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August 21, 2013

VIDEO: Junior defensive tackles Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — The junior defensive tackle pair of Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright met with media members for the first time this fall following Tuesday’s practice. Each discussed their early impressions of Washington State, the physicality of this year’s camp and what Dee Ford’s knee injury means for the rest of the defensive line.

Blackson

Wright

August 20, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn looks back at first fall camp as Tigers coach, feels team covered ‘all of our situations’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s practice on Tuesday had a game-week feel to it.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn recapped his first fall camp at Auburn following the team's 21st and final practice on Tuesday. (File photo)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn recapped his first fall camp at Auburn following the team’s 21st and final practice on Tuesday. (File photo)

Following the Tigers’ 21st and final session of fall camp, head coach Gus Malzahn said his team is already “full force” into planning for the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31. But first, he recapped his first fall camp at the helm of Auburn’s program.

“When I look back on the whole camp, I felt we did improve,” Malzahn said. “I felt like we were able to cover all of our situations. I felt like we were able to put our guys into situations to evaluate.”

The Tigers’ offense also ended camp on a high note, with Malzahn noting the unit had its “best rhythm that we’ve had” since he took over as coach.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “It looked like we knew what we were doing today, and the timing was very good.”

When Auburn returns to practice on Thursday, it will start getting into a weekly regular season routine. And Malzahn couldn’t be more thankful to have more time to continue working with his team, especially since Nick Marshall is still becoming comfortable with the first-team offense.

“I think that’s very good with a starting quarterback who didn’t go through spring,” he said. “We need the extra time.”

Though Washington State went 3-9 last year, it beat arch-rival Washington in the season finale. In an early look at the Cougars, Malzahn came away impressed with what he saw on film.

“They have the majority of their guys coming back,” he said. “We’re expecting it will be a good team coming in here, and we’ll have to play well.”

However, making any comparisons between the two up-tempo offenses would be a mistake, Malzahn said, since he prefers to lean on a strong running game, while Washington State head coach Mike Leach passes at nearly every opportunity.

With that in mind, Auburn’s defensive line is already licking its chops.

“I think pretty much everyone knows that sacks equal moneymakers,” junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “But definitely this whole technique, this whole change of defense and starting off (getting up the field) vertically, that’s going to set everything up. If it’s a run play, we’ve got stick it. If it’s a pass play, we’ve got to work off the pass-rush. I definitely can’t wait to get out there.”

Though the Cougars are so thin on the offensive line they could start as many four current or former walk-ons, Angelo Blackson isn’t underestimating his opponent.

“We’re not going to look down upon nobody,” the junior defensive tackle said. “Those guys are coming in here wanting to beat us with nothing to lose, so we’re going to prepare for them like we prepare for everybody else.”

That’s where it helps to have quarterback Tucker Tuberville, whose knowledge of Leach’s system — with many elements remaining in place after his father Tommy Tuberville replaced Leach as Texas Tech’s coach — will be a boost when he’s running the scout team offense.

“He gets the ball out of his hands quick,” Malzahn said, “and that’s good.”

The divergent offensive schemes of the two teams stretched to their base defenses as well, since Malzahn could find few, if any, similarities.

“They are unique,” he said. “They do a little bit of everything. You’ve got to be prepared for the different fronts. They bring a lot of pressures.”

Those are the kinds of things Cassanova McKinzy hopes to see his unit apply when they get the chance to mix it up with the Cougars. The sophomore linebacker believes the defense isn’t that far away as long as it stays healthy, since he’s seen his teammates “progressing” every practice.

“We’ve all got to stay consistent and do a lot of working out on our own,” he said. “Overall, I think we’re doing better. Now it’s got to carry over to the game field.”

Notes

Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett, who is dealing with a foot sprain, did not practice Tuesday. “I hope he’s close,” Malzahn said. “We’re hoping we’re getting him back by next week.” … Malzahn was terse when asked if he had ever shared information with Leach. “No, I haven’t,” he said. … Marshall’s newfound leadership has continued to please Malzahn, as Tuesday marked the third day he repped with the first-team offense as the unquestioned starter at quarterback. “Since we’ve named him the starter he’s been a lot more urgent,” Malzahn said. “He’s taken more of a lead, and the offensive guys are listening to him. That’s very important.”

