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December 31, 2009

Auburn lands top JUCO transfer Cameron Newton

Quarterback Cameron Newton, the No. 1 junior college recruit in the country, committed to Auburn on Thursday night with plans to enroll in school in the next week.

Auburn’s three recruiting Web sites — AuburnSports.com, Inside the Auburn Tigers and AuburnUndercover.com — first reported the news Thursday night.

The 6-foot-6, 245-pound Newton, who was once Tim Tebow’s backup at Florida, becomes an instant candidate to succeed Chris Todd as the Tigers’ starting quarterback in 2010.

A five-star recruit according to Rivals, Newton picked Auburn over Mississippi State and Oklahoma.

The dual threat led Blinn (Texas) Community College to the junior college national title this season, throwing for 2,833 yards and 22 touchdowns and adding another 655 yards and 16 scores on the ground.

Because he’ll enroll in January, he can participate in spring drills, an important step in competing for the starting quarterback job.

The Tigers’ other candidates include current juniors Neil Caudle and Kodi Burns, redshirt freshman Barrett Trotter and true freshmen Clint Moseley and Tyrik Rollison. Of those players, only Burns, who switched to wide receiver this season, has started a college game at quarterback.

Newton signed with Florida in 2007 and served as Tebow’s backup for two years. He was suspended last fall after being arrested and charged with stealing another student’s laptop and eventually chose to leave the program last January. Those charges were dropped earlier this month after he completed a pretrial intervention program for first-time offenders, according to the Associated Press.

Because he earned a medical redshirt his sophomore year, he’ll have two years to play two at Auburn.

He is the fifth recruit who plans to enroll in January, joining two high schoolers — defensive end Craig Sanders and linebacker Jessel Curry — and two other junior college transfers — offensive tackles Roszell Gayden and Brandon Mosley.

All five will count back against last year’s signing class. The Tigers have 22 other current commitments for 2010.

Outback Bowl position-by-position breakdown

Northwestern (8-4, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. Auburn (7-5, 3-5 SEC)

  • What: Outback Bowl
  • Where: Tampa, Fla.
  • When: Friday, 11:00 a.m. ET, ESPN
  • Last meeting: Teams have never met

QUARTERBACKS

Auburn’s Chris Todd weathered some ups and downs to have a solid overall season. The senior threw for 2,377 yards and a single-season Auburn record 21 touchdowns, all while limiting himself to just six interceptions. Northwestern’s Mike Kafka has thrown for more yards (2,898) but fewer touchdowns (12), although the fifth-year senior adds another element with his running ability (he has seven rushing touchdowns). Edge: Push

RUNNING BACKS

Ben Tate has an outside chance of passing Joe Cribbs for fourth on Auburn’s all-time rushing list, needing to add 155 yards to his career total of 3,213 to get the job done. Tate has 1,254 rushing yards this year. Northwestern’s leading rusher, freshman Arby Fields, has 294 yards. Enough said. Edge: Auburn

RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

The Tigers’ 1-2 punch of Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery is hard to top. Combined, they have 72 catches for 1,321 yards and 15 touchdowns. But the Wildcats match up well. Zeke Markshausen and Andrew Brewer have combined for 128 receptions, 1,566 yards and 10 touchdowns. Auburn might have more big-play potential, but Northwestern has more depth. Edge: Push

OFFENSIVE LINE

Auburn has used the same starting five in all but two games (when Byron Isom served a two-game, team-imposed suspension). The group, led by left tackle Lee Ziemba and center Ryan Pugh, helped pave the way for the SEC’s fourth-best rushing offense. Northwestern starts a junior, three sophomores and a redshirt freshman. Edge: Auburn

DEFENSIVE LINE

Antonio Coleman turned into a terror on the line in the second half of the season for Auburn, finishing atop the SEC leaderboard in sacks and tackles for a loss. But Northwestern has been better across the board. Led by defensive end Corey Wootton, who battled back after tearing his ACL and MCL in last year’s Alamo Bowl, the Wildcats are poised to break the school record for rushing defense, allowing 123.5 yards per game. Edge: Northwestern

LINEBACKERS

Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens have rarely taken a snap off this season, combining for 183 tackles, 12 tackles for a loss and 2.5 sacks. If Eltoro Freeman is healthy, it gives Auburn a solid starting three. Northwestern’s Quentin Davie finished with 81 tackles and a team-best nine tackles for a loss. Nate Williams added 79 tackles. Edge: Push

