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March 31, 2009

Reports: VCU to hire Florida assistant

So much for any Jeff Lebo-to-Virginia Commonwealth University talk. The Rams hired Florida assistant Shaka Smart to be their new head coach, according to multiple reports.

Lebo’s name came up shortly after Anthony Grant left VCU to become the head coach at Alabama. VCU athletic director Norwood Teague, a North Carolina alum, put Lebo’s name on a list of four candidates he was considering for the job.

VCU never made contact with Auburn, athletic director Jay Jacobs said Sunday.

March 30, 2009

New video, plus some shameless promotion

Here’s some video of interviews done Sunday. It’s got defensive coordinator Ted Roof, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, linebacker Eltoro Freeman (check out the guns!), guard Byron Isom and running backs Onterio McCalebb and Ben Tate.

Plus, here’s a link to my newspaper story today about the offensive line. A lot of stuff I’ve covered here on the blog, but now it’s in story form.


Spring practice: Sunday’s notes and quotes

Ben Tate might not be the fastest running back on the Auburn roster, an honor that goes to speedy Hargrave Military Academy transfer Onterio McCalebb, but he’s tired of being pigeonholed as the team’s power back.

“Some people always tell me when I run, I never look fast,” Tate said. “I’m like, ‘Really? Well race me.’”

The 5-foot-11, 217-pound Tate ran a 4.4-second 40-yard dash when the team was timed before Auburn’s pro day. That’s just as fast as tailback Mario Fannin, who is largely considered by outsiders to be the speedier of the two.

Tate, who puts himself among the fastest players on the team along with defensive backs Walt McFadden, Neiko Thorpe and Harry Adams, thinks it’s his longer stride that makes him look slow.

“Most of the guys on our team think I’m fast,” Tate said. “But everybody else, they be like, ‘I don’t know.’”

Tate ran for 664 rushing yards last season, a disappointing dropoff after he put up 903 yards and eight touchdowns in 2007. So far, he’s drawn strong praise. Running backs coach Curtis Luper thinks he can be a 1,000-yard back. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn likes what he’s seen in the early going.

“He has that physical edge,” Malzahn said, “that mentality that we’re looking for.”

While Tate is quick to point out his speed, he still won’t go up in any direct competition against McCalebb, who was clocked at 4.3 seconds in the 40.

Some other quotes and notes …

  • Malzahn said the team should have the majority of its base offense installed by the end of next week.
  • Malzahn, on the offense so far: “We’ve thrown a lot at them. We’re not only throwing a lot at them, we’re throwing a pace at them in that they have to recover. It usually takes a couple of weeks where they can actually recover, and mentally being able to recover for the next play. We’re putting a lot of stress on them. We’re straining them right now. We’ll keep after them.”
  • Malzahn singled out wide receiver Tim Hawthorne having made a couple of good catches Sunday.
  • Tate, on putting last season behind him: “January passed and I was like, ‘It’s over with. I’ve got to work harder than I did before.'”
  • Fannin was wearing a protective walking boot Sunday. He turned an ankle in practice Saturday and hopes to be back on the field later this week.
  • Defensive coordinator Ted Roof singled out junior outside linebacker Craig Stevens for the second straight day. “Funny how it keeps happening, huh?” Roof said. “He’s very coachable. He’s a salty veteran.”
  • Add guard Byron Isom to the bulked-up offensive lineman club. The junior is up to 300 pounds, a 15-pound increase from last year. He’d like to be at 305 for the season.
  • We got to talk to junior college transfer Eltoro Freeman for the first time today. Very entertaining interview. He talked to us about the non-contact drills, which, if you saw the size of Freeman’s biceps, you’d understand why he doesn’t like them. “Those backs, they try to shake you and keep running,” he said. “When they’re supposed to be down, they keep running like they scored a 100-yard touchdown or whatever. But then when you get in full pads, you get a chance to stop that.”
  • I plan to do a feature on Da Bull at some point, but he said he never wavered on Auburn, even during its down period last year. “When I signed with Auburn University in 2007, I didn’t sign with no coaches. (Tommy) Tuberville wasn’t on my scholarship, coach (James) Willis wasn’t on my scholarship. Auburn University was on my scholarship. So when I didn’t qualify, Auburn, they didn’t drop me, they still kept in contact, they still kept on encouraging me. When Auburn had a down season, I sat back and thought about that, they were with me when I was down, so I decided to stick with them when they were down. Plus, it’s a great place. I wouldn’t want to be nowhere else.”
  • Another good tidbit on Freeman: he wears No. 21 to honor his his football-playing first cousin, Onterio Harrell, a high school teammate of Terrell Owens. Harrell died of cancer at age 24. “Everywhere I go I’ve been having it,” Freeman said. “So that’s been a blessing for me.”
  • Lots of great stuff from McCalebb, which I’m going to turn into a feature for Wednesday’s paper. Short version: this kid has persevered through a pretty tough upbringing in Fort Meade, Fla., to get to where he’s at, going through a military prep school in Virginia before getting to Auburn. Very impressive. I hope the story can do it justice.