August 5, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/5: Demetruce McNeal sits out fourth straight practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to see about 20 minutes of practice on Monday, which marked Day 4 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short viewing window.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins on of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins one of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

  • Safety Demetruce McNeal continues to be the headliner during the media’s short stay at practice. For the fourth time in as many days of fall camp, the senior did not participate in drills while reporters were in attendance. Including the final five sessions of the spring, it marks the ninth consecutive time the College Park, Ga., native missed an Auburn practice. As he did Saturday, McNeal had a helmet on. However, with the team practicing in “shells” (helmets and pads), the safety was sans shoulder pads. In his post-practice meeting with media member’s on Sunday, Gus Malzahn said McNeal was “getting better.” But apparently not good enough to be cleared to practice just yet.
  • Avery Young was with the first-team offensive line, working at right tackle. Young and Patrick Miller have seemingly been going back-and-forth at the position (in the first-team lineup) during the first few days of fall camp.
  • The defense was working on its “dime” package, which included two of the hybrid safety/linebacker “star” position players on the field at the same time in Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie. Other members of the first-team defense (in that particular formation) had Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter manning the two ends and Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright inside. The linebackers were Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and the secondary consisted of cornerbacks Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead and Josh Holsey at safety.
  • Malzahn stayed around the quarterbacks for a few minutes, but then drifted over to watch the defense running through its various formations. The quarterbacks once again practiced their footwork today as well as executing proper handoffs. Jonathan Wallace and Nick Marshall worked with Cameron Artis-Payne, Tre Mason and Corey Grant, while Kiehl Frazier and Jeremy Johnson were paired with Johnathan Ford, Peyton Barber and Patrick Lymon.
  • Punt returners were mostly the same as it was during the portions of practice reporters saw Friday and Saturday. Wide receivers Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Marcus Davis were back, as well as cornerback Chris Davis. There was one new member, however, as another receiver — true freshman Tony Stevens — joined the fray. Kick returners mostly stayed to form, too. Mason, Grant, Ford, cornerback Jonathan Jones and wide receiver Ricardo Louis were seen fielding kicks, with one new addition in Therezie.
  • Right guard Chad Slade got an earful from offensive line coach J.B. Grimes during one drill. As the line was practicing its footwork once the ball is snapped, Slade didn’t have his feet in the proper position — and Grimes let him know it. “Check your splits!” said Grimes, before moving the junior’s feet where they needed to be. “I’m trying to help you!”
  • The media once again walked out as the team finished up its stretching drills with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell. If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate while Russell leads drills, it’s that he has an incredible amount of energy. It’s no wonder the team has touted his offseason workout program at every opportunity.

July 15, 2013

7 at 7: Seven questions about the Tigers this fall

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

Yes, there is still one major event to get through — this week’s SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. — before Auburn players report back to campus and preseason camp gets underway. Until that happens, however, here are seven questions (and answers) about the Tigers in the style of the War Eagle Extra’s “7 at 7″ format, as the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31 gets closer by the day.

1. Who will start at quarterback?

Ah yes, the topic du jour surrounding the Tigers heading into the season. There are four candidates vying for the position, with two having an opportunity to stake their claim to the job in the spring (junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace) and two arriving this fall (junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson). Frazier and Wallace were unable to create any separation amongst themselves, exiting the spring as co-No. 1s on the depth chart. They both hold an advantage over the newcomers in the regard that they at least know some of the playbook already, but will that be enough to stave off either Marshall or Johnson?

Largely due to being the best runner of the quarterback quartet, many believe Marshall is the front-runner to capture the job. That, of course, is nothing more than pure speculation at this point. Besides, the quarterback battle will be settled where it should be — on the field — and only when the coaches believe they know which signal-caller gives them the best chance to win in 2013.

2. What’s the status of the backfield?

Tre Mason Auburn A-Day

Tre Mason headlines a deep stable of Auburn running backs headed into the fall. Photo by Todd Van Emst

When it comes to the running back position, the Tigers should be able to rest easy, with Tre Mason coming off a 1,000-yard season and both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant having great springs. Still, it was a huge surprise when head coach Gus Malzahn revealed his two-deep post-spring depth chart and Mason was not listed as the unquestioned starter. Instead, Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant all had “OR” separating their names, being listed that way on both the first-team and second-team offense.

