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March 31, 2010

Full practice notes: Quarterback battle still at four

AUBURN, Ala. — After five practices, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is having a hard time narrowing down the Tigers’ four-man quarterback race.

“That’s a really good thing,” he said Wednesday. “We feel like we have four quality quarterbacks and we’ll be in better shape depth-wise going into this season than we were last season.”

Auburn’s quarterbacks — senior Neil Caudle, junior Cam Newton, sophomore Barrett Trotter and redshirt freshman Clint Moseley — have split reps evenly.

Now that the Tigers have installed almost everything in the offense they will this spring, Malzahn expects that group to shrink in order to give the potential starter more looks.

He just doesn’t know how much he’ll whittle the list or when.

“There’s no set plan,” Malzahn said. “We’re a timing offense and we’re going to try our best with guys that have the best chance of winning the job, we’ll try to hang onto those guys as long as we can.

“Once we figure that out and people separate themselves, we’ll start narrowing it down.”

Malzahn was exceedingly complimentary of all four candidates. He’s been pleased with the daily improvement of Trotter and Moseley and said the veteran Caudle “knows the offense just about as well as I do.”

But Newton, the top-rated junior college transfer in the country and presumptive frontrunner for the starting job, continues to pique more interest among Auburn’s fans than the rest.

“He has a better understanding of what’s going on,” Malzahn said. “In our system, there’s a lot of things that you have to know before the play even starts and that’s half the battle. He’s getting more comfortable with that so he can react and play football once the ball’s snapped.”

Here are some more notes and quotes from today’s practice (and if you like what you see, follow the blog on Twitter):

  • Cornerback T’Sharvan Bell made a splash in Auburn’s bowl game and so far has carried that over to the spring. “His whole approach to things, to life, he’s made some major strides in that,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “I’m really proud of him.” Bell, who redshirted in 2008, was held back last August with a knee injury and played sparingly on the regular defense. But he made a major impact in Auburn’s depleted secondary in the Outback Bowl, intercepting two passes in the Tigers’ 38-35 win against Northwestern. Bell has settled in at corner this spring, backing up projected starters Demond Washington and Neiko Thorpe. “He’s had a good offseason,” Roof said. “He just has to continue to work to get better. I’m confident that he’s going to do that.”
  • Auburn hasn’t set a depth chart at its revamped safety positions yet. Mike McNeil (leg) and Aairon Savage (Achilles’) have worked their way back into a rotation with Drew Cole, Mike Slade and walk-on Ikeem Means. “We’re just seeing how it sorts out,” Roof said. “Guys coming off injuries, you have to be careful how you bring them back. You don’t want to throw them out there to do too much too quick. There’s a certain process you go through when you come back to gain confidence. It’s a goal for those two guys to feel confident, where they don’t have to think about it, that it’s in the rear-view mirror.”
  • Asked what has stood out so far about McNeil, Roof paused eight seconds before coming up with this answer: “Experience. You can see that he’s played a lot of football. Right now, that’s what kind of stands out.” Yup, not liking McNeil’s chances for playing time too much this year.
  • Zac Etheridge (neck) hasn’t dressed out yet (and probably won’t this spring), although Roof said the senior is a full member of the team, taking mental reps and sitting in on all team meetings.
  • Had a quick interview with linebacker Jessel Curry, who graduated high school early to enroll at Auburn in January. He’s backing up Eltoro Freeman at strong-side linebacker. I plan to write a little more on him as soon as I can get an interview with Craig Sanders (the other early enrollee from high school). Curry says he has no regrets about leaving school early, not even if it means missing prom. “I’ve never been to a prom or homecoming, so I wouldn’t even want to go back,” Curry. “That’d be a waste of money to me.”
  • Roof has seen slow progress out of the two so far: “It’s a little bit different because Craig Sanders plays close to the ball. The closer you play to the ball, the bigger the adjustment is. You have less reaction time. I’ve been really pleased with him. His effort has carried over from the offseason program. He’s going to be a good football player. He’s doing well. Jess has picked things up pretty quickly. I’ve been really impressed with both of them. I think it was a very good decision on their part for them to enroll here early. They’re both going to have a jump on it come summer.”
  • More positive talk about Freeman, this time from Roof: “Anytime there’s a transition, there’s growing pains. He certainly went through those growing pains. How he’s responded to those and the way he’s handled those, I’ve been pleased. There has got to be a sense of urgency from all of us. We’re in a race against the clock. We have to get better right now. He’s done a good job with that sense of urgency. That’s not just for one coach or one player. That’s how we’ve got to approach things.” (It’s at this point that I should note that Freeman has been requested to be interviewed after every practice, and so far he’s been scratched from the list every time.)
  • I’ve got some stuff on Nosa Eguae and Dee Ford that I’d like to put into a feature story for later this week, so I’ll hold that material. The short news is that Eguae had a stress fracture in his foot last year that probably would have caused it to break had he kept playing (they discovered the injury just before the start of the season).
  • Ford, meanwhile, is up 20 pounds since arriving at Auburn to 235. He wants to be at 250 by the start of the season. Is it fun to put on that kind of weight? “It’s fun but you’re bloated a lot,” he said.

