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May 2, 2013

7 at 7: Depth chart players on the radar

Quan Bray

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – So now that Auburn’s made their post-spring depth chart as official as official gets – other than Joshua Holsey as the No. 1 boundary safety, nothing else is particularly shocking – we wait to see what it all means.

In the meantime, let’s run through seven guys you should take note of based on head coach Gus Malzahn’s assessments.

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#5 Quan Bray, jr., first-team WR. Redemption year for Bray, who fumbled a costly LSU punt and then was suspended for a game for an off-field arrest. But Bray’s back in a familiar role by Malzahn’s standards, which means this could be a major bounceback year.

Gus says: “Quan is one of those real versatile guys. To take you back a couple years ago, he was actually playing the tailback positions. He’s got some running back skills. You’ll see us try to get the ball to him in space and let him do his thing as far as that goes.”

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Auburn Football#92 Kenneth Carter, sr., first-team DE. Four defensive ends, four seniors. That’s the only position teeming with experience in the college years department, and Carter will be one to watch who didn’t have particularly great success as a defensive tackle.

Gus says: “A guy that’s played inside in the past. Coach (Rodney) Garner moved him outside. Very physical guy. He improved his pass rushing as the spring went on.”

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#72 Shon Coleman, fr., second-team LT. That’s right. Freshman. The NCAA granted the leukemia conqueror a sixth year of eligibility, so if Coleman’s ascension continues and his resolve remains, he’ll be one of the feel-good stories in college football sometime between now and 2016.

Gus says: “We were very curious how Shon Coleman would come on. He got better and better. You can see his body is starting to react in a very positive way. We’re very proud of Shon and his progression.”

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Jaylon Denson, Jonathan Jones#21 Jonathan Jones, so., second-team CB. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy aren’t giving up their jobs anytime soon, but Jones is, put simply, a player. He’ll keep improving and learning at corner, while contributing on special teams.

Gus says: “He’s not a very big guy, but he really laid some big hits. You saw him in the spring game. Made an outstanding hit.”

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#10 LaDarius Owens, jr., second-team WLB. Like Carter, it didn’t work out at his position. So we’ll see if he someday makes an impact at one of those two linebacker spots; at the very least, Owens gave Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy a breather every now and then in practice when Jake Holland was in class or JaViere Mitchell was working his way back from a concussion. (Note that Owens is on the two-deep, and not Harris Gaston.)

Gus says: “You’re talking about a guy that’s played defensive end the last couple of years and is moving back to the back end. He’s a guy that really gave great effort and coach (Ellis Johnson) was high on him. So he’ll be in the mix at those linebacker positions also.”

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Photo by Todd Van Emst

#35 Jay Prosch, sr., first-team H-back. Y’all love him. So do the coaches. As I noted Wednesday, he’s the only senior on the entire offensive two-deep, unbelievable as that sounds.

Gus says: “He was one of the highlights of the whole spring. Talk about a hard-nosed guy: that’s a dirty-work type position for us. It takes a smart guy.”

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#9 Jermaine Whitehead, jr., first-team FS. Safety, like linebacker, is a thin position, so Whitehead’s dependability was crucial this spring.

Gus says: “Jermaine Whitehead was probably the safety that had just an excellent spring. Coach (Charlie Harbison) was very high on him, and (he) really did a solid job.”

May 1, 2013

“IT’S A DEAD HEAT”: Malzahn defers starting QB decision in post-spring depth chart | Joshua Holsey surprise first-teamer at safety

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – When Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn listed natural cornerback Joshua Holsey as his starting strong safety out of spring football practices, that was a surprise development.

When Malzahn refused to shed any sort of light on who’s the king of the quarterbacks, that was not.

Junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace left April the same way they went in: listed on the same line, the dreaded “OR” designation on college depth charts as released by word of mouth Wednesday afternoon.

“We’ve not made any decisions. It’s a dead heat up to this point,” Malzahn said. “We gave them equal reps throughout the spring. Toward the end of the spring, we were able to evaluate them better.

“Both of those guys are capable of running our offense. I’ll be curious to see their progress once we get to fall camp.”

Of course, Frazier and Wallace aren’t the only options, and they might have surrendered whatever leg up they had on junior college transfer Nick Marshall and four-star prep prospects Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith.

“Everybody coming in at every position will have a chance to start,” Malzahn said. “We feel good about a lot of these guys we signed having a chance to play.”

Malzahn has repeatedly said he’d rather name a starter sooner rather than later, but the first of May’s too soon.

