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August 31, 2008

Auburn offense struggles to find gears

The Tony Franklin Era at Auburn was expected to begin with “shock and awe” — offensive fireworks produced by the new offensive coordinator’s spread offense.

But the Tigers proved that a good ground attack and rock-solid defense can serve the purpose Saturday night at Jordan-Hare Stadium, as Auburn rode its running game and defense to a 34-0 victory over Louisiana-Monroe.

Tiger running back Ben Tate rushed for 115 yards and Kodi Burns, who started the game for Auburn, added 69 yards rushing before leaving the game in the third quarter with a cut on his leg.

“We knew we could run the ball,” Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville. “We played pretty good defense. If the defense and special teams play well, you can win ball games. We need more consistency with the throwing game.”

The Auburn passing game especially was expected to be transformed with its variety of short, controlled passing mixed with the run.

But the Tigers passing game never materialized.

“The offense stunk, and it’s my fault,” Franklin said. “I saw it coming three days ago. There’s a lot of blame to go around, and, if it’s anyone’s fault, it’s mine.”

Auburn managed only 24 yards in the air in the first half as neither Burns nor Todd could generate a passing attack.

The Tigers’ final passing numbers were 85 yards on 13-of-27 passing with one interception and a touchdown.

“I’ve had a lot of ugly games in my life and a lot of ugly halves. This was an ugly half,” Franklin said. “We played a little better in the second half, but the defense played lights out. Hats off to them.”

ULM had a little success moving the ball early in the game, but Auburn’s defense kept the Warhawks off the scoreboard.

ULM coach Charlie Weatherbee said he felt the Warhawks gave the Tigers 21 of their 34 points with turnovers and special-team mistakes.

The Tigers took a 17-0 lead into the locker room because of big plays by the defense and special teams.

Auburn’s defense and special teams both out-scored the highly-anticipated new offense as it failed to develop a rhythm or sustain a drive against the suspect ULM defense.

The Tigers generated only 150 yards total offense during the half.

Burns and Todd alternated possessions during the half, but neither could ignite the spread passing game.

Burns finished the half with four completions in eight attempts for a meager 15 yards, while Todd had only two completions in seven attempts for nine yards.

The running game was better, with Ben Tate running for 74 first-half yards. He fueled the offense’s only scoring drive of the first half, culminating in Wes Byrum’s 33-yard field goal with 1:16 left in the second quarter.

By then, both the defense and special teams already had scored touchdowns.

The defense scored Auburn’s first touchdown on ULM’s first possession.

Tiger defensive end Antonio Coleman blindsided Warhawk quarterback Kinsmon Lancaster and forced a fumble that fellow defensive end Michael Goggans picked up and returned nine yards for the score. Byrum’s kick gave Auburn a 7-0 lead with 12:08 left in the quarter.

August 30, 2008

La.-Monroe knows all about Franklin

Most teams facing Auburn this year will have to adjust to first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s spread offense.

Louisiana-Monroe isn’t one of those teams.

The Warhawks have played against Franklin’s offense the last two years while Franklin was Troy’s offensive coordinator.

Despite losing both games, Louisiana-Monroe’s defense played respectably, surrendering 24 points in each game.

Last year the Warhawks shut out Troy’s offense through the first half. The Trojans’ lone score came on an interception return late in the second quarter. The Warhawks held Troy 10 points below its season average last season.

“The key is not giving up the big play and being patient — keeping the play in front of you,” Louisiana-Monroe head coach Charlie Weatherbie said during his Monday morning teleconference.

In other words, Weatherbie’s defense will likely try to play soft coverage. Louisiana-Monroe will attempt to make Auburn sustain long drives and won’t worry about a few first downs.

Remember how Auburn used to play against the Steve Spurrier-led Florida teams under Tuberville? Expect Louisiana-Monroe to follow that blueprint.

Weatherbie knows what to expect. He just wants to defend against the game-changing plays.

