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February 28, 2013

Gus Bus rolls through southwest Georgia; Malzahn puts on a show for scholarship donors, familiar faces from 2009 visit

Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn poses for a picture with Ella Hoerner, 6, and Daniel Hoerner, 3, of Albany, Ga. Their mother, Shelley, is an Auburn '99 graduate, and her family has had season tickets at Jordan-Hare Stadium since 1957.

Auburn head football coach Gus Malzahn poses for a picture with Ella Hoerner, 6, and Daniel Hoerner, 3, of Albany, Ga. Their mother, Shelley, is an Auburn ’99 graduate, and her family has had season tickets at Jordan-Hare Stadium since 1957. (AARON BRENNER/Columbus Ledger-Enquirer)

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

ALBANY, Ga. – Even when Gus Malzahn is “off the clock” – away from his staff, players and facility – the man still lives and breathes Auburn football with a coach’s persona.

A couple hundred loyal fans, alumni and supporters of the Southwest Georgia Auburn Club, gathering to celebrate the fifth annual Cleve Wester Scholarship fundraiser, were treated to a full-on film session with their new head coach Thursday night at Merry Acres Event Center.

Nothing like dinner and a show. As guests finished their supper, and Malzahn opened with a few remarks about the state of the program and his vision for his first season at the helm of Auburn football, he moved into the meat and potatoes of his presentation.

Malzahn had pre-requested a projector in the room, so he left the podium to grab a clicker and take his audience through film session with his 23 newest recruits, as well as photo introductions of his nine full-time assistant coaches.

With his booming voice echoing through the banquet hall – no microphone necessary – Malzahn reiterated his promise to the Auburn fan base, three months into the task of rebuilding, quickly, from a 3-9 football season.

“We’re getting after their tail because we’re going to get our edge back,” Malzahn assured the crowd, indicating 6 a.m. winter workouts are in full form. “We’re going to come together, we’re going to lose the entitlement, and we’re going to worry about the guy next to us and not ourselves.

“Recruiting’s fun, but there’s nothing like getting around your players and being there for them.”

Before he took center stage, Malzahn admitted privately he is itching for spring football to arrive.

Georgia already hits the practice field Saturday and others follow suit soon, but another four weeks remain before the Tigers put on the pads.

“Yeah, I’m ready to get on the field. But at the same time, I want to make sure that we’re 100 percent prepared,” Malzahn said “We need to know, and every coach (needs to) know, our offense and defense inside and out. So I wanted to give them a little extra time, and did not want to start anything before spring break.”

A collateral effect of the condensed schedule? Fifteen practices, concluded by A-Day on April 20, will take place in 25 days – a pace just to the up-tempo Malzahn’s liking.

“Good. We like it,” Malzahn said. “We’ll be prepared. There will be a lot of recall, not a lot of dead time in between, and we feel like it’s a good plan.”

Resistant to living in the past since he return to Auburn, the Tigers’ national championship-winning offensive coordinator isn’t too concerned with the future either.

It hadn’t dawned on Malzahn what he’d be doing precisely six months from Thursday night – which is kicking off against Washington State in his Auburn head coaching debut.

There’s still so much more to accomplish.

“Haven’t got that far,” Malzahn said. “I’m going day by day right now.”

Gus Malzahn

Southwest Georgia Auburn Club president Hank Jester, a 1982 Auburn graduate, was proud to announce more than $100,000 has been donated to the endowment in the name of Wester, an Albany local who played tackle for Auburn’s 1957 national championship team. Only four other Auburn clubs nationwide have raised that much toward scholarships.

“He’s Mr. Auburn in southwest Georgia,” Jester said, adding Wester was instrumental in the hiring of coach Pat Dye more than 30 years ago. “Just a great guy, great Auburn man, loved southwest Georgia, loved Auburn.”

Wester passed away in 2009, shortly after the club’s first benefit dinner in his honor – which featured former head coach Gene Chizik and his entire incoming staff, including Malzahn.

“That’s the fun part for me, is meeting people,” Malzahn said. “There’s a lot of familiar faces here. When I was here in 2009, this was my first Auburn club event. Came with the whole staff, had a chance to meet Cleve. That was a special deal for me. So it’s good to see these people.”