“Sometimes that’s not a negative; sometimes that’s a positive and you’ve got two guys you feel like can do it,” Malzahn said. “It’s a matter of giving everybody a fair chance. The quarterback position is a key position, so you want to make sure that once you make a decision, you’re 100 percent right.

“We’ll see who gives us the best chance to win.”

In all, up to eight returning starters will be on the field in base formations. If Frazier or Marshall wins the job, they’d add to a junior class of potentially eight starters.

Tailback was another position without a true starter named: Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will all expect carries. Mason surpassed 1,000 yards last season, but an ankle injury allowed Artis-Payne and Grant to equalize the competition.

The starting wide receivers, right now, are flanker Trovon Reed, Jaylon Denson on the outside and Quan Bray in the slot. Jay Prosch is H-Back, CJ Uzomah is tight end and a “3” receiver for spread sets will mix between Uzomah, Brandon Fulse and Melvin Ray.

The offensive line stayed the same as the second half of spring practices: Greg Robinson, Alex Kozan, Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade and Patrick Miller, left to right.

Prosch is the only senior on the entire offensive two-deep. Kozan, a redshirt freshman, would be the only rookie on the first unit.

Joshua Holsey

As for defense, Holsey was recruited as a corner and played six games in 2012 there while Chris Davis was out with a concussion.

But since Davis and Jonathon Mincy have a stranglehold on those cornerback spots, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson found a way to get Holsey on the field.

“He’s a very good tackler,” Malzahn said. “You may have two or three at the same position early in spring that you say, boy, that may be one of our best 11 guys, so … we put him at safety. He looked like a natural and just made plays.”

Holsey, who’s listed next to returning starting free safety Jermaine Whitehead, is holding down the spot vacated by Auburn’s leading returning tackler Demetruce McNeal. After missing the final five spring practices due to off-field issues, McNeal is not on Wednesday’s depth chart.

“He is going to be in the mix,” Malzahn said, adding McNeal is 100 percent in good standing. “I didn’t put him in the top two right now, but he’ll have a chance in the fall.”

Justin Garrett remains the starting “star” hybrid player, and Kris Frost (mike) and Cassanova McKinzy (will) have a bead on linebacker positions.

The starting defensive ends are Dee Ford and converted tackle Kenneth Carter, while Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright are the tackles.

That makes for up to eight returning defensive starters – all on the line or in the secondary. Ford, Whitaker and Davis are the only seniors.

“Coach Johnson really worked hard on tackling and just the base fundamentals of playing their assignments,” Malzahn said. “I really feel like our tackling improved. You saw that in the spring game. There were some good open-field tackles, and we will continue to work in that direction.”

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First-team offense

QB Kiehl Frazier OR Jonathan Wallace
RB Tre Mason OR Cameron Artis-Payne OR Corey Grant
WR (outside): Jaylon Denson
WR (flanker): Trovon Reed
WR (slot): Quan Bray
H-back Jay Prosch
“3” receiver: Uzomah OR Fulse OR Melvin Ray
LT Greg Robinson
LG Alex Kozan
C Reese Dismukes
RG Chad Slade
RT Patrick Miller

Second-team offense
QB Kiehl Frazier OR Jonathan Wallace
RB Tre Mason OR Cameron Artis-Payne OR Corey Grant
WR (outside): Sammie Coates
WR (flanker): Ricardo Louis
WR (slot): Corey Grant
H-back Ricky Parks
“3” receiver: Uzomah OR Fulse OR Melvin Ray
LT Shon Coleman
LG Devonte Danzey
C Tunde Fariyike
RG Jordan Diamond
RT Avery Young

First-team defense
DE Dee Ford
DE Kenneth Carter
DT Jeffrey Whitaker
DT Gabe Wright
MLB Kris Frost
WLB Cassanova McKinzy
“Star” Justin Garrett
CB Jonathon Mincy (field)
CB Chris Davis (boundary)
FS Jermaine Whitehead (field)
SS Joshua Holsey (boundary)

Second-team defense
DE Craig Sanders
DE Nosa Eguae
DT Ben Bradley
DT Angelo Blackson
MLB Jake Holland
WLB JaViere Mitchell OR LaDarius Owens
“Star” Robenson Therezie
CB Jonathan Jones (field)
CB Ryan White (boundary)
FS Ryan Smith (field)
SS Trent Fisher OR T.J. Davis (boundary)

TWO-DEEP: Check out Auburn depth chart | Live reader-writer chat ongoing this afternoon

AUBURN FOOTBALLAUBURN, Ala. — “It’s a dead heat,” says Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, of the quarterbacks.

