AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn's Aairon Savage, Zac Etheridge and Mike McNeil don't have to talk about frustrating injuries -- there is an unspoken understanding.
The Tigers' trio of safeties are each trying to come back from a serious injury; in the case of Savage, a former Westover star, make that two.
All are former starters vying for two spots during preseason camp, and their returns could transform the secondary from a potential liability into a strength.
"What we've all been through, it's self-explanatory," Etheridge said. "All of us have had an injury where it could have been our last play."
Etheridge then added: "I think that's the motivation in itself, that we go out there and compete every day. We're all excited to be back out there together."
As they should be. Consider this:
*** Savage missed the 2008 season with a torn knee ligament, worked his way back and then sustained a torn Achilles tendon that cost him another season. Before that, he missed six games as a sophomore with ankle and shoulder injuries. The NCAA granted Savage a sixth year of eligibility in February. Total tally: 14 starts, 31 missed games.
*** Etheridge had started 33 consecutive games before being sidelined by a cracked vertebra and torn ligaments in his neck against Mississippi after a head-on collision with a teammate. He wasn't cleared to play again until July 20. Total tally: 33 starts, four missed games.
*** McNeil started every game in 2008 but missed last year with a broken leg sustained during the offseason. The junior was ranked the nation's eighth-best overall prospect out of high school and came into his own with 65 tackles as a sophomore. He went through spring practice on a limited basis like Savage, but he wasn't permitted by coach Gene Chizik to talk to the media. Total tally: 12 starts, 13 missed games.
All have been able to go full-speed during the first week of practice, and secondary coach Tommy Thigpen, the self-described "ultimate optimist," is confident all three will be back. He is especially positive about Etheridge and Savage, praising their passion for football and their savvy on the field.
"The fact that they love football so much and the game's so much a part of them, you just knew that they weren't going to be denied," Thigpen said. "I just never doubted they would play again. I thought they'd both be back. The same going through the fall, I'm thinking they're going to be in the first game. My mindset is that we'll keep them healthy all year and they'll all have good seasons."
If that happens, he said the defense will be "200 percent better".
In their absence last season, freshman Darren Bates started every game at free safety. The coaches had to move 5-foot-9, 182-pound junior college transfer Demond Washington from backup cornerback to starting strong safety after Etheridge went down. With their apparent return, coaches have now moved Bates to linebacker.
"There's no telling what this secondary might turn out to be," Etheridge said. "We're all pulling for each other."
Savage, who turns 24 in December, has been around so long he was recruited by head coach Gene Chizik -- in his first Auburn go around as defensive coordinator, three jobs ago.
Chizik left Auburn to run the Texas defense and spent two seasons as Iowa State's head coach. Now, they're reunited.
"I never thought in a million years it would happen," Savage said. "Who knew it would come full-circle like that? It just goes to show everything happens for a reason. It's a blessing and we're going to roll with it."
Savage said he can't describe what it will be like the next time he steps on the field, but added he will try not to get swept away by emotions.
"We're not going to get caught up in that hype, because how selfish would that be?" Savage said. "We've come a long way, and the hype is really gone. I've been gone, I'm back, I'm fine."
He and Etheridge both have their degrees, while Savage has actually already completed a masters.
Savage's fall class load will include his No. 2 sport: Bowling. He said he has a 180 average and a high score of 251.
As for football, Savage said he put those two years on the sideline to good use in more than his ability on the lanes.
"I feel a lot better, a lot
stronger, a lot bigger," he said. "I know a little more. That's the goal. How crazy would it be to sit on the sidelines for two years and stay the same?
"That would be a waste."