Then again, there are worse problems to have than worrying about how to divvy up carries between multiple talented ball carriers.

3. Who will assume the role of lead receiver?

It’s possible that the Tigers may be one of those teams without a go-to option at wideout. That’s not to say one won’t develop eventually. Between Jaylon Denson, Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis, Auburn has a nice pool of hopefuls to choose from. One thing is certain: The receiving corps isn’t lacking for heirs to the throne Emory Blake vacated. (And to show just how reliant the Tigers were on Blake last season, his 789 receiving yards accounted for a whopping 42 percent of Auburn’s 1,879 receiving yards.)

4. Who replaces Philip Lutzenkirchen at tight end?

No single player will be asked to replicate the production of Lutzenkirchen. Instead, it will be a shared assignment between C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse. The two complement each other well, as Uzomah is more noted for his pass-catching ability while Fulse is known as a hard-nosed blocker. But both have made it a point to shore up their perceived weaknesses, with Uzomah working on his blocking and Fulse practicing his route running. Jay Prosch (normally a fullback) may also see time at tight end as a utility blocker, and expect fellow H-back Ricky Parks to get a few reps at the position, too.

5. Can the secondary make some much-needed strides?

It’s still a shocking number any time you see it: one. That’s the number of interceptions Auburn’s secondary came away with in 2012. But there is reason to believe the secondary will be vastly improved when it steps back on the field this season. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are firmly entrenched with the first-team defense at the two corner positions, and there are a handful of players — notably Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Jones, Robenson Therezie and Ryan White — behind them to lend depth to the unit.

Questions still remain at safety, though, as Holsey was moved from cornerback to boundary (also known as strong) safety in the last week of the spring after Demetruce McNeal missed the final five practices due to an undisclosed off-the-field matter. Free safety, or “field safety,” as it is referred to in coach speak, should be capably manned by junior Jermaine Whitehead.

6. What player is primed for a breakout season on offense or defense?

If you haven’t prepared yourself for it, here’s an advance warning: Justin Garrett, who shined in the hybrid safety/linebacker position created by defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson specifically for his 4-2-5 scheme, will have plenty of terrible headlines centered around his spot’s name — “Star.” As corny as it sounds, the junior is truly a “star” in the making. He drew rave reviews for his progress during the spring, and Johnson has put him in a position where his hard-hitting talents can be put to best use. Expect a few highlight-worthy hits from Garrett to make the rounds this fall.

7. Which true freshmen — if any — will push for major playing time?

It’s a toss-up between two stud defensive line prospects, with Montravius Adams at tackle and Carl Lawson at end. The pair of Peach State products were two of the top players in the country at their respective positions, and their talent may be too great to keep them from playing significant roles from Day 1. If forced to choose one as the “most likely to steal a starting job,” I’ll go with Lawson barely. It’s mainly a function of the depth chart: While the Tigers can mix-and-match between Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker and Ben Bradley inside with relatively little drop-off, the same can’t be said at end.

Dee Ford has the left side starting spot locked down, but right end is still up for grabs. Nosa Eguae began the spring as the starter at right end, but when he wasn’t developing fast enough for the coaching staff’s liking, tackle Kenneth Carter was moved outside in the hopes that it would push Eguae to step it up.

With that in mind, don’t be surprised if Lawson comes in and nails down a spot in the starting lineup opposite Ford by the end of preseason camp.

May 8, 2013

Wright-Garner relationship goes back to high school, when Carver alum considered Georgia

Gabe Wright

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – The numbers 3 and 4 changed the course of Gabe Wright’s college football career.

Because Auburn reversed those numbers – in your traditional 4-3 base defense – Wright chose the Tigers. As a Carver (Ga.) standout in the trenches, Wright didn’t feel he was specifically built to handle nose tackle duties in his home state Georgia’s 3-4 modern scheme.

Halfway through his stay in the Loveliest Village, Wright didn’t mind pondering (only for a brief few seconds) what could have been. His sophomore year of high school, he very nearly committed to Georgia to play for defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who’d been whipping the Bulldogs in shape for over a decade.

Life has a way of sorting itself out.