March 29, 2009

Baseball: Auburn 11, Vanderbilt 10

AUBURN, Ala. — Banished to the locker room an inning earlier following his ejection, John Pawlowski sat alone as his team’s bullpen struggled to hold a five-run ninth-inning lead.

Was he listening?

“I was hoping,” the first-year Auburn coach said. “I was hoping to hear the crowd cheering.”

He finally did when reliever Austin Hubbard induced a ground out to end Vanderbilt’s furious rally in Auburn’s wild 11-10 victory at Plainsman Park on Sunday.

Aided by a hitter’s friendly wind that was blowing out to all fields, the Tigers (18-9, 4-5 SEC) smacked five home runs to take the rubber match of a three-game series, bouncing back from a sweep against Arkansas last weekend.

“We didn’t play real well (last weekend), but this league is about getting up off the mat,” Pawlowski said. “You’re going to get knocked down and you’ve get to get back up and you’ve got to get back up and fight.”

Quick thoughts …

  • Trent Mummey, Kevin Patterson, Brian Fletcher, Justin Hargett and Hunter Morris all went deep, Auburn’s third game this season with at least five home runs.
  • The Tigers have already matched last year’s home run total with 58. With 29 games left on the schedule, they are 29 shy of the school record.
  • Starter Taylor Thompson (2-1) gave Auburn exactly what it needed in a third starter. The right-hander went five innings in his first conference start, giving up four runs on six hits. The junior struck out four and left the game with a 7-2 lead.
  • Nice argument by Pawlowski on a weird play in the eighth. Vandy failed on a squeeze play and two runners got caught up on third. Catcher Tony Caldwell tagged one and then other once he strolled of the bag for an apparent double play. The umps convened and said that only one of them was out. Pawlowski went nuts, arguing the play for several minutes. He took off his hat, waved it frantically and slammed it to the ground after third base umpire Kevin Sanders finally ejected him. Honestly, I think the umps got the call right, but Pawlowski had been festering since a bad call from Saturday and was probably looking to get tossed.
  • Oh, that Auburn bullpen. Hubbard gave up four runs in the ninth to make it a one-run game before finally shutting the door. When the wind blows out at Plainsman Park, no lead is safe.
  • Auburn plays next at South Alabama on Tuesday at 7 p.m. EDT.

Men’s swimming and diving claims national title

The Tigers men’s swimming and diving team won its eighth national championship in College Station, Texas, late last night. Auburn finished with 526 points to Texas’ 487. The Tigers trailed by six points heading into the final day but rallied for the win.

That’s Auburn’s sixth national title in the last seven years. The Tigers also have championships in 1997, ’99 and from 2003-07.

The school’s eight national titles are tied for fifth all time, behind Michigan (11), Ohio State (11), Southern California (9), Texas (9) and Stanford (9).