So, sit tight for a starter. Might not be until late August you get an answer.

But Malzahn did set in stone the majority of a post-spring depth chart, which reads as follows.

First-team offense

QB Kiehl Frazier OR Jonathan Wallace
RB Tre Mason OR Cameron Artis-Payne OR Corey Grant
WR (outside): Jaylon Denson
WR (flanker): Trovon Reed
WR (slot): Quan Bray
H-back Jay Prosch
“3” receiver: Uzomah OR Fulse OR Melvin Ray
LT Greg Robinson
LG Alex Kozan
C Reese Dismukes
RG Chad Slade
RT Patrick Miller

Second-team offense
QB Kiehl Frazier OR Jonathan Wallace
RB Tre Mason OR Cameron Artis-Payne OR Corey Grant
WR (outside): Sammie Coates
WR (flanker): Ricardo Louis
WR (slot): Corey Grant
H-back Ricky Parks
“3” receiver: Uzomah OR Fulse OR Melvin Ray
LT Shon Coleman
LG Devonte Danzey
C Tunde Fariyike
RG Jordan Diamond
RT Avery Young

First-team defense
DE Dee Ford
DE Kenneth Carter
DT Jeffrey Whitaker
DT Gabe Wright
MLB Kris Frost
WLB Cassanova McKinzy
“Star” Justin Garrett
CB Jonathon Mincy (field)
CB Chris Davis (boundary)
FS Jermaine Whitehead (field)
SS Joshua Holsey (boundary)

Second-team defense
DE Craig Sanders
DE Nosa Eguae
DT Ben Bradley
DT Angelo Blackson
MLB Jake Holland
WLB JaViere Mitchell OR LaDarius Owens
“Star” Robenson Therezie
CB Ryan White (field)
CB Jonathan Jones (boundary)
FS Ryan Smith (field)
SS Trent Fisher OR T.J. Davis (boundary)

Kicker is Cody Parkey. Punter is Steven Clark. All returning positions are still open.

April 29, 2013

Final four questions answered from spring | Grading each position, guessing 7-5 season

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. — Back on Feb. 13 – I know, that seems eons ago to me too – I was the Auburn beat writer rep answering a few questions entering spring football for The Saturday Edge, a web site dishing out info on the SEC and college football.

In the same style as before, here’s a wrap-up Q&A before we enter the dog days of summer. Answers are my own. I was particularly intrigued to answer the third of these four questions.

Gus Malzahn

What was the biggest takeaway this past month? Were any of the pre-spring question marks successfully addressed?

Easily, the storyline was howfreakingfastAuburnwillmoveonoffense. The players’ heads were spinning after just one practice, and I’m not sure they ever got completely used to their old offensive coordinator slash new head coach’s tempo, which clearly trickled down to all the new assistants who obliged to Gus Malzahn’s orders.

Name a few unknown players who could have breakout seasons.

Justin Garrett is known to beat writers and diehard, attentive fans who read the coverage. To the rest of the SEC and nation at the moment, he’s just a guy with two first names. That’ll change as soon as he produces his first impact game with double-digit tackles or two forced turnovers. He’s loving that “star” hybrid spot in Ellis Johnson’s defense. Also file away names like tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, receiver Jaylon Denson and defensive end Kenneth Carter.

Grade each position group & special teams (ex. QB – B, RB – B+, etc) …… time permitting, if the grade is exceptionally high or low, can you expand on why you believe this to be so?

QBs: C. Nobody separated himself. Troubling news.

RBs: A-. Tre Mason wants three 1,000-yard rushers. Might not be so outlandish.

WRs: B-. Decent options. Not great right now. Check back in August.

OL: B+. Starting five seems in place, but they’ll have their hands full with SEC Ds.

DL: B. Rodney Garner has to be salivating over the incoming freshmen.

LB: C+. Some uncertainty here, even though the potential is fairly respectable.

DB: A. Corners have been great, Garrett’s locked in at star. Just need a free safety.

ST: B-. Punter and kicker are solid seniors, but return game lacks playmakers.

Are there any “surprises” we can expect from this team (is there a reason that makes you think this team is better or not as good as the pundits/public think they are)?

I’d say the consensus is Auburn’s looking at a 7-5 regular season, and maybe a Gator or Music City Bowl appearance. Which would pretty much match Gene Chizik’s first year in 2009 coming off a bowl-less season. Gus Malzahn’s system has the capability to fire off an upset at LSU or in Jordan-Hare Stadium vs. Georgia. Conversely, the young Tigers, still licking wounds from 3-9, are just as susceptible at home to Mississippi State or Ole Miss the first five weeks of the season.

