Auburn’s Blackmon hoping for breakout year

Published 6:19 pm Friday, August 22, 2008

AUBURN – Tray Blackmon really believes it this time: 2008 will be his breakout season.

No more waiting. No more questions.

No. 10 Auburn’s much talked about linebacker believes he will finally match his statistics to the hype that heralded his arrival on campus three years ago. Blackmon’s career so far has been most notable for a smattering of eye-catching plays and games, with two suspensions and an ankle injury thrown in.

He might be a little tired of the subject, but he also understands why people wonder if he’s finally ready to be a star.

“I really don’t pay too much attention to it,” Blackmon, a second-team preseason All-SEC pick, said. “But in a way they’re really kind of right. I’ve had stumbling blocks all along the way. This year’s starting off right. Everything’s starting off good.

“This seems like the year. There’s just something in the air that makes this year feel special.”

The former Parade All-American has certainly shown flashes demonstrating why he arrived at Auburn as one of coach Tommy Tuberville’s most heralded recruits. He returned from an ankle injury last season to spearhead a defensive swarm that limited Darren McFadden, Felix Jones and Arkansas to 67 rushing yards.

The hard-hitting 6-footer had nine tackles, including six solo stops in the game and was the Southeastern Conference defensive player of the week. And the ankle injury? That came on his 49-yard interception return in the opener.

As a redshirt freshman, he returned from a six-game suspension to force a key fumble in his debut against Florida.

“It’s more instinct and heart, that’s all that is,” he said of those timely plays. “A lot of times if you really really want to make a play, nine times out of 10 you’re going to end up making it. That’s all it is.”

Blackmon’s early troubles stemmed from off-the-field-behavior. His first suspension followed an arrest for underage drinking. Then he was suspended for the Cotton Bowl for undisclosed reasons.

Last season, Blackmon steered clear of trouble and had 45 tackles, more than double his previous totals.

Not quite good enough for a guy whose jarring hits forced seven fumbles as a high school senior and who was rated the nation’s top linebacker prospect. Blackmon said he doesn’t mind the pressure of trying to live up to that billing.

“I feel like I’ve been hit with a challenge to be this great linebacker,” he said. “I just want to live up to it and rise to the challenge.

“There’s always a little bit of a pressure, but not more than I can handle. You just have to perform under pressure. That’s what the best do. The guys that become great perform under pressure.”

Linebackers coach James Willis sees signs that this could be Blackmon’s year. He said Blackmon has been more focused and consistently practicing at the same tempo every day.

“He’s always had something that was in his way,” Willis said. “You can see that (focus) on the field because he’s been more consistent, and that’s what it’s going to take to get him to the next level.”

In the meantime, Blackmon said he isn’t dwelling on the past with two more seasons to play. “I’ve got to go with the flow,” he said. “I would have loved to have two or three great seasons, but that’s how the cookie crumbles sometimes.”