“(Franklin) loves to throw the ball,” Weatherbie said. “Of course, they’re a team that’s going to throw ball 70 percent of time or more. They love the quick game and bubble passes and they throw the ball down field as much as they can. They pick times to do that. He does a great job with it.”

Louisiana-Monroe’s defense had more success against Troy than the three SEC teams the Trojans played.

Against SEC foes Arkansas, Florida and Georgia, Franklin’s offense at Troy scored 26, 31 and 34 points.

Louisiana-Monroe’s defense also held Alabama’s offense down during its 21-14 upset win last year at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Franklin knows how hard it can be to find big plays against the Louisiana-Monroe defense. The Warhawks changed defensive coordinators, but Franklin expects their scheme to be similar to the past two years.

“They’re very sound,” Franklin said. “They play hard. They run hard to the ball. They’re tough, and they were very well coached. Both years, it’s been a struggle. We struggled with them both years at Troy.”

Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville is hoping Franklin can solve his Louisiana-Monroe problems now that he has SEC players.

“This is a pretty high-powered offense now,” Tuberville said. “You can score. That’s the reason that we went to this, to try and have more big plays. You can have big plays against good defenses.”

The offensive players are confident as the season-opener approaches.

Running back Ben Tate predicted that Auburn would “put up a nice amount of points.”

Receiver Rod Smith said Louisiana-Monroe’s success against Troy shows the defense has some talent, but it doesn’t mean anything this weekend.

“They may play us differently with us being an SEC team and probably having better athletes, not to take anything away from those guys,” Smith said. “They’ll probably play us a little different.

“We saw a lot of great things that we can run against those guys.”

August 29, 2008

Coleman a changed man

Antonio Coleman says he is a changed man.

The Auburn defensive end typically isn’t one to back away from a preseason practice brawl, but he now is trying to keep his temper under control with the season starting Saturday.

Coleman knows the penalties could be harsh if he loses his cool and engages in a fight in an actual game.

“I’ve just been chilling,” Coleman said. “I’ve got to cool down from that because if I fight Saturday, I’ll probably be suspended, and we can’t have that. I just have to bite the bullet.”

Coleman was involved in two offseason practice scuffles this year that drew media attention: The first was in spring drills with offensive tackle Lee Ziemba and left Coleman with a sprained neck; the other was toward the end of preseason camp with offensive tackle Ryan Pugh.

Blame went around in each case, but Coleman said he plans to turn the other cheek if a similar situation arises in a game — even if it’s out of character for him.

“It’s hard for me. That’s why I got in so many fights,” said Coleman, a junior who turns 22 Monday. “I injured my neck, and any time a hand gets around my facemask or something like that, I just snap. But I learned to control it because the season’s starting and we can’t have no fights because they need me out there on the field.”

Instead, he would like to channel that anger into his on-field performance. Maybe a little healthy competition might help him do that.

The second-team preseason All-SEC honoree joked that he and fellow weakside defensive end Antoine Carter plan to wager on who might accumulate the most sacks this season, although they’ll probably wait until after Saturday’s opener against Louisiana-Monroe to finalize the terms.

Coleman led the Tigers with 8.5 sacks last season, while Carter totaled 1.5 in spot duty as a true freshman. Each is sure to rank among the team’s top sack men this year.

“They’re probably our two best, so there’s a good chance you could see them on the field at the same time during certain situations,” said Auburn defensive ends coach Terry Price.

Coleman came into last season as the backup to Quentin Groves and with little hype after a quiet redshirt-freshman season in 2006. That changed in the fourth quarter of last year’s season opener. Coleman recovered Kansas State quarterback Josh Freeman’s fumble after Groves’ crushing sack and returned it 34 yards for a win-sealing touchdown.

That play set the tone for Coleman to start eight games in place of the ailing Groves. Coleman finished fourth in the Southeastern Conference with 18.5 tackles for a loss and fifth in sacks (8.5).

Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville said Coleman was overlooked by not being named an all-conference performer, but Coleman won’t have to worry about anonymity this season. And, true to form, he doesn’t plan to back down from the extra attention he likely will receive.