Generally, this fan base would settle for a bowl game. Considering the steady yet unspectacular progress, the schedule appears too daunting to expect a 10-win renaissance … but as J.P. said in Angels in the Outfield: “hey, it could happen.”

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn defensive line, linebackers & defensive backs spring rundown

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the third and final piece of a three-part series, revisiting the past month in Auburn spring football and taking stock of valuable developments.

Adopting the style of WarEagleExtra.com’s popular “7 at 7” features, let’s go through seven bullet points of what you need to know about the Tigers’ defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.

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Photo by Todd Van Emst

We learned the most promising defender Auburn has to offer isn’t, in fact, a lineman, linebacker, cornerback or safety.

But he is a star in the making. A shooting star. A star on the rise. And other groan-worthy puns you’re bound to hear over and over connected to junior hybrid Justin Garrett.

“Justin Garrett’s been the best player we’ve had on defense, if you just measure all 12 full-speed practices we’ve had at this point,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “He’s probably made as many impact plays and has played as well as any player on that side of the ball. So that was a very pleasant accomplishment.”

He’s fast enough to play safety and large enough to play linebacker, but mainly, Garrett’s hard-hitting presence is why his expectations have soared.

“I’ll tell you what, he has had an outstanding spring,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “Coach Johnson, I believe, has him in the right position, letting him play.”

Unless Garrett’s humble to a fault in his first month in the spotlight – entirely possible – he’s not even sure he’s close to fulfilling his potential.

“I feel like overall (my spring) was OK. I’ve just got to get back and watch film on my own and see what I can do better,” Garrett said after A-Day. “Technique and fundamentals, I feel like I can improve a lot.”

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We learned Malzahn is hands-off with the defense. Johnson has the keys, Charlie Harbison’s riding shotgun, and Rodney Garner and Melvin Smith are back-seat drivers … but the vehicle is titled in Malzahn’s name. If that makes sense.

Let me put it this way: Malzahn fielded ten questions after the A-Day scrimmage pertaining specifically to the offense. He took three on the defense.

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We learned playing against the hurry-up, no-huddle offense for three and a half weeks will work to naturally benefit Auburn’s defense.

“It’s real. At the beginning of the spring it was tough but we figured we would eventually get used to it,” senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “It’s hard to get used to that pace but you just come out there every day and you get better. You have to focus on the technique and the little things.

“We came out and continued to work, and we’re starting to get used to that pace for sure.”

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AUBURN FOOTBALL

We learned cornerback should not be a problem position in 2013.

Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are entrenched with the first unit – Johnson specifically mentioned them as starters – but there’s plenty of depth behind them in Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Jones, Ryan White and Robenson Therezie.

“I think our corners have tackled extremely well,” Johnson said. “This offense forces your perimeter players to make a lot of open-field tackles, and our corners have been outstanding.”

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We learned safety might be a problem position in 2013.

Because of Demetruce McNeal’s absence the final five practices including A-Day (though a recent tweet indicated he might be good to go) and Erique Florence leaving the program, Harbison had to squeeze water from a rock. Jermaine Whitehead better stay healthy and maintain his progress. Because other than him, it’s Ryan Smith, former walk-on Trent Fisher with a sore ankle, Holsey moving over from corner, and walk-ons.

Brandon King will have his chance from day one. So will Khari Harding and maybe Mackenro Alexander. That position’s a little frightening right now.

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We learned the first four on the field at defensive line were ahead of the rest of their backups in the middle of spring. Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter on the ends, and Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright at tackle seemed to be the top group, though Angelo Blackson had a nagging shoulder.

Eguae should get reps, Keymiya Harrell’s leg will heal and Carl Lawson arrives this summer, so the DE depth should improve. Speaking of incoming freshmen, it’s been said all along: Montravius Adams probably makes the rotation from day one. But Garner’s goal of five game-ready tackles and five game-ready ends by Labor Day seems a bit ambitious at the moment.

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We learned we’re going to find out real quick what Jake Holland’s made of.

Johnson praised Holland early and often for his maturity, trusting him to learn both mike and will linebacker positions. But when Holland had to miss numerous practices for a mandatory course in his major, the senior fell behind on the depth chart, giving Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy every opportunity to take the job away.

Holland has played in 31 games, starting 16. He hasn’t always been the most popular player on the team to fans or message board lurkers. As a rare senior on this team, Holland’s senior leadership could hold the same value as T’Sharvan Bell last year, and that’s nothing to be taken for granted.