Coach Richard Quick, who was forced to take a leave from the team midseason after being diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, now has 13 national titles in his illustrious career, more than any other coach in NCAA swimming and diving history. He is the first coach to win national titles at three different schools, having won seven at Stanford and five at Texas. Quick was not in College Station, so the Tigers were led by assistant Brett Hawke.

Individually, Kohlton Norys and Matt Targett won four NCAA titles each. Norys took the team’s lone individual title, winning the 100 backstroke. The Tigers won three relay titles.

Auburn set three U.S. Open, three NCAA and 17 school records at the meet.

New football video: Saturday edition

Hey all, I’ve got another new video following Saturday’s practice.

This one’s got Gene Chizik (briefly, because my batteries ran out), offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, defensive coordinator Ted Roof, wide receiver Philip Pierre-Louis and center Ryan Pugh.

Enjoy. More blog action tomorrow after practice, so check back.

Baseball: Auburn 5, Vanderbilt 3

After being swept by Arkansas last weekend, the Auburn baseball team was desperate for a chance simply to win a series.

The Tigers’ 5-3 win against Vanderbilt at Plainsman Park on Saturday guarantees they’ll get that opportunity today.

Brian Fletcher and Ben Jones homered, Jon Luke Jacobs pitched into the seventh and the bullpen actually held a lead as Auburn (17-9, 3-5 SEC) ended a four-game losing streak in the conference.

“We didn’t play very well (Friday) night and I told our guys it’s important today to get back even, to get back to square one,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said, “which means we have to go out and play better baseball and execute.”

Some notes and thoughts …

  • Strong outing by Jacobs, who went 6 2/3, giving up three runs on eights hits. He struck out six to pick up his third win of the season. He still doesn’t have a loss. “I thought he went out there and established the zone early in the game and did a great job for us,” Pawlowski said. “I thought that was the difference today.”
  • Auburn’s bats showed up, a day after a five-hit power outage in a 12-3 loss Friday night. Fletcher and Jones both hit homers. Jones’ in the sixth proved to be the difference. “I was looking fastball and he gave me a changeup, and I just kind of happened to run into it,” he said.
  • Nice piece of hitting by Hunter Morris early in the third inning. Vanderbilt used a shift against the lefty but couldn’t completely move the entire infield to the right side because there was a runner on second who would have easily stolen third if the third baseman wasn’t in his usual spot. With two strikes, Morris grounded a ball where the third baseman would have been in a usual shift, getting it to the outfield for an RBI single.
  • The bullpen looked like it might have a repeat performance after Bradley Hendrix gave up an RBI single on the second pitch he threw in the seventh to get Vanderbilt within 5-3. But Hendrix buckled down, striking out three in his two innings and pitching around trouble. He couldn’t quite finish it, but Austin Hubbard struck out Curt Casali, the only batter he faced, to strand two runners in the ninth and pick up his fourth save.
  • Rubber match today at 2 p.m. EDT. Vanderbilt (17-9, 3-5 SEC) will pitch right-hander Nick Christiani (3-0, 4.78 ERA). Auburn doesn’t know yet, although it will probably be Dexter Price (3-0, 4.68), Taylor Thompson (1-1, 8.38 ERA) or Paul Burnside (0-2, 6.53).

March 28, 2009

Spring practice: Saturday’s notes and quotes

We were shut out from watching Saturday’s practice, and thank goodness, since the weather didn’t look so pleasant out there and I had no intention of standing in the rain.

We found out afterward that Auburn was in pads for the first time and did some physical drills, although not nearly physical enough if you asked the coaches.

“I thought at times, we showed signs of being physical, but we certainly didn’t make a habit of it today, which was obviously what we have to get back to,” head coach Gene Chizik said.

The Tigers did some 11-on-11 work and made a game of it. If the offense got four yards or more, it won the play. If the defense held the offense to three yards or less, it won the play. (I guess there was a tie if it was 3 1/2 yards). The defense apparently ruled the day.