“Even if they’re aiming for me, I can still get out there and make plays,” he said. “It’s no big deal to me. It don’t scare me. When you get on the field, you’d better bring it, because I’m coming 110 percent.”

August 27, 2008

Moving on

Since I already got a couple of comments about it this morning, I guess now’s as good a time as any to say farewell. Today’s my last day covering Auburn. I accepted a job as sports editor of the Athens Banner-Herald and will start there on Friday. I’m a bit nervous about moving into a management position, but it will be beneficial for me professionally and financially. Probably personally, as well, because I felt like I’d been in a bit of a rut lately.

Anyway, thanks to everyone who sent encouraging e-mails and posted comments. The vast majority of folks have been excessively nice to me and I enjoyed interacting with most of you, as well as the kids on the football team. I think they’re going to be very good this season.

If you’re ever so inclined, you can catch me at the Banner-Herald’s Web site in the future. I’m sure I’ll be doing some form of a blog at onlineathens.com with general musings. Would love to hear from you.

Thanks again for reading.

Wednesday stories

August 26, 2008

Tuesday quickie

Some really interesting depth chart stuff today, leading with the beat writers’ conversation with Clinton Durst, who just might be the starting punter Saturday. He literally just started punting a year ago after playing soccer in high school. That’s amazing. And he’s a fantastic quote. I have a feeling you’ll be reading Clinton Durst’s thoughts on the quarterback situation, Clinton Durst’s thoughts on the freshman defensive backs, Clinton Durst’s opinion on whether Paul Rhoads should rock the full beard or the goatee…pretty much whatever subject somebody needs a good quote on, it appears as though Durst might be the man. He apologized as he walked away from the pack, saying he was sorry if he wasn’t good enough as an interview. I was thinking, “I don’t know how you’ll ever be any better.”

I’ll drop some highlights of that interview later, but I’ve got to write the story for tomorrow’s paper first. Quickly, here are the big things from the first depth chart released today for Tommy Tuberville’s presser:
* No change at quarterback, although my personal opinion after listening to Burns and Todd today is that Burns is going to start. Everyone continues to say no decision has been made and I believe that’s likely the case. I’m just basing my opinion on body language and the way they’re talking about where they are. I might be completely off base.
* Because he is “in the doghouse,” Robert Dunn is currently listed as the fourth-string H receiver behind Terrell Zachery, freshman Darvin Adams and Mario Fannin. Dunn is still listed as the starting punt returner. Tuberville said he will play, but he hasn’t been consistent enough at receiver lately.
* Raven Gray is going to redshirt. Tuberville said the knee simply hasn’t recovered enough.
* I’m betting the same thing is in the works with Chaz Ramsey, although Tuberville didn’t go that far. He just said he’s still struggling.
* There are eight freshmen listed on the depth chart (Philip Pierre-Louis, Eric Smith, Adams, Derek Winter, Vance Smith, Christian Thompson, D’Antoine Hood and Neiko Thorpe). Nine if you count Harry Adams, who is listed on the second-team kickoff return unit. I’m pretty sure the first eight, plus Jomarcus Savage, will play. Not so sure about Adams.
* Neil Caudle is listed as the No. 3 quarterback. Tuberville said Barrett Trotter has played well, but Neil Caudle has earned the No. 3 spot and that it could change down the road.
* Gabe McKenzie is listed as the backup strongside DE. A.J. Greene is dealing with a hamstring issue, Tuberville said, and Savage is just coming off a shoulder injury, so Gabe’s the best backup option for now, apparently.
* Thorpe and Hood are listed as the backup cornerbacks. No surprise there.
* Philip Pierre-Louis is listed as the No. 2 Z receiver and the No. 3 X receiver. Tuberville said Montez Billings is unlikely to play, so if their prediction from Sunday holds up, PPL is probably going to play more at Z Saturday.
* Tristan Davis and Eric Smith are listed as co-No. 3 running backs and Tristan is on the No. 1 kickoff return unit, but we continue to hear that he’s struggling with his health. Ben Tate said he’s hurting on Sunday and Brad Lester repeated that today. Said he’s having serial foot issues — although he said he doesn’t think the current foot problem is the same one that plagued him last year. same foot, different problem, I believe he said. At any rate, Tuberville says he’s practicing, but you have to wonder how useful he can be until he gets it together health-wise. Brad, by the way, has shaved his head bald and has a little chin beard thing going. He’s a ringer for Chad Johnson right now.