April 28, 2013

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn quarterbacks, offensive line & special teams spring rundown

10Auburn6

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the second of a three-part series through Monday, revisiting the past month in Auburn spring football and taking stock of valuable developments.

Adopting the style of WarEagleExtra.com’s popular “7 at 7” features, let’s go through seven bullet points of what you need to know about the Tigers’ quarterbacks, offenslive line and special teams.

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We learned the quarterback has to play in a two-minute offense, but the decision on who that’ll be will resemble a 14-play, grind-it-out marathon to the end zone.

Here’s what we know: every time head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who will impart a very specific set of skills on all their quarterbacks, were asked about the QBs’ progress, they resorted to vague statements indicating slight progress in their abilities but none in the individual battle.

Here’s what we can reasonably infer: junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace, who each started and completed four games last season, are good guys who want to get better and will roll with the punches of re-learning an offense they mastered in high school.

Here’s what we don’t know: because Lashlee was politically correct in never once identifying one guy ahead of the other throughout spring, is that a bad sign that neither candidate has what it takes to separate himself?

Here’s what we know: Jeremy Johnson, Nick Marshall and Jason Smith will be on campus very shortly to fill out the quarterback pool.

Here’s what we also know: Nineteen weeks until the Washington State opener. Don’t hold your breath on Auburn naming a starter.

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We learned where there’s uncertainty at quarterback, there is chalk on the offensive line. Left tackle? Greg Robinson. Center? Reese Dismukes. Right guard? Chad Slade. Duh, duh, and duh. Right tackle looks like Patrick Miller, though Avery Young will get a chance to win the spot back once his shoulder’s totally healed; but honestly, J.B. Grimes can’t go wrong with either of those guys over on the right side.

That leaves left guard up for grabs. John Sullen graduated, so who replaces him? Jordan Diamond got the first crack, then Alex Kozan seemed to hang onto the job for most the spring, though Devonte Danzey got a look late. Kozan’s probably the pick. Offensive line requires chemistry and continuity, and Grimes must be very pleased it’s been a relatively drama-free spring selecting his starting five.

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Auburn 31, ULM Louisiana-Monroe 28

We learned Cody Parkey can’t just cruise into his senior season. A 75 percent career kicker, he really struggled in the fast-paced field goal fire drill sessions we saw. A couple times, I saw Parkey with a forlorn look on his face on the sideline moments after missing a 45-yarder or so. Because this coaching staff tends to brandish a go-for-it mentality, Parkey will have to prove he’s reliable enough from well outside 40 to get the nod when those tough decisions come up in October.

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We learned there’s a really good chance Wallace has become the wild playmaker/play breaker, and Frazier has evolved into the safe-guarded game manager. Why? Well, could be Frazier’s gun-shy to draw the boos again after making mistakes, and Wallace figures he’s got nothing to lose but flinging it out and seeing if he can hit the home run. Wallace was explosive yet precarious on A-Day, while Frazier took what was given more often.

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We learned Shon Coleman’s more determined than you and me. Debilitating injury and illness – not least of which is cancer – has derailed careers on so many unfortunate occasions. Yet there’s Coleman, backing up Robinson at left tackle and deadset on finally suiting up and maybe appearing in his first college game after beating leukemia in 2010.

AUBURN FOOTBALL

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We learned punt and kick returner is, uh, a couple of jobs up for grabs. Tre Mason, Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis, Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Jonathan Jones, Jonathon Mincy, Chris Davis, Robenson Therezie … I mean, I think I saw Aubie out there shagging returns a few times this spring.

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We learned Frazier and Wallace don’t hate each other’s guts.

Well, to be fair, we knew that already.

“We are good friends off the field, and it’s competitive on the field,” Frazier said. “I’m rooting for him to do well, but at the same time everybody wants to be the starter. But that’s not really something we focus on. We’re just focusing on getting better this spring.”

Wallace pointed more to the journey both young men continue to plod, since they know whoever ends up taking control of this offense will face a restless fan base in the fall.

“It’s been a lot of work. A LOT, a lot of work,” Wallace said. “We’ve been able to get a lot of reps, and everything. We’re different guys. Of course, the receivers run different routes, the backs, one may be faster than the other. But overall, we were able to have some type of competition as well and push each other. That was good this spring.”

Kiehl Frazier

April 26, 2013

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and H-backs

Auburn Spring Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the first of a three-part series through Monday, revisiting the past month in Auburn spring football and taking stock of valuable developments.

