For Neil Caudle, his entire college football career was coming down to one play. His Auburn Tigers, playing Oregon for the national championship, had driven all the way to the Ducks’ one-yard line, with just enough time for a final snap of the ball.
Tiger coach Gene Chizik sent in his field goal unit, which included Caudle. The former Spain Park quarterback would be holding for Wes Byrum’s kick that would determine whether the Tigers would win a national title or be forced into overtime.
“We were very confident,” Caudle recalled, when contacted last week. “We had practiced it so many times. Really, it was just about like an extra point.
“I had the easy part. The snap was perfect, all I had to do was put the ball down so Wes could kick it.”
Byrum’s kick was perfect, and pandemonium broke out in Glendale, Arizona – and hundreds of miles away at a place called Toomer’s Corner. With a 22-19 win, Auburn had won its first national championship since 1957.
“It’s just now starting to sink in,” said Caudle. “Everything is starting to settle down a little bit, but it’s been crazy ever since Monday (Jan. 10) night.”
The triumphant ending of Caudle’s football career was appropriate for a young man who battled injuries and bad luck from the first time he arrived on the Plains. His teammate Cam Newton may have won the Heisman Trophy for being America’s best player, but if they gave an award for loyalty and perseverance, Caudle would win in a landslide.
Caudle was one the South’s most highly recruited quarterbacks when he signed with Auburn in 2006. After being red-shirted in his first season, he played sparingly as a freshman, seeing action in only one game. As a sophomore, Caudle’s playing time increased slightly, as he played in two games.
While disappointed with his first two seasons, Caudle never got discouraged.
“Sure, I wanted to play more, but mainly I just wanted to do something to help the team win a championship,” he said.
After the Tigers finished with a disappointing 5-7 record in 2008, Chizik, a former defensive coordinator at Auburn, returned to the campus as head coach after a brief stint at Iowa State.
The new coach brought a new enthusiasm to the program, and Caudle saw the change as an opportunity for a fresh start. He played in five games and threw his first career touchdown pass in a 31-10 loss to LSU. Caudle also led Auburn to three touchdown drives in a 63-31 rout of Furman. And, for the third consecutive year, he earned a spot on the Southeastern Conference Academic Honor Roll.
As his senior season opened, Caudle was battling for the position of starting quarterback, before it became apparent that a transfer from a Texas junior college – Newton – was going to be a once-in-a-lifetime type athletic talent. Caudle again found himself down on the depth chart. But instead of pouting, he worked to become an outstanding holder for Byrum, who would go on to be one of Auburn’s all-time great kickers.
Byrum made 17 of 22 field goal attempts in 2010 – including the national championship clincher against Oregon. He also connected on 72 of 73 extra point attempts, and Caudle was an indispensable part of the success.
Caudle credits Chizik and his staff for the changes in attitude that took Auburn from a losing record to a national championship in a mere two years.
“The new coaches came in here with confidence,” he explained. “They focused us in on the goal of winning a championship and taking Auburn to the top. It was special to be a part of it.”
Caudle will graduate in May with a degree in building science and said he plans “to get out in the working world.” But at Auburn, he’ll be remembered not only as Wes Byrum’s holder but also as the quarterback who never stopped believing in Auburn – and himself.
“Yes, I had a lot of ups and downs, but things happen for a reason,” Caudle reflected. “Everything paid off at the end. In fact, it couldn’t have ended any better.”
It surely couldn’t have. Neil Caudle proved himself as much more than a field goal holder. He proved himself a winner in football and life.
Patriots Hire Goodwin…
Homewood named Doug Goodwin as its new head football coach last week. Goodwin comes to Homewood from Russellville, where he posted an impressive four-year record of 46-9. Previously, he had served as head coach at Demopolis and led it to a state championship in 2004.
Goodwin’s hire is the first time Homewood has gone outside its system to hire a new football coach since Gerald Gann was brought in from Berry in 1979. When Gann left for Hoover in 1995, long-time assistant Bob Newton was elevated to the top spot. When Newton retired five years ago, assistant Dickey Wright was named head coach.
Goodwin is replacing Wright, who retired late last year.