Auburn running back Ben Tate (44) lines up to run the ball behind left tackle Lee Ziemba (73) against West Virginia.
At 6' 8" and 320 lbs he is a human mountain. Even so some people may not know that his love for Auburn is also just as big as a mountain. A love that was sorely tested in the spring of 2010. After starting 38 games for Auburn and being recognized the last three years as one of the SEC's best lineman, Lee Ziemba had a golden opportunity at the end of the 2009 season to turn professional. Many thought it was in his best interest to do just that.
In some circles it was reported that pro scouts were drooling over the possibility of signing Lee. A lot of experts speculated that if he chose to go pro that he would be a high pick in the NFL Draft, but Lee decided to stay at Auburn. Which raises the question, ' Why would a young man pass up an opportunity to make millions of dollars and at the same time take a chance at getting seriously injured in the war of the trenches for another year of college ball? '
Ziemba says he does want to play in the pros ... but on the other hand he said he loves the family atmosphere that Gene Chizik and his staff have brought to the team. In passing up the opportunity Lee commented " The NFL is a business. You can't have the camaraderie we have here." (and ) " I Love Auburn too much. I just wanted one more year."
Lee has already staked out a place in Auburn history as one of the best offensive lineman to ever play in Jordan-Hare. Now he starts out his senior year on the precipice of receiving the nation's highest award for interior lineman, the Outland Trophy. He was named recently to the Watch List for the Outland by the Football Writters Association of America. If he were to win he would join Zeke Smith and Tracy Rocker as one of three Auburn's greats to be awarded the Outland.
Yes we are talking about the same guy that has been known by many fans as Auburn's Mr. False Start. That same guy may soon be known as one of Auburn's Mr. Outland Trophy winners. If that happens, he will have his picture permanently placed by the scoreboard in Jordan-Hare Stadium along side of other Auburn icons such as Sullivan, Jackson, and Rocker.
This should not really come as a surprise as he was one of the most sought after lineman in the country coming out of high school. He was second team all SEC last year, a Phil Steele pre season All SEC this year, listed as the eighth best overall player in the SEC by another publication, had 67 knockdown blocks as a junior, shared the Ken Rice Award as Auburn's best blocker with Mike Berry, and was an important cog in Auburn's record setting offensive machine, helping the Tigers amass 5,613 yards in 2009, the most in Auburn history.
However, Lee's Auburn career has been a roller coaster ride. From the excitement of starting and playing every game as a freshman, to weathering the disastrous offensive experiment of Tony Franklin's brief stint on the Plains, to being part of a reinvigorated '09 team that won a New Years Day bowl .
He picked up the false start tab his sophomore year. What most fans do not realize though is that a lot of his false starts came in a season when he was playing injured, playing through pain in every game. He suffered a knee injury in August 2008 and courageously played on it the entire season. At the end of the season he had surgery for a torn lateral meniscus. In addition, since new offensive coordinator Tony Franklin wanted his line lighter, he made him lose weight from 320 to 280lbs; which is not ideal for a pro typical NFL style lineman like Lee. Finally there is the fact that he had to perform in the malfunctioning Franklin / Ensminger offense and play for a dysfunctional coaching staff.
At any rate lineman never seem to get the glory, only the blame. When an offensive lineman grades out at 90+ % on his blocking assignments and then has a false start, guess which stat the fans remember? Yes, you guessed right, the false start is what we remember. Few celebrate the fact that Ben Tate may have made a touchdown because Lee Ziemba opened the hole. That's because we fans don't always have all the information.
One thing is for sure, he had knee problems all year long his sophomore year. Yet this mountain of a man did not blame any of his problems on the coaches, on the new offense, or on the nagging painful injury. No, he played through the pain, through the losses, through the dysfunctional coaching, through the hurt, and yes through the occasional boos and the media criticism. That's because Lee Ziemba is an Auburn Man. He loves his school and he made no excuses.
Even though this past year he wasn't penalty free, he was an important reason the Tigers produced the number one total offense in school history. Coach Jeff Grimes said that Ziemba is one of the best and that he just needs to work now on the little details to be one of the greats. Lee said that he is working hard everyday to improve. The penalties were much less last year and should be even lower this year. If for no other reason than this will be the first time in his college career, he will be able to play in the same offense for two years in a row.
If Auburn makes it to Atlanta, the fact that Lee Ziemba chose to pass up millions of dollars to play in the NFL and stay at Auburn, will have been an important part of the reason they got to the championship game. Coach Gene Chizik said " Everybody that doesn't appreciate him, needs to know that. He came back because he loves Auburn and he wanted to play another year, and we appreciate that very much."
So do we Coach ... so do we.