Dave Martin, Associated Press
Auburn coach Gene Chizik watches his team during the first day of fall practice for the NCAA college football team in Auburn, Ala., Wednesday, Aug. 3, 2011.

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn coach Gene Chizik had an easy sales pitch on the recruiting trail, besides touting a chance to play for the defending national champions.

Chizik also offered an opportunity to, well, play for the defending national champions. Quickly, if not immediately.

The Tigers opened preseason camp Wednesday night with just 71 scholarship players — 14 fewer than the NCAA maximum. More than half of those going through camp — 54 of 105 — are freshmen, including redshirts and walk-ons.

Chizik wasn't just saying what all blue-chip prospects want to hear. With three starters returning on each side of the ball, there really were immediate needs all over the depth chart either as a first-teamer or a backup.

"We did not recruit our freshmen to watch," the coach said. "We didn't recruit them to observe everybody else play. We recruit them to come in here and play.

"We told them that when we recruited them, and here they are. They understand that this is real and they have a chance to play here now. Not one of them are we saying, 'Look, you're redshirted until you prove you can play.' It's the opposite. It's, 'You can play until we feel like there's no way, and we'll redshirt you.' That's how we see it, and that's how we have to see it right now with the numbers we have."

That means many of the two dozen signees will have strong chances to see action when the Tigers open Sept. 3 against Utah State, or soon after.

The numbers crunch was exacerbated when quarterback Cam Newton, defensive tackle Nick Fairley and wide receiver Darvin Adams opted to skip their senior seasons to enter the NFL draft, joining a large group of departing seniors. Eleven scholarship players have left or been dismissed since last season. Four of them — including starting safety Mike McNeil — were kicked off the team following their arrest on armed robbery charges.

Also, just seven players remain from Tommy Tuberville's 2007 and 2008 signing classes. Only linebacker Eltoro Freeman — who signed with Auburn in 2007 but spent two seasons, including a redshirt year, at a junior college — has started more than three games from those two classes.

Cornerback T'Sharvan Bell (2008) and offensive tackle A.J. Greene (2007) are likely starters while quarterback Barrett Trotter ('08) is contending to replace Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton.

And many of the new guys surely will hit the field early. One who appeared to have a good shot was linebacker Kris Frost, who is recovering from shoulder surgery and not on the roster for preseason camp.

Only a handful of players seem entrenched in their starting spots, like tackle Brandon Mosley, defensive end Nosa Eguae and tailback Michael Dyer — who splits time with Onterio McCalebb.

"We've got so many vacancies at positions and so many wide-open positions, we're just looking every day to close the gap and narrow in who the starters are going to be and who the two-deep is going to be," Chizik said.

Freshman quarterback Kiehl Frazier is competing with Trotter and Clint Moseley for the top spot. None of them have any meaningful experience in a college game, but Frazier knows he has some catching up to do in mastering the offense.

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"In the end, the best player will play," Frazier said. "You can definitely tell the players out there are a step ahead of me, so I definitely need to get in the playbook and learn a little bit more and get more comfortable in the system.

"They've been here for three years, so they know the offense. They're really good quarterbacks. Some people don't think of them like that. People don't see how talented Barrett and Clint actually are. I think they'll be surprised."

If the new guys make a big impact, count freshman safety Erique Florence among those who won't be at all surprised.

"I think we'll contribute a lot," Florence said. "We'll help the team this year and years to come, we'll get better and better. It'll be awesome."