Quick practice notes: Auburn hopes to limit big plays on defense by being faster

We just finished some interviews after Day 5 of Auburn’s spring practice. Here some quick notes:

  • Ted Roof is on board with Auburn’s defense sacrificing some size to get faster across the board. He thinks it will helps the Tigers cut down on some of the big plays they gave up last year, what he termed the defense’s Achilles’ heel. “It’s good, because if you tackle a guy, you have to run fast,” he said. “You get more guys to the ball quicker, you eliminate the big plays. … You get more hats to the ball and guys that can run in space and tackle in space.”
  • Roof, like offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, thinks his defensive unit is ahead of where it was last year. “Not be to confused with far enough along,” he said, “but further than we were at this point last year.”
  • T’Sharvan Bell has shown a new focus this spring, Roof said. Bell, who had a strong showing in the Outback Bowl, has worked at cornerback.
  • Zac Etheridge continue to be held out of drills, although Roof said he’s in all the meetings and has been taking mental reps.
  • Four quarterbacks continue to split reps. Malzahn said they’re still splitting reps and that they’re playing well enough that the decision hard is on him.
  • Malzahn said he’s seen more urgency to Mario Fannin this year at tailback, although he noted he’d still like two quality ballcarriers to rely on next season.
  • Malzahn on Neil Caudle: “Neil knows the offense just as well as I do.”
  • DE Nosa Eguae‘s foot injury last year was to his third metatarsal. “It was a stress fracture, but it was to the point where it was pretty much broken,” he said.

I’ll be back with a full practice update and possibly some video a little later.

Junior college transfers vie for right tackle job

I wrote a story for today’s newspaper about junior college transfers Roszell Gayden and Brandon Mosley. Here’s how it starts:

AUBURN, Ala. — One glance at Auburn’s two offensive line junior college transfers, and the first thing that stands out is their size.

Roszell Gayden and Brandon Mosley each stand 6 feet, 6 inches tall. Gayden is trying to slim down at 321 pounds; Mosley is trying to pack on some pounds at 295. But they are legitimately big.

“Both those guys look the part,” Tigers offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said.

Now for the tricky question: Which one will start at right tackle this year?

March 29, 2010

Full practice notes: A Shon Coleman update

Here’s a full rundown from today’s post-practice interviews:

  • We’ve got some more news about Auburn football signee Shon Coleman, thanks to the Memphis Commercial-Appeal. Olive Branch High athletics director Pete Cordelli told the newspaper that Coleman had a lump removed from his head shortly after spring break. It was determined to be malignant late last week and Coleman began treatment last weekend.
  • Running back Onterio McCalebb may have some added bulk during winter workouts, but running backs coach Curtis Luper said the sophomore needs to adjust his running style to make a major step forward next season. “He still needs to learn how to play running back in this league,” Luper said. “He’s so fast that he wants to run east and west. The emphasis for him this spring is to get him north and south — to get him more vertical with the football.”
  • McCalebb ran for 565 yards last year but battled an ankle injury that limited his carries late in the season. He gained 15 pounds this offseason, putting him at 175, which Luper doesn’t think will affect McCalebb’s speed but will help his endurance. “For him, it’s his health,” Luper said. “If he’s healthy, he can help us. If he’s not, he’s a detriment to us offense. If he’s stronger, he’s more apt to be healthy.”
  • Luper said Mario Fannin‘s not necessarily the No. 1 running back, but he goes first in drills. “He’s comfortable there,” Luper said. “He’s getting more comfortable there every day. In this offense, it’s just a matter of getting comfortable with the tempo and everything. The whole thought process it expedited because we go so fast. Once he gets comfortable, then we’ll be able to see the talents god has given him.”
  • Fannin feels like his fumbling problems — which basically stem from the South Florida game his freshman year — are well behind him. “Yeah. That’s funny. A lot of people, they remember the South Florida game,” he said. “They don’t understand, that was my freshman year. That was my first game in a college-like atmosphere. Me playing quarterback out of high school, I really didn’t have any problems with the ball. I’ve grown from it, I know my mistakes, that’s something I’ve always tried to work on since that game. I think I’ve gotten a lot better at it; a lot of people just have that stuck in their minds. But you’ve just got to overlook it and just keep working hard and understand that happens, that’s football, you’ve just got to overcome it.”
  • To combat the problem, Fannin has worked on securing the ball high and tight. It’s something he says he never had to think about in high school. “In high school, defenders don’t tackle the ball, they tackle you,” he said. “Here in college, defenders are taught to tackle the ball. I understand that more, now it’s more high and tight. Two hands on the ball in traffic and things of that nature.”
  • Auburn’s punt returners have done a variety of bizarre drills this spring. One required the player to let the ball hit him in the facemask instead of catching it. “It helps you get your footwork right and getting up under the ball and getting your letters right,” cornerback Demond Washington said. “You’ve got to get up under it. That’s probably the hardest part — knowing where the ball’s going to fall and getting up under it.” The Tigers did another drill Monday where they caught the ball with one hand. “All the guys called me ‘Little Hands’ like I was in the Burger King commercial,” Washington said. “I couldn’t catch it like that. That was pretty tough.”
  • Chizik thinks Washington’s brief stint at safety helped him learn more about the cornerback spot. “I think that it gave him an overall better grasp of what we’re trying to do both at safety and at corner,” Chizik said. “It bridges the gap on anything you don’t know when you play both, because you really understand how that fits more with the corner position. I think anytime you can cross-train somebody at two positions, it can do nothing but help, provided that they’re mentally ready for that. And he was.”
  • After sitting out a year following his transfer from Minnesota, Ralph Spry has made strides this spring. “I think that he knows that he can play now, where before he knew he was going to be scout team,” wide receives coach Trooper Taylor said. “There was no light at the end of the tunnel.” Spry, the son of Auburn track and field coach Ralph Spry, played in 12 games as a freshman with the Gophers in 2008. He caught 23 passes for 226 yards and three touchdowns. “(He’s) already had college experience before he transferred here,” Taylor said. “So there’s no substitute for that.”
  • Tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen was not dressed out Monday. Chizik said he was dinged up. Running back Dontae Aycock was ill and did not practice.
  • Chizik cited a need to shore up the run defense early this spring. “Stopping the run, (we’re) getting knocked off the ball some. … We’ve just got a long way to go defensively in so many areas. Not that we don’t offensively, but you know, we’ve got to, again, as I said earlier, we’ve got to address the running game and the stoppage of the run, which is a high, high priority for us right now. And we let some runs get out Saturday that we need to corral back in, but overall, again, the effort was really good, and they’re really trying to learn and improve. And I think that’s huge.”

New video: Run-stopping issues, Fannin fumbling redux and Burger King commercials

I put together a video from this morning’s interviews. It’s got head coach Gene Chizik, wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor, running backs coach Curtis Luper, running back Mario Fannin and cornerback Demond Washington. Enjoy. (I’ll put the YouTube version up as soon as it loads.)

I’ll be back in a bit with a full practice update.

Auburn football signee Shon Coleman undergoing treatment for cancer

Auburn football signee Shon Coleman has been diagnosed with cancer and is undergoing treatment at St. Jude’s Medical Research Center in Memphis, Tenn.