SECONDARY

Auburn has experienced corners, led by senior Walt McFadden and sophomore Neiko Thorpe, who has played since stepping onto campus. But question marks still exist at safety, where Demond Washington has three games of experience. That’s not a problem for Northwestern, which is led by senior Brad Phillips, who has started 33 career games and led the team with 84 tackles this year. He and cornerback Sherrick McManis were both first-team All-Big Ten picks. Edge: Northwestern

KICKERS/PUNTERS

Wes Byrum only missed one field goal this year for Auburn, and Clinton Durst quietly averaged 40.7 yards per punt. Stefan Demos handles both duties for Northwestern. He was 18-for-23 on field goals and averaged a mere 35.3 yards per punt. Edge: Auburn

RETURN GAMES

Washington gave Auburn the spark in the return game it was looking for late in the season. When he was able to secure the ball, he was fantastic, particularly on kickoffs, where he averaged 32.2 yards per return and took one back 99 yards for a touchdown. While the Tigers had five different players return at least one kick more than 30 yards, Northwestern had one: Stephen Simmons, who had a 64-yard return against Wisconsin. Edge: Auburn

COACHES

This is Gene Chizik‘s first bowl game as a head coach, although he’s been involved in plenty of high-profile bowl games (anyone remember the Vince Young national title game against Southern Cal?). Northwestern’s Pat Fitzgerald coached the Wildcats to the Alamo Bowl last year but lost to Missouri. In the absence of a bowl track record, we’ll go with experience. Edge: Auburn

PREDICTION

Most of these categories were extremely close. The only major edges I came up with were at running back and offensive line. Everything else was close, which is the way I imagine this game ending up. The line started at 7 and has increased to as much as 8 in some places. That seems high to me. I expect each side to do what they do best with plenty of success. Auburn will run it down Northwestern’s throat. Northwestern will throw it at will. Both teams will score, but the Tigers will score just a little bit more. Auburn in a wild one, 37-34.

Tommy Tuberville interested in Texas Tech job

In extremely unsurprising news, former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville has expressed interest in the vacant Texas Tech head coaching job, according to Tony Barnhart at CBSSports.com.

Tuberville’s name has been linked with varying degrees of seriousness to many offseason job openings, including Notre Dame and Kansas. The 55-year-old Tuberville, who still lives in Auburn, worked this season doing commentary work on TV.

“It feels like it’s time to get back in,” Tuberville told CBSSports.com. “I’m still young and I feel good. We’ll see if anything happens.”

Tuberville made this ESPN list of possible candidates to replace Mike Leach, who was fired for cause Wednesday after allegedly mistreating wide receiver Adam James, the son of ESPN commentator Craig James.

Other names being thrown out there are Baylor head coach Art Briles, Texas Tech defensive coordinator/interim head coach Ruffin McNeill, Southern Miss coach Larry Fedora and Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes.

24 hours to go: Auburn goes through final preparations for Outback Bowl

TAMPA, Fla. — It’s been 34 days since Auburn last played a football game, but the Tigers only have 24 more hours to wait before facing Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.

“Our football team is to the point right now that we’re ready to play,” Auburn coach head Gene Chizik said. “When you have your last game close to a month ago, there’s a lot of stuff in between, but now I think our football team is really focused in on the last 24 hours. And we need to be.”

The Tigers will have a walkthrough at Raymond James Stadium this morning before being dismissed briefly at 1 p.m. They’ll convene again at 6 p.m. to begin going through their normal routine the day before a game, with dinner, a devotional and meetings.

“It’s going to be exactly like we do it when we leave to go to LaGrange every week,” Chizik said.

Kickoff tomorrow is at 11 a.m. ET. The game will be televised by ESPN.

Chizik thinks the team has had more than its share of time to prepare, which can be both good and bad.

“Sometimes the evils of this much time is you have every game, you see everything, so if a team does something once in a game, or twice in a game, or two or three times in a game, but very infrequently, you have to prepare for that in your mind and you think this is a possibility,” he said. “Too much knowledge of what they do … that can happen to you. So I think when you go to bowl seasons, I think that what you do is you stick to what you do, you try to be simple, you let your guys play fast and don’t be paralyzed by knowing too much.”

Northwestern hasn’t won a bowl game in 60 years, so it should be plenty motivated. Chizik thinks his squad will be just as ready to play, however.

“As we told our football team, this is not necessarily the last football game of 2009,” he said. “It’s the first game of 2010.”

