AUBURN | Cameron Toney impressed observers during two-a-days last fall, flashing a surprisingly refined ability to understand where he needed to be and what he needed to do once he arrived.
Getting there was another issue.
The Huntsville High graduate suffered a serious ankle injury during the early portion of his senior season and that discomfort lingered into his first college season. Toney and his coaches decided that a season on the scout team made sense -- with a focus on rehabilitating the ankle and learning more about how the Tigers operate on defense.
The plan was a good one. That doesn't mean it was easy.
"Being redshirted … was probably the toughest thing I went through just watching from the sideline," Toney said. "But it's one whole year to take advantage of and develop as a good player. Being redshirted really helped a lot so I could work on … getting back to my new me."
It all starts with his physical appearance. Toney gained seven pounds during the off-season, he now tips the scales at 243 pounds, but his weight has been redistributed. He's added muscle mass above the waist while his legs are leaner than before.
His ankle? It's now 100 percent.
Those developments help explain why Toney has been rotating with the first-team defense throughout the spring. Though rising junior Cassanova McKinzy is expected to earn the starting job at middle linebacker, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson clearly is intrigued with the changes Toney has made during the past eight months.
Once a player heads for the scout team in August, position coaches rarely get a chance to work with them individually. So when Johnson watched Toney perform during the first few days of spring drills, it was an eye-opening experience.
"When you put them on the scout team and decide to redshirt them, they don't get many reps at your base defense," Johnson said. "He's almost going to back to square-one learning what he's doing. He's had a pretty solid spring."
Outside linebacker Kris Frost said he's noticed that Toney is making even quicker reads than before.
"Knowing where you're supposed to be and knowing where you're supposed to lineup is half the battle," Frost said. "Knowing where your eyes are supposed to be and where you're looking and knowing what the checks and calls are and everything. As long as you're getting started and you have a great start to it, everything can just flow together."
If Anthony Swain doesn't return from suspension during the summer, Toney will become a primary candidate to serve as Auburn's top reserve at linebacker. Justin Garrett can provide relief at outside linebacker, but has been working at the star position throughout the spring.
Still, Johnson said two weeks ago that Toney was his third option at linebacker.
Toney said he's preparing for the assignment by focusing on playing low and communicating thoughtfully on the field.
"I can make a great impact on the team -- all of us working together" the redshirt freshman said. "Hard work, putting in work. Leadership is basically the main thing. The coaches (have) their eyes on me and they're really expecting a lot out of me."