OK, that wasn’t quick at all. More later.

Franklin Q/A from Sunday

I went back and transcribed Tony Franklin’s comments to the pack for my story on scripting that’s running Tuesday. Figured I might as well post it.

Like I said in that post from yesterday, I found that scripting stuff to be really interesting. I hope it’s not so inside-baseball that it comes off as boring. The really technical stuff can be dry reading sometimes, but I think this time it came off all right.

Anyway, here’s what he had to say:

Opening statement:
The only news I’ve got is that both of them will play, just like I’ve told you before. As far as who will start, I don’t know. They’re both good. For me, it’s a very unique situation. I’ve never been in it before. I’ve never had anything like it before, to where that you’ve got two quality Division I quarterbacks that are both good leaders, both good players. Neither one of them have wilted under the pressure. They’ve both gotten better. So as of right now, as far as picking one and saying, ‘This guy’s the starter,’ we haven’t done that yet. We’ll have somebody that’ll go out there first on Saturday, but the good thing is we’ve got Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and more time to put into it and see what happens from there.

On whether the starter will be set or whether it might be situational:
It’ll be situational. It could be something dynamic between now and Saturday that one of them emerges and shows some quality or something that we haven’t seen that makes him the guy, then that could be the case, too. But they’re both gonna play. I think that’s the most important thing. It’ll probably be even more important as to who finishes the game rather than who starts the game. That might be the more important thing.

On when he plans to tell the QBs of his decision:
As soon as I know. They know what you know. Today, when they went out there, I didn’t tell which one of them to go first. They do that between themselves. The snaps and how they alternate the snaps, they do that themselves. I just make sure by the end of the week that they’ve all gotten the quality of reps that they have to have. So when I look out there, like on a certain day, and see who goes first for a certain drill, they decide that every day themselves. So far, like I said, it’s been a good problem. And it’s really not a problem. I can find no negatives in it at all. Unless I made it negative, then it can be negative, but I don’t plan on doing that.

On how they might divide snaps Saturday:
I think the flow of the game and you watch them play, that might kinda help determine that. No but I mean I would be surprised if they didn’t play close to the equal amount of time. I think there could be a situation where one of them gets a hot hand and he may stay. But then again, there’ve been days out here where if you watched them where one of them gets a hot hand and the other one comes in and his is hotter. So again, I think they’ve both risen to each other’s level of excellence.

On how he feels about the offense as a whole:
I feel good. It’s impossible every year to tell. You never know. I don’t care where you are. I don’t care where you’re coaching. You never know until you go play other people. You can never tell against your own people how good you’re gonna be. I feel like we’re talented, I feel like we’ve got a lot of guys that can make plays. And it’s just a matter of how they click on Saturday when they go out there and how many plays they make and, like always, not turning the football over. But I feel like we’re talented enough that if we do a good job coaching that we should be really good on offense. I’ll be very disappointed if we’re not.

On his game-planning process for the opener and whether he scripts plays:
Yeah, I script. I’ve got a whole bunch of them right there (sitting next to him). They’re all basically, I usually script like 25 to 30 plays to start a game off with. That doesn’t mean that I stay exactly down it. The situation sometimes will dictate. But I usually try to make sure I get through those by the end of the half. I’d like to be through those and that kinda tells me what I’m gonna do for the rest of the game.