“Coach Garner let us know there was no place he would have left Georgia for, except Auburn. He’s an Auburn man,” Wright said. “We’ve got one of the best coaches in college football.”

Wright’s proud to say he’s only played for an “Auburn man” – Garner’s predecessor of two years, Mike Pelton, was also a former Tigers defensive lineman.

There was a fine relationship between Garner and Wright during the recruiting process; no surprise, considering Garner’s made a living off of mining the best pass-rushing, run-stuffing talent the state of Georgia has to offer.

But now the prospect-recruiter connection has, three years later, evolved to player-coach, and there’s a fine line between the two.

Rodney Garner

“The guy that recruits you and the guy that coaches is a little bit different guy. And that’s the way it’s got to be,” said Garner, who officially returned to Auburn on Dec. 21 after spending 15 years with Georgia. “(They) probably didn’t know how to take me at first, but you spend a little quality time with them.”

That quality time is spent on practice fields, hearing Garner’s constant barking ring through their ears, which Wright and his mates did for 15 practices this spring. A different view than when Garner’s in living rooms, convincing recruits and their loved ones to play for him.

“Yeah, I’m demanding, but I love them, and I care about them, and I want them to know that,” Garner said. “But at the same time, loving them, to me, is not letting them get away with stuff. Loving them is holding them accountable, being demanding. It’s just like raising a child. You love your child, you discipline them.”

Wright remembering feeling close to Garner and his wife, Kim, who have five daughters but no sons of their own.

“Coach Garner, him and his wife have always been good to me and my family,” Wright said. “He was always polite, up-front. The thing I liked about him the most, it wasn’t always happy-happy. He told me the real side of recruiting.”

Of course, once Garner takes his whistle and Wright dons his pads, it’s even more of the tough love.

“He’s probably the most intense guy … high-level, energy guy. It fits this team well,” Wright said. “I think this team needs that, this team likes that. I want a guy to be on me all the time.”

As far as Wright’s place on the defensive line, he’s currently listed along with Jeffrey Whitaker as the first-unit tackles. Angelo Blackson and Ben Bradley expect to play plenty, and then there’s blue-chip commit Montravius Adams arriving this summer.

“Gabe would probably say this all the time: I’ve got to change his mindset,” Garner said. “You know, mentally he’s a white-collar guy, but playing defensive tackle in the SEC, you’ve got to be a blue-collar guy. So it’s a little bit nastier than it can be at end. He wants to be out there with the white collar on the end, but that’s not where he is, and that’s not what he does.”

April 17, 2013

Auburn notes: Pat Sullivan stops by practice, QB race “status quo”, top DBs are no-shows

17Auburn1 (3)

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Now two of the three men who’ve brought a Heisman Trophy back to Auburn have attended a spring football practice under the new coaching regime.

Following Cam Newton’s lead from last week, 1971 Heisman-winning quarterback Pat Sullivan was the most famous spectator at Wednesday morning’s practice. Sullivan, 63, was seen spending a few minutes chatting separately with head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.

Now the Samford head coach, Sullivan was one-third of the university-assigned committee who recommended Malzahn for the position last fall.

“That’s a pretty big deal. I’m a big fan of his,” Malzahn said. “It was not only big for me. It was big for our coaches and our players. He’s a true class individual that was a great player.”

While Sullivan represented past Auburn quarterbacks, incoming freshman Jeremy Johnson stopped by as well, one of the three future passers to join the program this summer.

Bo Jackson, who’s been busy promoting Bo Bikes Bama at the end of this month, would be the third and final Heisman winner to catch practice.

No separation: Through 11 practices, quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace have yet to distinguish themselves in the race to start opening day – a race which could be muddled next month by the arrival of Johnson, Nick Marshall and Jason Smith.

“Each practice, we grade the guys and we try to keep up, but right now everything is status quo. They’re getting equal reps with equal groups,” Malzahn said. “We’re getting to a point where we’re actually getting guys in the right position so we can properly evaluate them.”

Competitive spirit: Auburn hopes to reveal the A-Day scrimmage format sometime Thursday, but Malzahn has twice said there will be a certain element of competition missing from previous open-to-the-public spring scrimmages under ex-head coach Gene Chizik.