Coleman, a 6-foot-7, 285-pound offensive tackle from Olive Branch, Miss., is a five-star recruit considered one of the prizes of Auburn’s 2010 class. He was the top-ranked player in Mississippi.

Coleman’s mother, DeKeishia Tunstall, posted on her Facebook page that her son has been diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia, which has a high cure rate.

Olive Branch High athletics director Pete Cordelli told the Memphis Commercial-Appeal that Coleman had a lump removed from his head shortly after spring break. It was determined to be malignant late last week and Coleman began treatment last weekend.

Tunstall wrote in her most recent status update that Coleman was “taking his chemotherapy treatment like a champ.”

Tigers coach Gene Chizik said his only thoughts are about Coleman’s well-being.

“We have no concern about what his football status is, whatsoever,” Chizik said. “We want the young man to be healthy, and our thoughts and prayers are out to the family in terms of recovery. We’ve never even broached the issue of football, in any way, shape or form, and won’t. I just want the young man to be healthy and again.”

Some other quick notes and quotes:

  • After watching the tape from Saturday’s practice at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Chizik thinks the team’s run defense needs improvement. “We let some runs get out Saturday that we need to corral back in,” Chizik said.
  • All four quarterbacks continued to rotate reps equally.
  • Dontae Aycock didn’t practice today because he was sick.
  • Philip Lutzenkirchen was “dinged up,” Chizik said. That’s usually code for a concussion, but I wouldn’t draw any conclusions.
  • Wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor said Ralph Spry Jr. has stood out early in camp. Spry sat out last year after transferring from Minnesota.
  • Running backs coach Curtis Luper said there’s no running back depth chart yet, but Mario Fannin is the first one to go out there during drills.
  • Fannin had fumbling issues as a freshman, particularly in the South Florida game, but he doesn’t think that should still be held against him. “That was really my first game in a college atmosphere,” Fannin said. “I’ve grown from it. I knew my mistakes. It’s something I’ve always tried to work on since that game. I think I”m better at it.”

Practice observations from a cold, crisp morning

OK, it wasn’t that cold. It was relatively cold. And too early. But enough complaints. Here are a few observations …

  • TE Philip Lutzenkirchen wasn’t dressed out. Not sure why, but he wasn’t even in uniform.
  • S/LB Daren Bates (shoulder), WR Travante Stallworth (knee), LB Harrison Gaston (wrist) and LG Mike Berry (knee) were in pads but limited in what they could do. The first three wore orange, non-contact jerseys.
  • Plenty of folks doing kick returns drills: Mario Fannin, Onterio McCalebb, Demond Washington, Terrell Zachery, Ralph Spry and Neiko Thorpe.
  • Lots of punt return guys too: Quindarius Carr, Eric Smith, Philip Pierre-Louis, Blake Poole, Darvin Adams, T’Sharvan Bell, Washington and Fannin.
  • The other day punt returners were letting the ball bounce of their facemasks on purpose, supposedly to work on looking the ball all the way in. Today, they were catching them with one arm. I guess this is to improve their dexterity. It looks easier for some (Fannin, in particular) than others.
  • Two signees — DT Jeffrey Whitaker and LB LaDarius Owens – were in attendance. Must be spring break.
  • Ryan Shoemaker had some booming punts. I was standing next to Wes Byrum, who shouted out to compliment Shoemaker from across the field a number of times.
  • Fashion alert:Auburn hasn’t abandoned the white shoes it wore in the bowl game. Some are wearing the white ones. Some are wearing black.
  • Although it was cold, offensive line coach Jeff Grimes wore shorts and a short-sleeve shirt. He’s tough. He coached at cold-weather places like Boise State, BYU and Colorado. Running backs coach Curtis Luper wore shorts and a short-sleeve shirt too, but he had an Under Armour skeleton underneath it and a winter cap. Smart move.

I’ll be back with more following practice. You’ll be able to find out exactly when anything gets posted if you follow the blog on Twitter.

Auburn men’s swimming and diving finishes sixth at the NCAA championships

The Auburn men’s swimming and diving team took sixth place at the NCAA championships, which wrapped up at Ohio State on Sunday.

The Tigers finished with 277.5 points. Texas won the meet with 500 points, followed by California (469.5), Arizona (387), Stanford (369) and Florida (364).