On when he decided the first play of the season:
Actually I haven’t decided yet. I’ve got about three in mind and it’ll depend on – field position could determine one play versus another, how far backed up we are, what hash we’re on. All those types of things could determine one over the other. But I’ve got about three thoughts right now.

On who fills Montez Billings’ spot if he doesn’t play Saturday. Fannin?
No. Probably you would have Carr and Pierre both play. They’ll both kinda share that position. Philip’s kinda going back and forth playing both X and Z, so if Montez can’t go, then he’ll probably get more at Z than he would at X.

Montez before his injury was the No. 2 at X?
Well they were rotating. Both those guys were playing. The way that we play, everybody plays. Hopefully Montez will be back. We’ll see.

Fannin is still rotating in that group?
Yeah, Fannin’s gonna play and he may play a lot of different spots. I think you’ll see him at different places on the field doing different things because he definitely needs the ball. So we’ve got to figure out ways that we can guarantee him touching the ball.

What stands out about Louisiana-Monroe on defense:
Extremely well-coached. We played them two years when I was at Troy and now Kim Dameron left and went to Ole Miss with Houston. But they kept everybody else and they brought in, I know, a guy from Nebraska as the new defensive co-coordinator. I expect their scheme, they’ve been pretty good on defense, so I expect them to be fairly similar. They’re very sound. They play hard, they run hard to the ball, they’re tough and they’re very well-coached. Both years it’s been a struggle. We struggled with them both years at Troy.

On what he’s told the offense about struggling against ULM at Troy:
We’ve talked about playing them. I told them what I expect out of them, that these guys are coming in here and they believe that they’re gonna win. There’s a tremendous amount of pride in that conference right now. I know because I was in that conference and I have a lot of pride and I know what we felt like when we went on the road playing the SEC. We took a tremendous amount of pride in making sure that when we left the field, they knew that they’d been in a game and hopefully you had a chance to win in the fourth quarter. They’ve gone one step further. They’ve won one on the road, so our guys understand that you only get 14 opportunities this year that you’ll get to do this stuff, so to me there’s never any excuse not to be ready to play.

On whether last year’s ULM-Alabama game forces teams to take ULM seriously:
It should. I think for that entire conference, it wakes everybody up. You look around that conference and you look at Florida Atlantic playing South Florida down to the last play at home and beating Minnesota. And Troy, we beat Oklahoma State last year and played the SEC teams fairly tough. So it had better be an eye-opener to them.

On progression of wide receivers as a whole from when he first saw them to now:
From when I first saw them till now is a huge dramatic change in I think probably just doing things the way I want them done. To me, that made ‘em more successful, I mean, the natural maturation process for anybody, maturing and getting better. But I think they’re happy because they know that they’re gonna get the ball and they’re gonna play. A lot of them are gonna play. So I think that’s the biggest thing. Guys like to play and they like to know they’re gonna have the chance to get the ball, so they’re all excited.

August 25, 2008

Sunday notes

Wrote these last night, but lost my internet connection and didn’t get it back till now. so here ya go.

Here are some of the highlights from Tommy Tuberville and everyone else’s post-practice comments today.

* I listened to Tony Franklin for about 10 minutes. It was the first time he’d spoken with the pack since like Tuesday of the week before last. I’m sure there will be a ton of stories reminding everyone that he still hasn’t announced his pick to start the Louisiana-Monroe game. I led my notebook with that nugget, in fact. In this case, the news is that there’s no news yet.

While that’s one of the things I wrote about for tomorrow, possibly the most interesting thing he talked about, at least for me, was his process for scripting plays. He said he’s narrowed his choices to three plays for Auburn’s first play on its first drive — which is of course assuming he’s operating under normal circumstances (not first-and-goal at the 1 or something like that). Already has 25 to 30 plays scripted to start out with. I find it fascinating stuff. I think I’m going to write about that for my Tuesday story, since they’re off Monday. That’s one fun thing about my job is that I get to decide what’s interesting and what the 14 people who read my Auburn stories in the CLE have to read about.