Aaron Brenner commentary: Looking back to the future in new weekly blog features

Kiehl Frazier

AUBURN, Ala. – Six months ago today, Gene Chizik and his Auburn football team was gearing up for a primetime showdown with Clemson at the Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic in Atlanta.

Six months from now, Gus Malzahn and the Tigers will have just taken on Washington State in Malzahn’s grand return to Jordan-Hare Stadium.

It’s a new day, Gus has declared over and over again. And indeed it is.

Doesn’t mean last year never happened.

Auburn FootballToday kicks off a new weekly feature on WarEagleExtra.com this spring. Every Friday from now until the end of May, I’ll hop in the DeLorean and provide a glimpse to the past – evaluating game tape from whatever game was six months prior – as well as one into the future, looking ahead to whichever opponent awaits six months from that date.

Now, before you fire off that rebuking e-mail … I get it. This is a brand-new system on both offense and defense. To view replays of Auburn’s 2012 struggles in the passing and tackling games and think that applies to the 2013 season, it would be ignorant and irrelevant … and just plain mean to fans, in all honesty.

That’s not the intent. When I asked most of Malzahn’s assistants last week how they planned to approach 2012 game tape, the consensus answer went something like this: they’ll watch it to evaluate athleticism and game reaction, but not so much to judge how, say, Chad Slade or Gabe Wright or Quan Bray or Demetruce McNeal will fit into these brand-new schemes.

Not a bad way to go about it. It’s lucid, really. Because, let’s be honest, there’s not one single player on this roster (other than punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey) I would bet my house or yours on absolutely topping the depth chart when Washington State comes to town Aug. 31.

Tre Mason and Dee Ford, maybe. But hey, guys lost their starting spots when Chizik replaced coordinators and altered schemes for the 2012 season, so changeover is to be expected once again.

So, let’s take the lead of these new Auburn coaches and make what we can out of last year’s evidence. Basically, each Friday on WarEagleExtra.com, you’ll read about the good, the bad and the ugly I see on game film, as these tidbits apply for next season.

And then, of course, a quick breakdown of the 2013 opponents will be included as well.

Obviously, we’ll start today with Auburn’s 24-19 loss to Clemson, which frankly was the Tigers’ best all-around game last year. Plus, we’ll look ahead to what Wazzu – led by Mike Leach, another offensive innovator like Malzahn – presents for next year’s opener.

I hope you enjoy. Believe me, I’m eagerly anticipating football season’s arrival as much as you are.

Aaron Brenner, abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

Beaming with pride: Auburn gymnastics sets school record, young squad grows up quick

Bri Guy

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – The girls didn’t realize what they’d done.

At first, the sheer shock Friday at Auburn Arena was simply from beating LSU, then the owner of sixth-highest regional qualifying score in the country. Then came the real adulation – Auburn’s 197.175 overall score was the highest in school history.

“A couple of us cried, I think,” sophomore Bri Guy said. “We were really ecstatic and really proud of ourselves.”

Staked by the near perfection of Guy and freshman sensation Caitlin Atkinson – named the SEC Gymnast of the Week for her performance – the Tigers have defeated three of four opponents, and have risen to a No. 11 ranking.

A sharp turnaround, considering how the Tigers stumbled around – relatively speaking, of course – in January.

Gymnastics is a sport that focuses on the team’s own individual performances rather than how it compares on the scoreboard to its opponent that night. With that in mind, it was frustrating taking fourth place in a four-team dual at California to open the season, before losses to Kentucky, Georgia and Florida.

Head coach Jeff Graba did expect “hiccups early on, with eighty percent of his lineup consisting of freshmen and sophomores yet to turn 20.

“I think it was more confused,” Graba said. “We knew going in we were going to have a lot of growing pains and a lot of teaching to do early on. We were simulating a lot of pressure sets, trying to put people in tough positions in practice, but it never really was the same as being in a meet.”

Guy knew, eventually, her team’s youth would pay off, because that’s the nature of her sport.

“We’re all babies. I get it all the time – in the airport, someone thought I was a sixth-grader,” said Guy, listed at 4-foot-11. “Recruiting, you have to start a lot earlier. The younger you are, the more appeal you have because you have that much more potential.”