Adopting the style of WarEagleExtra.com’s popular “7 at 7” features, let’s go through seven bullet points of what you need to know about the Tigers’ running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and H-Backs.

We learned, in general, that “starter” is a technical title and little more in this offense. Tre Mason should be the No. 1 guy, but Cameron Artis-Payne will get serious carries, and maybe Corey Grant too. Brandon Fulse has been the preferred first-team tight end, but it’s impossible to believe CJ Uzomah won’t be heavily involved in the passing game, and Jay Prosch must be used as a utility blocker. Receivers? Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed seem to have the edge as starters, with Quan Bray right there with them. But the coaches love Ricardo Louis, and Sammie Coates should get his shot as well.

Whew. That’s eleven names for five spots.

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We learned if you dare traipse in his way, Cameron Artis-Payne will seek you out and run you over. The video of CAP destroying T.J. Davis in a high-tempo spring scrimmage speaks volumes.

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Brandon Fulse, Trovon ReedWe learned Rhett Lashlee has a long memory. “I keep using the analogy of the first year we were here we had a guy who only had three catches in his career and had 60 in our first year,” the 29-year-old offensive coordinator said Friday, for about the third time this spring. Check out this chart:

2008: WR Darvin Adams 3 rec, 18 yards; WR Terrell Zachery 2 rec, 24 yards; RB Mario Fannin 20 rec, 223 yards, 2 TD; RB Eric Smith, 2 rec, 3 yards

2009: Adams 60 rec, 997 yards, 10 TD; Zachery 26 rec, 477 yards, 5 TD; Fannin 42 rec, 413 yards, 3 TD; Smith 17 rec, 219 yards, TD

Of course, 2009 was the first year of the Gus Malzahn-guided offense, first year of Gene Chizik as head coach, first year of Trooper Taylor as wide receivers coach and first year of young Lashlee – just 26 at the time – serving as offensive graduate assistant.

By the way, Adams and Zachery weren’t one-year wonders; they combined for 96 grabs and nearly 1,600 yards in the 2010 championship season. It’s not just about this year, it’s laying groundwork for the future.

Why is all this relevant?

2012: WR Quan Bray 14 rec, 94 yards; WR Trovon Reed 9 rec, 122 yards, TD; TE CJ Uzomah 7 rec, 136 yards, TD; RB Tre Mason 7 rec, 86 yards; WR Sammie Coates 6 rec, 114 yards, 2 TD; WR Ricardo Louis 3 rec, 36 yards; WR Jaylon Denson 1 rec, 12 yards (!!!!), TE Brandon Fulse 1 rec, 8 yards.

Team stats – 2008: 184 rec, 1985 yards, 7 pass TD … 2012: 147 rec, 1879 yards, 8 pass TD.

Team stats – 2009: 218 rec, 2857 yards, 25 pass TD … 2013: Stay tuned.

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We learned we might not have our finger on how Uzomah and Prosch will be utilized. Those were two of the three green-jersey guys from Day 1 due to their strength and conditioning prowess (along with defensive tackle Gabe Wright), but they were often running with the second unit in media windows (and sometimes not at all.) We never heard specifically of injury issues, but Uzomah had just one catch for 20 yards on A-Day – for the blue squad – and Prosch registered no stats, albeit as the starting first-team H-Back.

17Auburn3

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We learned Corey Grant is quietly humble, but won’t shy away from the challenge of Tre Mason; a guy who last fall didn’t actually say “Gimme the ball” but basically, yeah, said “No, seriously, gimme the ball.”

“It is important – knowing he has that mentality, you’ve got to come with that mentality also to fight for position, fight for reps, fight for carries,” Grant said. “Overall, it will help the team if you have that mentality.”

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We learned Brandon Fulse should be taken seriously as a starting skill player. Because when coaches returning to their old school and re-teaching their unique system say things like “that’s what we recruited so-and-so for,” it’s significant.

“That’s what we recruited Brandon Fulse for: for that position standing up, doing a lot of dirty work, a very physical blocker,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “The very first year, we lost Eric Smith, and so he had to do a lot of the H-Back stuff that Eric Smith did. He’s finally coming into his own at the position we recruited him for.”

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We learned Marcus Davis, Earnest Robinson, Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker should be ready to compete from the time they get here. Because those five returning wide receivers hardly distinguished themselves. There are playing reps to be had.

April 23, 2013

Auburn notes: Still no QB separation, coaches pleased with progress on both sides of the ball

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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.

Kiehl Frazier, Rhett Lashlee

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.”

