0

Gwinnett grads soaking up BCS experience, aiming for national championship

Auburn Tigers tight end C.J. Uzomah (81) practices for the 2014 BCS National Championship at UC Irvine in Irvine, Calif., on Satuturday. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

Auburn Tigers tight end C.J. Uzomah (81) practices for the 2014 BCS National Championship at UC Irvine in Irvine, Calif., on Satuturday. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

photo

Auburn Tigers defensive tackle Ben Bradley (50) practices for the 2014 BCS National Championship at UC Irvine in Irvine, Calif. on Saturday. (Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports)

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — One way or another, Kenny Flowers will be a part of the first play in Monday night’s BCS National Championship Game.

The Parkview grad, a sophomore linebacker at Auburn who starts on the Tigers’ kickoff and kickoff return teams, has allowed his mind to wander to college football’s ultimate showcase, which will be played in front of nearly 100,000 fans at the Rose Bowl and broadcast to millions on ESPN.

“It’s going to be crazy,” Flowers said. “I’m going to be on special teams on the first play, so it’s going to be really exciting. Hopefully it doesn’t all go to my head and I lose focus. But I know it’s just going to be crazy to see all the people and be in the national championship game.”

The hype of the BCS finale vs. Florida State, is a new experience for all three Gwinnett grads who play for Auburn. All three were in different spots last season, with Flowers and defensive lineman Ben Bradley, a Norcross grad, playing their final seasons at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas.

The third, North Gwinnett’s C.J. Uzomah, was at Auburn. But he endured a nightmarish 3-9 season with no bowl and not a single SEC victory.

“It’s obviously a complete 180 from sitting in my house and thinking about being in this game, to being in the game,” said Uzomah, an All-SEC selection this season at tight end. “It is a huge turnaround. It’s awesome. We as a team knew we had something special, but the magnitude of where we’re at is a blessing for sure.”

The magnitude of every event is much grander than what his fellow Gwinnett grads have experienced the past couple of seasons.

Both Flowers and Bradley spent the past two seasons in rural Kansas, working for an opportunity in a power conference. They found it at Auburn, buying into the Tigers’ new coach, Gus Malzahn, and his goals despite the program’s miserable 2012 season.

Their first experience with big-time college football couldn’t have gone better.

Auburn won the SEC title with the help of two miraculous finishes in wins over rivals Georgia and Alabama. Over the past month, they’ve relished the preparation and buildup to the BCS title game, and the fun times that come with it.

“I’m really happy to be a part of it,” Bradley said. “I never thought I’d be a part of the national championship game. I’m surprised and happy at the same time. Most people I know don’t get a chance to be a part of the national championship game.”

The early preparations came in Auburn, but the most recent workouts have been on the UC-Irvine campus. In between practices, the Gwinnett products have soaked up the Southern California life, including team trips to Disneyland, a comedy show and to a Los Angeles Clippers game.

It’s a considerably unique week for Flowers and Bradley — slightly more grandiose than the Salt City Bowl that their junior college bowl hosts yearly in Hutchinson.

“(The Salt City Bowl) was fun, but not like this. It’s nothing compared to this,” Flowers said. “The whole month was fun. The bowl preparations were fun. Getting to come out to California has been the icing on the cake. It’s just been really fun.”

Uzomah’s family, and a few of his high school friends, will share in the fun.

“It’s been awesome,” Uzomah said. “It’s been an unbelievable experience to come out here with the team. We’ve gotten to do a lot of fun things. … At the same time, we know it’s a business trip. We’ve been getting after it, having a lot of fun practicing. We’re really amped up about this game.”

While it is the first BCS title game appearance for all three, it’s the second appearance in four seasons for Auburn. The Tigers won the national title after the 2010 season and a month after their victory, Uzomah signed with Auburn.

Another championship Monday night would give the SEC its eighth straight consecutive BCS national title, but the path has to go through Florida State and Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston.

“I just hope it turns out the way we want it to,” Bradley said.