The first day the calendar flipped to February, Auburn began its turnaround with a win at Missouri. Another win over Arkansas was followed by a loss to national powerhouse Alabama, but the upward trend was for real.

“It was difficult at first, but it really showed us how much work we needed to put in – not necessarily that we weren’t putting in the work, but we needed to put more pressure on each other,” Atkinson said. “It helped us out in the long run, because I don’t think we would have broken the school record if that hadn’t happened because it pushed us to get that much better, continually every week.”

The LSU triumph marked the program’s fifth straight score of 196 or higher, which Auburn has never done before. The Tigers’ 49.450 score on the floor routine, and Atkinson’s all-around 39.550, were each the third-highest totals in school history.

“We all believed from the very beginning that we are fully capable of what we did Friday night,” Graba said. “That’s really our expectations.”

Finished with SEC regular season competition, Auburn’s got two more home meets with Maryland on Friday and Lindenwood on March 8 before a trip to Pittsburgh. The SEC Championships are March 23 in North Little Rock, Ark., and NCAA Nationals are April 19 in Los Angeles, with both postseason events televised by ESPNU.

Caitlin Atkinson

February 27, 2013

Kodi Burns: “I am Auburn. It’s in me.” | Offensive G.A. talks about new gig with Tigers

Auburn Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Kodi Burns knows what it’s like to be a five-star quarterback prospect with a world of expectations on his shoulders, like Kiehl Frazier.

Burns knows what it’s like to take off the redshirt as a precocious true freshman and suddenly lead his team into battle, like Jonathan Wallace.

Burns knows how to find whatever role he must to help Auburn succeed, so it was no surprise in early December when coach Gus Malzahn, his former offensive coordinator at Auburn and head boss at Arkansas State, invited one of the Auburn family’s favorite sons to come back to his college stomping grounds.

He calls Fort Smith, Ark. his native land, but Burns feels just as home at Auburn, a 2007-2010 letterman who is beginning his second year as an offensive graduate assistant, and first with the Tigers.

“The memories really never left. Being in a place like this, it becomes your family,” Burns said in a sitdown with reporters Wednesday. “The team has become your brothers. I woke up every morning, I sweat, bled, tears, on that field every single day.

“So I am Auburn. It’s in me. It’s (great) to be back and to be around these people … once you leave Auburn, it never leaves you.”

Burns, 24, started his career as a quarterback, running in the game-winning touchdown to beat Clemson in the 2007 Chick-Fil-A Bowl. He ended it by famously caught a touchdown pass in the 2011 BCS National Championship victory over Oregon.

After taking a year away from football and finding a job in medical sales, Burns was drawn back into coaching by Malzahn as part of his inaugural staff at Arkansas State, four hours east of Burns’ hometown. Burns is joined by offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, offensive line coach J.B. Grimes and strength and conditioning director Ryan Russell as Malzahn’s retentions from the Red Wolves.

“It’s a smooth transition because we know each other now,” Burns said. “We’ve got great chemistry together from that year at Arkansas State, and now coming back home I’m familiar with coach Malzahn, it’s just a really good feeling to be back.”

Burns was engaged to his four-year girlfriend, Keista Hough, on Feb. 16. He chuckled as he told the story of meeting Hough when both were Auburn students – after exchanging numbers outside a downtown bar and restaurant, Hough didn’t return Burns’ affection for two months.

But Burns was persistent, and got the girl. Now he’s got the SEC apprenticeship, with hopes it launches a lengthy career.

“I think my long-term goals are the same as anybody’s – you want to do this, and you want to move up,” Burns said. “I want to be an offensive coordinator one of these days here pretty quick, and soon after be a head coach.”

Special guests in and around Auburn: Gus Malzahn, Kendall Simmons & Josh Bynes

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

Gus Malzahn 18@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn is the guest speaker for Thursday’s banquet with the Southwest Georgia Auburn Club, sponsoring the fifth annual Cleve Wester Scholarship Dinner at the Merry Acres Event Center in Albany, Ga.

Wester was an Albany native who played tackle for the 1957 national championship and continued to support Auburn and Auburn football up until his death in 2009.

