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AUBURN, Ala. – Shon Coleman finally finds himself engaged in the kind of battle an athlete covets, fighting for a starting job instead of survival.
The Auburn sophomore is vying with Patrick Miller this spring to replace Greg Robinson at left tackle, four years after being diagnosed with cancer. It's all about football these days for a former five-star prospect who's at long last getting his chance to live up to the billing.
"This time last year, of course we had a close eye on him," Tigers coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday. "Everything he went through with his treatments and everything with that.
"You could see he got better and better in the spring. And once we got to fall, you could tell he was starting to get his strength back. He did a solid job for us when he got in last year. Now, he's fighting for a starting position. You can see the urgency's there. He definitely looks like the guy that we recruited four years ago when he was healthy."
This starting shot is the latest in a succession of milestones for Coleman.
Two years ago next week, he practiced for the first time. He was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA in January 2013 and saw his first action late in the second game of the season, against Arkansas State.
Robinson cleared the way for either Miller or Coleman to take over when he left early to enter the NFL draft. If Coleman has one edge over his teammates, it's perspective.
Fighting for a starting job and trying to make it to the NFL himself someday are important, but hardly life and death.
"I've got a dream that I work for every day, and I just work toward that goal," Coleman said. "If I'm blessed enough to get in that position, then it will happen."
The 6-foot-6, 310-pounder was one of the nation's top prospects when he signed out of Olive Branch, Miss., four years ago. The diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia, though, came a little over a month later and temporarily derailed his hopes.
Auburn kept his scholarship on reserve, Tigers fans raised thousands of dollars to help with Coleman's medical bills and he enrolled in January 2011. Coleman has three years of eligibility remaining, and is particularly impressing coaches and teammates with his run-blocking, an area where Robinson also excelled.
"Pat may be a better pass-setter," defensive tackle Gabe Wright said, "but Shon is one of the tougher run-setters I've ever seen in my life. It's like hitting a brick wall with a hammer. If you ever thought Greg was strong, you've got another thing coming. Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg."
Malzahn said the battle between Coleman and Miller is pretty even so far.
Coleman is focusing on the present, saying that just getting better is his top priority. As for his goals, he'd love a shot at playing for another national title, perhaps as a starter this time.
Auburn won in what would have been his freshman season in 2010 and fell to Florida State in January.
"That was the best feeling in the world, so I'm just trying to help the team as much as I can and do my part to get back to the goal," Coleman said.