Here are a few other notes and quotes from today …

  • Chizik doesn’t necessarily mind the early start time. “Our players like it and our coaches like it because you don’t have to get up all day and think about it, watch everybody else,” he said. “You get up, you eat, you go to the stadium and you play. I think that’s the way that our coaches and players would prefer to do that. We like that. We like getting up and getting going.”
  • Northwestern will spend its night like it usually does — watching the TV series “24.” Why “24”? “Jack Bauer,” Wildcats coach Pat Fitzgerald said. “That’s all that needs to be said. He’s a modern day MacGyver.” Somewhere Richard Dean Anderson is smiling.
  • It might rain tomorrow. Fitzgerald doesn’t think that will mean it’ll be a low-scoring game. “I think when the weather is inclement, it’s an advantage for the offense,” he said. “I’ve always thought that way. The offense knows the count, knows what direction of the play, especially when you’re throwing the ball, you don’t have to worry about slipping.” He doesn’t necessarily think it favors a running-based team.
  • Fitzgerald on Northwestern’s 60-year bowl win drought: “There’s an 800-pound gorilla in the corner of the room and I’m really looking forward to getting it off our back and you guys can stop talking about it. But since Day 1, our goal has been to win a bowl.”
  • Fitzgerald thinks highly of Auburn: “It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be against the best team we’ve played all year.” That’s high praise ( or perhaps a predictable platitude on the eve of a bowl game) from a coach whose team played and beat an unbeaten Iowa team that was ranked in the Top 5.

‘Good Guy’ Walt McFadden’s college career coming to an end

I wrote a story for today’s newspaper about cornerback Walt McFadden. Here’s how it starts:

TAMPA, Fla. — A wide smile crept across Walt McFadden’s face when a few Auburn beat writers informed the cornerback that he was the first recipient of the “Good Guy” award, an honor meant to recognize a player who is consistently congenial with the media.

His response stopped just short of wishing for world peace.

“I want to thank the world,” he said, stammering a bit. “I want to thank everybody who’s been listening to and reading my comments. I just want to thank everybody.

“I feel like I’m at an awards show.”

It might have been the first time this season the senior struggled to find the right words. McFadden, who will play his final college game Friday in the Outback Bowl against Northwestern, fully embraces his role as a team leader.

Read the rest here. And follow the blog on Twitter.

December 30, 2009

Practice notes: Auburn’s offense was fast this year, but coordinator Gus Malzahn thinks it can go faster

TAMPA, Fla. — Auburn might have averaged the most plays per game of any team in the SEC, but that’s not fast enough to appease offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, whose offense is based on speed.

“It’ll get faster, there’s no doubt,” he said “We’re not happy with our pace right now. Our number of plays needs to increase, and that comes with execution and getting first downs, too. We expect it to get quite a bit faster.”

The Tigers ran 842 plays a game this year (70.2 per game), ranking 38th out of 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams. That’s only a marginal increase from the 810 plays Auburn ran last year with a disjointed offensive coaching staff.

In his two years at Tulsa, Malzahn’s offenses led the nation in number of plays, with 1,097 in 2008 and 1,126 in 2007.

For Malzahn, the magic number is 70 per game, although the higher, the better.

“We do pride ourselves in the number of snaps,” he said. “That’s a big thing for us. We’d like to get 70-plus snaps, and when we don’t reach that and we don’t win, that’s not good. Usually, if we have 70, we like our chances.”

Follow the blog on Twitter
. And read some more notes from Wednesday …

  • It was a full day for Auburn’s players, who attended an early-morning Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast where former NFL coach Tony Dungy, a Tampa resident, was the keynote speaker. “As you’re preparing (for the Outback Bowl), I just ask you to remember one thing,” Dungy said. “In the meetings that you have left, the preparation and concentration, in practice and in that game on New Year’s Day, do everything you can to win. But remember, it’s just a game. It’s not life. Don’t win the game, but lose your soul.”
  • Head coach Gene Chizik and a few players visited the West Tampa Boys and Girls Club. He handed out 101 tickets to the Outback Bowl so the kids could attend the game. “It’s really neat when you can come to a Boys and Girls Club and give back to these guys,” Chizik said. “There are so many guys in our football program that grew up around a Boys and Girls Club or a YMCA, so anytime you can visit with those young people and give the community something back, it’s always special.”
  • Freshman running back Dontae Aycock, a Tampa native, also spoke to the group of kids. He played basketball at the club when he was younger. “It was good seeing the kids in the club and not out in the streets doing something they’re not supposed to be doing,” he said. “They’re here with all their friends playing games and enjoying themselves. It was a good experience for me.”
  • Can’t remember if I mentioned this before or not, but Auburn will wear blue uniforms Friday while Northwestern will wear white.
  • And lastly, a few Auburn players (mostly walk-ons and redshirts) enjoyed a day at Clearwater beach, where there was a tug-of-war competition between the teams’ cheerleaders. Apparently, Auburn won the overall competition. Here are a few photos:

Auburn wraps up final bowl practice

Under sunny skies and in warmer weather, Auburn had its final full-scale practice before Friday’s Outback Bowl against Northwestern, working out for just over two hours at the University of Tampa this morning.

“Just a great day today,” Auburn head coach Gene Chizik said. “Obviously the weather is beautiful. Hopefully it’s close to this on game day. Today was really our final preparation for the bowl. And I really thought focus was sharp and they were focused and tuned in, so I think it was a great way to end practice, really our last practice of the year. It was a good day.”

Auburn will do a walkthrough tomorrow at Raymond James Stadium, site of the bowl game, treating it like a Friday gathering during a normal game week.

Although today was sunny, there is a 60 percent chance of rain for Friday’s game, with a predicted high of 64 degrees.

“We’ll just play it by ear,” Chizik said. “All our preparation’s been done and in. And obviously circumstances can change what you may or may not do, but for the most part it’s set.”

Former Northwestern All-American Pat Fitzgerald carrying on legacy at his alma mater as coach

I wrote a story for today’s newspaper about Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald. Here’s how it starts:

TAMPA, Fla. — No official line of succession had been planned, but Northwestern’s players already had a sense of how it would unfold.

Pat Fitzgerald, the young, well-spoken, former All-American-turned-linebackers coach would someday take the reins at his alma mater from Randy Walker, the self-described “Johnny off the pickle boat” who returned the Wildcats to respectability in the Big Ten following Gary Barnett’s departure.

Unfortunately, the timetable was accelerated following Walker’s unexpected death of a heart attack at age 52 in the summer of 2006.

“I think what (Walker) set was a precedent for Northwestern and what we’re about,” quarterback Mike Kafka said. “I think Coach Fitz has taken that to the next level and the team to the next level, and I think Coach Walk definitely is still ingrained in our program.”

Read the whole thing here. And follow the blog on Twitter.

I’ll be back later today with another update from practice.

December 29, 2009

Late practice notes: Through highs and lows, quarterback Chris Todd pushed on

TAMPA, Fla. — Only four quarters remain in Auburn quarterback Chris Todd’s winding career, one in which he’s played the scapegoat and the hero, sometimes within a matter of a few weeks.

“People are trying to remind me, but I’m trying to treat it like it’s the next week,” Todd said. “After I’m done I can kind of look back on it and I can really cherish some of the stuff I went through.”

It’s been an unusual career for Todd, one that’s included two transfers, shoulder problems and occasional backlash from the home crowd.

But the senior has made his mark on the Plains regardless. Todd, who is 10-7 as a starter at Auburn, threw 21 touchdowns this year, setting the school’s single-season record, a remarkable feat considering he didn’t enter the quarterback picture until the summer following shoulder surgery last December.

“Everything he went through, he was battle-tested,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “He doesn’t get too high or too low. A quarterback at Auburn or a quarterback in the SEC, that’s what you’ve got to do. I think he’s had fun. And he’s gone above and beyond our expectations.”

Todd gained his teammates’ respect for the hours he logged at Auburn’s athletic complex during the offseason, trying to soak in everything he could about Malzahn’s system so he could jump into the quarterback mix once his arm allowed him to. He said he never stayed overnight but conceded that he had napped there a few times.

“Between the workout time that they already require of us, that coupled with the rehab he was doing on his shoulder, and then when the coaching staff got here trying to learn a new offense, that doesn’t leave much time in the day other than to do those things and to go to class,” right tackle Andrew McCain said. “And he’s one of those guys that just really embraced his opportunity.”

Todd grew to appreciate the school’s traditions and history, even if he took his fair share of abuse from Auburn fans.

“Coming through certain situations and working hard and really giving everything you’ve got, that’s all you can do to try to carry on what Auburn’s already done,” he said. “I feel humbled and very grateful to be a part of a program like Auburn.”