The evening raises funds for the scholarship to be bestowed in May, according to club president Hank Jester.

Former Auburn offensive tackle Kendall Simmons will speak at the Boshell Diabetes Research Day banquet Friday at The Hotel of Auburn University. The event also gathers experts on the role of obesity in diabetes.

Simmons was a two-time all-SEC first-team selection, and a 2002 NFL Draft first-round pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers, with whom he won two Super Bowls.

Boshell program members may register for the daylong event for $75 and nonmembers for $125, while the evening banquet tickets with Simmons costs $35, though seating is limited. Tickets may be purchased at auburndiabetes.com.

Another former Auburn Tiger and Super Bowl champion – Josh Bynes, a freshly-minted Lombardi Trophy winner with the Ravens – will be in town this weekend. He’ll be attending baseball and men’s basketball games on Saturday, and signing autographs for fans at Kinnucan’s in TigerTown on Sunday from 2-4 p.m. CT.

Barbee’s quick trigger continues; Chubb admits “it’s something hard to deal with”

Auburn Alabama Basketball

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – The bench behind Auburn basketball coach Tony Barbee hasn’t been warm lately – mainly because he keeps rotating the bodies who occupy it.

Like a game of musical chairs, Auburn’s five on the floor has been tinkering at a rate of about one change per minute. Sometimes, it’s been due to foul trouble. Others, it’s just Barbee’s way of forcing effort and defensive intensity out of his stagnant squad, now defeated in 12 of its past 13 games.

Senior center Rob Chubb, whose 13 points led Auburn in its 61-43 loss Tuesday night at Alabama, was the first player to voice anything more than a minor degree of exasperation with the quick-switches.

“Somebody does something wrong on defense, you know, they deserve to come out,” Chubb said. “But at the same time, the quick transition of different players, different combinations, different talents and strengths, it kind of gets a little bit … it gets hard to get the chemistry together. Right as you start to get on a run, it’s 45 seconds, and then a change in the lineup.

“It’s not an excuse, but it’s something hard to deal with.”

Barbee subbed 41 times Tuesday night, despite saying afterward he was pleased with the Tigers’ overall effort. For comparison, Alabama’s Anthony Grant only subbed 22 times, not including a final-minute clearing of the bench for little-used players to finish the game.

Last Saturday, the Tigers logged 43 substitutions at Ole Miss, including an incredible 29 in the first half. Rebels coach Andy Kennedy was also fairly active, with 39 lineup changes in his team’s 88-55 rout.

In Auburn’s most recent home game, the subs scoreboard read Auburn 44, Texas A&M 21. The Aggies won 65-56.

“Guys aren’t playing well, so they’ve got to come out of the game,” Barbee reasoned after the A&M loss. “If they’re not going to defend, they come right out of the game. If they’re not going to dive on the floor for loose balls, they come out of the game. If they don’t pursue every rebound, they come out of the game. That’s why.”

Auburn has not kept the same starting five from game-to-game once during its six consecutive losses, a stretch which contains five different opening lineups. Junior forward Allen Payne is the only player to start all six games.

February 26, 2013

Full recap: Auburn offense fizzles again, Alabama rolls to 61-43 romp

BKC-UM-AUBURN

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – During a second-half media timeout of Tuesday’s Auburn-Alabama rematch, a student fan elicited one of the loudest ovations of the Crimson Tide’s 61-43 victory at Coleman Coliseum.

By draining his first free throw attempt, his first 3-point try and his second half-court heave, the young man not only won himself a barbecue dinner for 20 people. He proved there wasn’t, in fact, a lid on the basket where the Tigers were shooting.

He needed 25 seconds to score the equivalent of seven points. Meanwhile, in a nearby huddle, Auburn coach Tony Barbee was busy drawing a technical foul from the officials, frustration boiling over from his team only having scored eight points in nine minutes since halftime.

Both versions of this year’s “Iron Ball” were hard up for scoring; on Feb. 6, the Tigers enjoyed their most thrilling win this year, in a comeback with Cam back (Newton, that is) on campus.

But Alabama (19-9, 11-3 SEC) had little trouble pulling away late, ensuring a series split and fortifying their NCAA tournament at-large candidacy before an attendance of 12,633 fans.

