about Shon is he’s got really long arms, which help him out a lot,” Kozan said. “He can make a mistake, but even with that, because of his athleticism and his body, it allows him to catch up on that. So it’s great playing next to him, for sure.”
After several appearances in Auburn's SEC championship season and a golden opportunity to take over a starting job, Coleman has his eyes on more milestones—a return to the national championship and a career in the NFL.
"I have a dream that I work to every day, and I just work toward that goal," Coleman said. "If I’m blessed enough to get in that position, then it’ll happen."
Coleman says he wants to follow in the footsteps of run-block specialist Greg Robinson, who dazzled scouts when he bench-pressed 225 pounds 32 times and ran the 40-yard dash in 4.92 seconds in this year's NFL combine.
However, some of Coleman's teammates say the redshirt sophomore is better than Robinson in certain physical aspects of offensive line play.
"Shon is one of the toughest run-setters I’ve ever seen in my life," defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. "It’s like hitting a brick wall with a hammer. If you ever thought Greg was strong, Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg."
Although Auburn coaches and players say the race between Coleman and Miller for Robinson's old spot is still even through the first two weeks of practice, Coleman seems to have made a major impression on the Tigers so far this spring.
"He did a solid job for us when he got in last year," Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. "Now, he's fighting for a starting position. You can see the urgency's there. He definitely looks like the guy that we recruited four years ago, when he was healthy."
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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