April 21, 2013

A-Day follow-up notes: McNeal’s mysterious absence leaves Auburn thin at safety

Auburn A-Day

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Demetruce McNeal has missed the last three practices – including Saturday’s A-Day scrimmage – and remains out indefinitely for undisclosed reasons.

“He’s dealing with some things off the field, and it’s day to day,” head coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday. “That’s really all we know at this time.”

McNeal’s absence combined with Trent Fisher nursing a bad ankle leaves the Tigers painfully thin at safety. Walk-on Blake Poole was called upon to work with the first unit Saturday.

Clearly, Auburn could use the painless return of its leading returning tackler. Whether McNeal is on the roster in 2013 or not, reinforcements in the fall include junior college transfer Brandon King and high-schooler Khari Harding.

Auburn A-Day

Winning them back: Three times in October and November, the turnstiles at Jordan-Hare Stadium were spinning around and around like a broken carousel.

In people flowed by kickoff. Out they fled by halftime.

See, fan support is everything to major-college head coach job security, which is why Gene Chizik’s perch was officially in jeopardy Oct. 6 when the fans decided they’d had enough well before the end of a 24-7 loss to Arkansas, treating a cherished Saturday SEC game like a bad movie.

It was even worse weeks later vs. Texas A&M (63-21) and Georgia (38-0), ushering Chizik out and leading to Malzahn’s return as head coach.

So for Auburn senior associate athletic director for external affairs Scott Carr – a man whose job relies heavily on public perception – and other high-ranking officials to hear the mind-boggling number “83,401” rattle the record books at Saturday’s A-Day was, well, vindicating.

“There’s been so much positive energy built since we hired coach Malzahn and the staff he put together, and the recruiting class we had,” Carr said. “We knew there was a lot of that positive momentum building. To have it culminate with A-Day, this type of crowd shows that the feedback we’ve been hearing from people about their excitement level is accurate.”

Added Malzahn, “We had a tough year last year, but for them to come out and support our team, it’s overwhelming. I know our players had big eyes, and they really appreciate it.”

Clash of titans: After 13 practices of knocking heads against each other, Auburn’s offensive and defensive lines share a common goal.

In defensive tackle Gabe Wright’s own words: total domination.

“It starts up front. There’s no bigger slogan than that,” Wright said. “So if we can get that tenacity back up to par, and learn how to flip that switch, that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”

Shake it off: After quarterback Jonathan Wallace made a bad decision throwing behind Quan Bray and getting intercepted by Ryan Smith, he didn’t sulk. His teammates noticed.

“If you make a bad play, you have to hold your head high on the next play. Jonathan Wallace threw a pick and he was on the sideline getting us ready for the next series,” tight end Brandon Fulse said. “He was telling us not to get down. He told us to be winners and we were winners today. He inspires us.”

Wallace was 18-for-26 with 191 yards and two touchdowns against the two turnovers.

In their ear: Throughout Saturday’s scrimmage, Malzahn stood about 10 yards behind the quarterbacks, so he could get a front-row view of Kiehl Frazier’s and Wallace’s command of the offenses.

They wore orange no-contact jerseys, which might have been different if the health of Frazier and Wallace wasn’t such a precious commodity.

“I wish we could be live, but we only have two scholarship guys going through spring to evaluate them a little bit better,” Malzahn said. “But today gave us some good information, especially with them.”

Malzahn restated every position – from quarterback to kicker – will be won by the best player available, meaning the competition will be infused with Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith for the fall.

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Mincy mistake: New rules dictate that players can be ejected for targeting a defenseless receiver above the head.

Because the refereeing crew Saturday is asked to treat A-Day like a real game, first-team cornerback Jonathon Mincy got the boot for pasting Dimitri Reese on a screen pass, causing Reese to stay down for a few minutes before walking off woozy.

“I have to say 15-yard penalties are unacceptable,” Malzahn said. “We have asked our guys to play hard, but I promise you, that will be corrected. That was not good, no doubt.”

Mincy remained on the sideline but did not return to the field.

Hold on: The seven touchdowns were encouraging for a previously stagnant offense, but four turnovers – including three lost fumbles, all unforced errors by offensive players – were troubling.

“Yeah, that’s definitely a concern,” Malzahn said.

April 20, 2013

Seven different Auburn Tigers score seven touchdowns in 35-14 A-Day spectacle

Auburn A-Day

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Care to see Gus Malzahn bristle? Call his system a spread offense.

Want to see the head coach glow? Seven touchdowns spread out to seven different players in one half ought to light him up.

It’s only a simulation, but if Auburn’s new-look offense comes anywhere close to replicating A-Day’s effort this fall, the Tigers will enjoy a new day indeed.