“We actually did some good things and got past the chains, then we kind of lost the momentum,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “When you’re rotating that many people, there’s going to be some bad. The good thing from a coach’s standpoint is we get to evaluate our guys. We get to see where they’re at. When you’re in evaluation stages, you’ve got to be patient. I’m not very patient, but I’ve got to be.”

On to some notes and quotes …

  • Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle worked with the ones at quarterback Saturday. Barrett Trotter worked with the twos. Chris Todd continued to watch because of his shoulder. The coaches say it’s a wide-open race, but it appears there are at least two early frontrunners.
  • Malzahn liked going up against a defense for the first time. “It’s great when you’re out there in helmets to evaluate, but there’s nothing like when those live bullets are coming at you and the speed,” he said. “That’s when you see some separation sometimes. I’m not saying anything specific, but now we can start really evaluating a little more than we can in just helmets.”
  • Despite the fact that they are installing a new offense, the coaches aren’t very forgiving for mistakes, which have been plentiful this spring. “We’re not where we should be yet,” Caudle said. “Coach Malzahn said we made a lot of mistakes today. We’ve got to get that better and get in the film room and get in the playbooks. We’ve got to be perfect – especially in 7-on-7s when there’s no line rush or anything. We’ve got to make perfect throws.”
  • Burns said running back Ben Tate had a good day in the 11-on-11. A few days back, running backs coach Curtis Luper said Tate will be a 1,000-yard back.
  • Hargrave Military Academy transfer Onterio McCalebb has impressed coaches with his speed. Sounds like he and Mario Fannin will be the Tigers’ Swiss Army knives next year, doing a bit of everything. “We’re moving him around,” Chizik said. “He’s such a skillful guy in the open field right now, he’s a tailback some, he’s a wideout some, he’s a reverse guy some. He’s going to wear a lot of different hats.”
  • Spoke to Philip Pierre-Louis for the first time this spring and wideout said he’s feeling as good as he’s felt after missing last year because of an ACL tear. He’s still limited in practice, wearing an orange jersey, meaning he’s not allowed to take any contact. He’s wearing a brace on his right knee but said he isn’t restricted by it. “Sometimes I forget I’m even wearing the brace,” he said.
  • Malzahn doesn’t seem put off by Pierre-Louis’ size (5-8, 157): “A lot of people say little guys can’t be receivers, but I always look at it, ‘What’s their range?’ I’ve seen some little guys in the past that had great range and they played like a big receiver. He’s been a little banged up, so it’s really hard to evaluate completely. He’s got some quickness and some miss-ability.”
  • Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said linebackers Josh Bynes, Spencer Pybus and Craig Stevens are working with the first team. Eltoro Freeman, Wade Christopher and Da’Shaun Barnes are with the second group.
  • Some guys Roof was impressed with early: Stevens, defensive tackle Mike Blanc and safeties Zac Etheridge and Mike McNeil.
  • Left tackle Lee Ziemba isn’t the only offensive lineman who has packed on the pounds. Center Ryan Pugh is up to 290 pounds after playing last year at 270. “Carrying it is a lot more heavy,” he said. “Using it helps out a lot because the guy across from you is going to be 300-plus everywhere you go. You’ll catch a guy that’s a little smaller but he’s going to be pretty quick. But putting that weight on definitely helps as far as being able to get leverage, especially because I’m short already so I need a little more weight, put a little more lead in my pencil, but as far as putting on weight, I think it’s helped us across the board.”

Report: VCU AD has Lebo on list of candidates

Virginia Commonwealth athletic director Norwood Teague has Auburn basketball coach Jeff Lebo on his short list of candidates to replace Anthony Grant, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch. Grant was hired to be Alabama’s head coach yesterday, agreeing to a contract that will pay him around $2 million a season.

So what to make of all this? Well, it’s Saturday morning, and the athletic complex is generally vacant this time of the week, so any kind of comment regarding the situation might be tough to get today.