“We’re going to make this thing as close to a game as possible for our fans, and also for our coaches and players,” Malzahn said. “It’ll be great for us to evaluate the guys in front of a crowd and see how they react.”

Malzahn continues to insist there’s no first-team or second-team units, though from brief media windows a pecking order has been taking place over the past week and a half.

The fear of serious injuries – for instance, Clemson lost a backup quarterback and starting tight end to ACL tears in its spring game Saturday – won’t deter the Tigers.

“You put the ball down, that’s part of the deal,” Malzahn said. “Any time you’re evaluating guys and playing game-type situations, that is a factor, but we’re not going into that thing thinking that way.”

McNeal, Therezie no-shows: The most notable void from Wednesday’s practice was starting safety Demetruce McNeal, the Tigers’ No. 2-leading tackler in 2012.

Malzahn would only say McNeal “took care of some things off the field,” but expected his return Friday.

Personal reasons was also the reason given for cornerback/”star” safety Robenson Therezie’s absence. Running back Tre Mason tweeted Tuesday night a photo and message congratulating Therezie on the birth of his daughter.

Receiver Melvin Ray was held out with an ankle injury and linebacker Jake Holland missed his fourth practice due to a mandatory class, while Mason, defensive tackle Angelo Blackson, offensive tackle Avery Young, offensive guard Devonte Danzey and “star” safety Javiere Mitchell continued to work their way back in from assorted ailments.

Respect for Toomer’s: Malzahn plans to stop by the post-scrimmage block party Saturday celebrating the final rolling of Toomer’s Oaks, and is expected to speak sometime that evening.

“It’s one of the best traditions in college football,” Malzahn said. “For the Auburn family, it’s really unbelievable. I’m looking forward to being a part of that after the A-Day game. I know that will be very special.”

April 16, 2013

McCOMEBACK KID: Instead of leaving Auburn, McNeal chose to leave his mark

3Auburn11

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Slumped on his couch, taunted by his television, bummed out watching bowl games kick off without him or his team last winter, Demetruce McNeal thought seriously, again, whether he was in the right place.

“I’m always ready to just get back on the field and hit the ground running,” McNeal said. “It was just tough, sitting at home and thinking about it — ‘Man, am I coming back? What am I going to do?’”

Not for the first time, the hard-hitting safety wearing his heart on his sleeve concluded his heart remained with Auburn.

“I thought to myself, okay, we were 3-9,” McNeal said back on the first new day of spring football practices. “Let me come back and try to be a leader for this defense, and just change what people keep saying about the Auburn defense.”

McNeal repeatedly pointed to Auburn’s 2004 team, which went undefeated thanks to the nation’s stingiest scoring defense – 11.3 points allowed per game.

The Tigers haven’t finished in that category’s top 50 since 2008, and were far less consistent than last year’s No. 65 ranking (28.3 points) would indicate.

“That’s basically why I came back, to get this team on the right track before I leave,” McNeal said. “I’ve been down like that before. … It’s motivation because now we know how it feels to have a season like that, and we don’t want to feel that way again. We let so many people down.”

Statistically, McNeal was pretty good amidst the misery – in fact, he’s probably Auburn’s best returning defender. As a junior, he was Auburn’s No. 2-leading tackler (trailing only linebacker Daren Bates), leading the squad with 53 solo takedowns and tying defensive tackle Angelo Blackson with seven tackles for a loss.

But McNeal was just as noteworthy for his behavior behind closed doors – he twice was benched for the opening series in non-conference home games (in favor of Trent Fisher), and Ryan Smith started the opener against Clemson and the finale at Alabama.

“I made mistakes last year. Everybody made mistakes,” McNeal said. “I’m just trying to limit those mistakes and keep playing and go on about my career.”

McNeal knew he was meant to stick around when he started working with new safeties coach Charlie Harbison, who recruited him out of high school when at Clemson.

“The coaches are embracing us, and we’re embracing the coaches. Because in the past, I felt there was a lot of players vs. coaches. Now it’s more free and so much fun,” McNeal said. “I’ve got coaches that interact with me and I can interact with them with a playful mind, but still playing football at the same time.”

