BY AARON BRENNER | firstname.lastname@example.org
AUBURN, Ala. – Don’t read too far into Kiehl Frazier starting A-Day over Jonathan Wallace last Saturday.
“Right now, it’s an either-or deal. That’s kind of how I rotated them all spring, even through A-Day,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “I think the first scrimmage, they guessed my birthday and the one who was closest started.”
Lashlee was content to announce both quarterbacks’ arms feel good, but demands cleaner consistency out of the junior Frazier and sophomore Wallace.
“I think they have a really good grasp of what we’re trying to do. Now it’s trying to be able to play fast knowing what to do,” Lashlee said. “It’s one thing to know it on the board and walk-throughs and practice. When the bullets are flying, it’s operating fast, making good decisions and being accurate.”
Frazier’s opening series was a 3-and-out, while Wallace’s first play was a bad snap over his shoulder for a defensive score. They bounced back; Wallace was 18-of-26 for 191 yards and two passing touchdowns, while Frazier went 10-for-16 for 125 yards and two scores (one passing, one rushing.)
“I felt like when things were bad early – what’s the natural tendency, especially with recent history? You say, ‘OK, here we go again, and quit.’” Lashlee said. “Not one guy quit, neither one of those quarterbacks quit – they pressed on and found a way to score some points, and battled. That’s the first step.”
Lashlee and head coach Gus Malzahn are steadfast on listing Frazier and Wallace on the same line.
“It was very close as far as grading out,” Malzahn said.
McNeal “up in the air”: Safety Demetruce McNeal, whose 90 tackles last year lead all returners, missed his fourth straight practice Tuesday and will not participate in Wednesday’s 15th and final session.
Malzahn would not give any reason for the senior’s absence, and deferred speculation on whether he expected McNeal to eventually return.
“His status is still day-to-day and up in the air,” Malzahn said. “He is on the team, but that’s still up in the air … it’s off-the-field issues. He’s got to take care of some business.”
In the event McNeal doesn’t return, options are limited on the current roster, with just three scholarship safeties. Juco transfer Brandon King and three-star prep Khari Harding arrive in the fall.
“We’ve got some guys coming in,” Malzahn said, “and we’ll see what happens when they get here.”
New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was slightly more optimistic.
“Hope so. He’s done everything he’s got to do, he’s working on some personal issues right now,” Johnson said. “But all of it’s got to be cleared up before he can come back and participate.”
Digging the D: Malzahn was less concerned with the defense’s up-and-down ways – six touchdowns allowed, against four turnovers with one touchdown scored – than he was pleased with how it has shored up its tackling.
“I thought our tackling overall in space was pretty good. I feel like we improved definitely from the first scrimmage,” Malzahn said. “That’s the way you get better at anything you do, is actually do it.”
Malzahn was particularly pleased with the presence of “star” safety Justin Garrett and defensive end Dee Ford.
“Justin Garrett was flying around like he has all spring – he picked up the (touchdown) fumble, but he made a couple other plays that were very impressive,” Malzahn said. “Dee Ford rushing the passer, if it had been a live situation, our quarterback would have been hit quite a few times, taken some pretty good licks.”
Johnson also singled out safety Jermaine Whitehead and the entire cornerbacks group as those whose tackling improved dramatically this spring. Auburn could have up to eight returning starters from last year’s squad, which ranked second-to-last in SEC total defense.
“I think we know Dee Ford’s going to be a starter. I think we know the corners, (Jonathon) Mincy and (Chris) Davis, are going to be starters,” Johnson said. “I think those guys right now, somebody’s got to beat them out. They’ve established themselves.”
Snap judgments: Reese Dismukes is entrenched at center, going into his third season as a starter.
His backup, Tunde Fariyike, admittedly struggled with shotgun snaps last season, and his first heave Saturday soared over Wallace’s right shoulder.
“We’re a shotgun-oriented offense. It’s very critical, the center and quarterback are the two key positions,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to get more consistent with the snapping.”
Alex Kozan and Devonte Danzey each have also taken reps at center. Malzahn wants “two or three centers you feel good about” by fall.
Going forward: No depth chart yet, but Malzahn said Saturday the coaches believe they’re “80 percent” of the way there.
Compared to other spring football routines he’s been through, Johnson feels this one at Auburn was significant in terms of dictating who will start in September and October.
“It has a huge impact. We didn’t have as much trouble with the things you can’t control, and we got a lot done,” Johnson said. “I think our evaluation of our players through this spring is going to be very, very accurate.”