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August 26, 2013

Auburn football: Coordinators discuss positional rotations prior to depth chart release

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn has yet to release a depth chart heading into its season opener against Washington State on Saturday.

Until that time comes — it is expected to be released at some point Tuesday — which players will fill out the two-deep lineup remains a mystery. One of those positions is safety, where the dismissal of senior safety Demetruce McNeal left a gaping hole.

Senior cornerback Chris Davis (11) was one player Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had no worries about heading into Saturday's season opener versus Washington State. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior cornerback Chris Davis (11) was one player Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had no worries about heading into Saturday’s season opener versus Washington State. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Former cornerback Josh Holsey stepped in at the spot during the spring and stayed there for the duration of fall camp. With McNeal gone and barring any issues arising between now and the opener, Holsey will take the field as the team’s starting boundary safety.

As it stands, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he was comfortable with three safeties as Saturday nears.

“You’ve got Holsey, Ryan Smith and (Jermaine) Whitehead,” Johnson said. “So I think right now, it would have to be some kind of a three-man rotation. Unless one of them got hurt, and then Kiehl Frazier will be ready to go.”

It was the same story at the two linebacker positions, Johnson said, at ease with the trio of Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Anthony Swain.

“I think Jake could move to the Will (line)backer if he had to,” Johnson said of the likely starter at middle linebacker. “Swain’s had a pretty good week of practice. I think first I’d probably put Swain on the field if he played well and did OK. If not, I’d move Jake over there. Frost and Holland are (the) only players at Mike right now.”

Johnson reiterated that view when asked whether weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy would stay on the field in Auburn’s dime package and shift to the middle, where he played last season.

“Cass hasn’t worked any at that,” he said. “It’s just too much for him to learn right now. When we go to dime, whatever Mike linebacker is on the field stays out there. They’re not asked to do anything outside the box. There’s really nothing they physically can’t handle, but we’ll usually leave that mike linebacker on the field. It’s about the fewest number of guys going on and off the field.”

The three-man approach didn’t stop with linebackers and safeties, though. Johnson said it also extended to cornerback, where the Tigers are content with Chris Davis, Jonathon Mincy and Ryan White. Auburn is still trying to find a replacement for Jonathan Jones, who broke a bone in his ankle in an off-field accident near the end of fall camp. No timetable has been announced for his return.

The three players vying for time in Jones’ absence all lack experience, comprised of a redshirt freshman (T.J. Davis) and a pair of true freshmen (Kamryn Melton and Johnathan Ford).

Ford in particular has continued to impress Johnson since moving from running back to cornerback following Jones’ injury.

“Johnathan’s still learning. He’s not ready yet, but he physically is the most impressive of the bunch,” Johnson said. “You never know how much improvement they can make when we restrict the game plan and cut it down for them mentally. Sometimes that hesitation and confusion can lead to playing poorly fundamentally. If we clean that up, I think he is really going to be a good player there.”

Unlike the defense, the offense has few positions still undecided.

One is at right tackle, where Patrick Miller and Avery Young split reps throughout fall camp. Young, however, started to switch between tackle and guard as fall camp came to a close. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee couldn’t find enough good things to say about the sophomore, who sat out spring practice while rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Though the average person may not know finer points of what it takes to be an offensive lineman, Lashlee believed Young would be easy to spot even to the untrained eye.

Young’s talent stands on its own merit.

“He’s an athletic guy,” Lashlee said. “At guard he can really pull. At tackle he’s very athletic, really good in the run game. Shoot, he hasn’t done it yet, but he would probably be a really good center. He’s just a real versatile guy.”

August 11, 2013

Auburn football: Ellis Johnson says Jake Holland has ‘edge’ over Kris Frost at middle linebacker

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. —There’s a new name at the top of Auburn’s middle linebacker depth chart, and he’s no stranger to the starting lineup.

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Sunday that senior Jake Holland, who has started 16 games over the last two seasons, has vaulted past sophomore Kris Frost at the position.

Auburn senior Jake Holland has moved back to the top of the middle linebacker depth chart since  fall camp began. He excited the spring as the backup to Kris Frost at the position. (File photo)

Auburn senior Jake Holland has moved back to the top of the middle linebacker depth chart since fall camp began. He excited the spring as the backup to Kris Frost at the position. (File photo)

“I feel like Jake Holland has had two really good scrimmages,” Johnson said. “Everybody else has been inconsistent. He’s certainly right now got an edge on that starting spot, but it’s still a very good competition between him and Kris.”