In particular, McNeal didn’t appreciate how old coaches demanded precise, stagnant technique – to the point where McNeal said he felt like a “robot” under 2012 defensive backs coach Willie Martinez.

Harbison, however, is different.

“I like him because he’s really the only coach I’ve had since I’ve been here that really allows me to feel comfortable about myself back there,” McNeal said. “In the past, a lot of coaches had me bending my knees so far down, I felt so uncomfortable. Coach Harbison, he’s more of laid-back type of dude. Play at your comfort level, because I’m going to coach off you.”

McNeal played last year as a gangly 6-foot-2, 187-pounder, but he already put on 12 pounds by the start of spring and hopes to weigh in between 210-215 pounds for the fall.

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson refers to McNeal’s position as a “boundary safety” – which requires physicality, closing speed and a nose for stopping the run, suiting McNeal.

“I’ve had some times, like at (South) Carolina, our big hitter back there was a free safety, (D.J.) Swearinger. But he wasn’t the biggest and strongest,” Johnson said. “He made big hits in the open field. But we had to have a 200-pound kid at the boundary corner and boundary safety to fit the run.”

McNeal’s gung-ho about the opportunity. He admires the work Harbison did with Pro Bowl safety Brian Dawkins in the 1990s, and the same of cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith turning Johnthan Banks into an All-American at Mississippi State last year.

“They feel that I can fill that void and just get a lot of interceptions and make a lot of tackles,” McNeal said. “Now that my mind is made up about what I want to do, it’s basically just learning the whole defense and how fast can I learn it.”

As his team enjoys its new day, McNeal has adopted a new attitude.

“I just want to go out with a bang, man,” McNeal said. “That’s basically it. Leave with a bang, get my name up in the (NFL) draft, try my best to be an All-American.”

April 13, 2013

Notebook: Offense has upper hand, banged-up Tigers return, Jake Holland cool with school

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Intrasquad scrimmages aren’t privy to reporters or the general public, but from the sound of it, Auburn’s offense was ahead of the defense in Saturday’s final Jordan-Hare Stadium tuneup a week before A-Day.

“We didn’t do as well as we wanted,” senior linebacker Jake Holland said. “I would say the offense probably won today, if we were keeping score.”

According to head coach Gus Malzahn, the 86-play scrimmage was evenly distributed between rushing and passing plays.

While quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace were only briefly available for questions afterward, and neither offered much insight to their performance, the running game took off with a couple of long touchdown runs by junior Corey Grant.

Effective blocking continues to be the prime emphasis.

“That’s who we’re going to be. That’s who Auburn is,” Malzahn said. “We’ve been very physical up front, and that’s been by design. I’m sure our guys, their bodies are probably talking to them, but we’ve got to get our hard-nosed edge back, and that’s where it starts.”

After its third three-practices-in-four-days stretch of the spring season, Malzahn announced Monday’s practice would be rescheduled for the second straight week.

That means A-Day will be the team’s 13th practice, giving the Tigers two final wrap-up field meetings after April 20.

Speaking of which, the spring scrimmage’s format is expected to be unveiled Tuesday or Wednesday.

“We’re going to try to make it as game-like as possible,” Malzahn said, “not only for ourselves but for our fans.”

From the infirmary: “Star” safety JaViere Mitchell missed multiple practices with a concussion, but he was back out there Saturday. Running back Tre Mason, defensive tackle Angelo Blackson and offensive lineman Devonte Danzey were also in uniform.

“Nothing serious. Nothing that’s going to stop me,” said Blackson, hampered by his shoulder after starting 10 games last year. “I was pretty much feeling good today. I’m going to finish the spring out and get ready for A-Day.”

Mitchell and Mason did not play in the scrimmage, but Blackson did return to live action. The only obvious scholarship player not in uniform was defensive end Keymiya Harrell, who remains out for the rest of the spring and attended Saturday’s practice on crutches.

Staying in school: Holland didn’t seem bothered by Ellis Johnson’s comments a day prior, when the defensive coordinator and linebackers coach was disgruntled about Holland’s multiple absences from practices and meetings due to a can’t-miss class.

Holland takes a mandatory construction sciences course within his major on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings, a direct conflict with practices. He’s missed three so far, but isn’t more than mildly frustrated.