Auburn was the defending national champion and had won six of the last seven NCAA titles.

“Our finish in this meet really summarized the whole season for us,” head coach Brett Hawke said. “It was a tough year, but we’re going to take a break and the regroup. We know that we’re a good team and we’ll come back stronger next year.”

Auburn has finished in the top-10 every year since 1993.

The Tigers had four finalists on the final day. Gideon Louw finished third in the 100 free, while Adam Brown was fourth. Adam Klein finished third in the 200 breast, and Kelly Marx took fourth in the diving event.

March 28, 2010

Baseball: Timely hitting returns as Auburn salvages finale against No. 14 South Carolina 10-6

AUBURN, Ala. — A day after getting shut out at home for the first time in five years, Auburn’s lineup broke out in a big way.

Six different Tigers drove in runs in a 10-6 win against No. 14 South Carolina at Plainsman Park on Sunday as Auburn salvaged the final game of the weekend.

Auburn (17-7, 4-2 SEC), which left 12 men on base in a 2-0 loss Saturday, scored three runs in three different innings Sunday, displaying the offensive prowess it did in a three-game sweep of Georgia to open SEC play last weekend.

“We had a bunch of hits yesterday; we just weren’t able to get them when they counted,” said center fielder Creede Simpson, who was 3-for-4 with two RBIs. “Today we had some guys step up.”

South Carolina (19-5, 5-1 SEC), the last SEC team to lose a league game, watched its 13-game winning streak end.

“I think for out mind set, for our kids to know they can go out there and compete with the best teams in our league and the best teams in the country, I think it was a very important win for us today,” Auburn head coach John Pawlowski said.

Auburn wasted no time putting Saturday’s shutout behind it. The Tigers chased South Carolina starter Tyler Webb (1-2) with four runs in the first two innings.

The Gamecocks cut the lead to 4-3 before Auburn broke things open in the fourth. With the bases loaded and two outs, cleanup hitter Brian Fletcher took a borderline strike, the second close call of the inning. Pawlowski left the dugout to argue the point with home plate umpire Todd Henderson.

His message got through. With a full count, Fletcher took ball four on the fringe of the strike zone, just below the knees, to force home a run. Simpson followed with a two-out, two-run single to give Auburn a comfortable cushion at 7-3.

In the sixth, Justin Bryant walked with the bases loaded and Justin Hargett hit a two-run double to make it 10-3.

Simpson, Bryant and Hargett — three players in the bottom half of the order — combined to go 6-for-10 with six RBIs.

“I think that’s a trademark of a good team,” Pawlowski said. “I think Hunter (Morris) and Fletch are marked guys. Obviously, with the credentials that they have, teams are being very, very cautious, very conscious about them in the lineup. They’re pitching around them, maybe, and being very careful.

“I told the guys it’s the other guys that are going to have to step up, and certainly they’ve contributed on several different occasions.”

Grant Dayton (3-1) gave Auburn a solid effort on the mound, taking advantage of a strong wind blowing in from right field. The left-hander recorded 14 fly ball outs, getting 10 straight at one point. He went 7 1/3 innings, not throwing a single breaking ball the entire time, and left with a 10-4 lead. He gave up five runs on nine hits.

“It’s a huge confidence booster,” Dayton said. “I’d been struggling starting from last year, hadn’t been going deep in games. Going (7 1/3 innings), that helps. As a starting pitcher, that’s what you’re supposed to do.”

Auburn returns to action Wednesday at Troy before a weekend series against Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

Auburn plans to move Daren Bates around

I wrote a story on Auburn sophomore Daren Bates, an SEC All-Freshman safety who will try his hand in a new role this spring. Here’s how it starts:

AUBURN, Ala. — Of Auburn’s surprise stories last season, Daren Bates’ is hard to top.

Lightly recruited out of Olive Branch, Miss., Bates went from relative obscurity to cornerstone of the Tigers’ secondary in a matter of weeks, starting all 13 games at one safety spot and earning SEC All-Freshman honors.

But here’s another surprise: the Tigers are moving Bates to a hybrid safety/linebacker role.

“We’re trying to get as much speed as we can on the field right now,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.

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