“We’ve talked about the importance of every game going forward, but obviously any time you get a chance to play your in-state rival, it adds a different meaning,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “I thought our guys were really locked in early – very similar to the last time we played them from a defensive standpoint.”

“I think we were a better team than we were 20 days ago.”

Alabama leading scorer Trevor Releford was splendid in his encore, following a 36-point performance in the Crimson Tide’s three-overtime loss at LSU over the weekend. He poured in 21, bolstered by four 3-pointers.

Reserve swingman Nick Jacobs produced a neat double-double, with 10 points and 10 rebounds.

“We were very determined,” Releford said. “We didn’t like the way it went down in Auburn. This is our home court and we had to defend it.”

Grant is known as a defensive coach, to be sure, but he’s been particularly irritating to Barbee’s offense. In 130 series meetings from 1952-2010, Auburn failed to reach 50 points just four times. In Barbee’s six chances, Auburn failed to reach 50 points four times.

Auburn center Rob Chubb had 13 points on 6-of-11 shooting, but no other Tigers exceeded six points.

Chubb’s co-captain, Frankie Sullivan, was 1-for-9 from the floor.

“This isn’t anything new or different of what I’ve seen all conference play from Frankie,” Barbee said.

Guards Sullivan, Josh Wallace, Chris Denson and Jordan Price combined for two assists and eight turnovers. Denson, who only played three minutes in Saturday’s loss at Ole Miss when Barbee judged his defensive effort as poor, was 0-for-5 from the field against the Tide.

Other than Chubb, Auburn shot 23 percent from the floor, including 2-for-15 from 3-point range. The Tigers’ 43 points is their lowest total of the season, and their worst output against Alabama since 1949.

“Missed layups, missed open shots, missed tip-backs right at the rim, and we didn’t shoot the ball very well,” Barbee said. “I thought we attacked the paint fairly well, (but) how are you going to win a game when you miss 20 layups?”

Auburn (9-19, 3-12) only has two 20-loss seasons in its history – a 6-26 finish in 1972-73, and 11-20 in Barbee’s first year on The Plains, two years ago.

One more loss, and it’ll be two out of three. But Barbee insisted he’s not giving in.

“Nope. No, no, no,” Barbee said, asked if he’s ready for this season to end. “Anybody knows me knows I’m a fighter. I thought my team fought today. We just couldn’t get the ball to go in.”

Barbee has, in recent weeks, questioned his team’s mental toughness, which Chubb admitted afterward has been an issue his senior year.

“There are definitely some guys that can go the extra mile, the extra effort, you know what I mean?” Chubb said. “Nobody in particular – it’s just a team effort, and you can’t win a game with one of the guys out of the five not doing everything.

“The thing about this team – sometimes it changes. It’s never just one person. Just a lot of little things add up to a big loss.”

On Saturday, Alabama has a huge follow-up game at No. 8 Florida while Auburn returns home to face Vanderbilt.

THREE-POINTERS

- Six of Alabama’s 11 SEC victories have been by four points or less. Other than a 75-43 drubbing at last-place Mississippi State, Alabama had not won a league game by more than 10 points until Tuesday.

- Alabama has beaten just four teams this year appearing in ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi’s current tournament teams, and it’s not a particularly distinguished group. Kentucky, Villanova, South Dakota State and Charleston Southern are each projected to be no better than a 12-seed in the Big Dance.

- Alabama head football coach Nick Saban and his three-titles-in-four-years squad was recognized at halftime for retaining the James E. Foy Sportsmanship Trophy, going to the Iron Bowl victor. The Crimson Tide smoked Auburn 49-0 on Nov. 24 at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

Blanche Alverson one of five named to first Allstate WBCA Good Works Team

1_JDE8742AUBURN, Ala. — Blanche Alverson isn’t just one of the most charitable student-athletes at Auburn. She’s now recognized as such around the country.

Auburn’s Miss Homecoming and senior basketball player – who leads the Tigers in rebounding, 3-point and free-throw shooting – was named to the inaugural Allstate WBCA Good Works Team Tuesday, just one of five NCAA Division I women to receive the honor.

