For all the talk of who would take the reins as Auburn's starting quarterback, or how well Ben Tate might fare in an offense that maximizes his downhill strengths, or how solid Auburn's defensive line might be, the most pressing question likely facing the Tigers as they prepare for the 2009 season has largely been ignored.
How will Clark Pearson perform?
Don't scramble for your Tiger depth charts. You won't find Pearson there. He is the first-year head football trainer for Auburn.
Pearson, who comes to Auburn after four years as head trainer for the University of Wisconsin, replaces Arnold Gamber who served in that role for all 10 years of former coach Tommy Tuberville's tenure.
It will be Pearson's job to keep the Auburn players healthy, hydrated, properly taped, and protected, all while being able to remain in the game.
Given Auburn's paper-thin depth at several critical positions, Pearson's ability to keep the starters on the field may matter more than the play offensive coordinator Gus Malzhan signals in or the alignment defensive coordinator Ted Roof selects.
Take a look at Auburn's linebacker corps for evidence of Pearson's value to the team.
Juco signee Eltoro Freeman, expected to contribute immediately, has been spotted with a cast on his hand but is sitting out for what coaches term a "tweaked hamstring."
If Freeman is ready when the season kicks off, Auburn's starting three is fairly solid. Freeman (weak side), Craig Stevens (strong side), and Josh Bynes (middle) match up with virtually any unit in the league.
Behind that, though, the dropoff is potentially precipitous.
Spencer Pybus, a sophomore, is the only reserve who logged any significant playing time last season. He's battling injuries and his availability is questionable.
Freeman's potential backup, Gaston Harris, is a true freshman, who in any relatively normal situation should be redshirted. He'll likely be thrust into action early.
Another true freshman, the undersized Jonathan Evans, would also likely benefit from a redshirt year Auburn probably won't have the luxury to grant.
Adam Herring, a sophomore, was expected to provide quality minutes, but he missed the spring and as of Aug. 10 was still being held out of drills.
True freshman Dee Ford, who never played in a stand-up position in his career, was moved from defensive end to linebacker temporarily to help shore up the position. If he is on the field at linebacker, it's only because the Tigers are out of options.
Linebacker isn't the only position at which Auburn has depth issues.
The offensive line boasts four quality starters, but little experience behind them. None of the potential backups have logged significant playing time.
The defensive backfield is another serious concern.
When safety Mike McNeil broke his leg in the spring, it left only Mike Slade and Drew Cole to vie for playing time opposite veteran Zac Etheridge.
The somewhat unexpected defection of cornerback Jerraud Powers to the NFL after the 2008 season put another hole in the Tigers' secondary.
Auburn has only four cornerbacks on scholarship. Only two of those, Neikro Thorpe and Walter McFadden, have started a game in the SEC.
D'Antoine Hood and T'Sharvan Bell have shuttled back and forth between safety and corner in order to have capable backups prepared.
Wide receiver Harry Adams has also logged practice time with the defensive backfield.
Juco transfer Demond Washington and true freshman Daren Bates have both made significant strides and are expected to see plenty of action.
Auburn's first 22, particularly if McNeil and Freeman are ready week-to-week, can go toe-to-toe with anyone in the SEC. It's what happens should one of those first stringers be lost for a game or more that invokes concern.
Alabama rode a relatively injury-free surge to an undefeated regular season a year ago. When the Tide did have injury issues, they came against teams (Tulane) that kept them from being completely exposed.
It was still telling how poorly the Tide performed when one or more of those starters was lost to injury or suspension.
Not to say Auburn's starting 22 are capable of an undefeated season, but for Auburn to meet its own expectations, the Tigers must remain relatively injury free.
That's how trainer Clark Pearson can be the Tigers' most valuable player—just by staying on the sidelines and never being needed.
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