These questions have to be asked:

Q: What’s the connection?
A: Teague is a 1988 North Carolina graduate who later worked in the athletic department for some time. Lebo, as you may have heard a time or two, starred at North Carolina from 1986-89.

Q: Who else is on the list?
A: Glad you asked. Here’s it is:

  • VCU assistant Tony Pujol (0 years head coaching experience)
  • Florida assistant Shaka Smart (0 years head coaching experience)
  • Texas assistant Russell Springmann (0 years head coaching experience)
  • Lebo (11 years head coaching experience, 80-76 record in five years at Auburn)

Q: Huh?
A: Exactly. One of these things is not like the other. Lebo doesn’t fit the profile of coaches VCU has gone after in the past (Grant, Jeff Capel), up-and-coming assistants who are going to shine for a couple years and move on to something bigger.

I’ve got to think this is just an old friend helping Lebo leverage a better contract. That’s how the game is played. Remember, Lebo’s only making $785,00 a year. That doesn’t look so hot in the wake of Grant’s $2 million a year windfall. Otherwise, this doesn’t make much sense. Auburn is one year away from moving into a plush, new arena. VCU, while a good mid-major, doesn’t have nearly the facilities Auburn will in a year. Plus, Lebo would be moving from the SEC to the Colonial Athletic Association. Not a step up.

There’s also the matter of the buyout on Lebo’s contract, which goes through 2013. It would cost $1.5 million for him to get out of it. That’s a lot of cash for a school like VCU to pony up, considering it was only paying Grant $700,000 a year.

I can’t imagine this goes anywhere, but we’ll stay on top of it. The VCU AD said he wants someone in place by Thursday, so if anything happens, it will be quick.

Baseball: Vanderbilt 12, Auburn 3

AUBURN, Ala. — Ahead by three and with ace Grant Dayton on the mound, Auburn couldn’t have asked for a much better opportunity to snap a three-game SEC slide Friday.

Four catastrophic innings later and the Tigers’ early surge was nothing but a footnote in another ugly loss.

Dayton gave up four sixth-inning runs and the bullpen imploded as Vanderbilt battered Auburn pitchers for 22 hits in a 12-3 victory at Plainsman Park. It was the most hits the Tigers allowed all season.

“I’m disappointed by the way we lost,” Auburn coach John Pawlowski said.

That’s four straight home conference losses for the Tigers (16-9, 2-5 SEC), who were swept by Arkansas last weekend.

“We have to learn how to play baseball better,” Pawlowski said. “Right now, we are just not playing good baseball and doing little things.”

Some notes and thoughts …

  • Not a bad outing for Dayton (2-3), who threw five scoreless innings before a mess of a sixth. He lost his second straight decision for the first time in his career, giving up four runs on 10 hits in six innings. He struck out four.
  • While it’s odd to look at one play in a nine-run loss, Auburn didn’t help Dayton out in the sixth defensively. After Andrew Giobbi hit an RBI single to left to get Vanderbilt on the board, he tried to advance to second on the throw to the plate as Aaron Westlake retreated to the base. But catcher Tony Caldwell sailed his throw into center field. Instead of getting one guaranteed out, both runners came around to score on the error, tying the game at 3.
  • Auburn’s bullpen is abysmal. There’s no other word for it. The Commodores scored eight runs in the final three innings. Seventeen of their 22 hits came in the final four innings. It was the most the Tigers’ pitching staff had allowed all season.
  • Very pedestrian night at the plate for Auburn, which managed only five hits off Vandy starter Mike Minor (2-2). Minor struck out 11, fanning nine of the first 15 batters he faced. Remember, this is a pitcher who had an 0-2 record and 5.56 ERA in his first two SEC starts.
  • The teams play again today at 4 p.m. EDT, weather permitting. Jon Luke Jacobs (2-0, 4.97 ERA) takes the mound for Auburn against Vanderbilt’s Caleb Cotham (3-2, 3.90).