According to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association, “the award recognizes a unique group of women’s college basketball student-athletes who have made outstanding contributions in the areas of volunteerism and civic involvement including building homes for the elderly, leading basketball clinics, reading to students and working with children with hearing disabilities.”

If the Good Works Team sounds familiar, it should. Former Auburn tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen was among the 11 football players named to that Allstate squad this past fall for his involvement with sick children in the hospital.

Alverson is the only SEC woman named to the Good Works Team. She’s joined by Oklahoma’s Whitney Hand, Brown’s Caroline King, Purdue’s Drey Mingo and Penn State’s Cizelle Studevent.

A member of Auburn’s exclusive 1000-point, 500-rebound club, coordinated Auburn’s latest “Ballin’ for Books” effort, which last year gathered more than 1,100 book donations for local literacy programs from Auburn fans and the community in its first year.

At this past weekend’s home victory against Missouri, more than 400 books were donated, with two more opportunities for fans to contribute coming at the men’s basketball game against Vanderbilt Saturday and the women’s home finale vs. Mississippi State on Sunday.

The Allstate WBCA Good Works Team will be recognized during the 2013 WBCA Convention and at the 2013 NCAA Women’s Final Four in New Orleans, where it will conduct a local community project.

AUBURN BASKETBALL

February 25, 2013

Auburn notes: Lemonier caps fine combine weekend for ex-Tigers; neat start for O’Neal

Corey Lemonier

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Even if the production on the field dropped off, Corey Lemonier’s awe-inducing athleticism and tantalizing talent never went anywhere.

After measuring in at 6 feet, 3 3/4 inches tall and 255 pounds, Lemonier channeled the need for speed from his former teammate Onterio McCalebb. A day after Auburn’s ex-tailback unofficially broke the NFL Scouting Combine 40-yard-dash record, Lemonier turned in a timely 4.6 second run Monday, tied for third-best among defensive ends.

Lemonier also showed some explosion with a 33-inch vertical jump and 119-inch broad jump. On Sunday, Lemonier bench-pressed a 225-pound bar 27 times, tied for seventh at the position to prove his muscle.

In a couple of tweets, Lemonier sent upon his departure: “I had a great time here in Indianapolis. What a great experience” and “War eagle!! Thank you auburn for three great years!!”

Lemonier only had a half sack in the final eight games of his junior season, yet opted to enter the NFL Draft anyway as an underclassman. Draft experts have projected him anywhere from late in the first round to the third round.

Lemonier told reporters in Indianapolis he is looking to play elsewhere in some team’s front seven.

“I think I will be a 3-4 outside linebacker,” said Lemonier, according to Scout.com. “That’s a new position for me. I am raw, but I think that’s good because I will have no bad habits … you have to be able to play in space at linebacker, especially trying to chase down all those quarterbacks.”

McCalebb and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen concluded their interview sessions and workouts earlier in the weekend. They are scheduled to participate in Auburn’s Pro Day on March 5, joined by wide receiver Emory Blake and offensive lineman John Sullen.

The NFL Draft is April 25-27 in New York City.

Michael O'Neal

O’Neal rock-solid

Michael O’Neal hadn’t yet seen tape of himself a day after his second start in an Auburn uniform, though he enjoyed one piece of AuburnTigers.com’s social media savvy.

“I haven’t lately, but I watched the (video) recap on the website,” said O’Neal, referring to a pre-packaged video by the university. “That was pretty neat.”

O’Neal’s been pretty neat himself. The Pacelli and Chattahoochee Valley CC product has won each of his first two starts with the Tigers – no other Auburn starter has factored into a decision – while logging a 1.54 ERA and walking one batter against eight strikeouts.

He’s not a power pitcher, but O’Neal knows his strengths, and he’s playing to them. O’Neal has found the strike zone or coaxed a swing on 67 percent of his deliveries.

“Just throwing strikes, getting guys down early in counts, and throwing deep in the game for our bullpen,” O’Neal said. “It feels good to know you fill the zone and let our defense work. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

O’Neal feels he’s got room for improvement with his offspeed pitches, though head coach John Pawlowski likes what he’s seen in each of O’Neal’s outings, each lasting into the sixth inning.

“That’s what we’re hoping,” Pawlowski said. “When he can run that ball down there in the bottom half of the zone with the sinker, he throws three pitches for strikes. He’s got a little deception going on, and a second quality start for him, he’s done a great job for us.”