Follow the blog on Twitter. And read some more notes and quotes from Tuesday …

  • Auburn went through its third practice in Tampa on Tuesday. After eight practices in Auburn before making the trip south, coaches are trying to keep things fresh. “It’s definitely important,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “You don’t want things to become mundane, same old same old. Although there is a certain amount of that that’s going to go on when you have some base things that you believe in. But just to keep it interesting and try to challenge them not only physically, but mentally to keep something fresh, a new angle. I think that’s important to keep them mentally focused.”
  • The Tigers enjoyed a trip to the amusement park Busch Gardens on Monday evening, although roller coasters weren’t high on everybody’s to-do list. McCain said it was the first time left tackle Lee Ziemba had ever been on a roller coaster. “I looked over there and he was sweating, almost to the point of tears because he was so nervous,” McCain said with a laugh. “That was probably the most exciting moment for me was to watch him suffer when the roller coaster took off.”
  • Asked if anybody screamed during their roller coaster excursion, linebacker Craig Stevens had this to say: “I think everybody did. We went back and looked at the picture and everybody looked terrified.
  • Some Auburn players avoided the roller coasters altogether. “Man, I don’t do all the heights and stuff,” defensive end Antonio Coleman said. “I like to ride in the teacup sand stuff like that. I’m a real slow and gentle guy. I like to coast.”
  • Coleman is getting somewhat wistful that his last college game is rapidly approaching. “Coach Roof reminds me of that daily. Yesterday we were in full pads. I was sweating real bad and he was like ‘I see those tears. This is your last inside drill here at Auburn University.’ Then today he gave me another joke. … It’s set in. I mean, you move on to bigger and better things, hopefully.”
  • Roof had good things to say about senior DT Jake Ricks. “He is such a solid, solid force inside,” he said. “When he comes to the practice field and he comes to the game field you’re going to get his absolute best. It’s good to be able to count on a guy, just like in all sports, to be strong up the middle. He’s certainly had a very physical season, had a great year for us. Also, not only on the field but also what he brings to our locker room.”
  • Ricks, on his future plans: “Who knows? I really don’t know right now. I’m going to sit down after this game and have a talk with my parents and see what they think. Hopefully I’m going to get an NFL shot but if that doesn’t work out then I’m going to go back to school and finish. We’ll see.”
  • One note on junior college quarterback Cameron Newton. The five-star recruit has apparently eliminated Oklahoma from consideration, leaving his choice between Auburn and Mississippi State. Newton originally planned to announce his intentions on Thursday but has pushed back making his decision public until Saturday at the earliest, according to the subscription recruiting site BulldawgJunction.com.
  • Lastly, an itinerary update. Auburn’s players have team night at GameWorks, a video game bar near Ybor City. A trip to Clearwater Beach is on the docket for tomorrow, although considering the water temperatures, I can’t imagine anybody doing much swimming.

Auburn senior Walt McFadden named first recipient of ‘Good Guy’ award by media

This is something we beat writers have been talking about doing for a while. We’ll make this as official as possible. Here’s a press release on the subject …

TAMPA, Fla. — Auburn senior cornerback Walter “Walt” McFadden has been selected as the first recipient of the “Good Guy Award,” which will be presented annually by the local chapter of Auburn beat writers.

The award is meant to recognize a player who is consistently congenial and professional in his interactions with the media.

The East Alabama Auburn Beat Writers Association of America voted to give McFadden the inaugural award for his friendly demeanor, regular participation in media interviews and outstanding quotablity.

“Walt is a reporter’s best friend,” said EAABWAA media relations committee chairman Evan Woodbery, beat writer for the Mobile Press-Register. “He could speak intelligently on any number of topics and his outstanding sense of humor never wavered.”

McFadden will be presented with a plaque from the EAABWAA at a later date.

“I really do appreciate that,” McFadden said when informed of the honor. “I want to thank everybody…I feel like I’m at an awards show.”

Other players deserving of honorable mention include quarterback Chris Todd, who was always willing to speak during good times and bad, tight end Tommy Trott, H-back Mario Fannin and linebackers Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens.

McFadden, a native of Pompano Beach, Fla., has started 24 consecutive games for the Tigers and was an All-SEC second team selection. He is also a member of the SEC’s community service team.

“You couldn’t have picked a better one,” said Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. “He’s a great ambassador for Auburn. He’s a great person. He’s a great football player. He’s always the same. He never changes, so what you see is what you get. I wasn’t aware of the award, but now that I am I don’t think you could have picked a better one. That was a good pick.”

The EAABWAA is an informal professional organization devoted to advancing sports journalism.