“I just put in more time at home with the playbook. If there’s anything I need to come back for during the day, I’ll do that,” Holland said. “It’s really not a huge issue – I’m a veteran, I pretty much have this defense down as far as the installs go.

“I had no other choice but to take this class, so I’ve got to do what I’ve got to do.”

Coates sings Kumbaya: Sammie Coates made headlines three times his redshirt freshman season, and two of them were negative.

He was beloved for catching a Hail Mary pass from Frazier to end the first half against Louisiana-Monroe, but fell out of the fans’ favor the next week for dropping a catchable deep ball the first series against LSU.

His most significant moment of the year came Oct. 9 in the team auditorium, when Coates stood before reporters and challenged the team’s veterans, saying, “They put it on the older guys, but they aren’t showing much. Coach always talks about leadership, and nobody’s trying to be a leader. They talk about it all the time, but you don’t see it.”

Six months later, Coates is more concerned with running his routes and exploding out of the breaks, rather than calling out teammates.

“I just let that go, let the past be the past, and look forward to this new day, this new beginning,” Coates said. “I want everybody to be together and be a family.”

April 10, 2013

Unhappy Gus Malzahn calls Wednesday’s step back “a red flag”; seniors demand better effort (plus Jay Prosch video, more notes)

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This isn’t third-grade field day. Nobody’s getting gold stars for effort, especially when even the effort goes missing at Auburn spring practice.

“This was probably the first time that I wasn’t pleased overall with attitude, effort, our approach to practice,” head coach Gus Malzahn grumbled after Wednesday’s session. “And I told the guys afterwards, we’ve got to do better.”

The Tigers appeared sluggish, and perhaps a bit rusty, during the media’s 30-minute viewing window. Auburn took Monday off, leading to its longest layoff of the spring to date of three days – though Malzahn wasn’t using that as a pardon.

“I don’t think it had anything to do with the break. If anything, we should have been a little fresher,” Malzahn said. “The midway point (is) when you find out about leadership, and that’s really good today, because we’ll find out how we respond next practice.”

Senior safety Trent Fisher, one of 14 scholarship seniors on the roster, said the team had a decent off-field workout Monday, but insisted the Tigers bounce back this weekend.

“It starts right now. You’ve got to go home, you’ve got to eat and hydrate and make sure you’re body’s right on Friday to get after it,” Fisher said. “The second we hit the field during the warm-up, we have to be on. We have to be getting after it.”

Malzahn was somewhat surprised by the step back, given how happy he was when reviewing Saturday’s scrimmage on film.

“We’ve still got deficiencies, and we’ve still got a long way to go. But we improved up to that point,” Malzahn said. “So that’s why today, as a coach, you’re wanting to keep improving, and we didn’t do it today. So that’s definitely something that’s a red flag right now.”

Mental toughness was a post-practice topic, especially with Wednesday’s temperatures rising toward the 80s into the late morning.

“I think we just had an off day,” senior fullback Jay Prosch said. “It’s just going to make us come back harder for the rest of the spring.”

‘Star’ safety Justin Garrett, one of the spring’s breakout players, tweeted simply, “Bad practice no excuses” Wednesday afternoon.

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Waiting game: Auburn pulled at least two individual from the high school coaching ranks on board to aid with recruiting during the winter, but that was before the NCAA Division I Board of Directors suspended two amendments allowing unlimited recruiting efforts by off-field support staff on March 18.

Ex-Carver coach Dell McGee is now on the Auburn payroll, looking to bank a base salary of $84,000 according to Open Alabama Financial Reports. Chip Lindsey, formerly of Spain Park, will make $95,000 annually – provided both men stay with the university through some uncertain times.

Neither McGee nor Lindsey has been formally announced as an athletic department employee. An Auburn spokesman declined an interview request for McGee.

NCAA schools have until May 17 to request an override of the suspended regulations, meaning Auburn, Alabama and any other schools who added parts of this arms race are in wait-and-see mode.

“Right now, we’re just going day by day. They’re taking care of our players,” Malzahn said. “We’re not thinking about the future right now as far as that goes.”

Tre Cooled off: Junior tailback Tre Mason did not participate in any drills except for stretching in front of the media. He appears to be limited by a left leg injury, which he has fought throughout spring.