Frost’s level of play hasn’t dropped since the spring, heading into the offseason as the No. 1 “Mike” linebacker. Johnson said the bigger factor has been Holland’s improvement.

“Jake’s better than he was in the spring,” he said. “He’s making plays. He’s the most consistent linebacker I’ve got, but he’s also making tackles and he’s done a lot of good things.”

There hasn’t been any change at the weakside spot, though, as Johnson said Cassanova McKinzy remains the starter. But his day-to-day form during fall camp has fluctuated far too much for Johnson.

“(McKinzy) continues to make the best linebacker plays and do some things that you really can’t coach,” he said. “The outstanding physicality, technique and those type of things (are there), but he’s been very inconsistent. Got to get more consistent in assignments and run fits, coverages, all of the above.”

Johnson’s biggest concern with the linebacker corps is finding players to fill out the rotation, ideally identifying four or five who will challenge for playing time.

“Because it’s very seldom that you get through the season with all of them healthy, he said. “Right now, it’s still a little bit muddled.”

There are a few players trying to work their way into the argument, with Johnson mentioning that Kenny Flowers, LaDarius Owens and Javiere Mitchell have been “doing some pretty good things” since fall camp started. They’re still well behind McKinzy, however, and Johnson said it’s the same story at middle linebacker, where Anthony Swain is still far outpaced by Holland and Frost.

Johnson said that inexperience doesn’t excuse some lapses, though.

“I think a little bit of the over-installation has created some of the mental mistakes,but we’re not tackling as well as we should,” he said. “I don’t think we’re doing a lot of things in a lot of areas as well as we should.”

August 6, 2013

Tigers still trying to sort out playing time at linebacker

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s veteran linebackers put the summer to good use.

Sophomore weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy is one player who likely won't have to worry about his playing time this fall. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wasn't nearly as certain about the rest of the positional depth chart. (File photo)

Sophomore weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy is one player who likely won’t have to worry about his playing time this fall. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wasn’t nearly as certain about the rest of the positional depth chart. (File photo)

It didn’t take long for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to notice, either.

Every player picked up fall camp right where they left off in the spring — if not a tick better, Johnson said. From the weight they’ve lost in offseason workouts to the retention of coverage assignments, Johnson couldn’t be more pleased.

Now, the next test waits.

“The physicality of it, we don’t know,” Johnson said. “We’ve been running around with shorts, so we really don’t know. We’ll start to find out more in the next few days.”

The Tigers will don full pads for the first time this fall during Tuesday’s practice. And that’s when Johnson and the rest of the defensive coaching staff will weed out those who are merely workout warriors.

“Sometimes a player that doesn’t look real cute in a drill, he’s just a good natural player,” Johnson said. “Sometimes (you have) a player that can do all the things when you walk through the barrels and go out and run it five minutes later and he’s good, but when you run it five days later, he can’t remember. We’ll just have to see who surfaces.”

Like nearly every other position on the team, Johnson said he hasn’t begun to put together any semblance of a depth chart.

“I feel like there’s a few guys that have an edge on other guys but it’s certainly too early to say that a player has not played his way into contention or doesn’t have a chance,” he said. “We haven’t done enough at this point for me to tell you if a guy can play linebacker or not.”

Johnson had no worries about three of his most experienced players. With Kris Frost and Jake Holland battling for supremacy in the middle and Cassanova McKinzy on the weakside, Johnson was confident the Tigers wouldn’t lack for leadership.

McKinzy, in particular, has impressed Johnson with the gains he made in the offseason.

“He’s lost some weight and his change of direction — redirect on counters, coming out of your break when you drop in zone and those types of things, just acceleration and explosion to the point of attack — he’s gotten better and he can practice longer at a high tempo,” Johnson said. “He would not finish a practice and I felt like he was too heavy and out of shape. He did a good job of dropping some pounds and I think it really shows.”

Another pair of linebackers have made their presence known, too.