Two running backs, two wide receivers, a quarterback, a tight end and a “star” linebacker produced the scoring in Saturday’s enamoring scrimmage, won 35-14 by the “orange” squad made up mostly by the Tigers’ first-team players at Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed by an A-Day record 83,401 fans.

Squeezing in 111 plays, Auburn’s offensive players combined for 548 yards – including 425 yards on 77 snaps in the 24-minute first half, which contained all the scoring. A running clock was employed in the second half.

“It wasn’t just trying to window-dress it as far as making it nice for a spring game,” Malzahn said. “We tried to go fast and use our pace.”

The misconception in some circles is Malzahn-led teams – including three as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-11 – is his lightning-fast tempo is dictated through the air, but he prefers the label “run-first, playaction offense.”

Those words are music to the ears of running backs Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, who handled all the significant carries out of the backfield as Corey Grant was held out with a high fever.

Mason, Auburn’s leading 2012 rusher, and Artis-Payne, a 2,000-yard juco transfer, combined for 177 yards on 29 carries (none for a loss), which computes to a 6.1 rush average.

Auburn A-DayIn his first public effort at Auburn, Artis-Payne added two catches for 47 yards, including a tackle-breaking 42-yarder down the right sideline.

Along with his 18 rushes for 137 yards and a 27-yard TD, he was the media’s easy pick for Lionel James Offensive MVP – a welcomed treat for the California juco standout’s family, making the 15-hour trip from Pennsylvania to the Plains.

“We feel like as a backfield we can be really explosive,” Artis-Payne said. “Coach Malzahn’s offense produces wherever he goes; I’m just excited to be a part of that.”

Mason wasn’t shabby himself, logging 60 yards on 11 carries and a 4-yard score after missing most of spring with a bad ankle.

“I’ve actually gotten excited. I love seeing them do their thing and ball out,” said Mason, who voiced the 2013 goal of three 1,000-yard rushers along with Artis-Payne and Grant. “We want to do this thing together. We are looking to do something.”

About those quarterbacks: a starter won’t be named until the three incomers have their chance, but junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace were mostly efficient in their most pressurized job interview of the offseason.

Wallace’s day dawned with disaster, when crowd noise crossed up communication between him and second-team center Tunde Fariyike. The shotgun snap zoomed over Wallace’s right shoulder, scooped up by breakout junior Justin Garrett for the game’s opening points.

To his credit, Wallace collected himself – his combined statline read 18-of-26 for 191 yards and two touchdowns, with one bad read on an interception by safety Ryan Smith.

“Of course, the biggest thing (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) told us: if you mess up, go to the next play, and we were able to do that,” Wallace said. “That next drive that we had, we scored. It’s just a matter of putting those things behind you and fighting through the adversity.”

Meanwhile, Frazier was more even-keel: the 2012 opening-day starter completed 10-of-16 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, plus a 7-yard scoring scramble, but lost a fumble on an exchange with walk-on tailback Patrick Lymon.

“I can run around a little bit more,” Frazier said. “Plus we’re going fast paced and that’s something that I grew up in, so I’m definitely feeling comfortable.”

Garrett was named Mark Dorminey Defensive MVP, justifying why he’s been called the “brightest spot” of the spring repeatedly by players and coaches the past three weeks.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Garrett, who hadn’t scored a touchdown since high school. “Can’t really explain the emotion that was going on, but I saw the ball on the ground, tried to pick it up and go as fast as possible to the end zone.”

Receivers Trovon Reed and walk-on Dimitri Reese and tight end Brandon Fulse each caught TD passes. Sammie Coates made four catches for 84 yards on the second-team “blue” squad.

Holder Ryan White earned Lewis Colbert Specialty MVP honors, since kicker Cody Parkey was 0-for-2 on field goals and there were no punts or kickoffs. But White did lead both defenses with five solo tackles.

Defensive end Kenneth Carter and linebacker Kris Frost each recovered fumbles, making for four turnovers on the afternoon.

Free safety Demetruce McNeal was still not with the team, attending to off-field issues. Malzahn reiterated his status is day-to-day.

In the game’s most bizarre moment, cornerback Jonathon Mincy was assessed a 15-yard personal foul for laying out Reese, and ejected by the new rule barring defenders from hitting a defenseless receiver above the shoulders.

After getting the training staff’s attention, Reese walked off under his own power. He was the day’s only notable injury.

Auburn has two final spring practices scheduled for next week. The 2013 opener is Aug. 31 against Washington State.

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