“Nothing serious, put it that way,” Malzahn said. “At the same time, a little banged up, there’s no doubt. Just want to make sure he’s 100 percent healthy before we put him back in there.”

Mason rushed for 1,002 yards last season, so his absence gives more reps to junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and former Alabama player and walk-on turned scholarship back Corey Grant.

“At the same time, (Mason’s) a little bit ahead of the others as far as knowing the offense,” Malzahn said. “So it’s probably not a bad thing that the guys are getting the majority of the reps right now.”

Beat up, banged up: Defensive tackle Angelo Blackson is still out, while ‘star’ safety Javiere Mitchell is also hurting, which allowed cornerback Robenson Therezie some run with the second unit.

“He’s a very good athlete,” said Malzahn of Therezie, who’s also worked in as a returner. “Just trying to find ways to get our athletes on the field.”

Loud noises! It’s not too soon to simulate the atmosphere at Tiger Stadium or Kyle Field. That’s why Auburn’s piping in sound for a few drills in April.

“You know, that’s crowd noise, attention, hand signals, communication where you can’t talk,” Malzahn said. “You go on the road in this conference, and that happens every week. It’s just a discipline that makes them concentrate just a little bit more.”

Quick observations from Auburn practice #8

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

AUBURN, Ala. – The weather was ideal. The intensity was not.

Can’t blame college kids too much for ever being sluggish at 8 a.m. at football practice, especially when Auburn’s been working at breakneck speed for a fortnight. (That’s two weeks, for you non-tennis nerds like me.)

Remember, the Tigers canceled Monday’s practice, meaning they had three full days off since Saturday’s heat-soaked scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium. So while the morning temperature was “Baby Bear porridge” perfect – not too hot, not too cool, but just right – the players seemed a tad rusty from the relatively lengthy layoff.

And it didn’t seem like the coaches got on their case … at least not that we saw. This is the third of four mornings in uniform, so we’ll see how the team tempo develops as we draw within single-digit days of the spring game.

Some quick observations from spring practice No. 8:

In high school, this 2-year quarterback (albeit a split starter his senior season) completed 52 percent of his passes (129-250) for 2,074 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Don’t expect Ryan White to compete with Jonathan Wallace or Kiehl Frazier anytime soon for reps. But White is dusting off the ol’ right arm, serving as a fake field goal passer in Wednesday’s drills.

Kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark also will have to learn how to throw a ball on point in front of 80,000 screaming fans. There are some plays drawn up for them on fake punts and field goals.

Among the plays we saw (no video allowed): White throwing a quick route to Brandon Fulse in the end zone, Parkey passing to White on a rollout, a direct snap to Ricky Parks and run, a direct snap to Cameron Artis-Payne with White faking a shotgun snap, and White lining up in pistol formation before an audible calls for a straight-up Parkey kick.

Scott Fountain appears to be the guy guiding these formations, with assistance from Tim Horton.

Extra points, short kicks and punt lineups could get creative this year, folks.

Tre Mason was in uniform, but didn’t get any work other than stretching that we saw. He seemed to be favoring his left leg, and he hasn’t looked right all spring.

If Artis-Payne and Corey Grant take advantage of the extra reps, it’s not unheard of that Mason could fall behind on the depth chart for 2013 on account of missing spring. Just ask Nosa Eguae last year.

DT Angelo Blackson (injury) and OL Devonte Danzey (unknown) weren’t out there today. WR Quan Bray was practicing, but needed some time with the trainer stretching out his right leg. We’ll have to ask Gus Malzahn for their statuses this morning.

Wallace took the first four throws in team drills we saw. Don’t freak out. Frazier will rotate in. The QBs were working on option pitches to Artis-Payne as well as walk-on QBs Ben Durand and Tate O’Connor.

The starting O-Line remains Greg Robinson, Alex Kozan, Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade, Patrick Miller.

This one’s just for me: I like the ‘sacking dummy’ contraption out there. It’s a tall blue cone with a left arm pumped down and a right arm up throwing the football. The Manzielnequin.

The defense worked on interception drills. As in, how to block for the man after getting a pick.

Twas a much quieter sideline than last weekend with the coaching clinic, but athletic director Jay Jacobs was observing in a bright blue athletic polo.