Anthony Swain has improved,” Johnson said. “Swain has moved into the Mike (middle) linebacker and LaDarius Owens has moved out to the Will (weakside). That took them a couple of days. They were a little out of sorts but they’ve started to pick things up.”

Owens has been moving between back and forth, though Johnson said his preference is to keep him at weakside for now. And Owens isn’t the only one cross-training at the two positions. To keep his options open, Johnson said there are multiple players learning both the Mike’s and Will’s responsibilities.

One player who may work his way into that rotation before fall camp concludes is Kenny Flowers.

Johnson couldn’t heap enough praise on the junior college transfer, enamored with his size and physical tools.

All Flowers has to do now is learn the defense.

“Physically, he’s in the right company. He belongs right where he is in the SEC,” Johnson said. “I think he’s going to give us some good plays this year. Everything right now is sort of a crystal ball. I don’t know that he is (going to be good), but I think he will.”

October 15, 2012

Auburn notes: Cold cuts don’t please Chizik

AUBURN, Ala. — Onterio McCalebb will go down as one of Auburn’s most all-around productive runners, receivers and returners. Sometimes his patience on sweeps — which have resulted in 54 lost rushing yards on the year — can draw the ire of his head coach.

“Sometimes you could see Onterio might have a lane where he can cut in, and so are there times when he could cut back and maybe make some extra yards? Possibly,” coach Gene Chizik said. “That would be true of all the running backs to say that. There could have been a lane or could have been alley there, and he may or may not have seen them.

“But it would have been interesting to see what would have happened, let’s put it that way.”

McCalebb ranks second on the Tigers with 293 rushing yards, averaging 5.1 per carry.

Parkey’s Place

Auburn is 1-5, through no fault of junior kicker Cody Parkey, who was versatile again in Saturday’s 41-20 loss at Mississippi.

Parkey hit field goals from 46 and 31 yards — the first of which saw the ball nearly at its peak as it sailed through the uprights — improving to 9-for-10 this season.

“That was probably one my best kicks I’ve had in a while, in terms of distance,” Parkey said. “I really connected on it and hit it real well.”

Parkey said he feels he can hit from 55 yards out on a good day.

“I’m really proud of him. I think he’s very confident right now,” Chizik said. “He’s very confident in kickoffs and in all of his field goals. He’s improved immensely from last year, confidence and production-wise. I think he’s in a good place.”

Beyond his field goals and 15 touchbacks, Parkey struck again with a surprise onside kick, tapping the top of the ball and timing the bounce to perfection after 10 yards to recover his kick.

“That’s something we’ve worked on since I’ve been here,” Parkey said. “Kicked the ball, they block for me, and I go and recover it. It’s hard to defend as a kickoff return unit. We saw a gap, we exploited it, and we were able to get the ball back.”

The play was designed the same as Parkey’s play in last year’s Chick-il-A Bowl against Virginia.

“Just the way they draw it up,” Chizik said. “Yeah, I don’t think he’s missed one since we’ve been doing that.”

Spread shocker

Vanderbilt is 1-13 against Auburn since 1950. That hasn’t stopped online gambling establishments from feverishly favoring the host Commodores this Saturday. Vanderbilt is an 8-point favorite at the start of the week.

Swain mistake

Chizik said after reviewing film, it was clear which player lined up offside on Mississippi punter Joe Broadway’s shanked punt, which allowed Broadway a mulligan.

Although the SEC Network didn’t show replay of the snap Saturday, the guilty party appeared to be Anthony Swain, a redshirt freshman linebacker whose helmet crossed into the neutral zone.

Tunde troubles

In his second start of the year at center, sophomore Tunde Fariyike didn’t fare quite as well filling in for injured Reese Dismukes.

He launched a shotgun snap over the head of quarterback Clint Moseley, and the ball was recovered by a Rebel to give Mississippi a 14-0 lead. Fariyike also struggled to hit the target when Jonathan Wallace (Central-Phenix City) was in on wildcat snaps.

“They still get high from time to time. I guess I just rushed it on that high snap, that’s what happened there,” Fariyike said. “I don’t feel like I had the best game.”

Be like Mike?

With junior mike linebacker Jake Holland struggling within defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder’s system, senior Ashton Richardson received considerable playing time in the second half Saturday.

“We’re looking for production out of that position,” VanGorder said. “We’ll keep it competitive.”