Another of O’Neal’s stated goals is keeping things simple for his bullpen, but the relievers have carried more than their fair share of the load early in this young season. The new-look Auburn bullpen has an 0.95 ERA and 24 strikeouts in 28 1/3 innings of work.

“It’s fun to watch, isn’t it?” O’Neal said. “They’re throwing 89-92, blowing it by the hitters, throwing sick curveballs. They’re going to strike out a lot of guys.”

Auburn (6-1) returns to action Tuesday against Kennesaw State (4-3), with first pitch set for 4 p.m. ET at Plainsman Park.

Reality sinks in for Sullivan, Auburn basketball has pride on the line at Alabama Tuesday

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

Furman vs Auburn@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – With the final number of games left in his college career dripping away, Auburn senior guard Frankie Sullivan understands the situation.

“Sometimes, you’ve got to face the facts of what’s reality,” said Sullivan, who when he next checks in will become Auburn’s all-time leader with 130 games played.

“These young guys still need a positive feeling coming into next year. You want to at least go out with them having a great taste in their mouth about next season.”

As noted by one of those young guys, freshman Brian Greene Jr., crazy things have happened in the SEC tournament – like five years ago, when Georgia (4-12 in SEC games) stunningly won the league bracket and earned a surprise automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.

However, unless those types of miracles find Auburn in Nashville in a few weeks, there’s not much left to play for as the Tigers’ season winds down.

Except for spoiling the plans of a bitter rival, of course. Auburn (9-18, 3-11) beholds an opportunity Tuesday to sweep Alabama (18-9, 10-4) for the first time in five seasons.

If the Tigers pull the upset (7 p.m. ET, ESPNU), the Crimson Tide would suffer a hammering blow to their fading at-large bid chances.

“Spoiling anything for those guys is good,” said Sullivan, a Uniontown native who was also offered by Alabama. “You don’t want to mess up anybody’s career up, but when it comes to those guys, you try to spoil it.”

In the teams’ first meeting on Feb. 6, an ugly first half gave way to a Cam Newton-charged comeback, when the former Heisman winner and current student superfan cheered on Auburn’s 49-37 victory – head coach Tony Barbee’s first win over Alabama.

“In-state rival, so I think everything else gets thrown out of the window,” Alabama coach Anthony Grant said. “When our teams get together, there’s always going to be an intense game, and we’ve had some very competitive games against them.”

Following that satisfying home victory, Auburn went right back to its losing ways. It’s lost all five games since.

“We were locked in and engaged, specifically off the ball for 40 minutes, and gave us a chance to win that game. But we haven’t done that since,” Barbee said of Auburn’s defense. “We’ve been really inconsistent on the defensive end of the floor, possession to possession and half to half.”

Barbee wouldn’t lend much stock into feeling confidence based on the first meeting, even though Alabama is the only team Auburn’s beaten since Jan. 9.

“They’re probably a little different from when we played them a couple weeks ago,” Barbee said. “And obviously, we’re a little different, and not in a good way.”

This is Auburn’s fifth consecutive opponent looking to rebound from a loss in its previous game. Four of those are playing in February with something on the line: Florida is in the hunt for a NCAA No. 1 seed, while Arkansas, Ole Miss and Alabama are scrambling to beef up their résumés for an at-large bid.

Alabama was briefly in control of its own destiny for an SEC regular season championship, sitting one game back of Florida with a future date with the Gators. However, a triple-overtime loss at LSU dropped the Crimson Tide to a tie for second place in the league standings with Kentucky, two games back of Florida.

The marathon loss was in spite of Trevor Releford’s 36-point outburst, making 14 of 18 shots from the floor.

The Crimson Tide is 44-8 against Auburn in games played in Tuscaloosa.

Freshman Shaq Johnson had a career-best 18 points in Auburn’s last game, a 33-point blowout to Ole Miss which furthered Barbee’s forced hand to see what he has players slated to return next year.

“Any time it’s an opportunity for us younger guys to get an opportunity, we just try to seize the moment,” Greene said. “No matter what the outcome is, everybody’s really just trying to get better.”