Running a close second in what Franklin said this afternoon that I found interesting is this comment, starting with when he’ll tell the QBs who’s starting:
“As soon as I know. They know what you know. Today, when they went out there, I didn’t tell which one of them to go first. They do that between themselves. The snaps and how they alternate the snaps, they do that themselves. I just make sure by the end of the week that they’ve all gotten the quality of reps that they have to have. So when I look out there, like on a certain day, and see who goes first for a certain drill, they decide that every day themselves. So far, like I said, it’s been a good problem. And it’s really not a problem. I can find no negatives in it at all. Unless I made it negative, then it can be negative, but I don’t plan on doing that.”

* Did you know that Louisiana-Monroe had lost 25 straight games against SEC opposition before it beat Alabama last year? Wow. That’s got to be a bit embarrassing. I read that little nugget in Auburn’s game notes package today.
* WR Montez Billings is doubtful to play Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe. Franklin said that means Quindarius Carr and Philip Pierre-Louis probably will get more reps if Billings doesn’t go and PPL will probably get more reps at the Z receiver than the X (they’re both outside receiver spots. that’s all I got), after alternating between the two a lot lately.
* Tuberville said Jomarcus Savage (shoulder) is back at practice and Bart Eddins (shoulder) should be back this week. He said Tristan Davis is back and running at full speed, although Ben Tate said Davis isn’t fully healthy. He said he’s still limping around.
* Tuberville and Paul Rhoads both said Raven Gray is having a very difficult time getting healthy after knee surgery nine or so months ago. Rhoads said what Gray is going though is pretty common. Tuberville said Gray is “really struggling,” not in the two-deep at DE and is not sure to play this week unless he improves quickly.
* It’s not what the reporter was angling for (I think he wanted to know who else would be on the field besides Jerraud Powers and Walt McFadden when Auburn goes to a three-cornerback set), but Rhoads said Powers will be the team’s nickelback. I asked him if that’s because Powers is a more physical player than the other options. Sounds like it’s because of his versatility:
“Jerraud Powers is an extremely intelligent, gifted athletic football player. He’s very mature, he’s a quick study. He allows you to do a lot of things both man and zone for a number of reasons that Jerraud Powers gives us our best nickelback.”
* Tuberville said walk-on Justin Albert is back practicing. He said they’ll start him out on scout team at running back, but that he might get a look at slot receiver or even cornerback. I know a lot of people thought a lot of him coming out of high school and think he might just turn into the next accomplished AU walk-on.
* Tuberville said Clinton Durst and Wes Byrum won’t kick until Thursday to rest their legs. Tuberville said Ryan Shoemaker had been dealing with a hamstring injury, but is now back and will punt some in practice this week to even things out. Tuberville said they’ll probably announce a punter by Tuesday at his press conference.

Monday’s stories

* Monday’s main story: Auburn’s players, coaches shifting focus specifically to La-Monroe. Sen’Derrick Marks says he and most of the other DLs have been watching film of them for months.

* Notebook: If you like overly long notebooks, this is your stop. Covers Tony Franklin talking about the quarterback hunt, Gabe McKenzie finally talking about his move to DE, Montez Billings’ injury status for La-Monroe, and other injury updates.

August 23, 2008

Bosley on Rimington watch list

No practice update today. Had some crazy house stuff to deal with that kept me from making it to Auburn today. Tommy Tuberville was the only person who was going to be available for post-practice interviews today, anyway. From what I’ve read and heard from over there this evening, it wasn’t the most eventful interview session. Will be back with notes after they finish practice Sunday evening.

On a separate note, Auburn senior Jason Bosley has been placed on the watch list for the Rimington Trophy — which is given annually to the nation’s top center. Bosley is one of five SEC players on the list, one of whom is last year’s winner, Arkansas’ Jonathan Luigs. No player has ever been a repeat winner of the award.

Jason Bosley, Auburn
Antoine Caldwell, Alabama
Brett Helms, LSU
Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas
Josh McNeil, Tennessee