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August 28, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn talks about final decision at right tackle, praises Chris Davis’ consistency on punt returns

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — The battle to become the fifth and final member of Auburn’s offensive line ended last week.

Patrick Miller, who started the last nine games of the 2012 season at right tackle, will begin 2013 back at the same spot. He won the spot over Avery Young, who started the first three games at the position last season before injuring his shoulder. (File photo)

Patrick Miller, who started the last nine games of the 2012 season at right tackle, will begin 2013 back at the same spot. He beat out Avery Young in a two-man competition for the position. (File photo)

It wasn’t made public until Wednesday, when the Tigers finally released their two-deep depth chart as they head into Saturday’s season opener. Patrick Miller and Avery Young went back-and-forth with the first-team offense at right tackle for the duration of fall camp, but head coach Gus Malzahn said Miller finally began to separate himself within the past week.

Now, Miller will return to the same spot he manned the final nine games of 2012.

“He had a very good spring and it was an open competition,” Malzahn said following Wednesday’s practice. “We really felt strong that we needed to do that because Shon (Coleman) and Avery both improved. They both had very good fall camps and we wanted to open that thing up.”

While Young didn’t win the starting job, he won’t disappear, either. He started to take reps at guard last week, and both Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have praised his versatility, believing he could play any position on the line if needed.

“We have a lot of confidence in Avery, a whole lot of confidence,” Malzahn said. “He made that battle very interesting. The positive as far as the offensive line goes is we feel that we’ve got quality depth. I would say there is a chance you could see him on the field.”

Another spot still up in the air at the beginning of the week was at defensive end. LaDarius Owens ended up locking that down and will start at right defensive end, with Craig Sanders stepping in for the injured Dee Ford on the left side.

It was a quick transition back to the line for Owens, who moved to linebacker during the spring and stayed there for the majority of fall camp. However, the coaching staff asked him to return to the defensive line and it paid immediate dividends for the junior from Bessemer, Ala.: Saturday will mark the first start of his Auburn career after appearing in 17 games the past two seasons.

The head coach explained the thinking behind converting Owens back into a lineman.

“I believe when we lost Dee, the fact that he had some experience up front and (we) felt like trying to figure out a way to put our best players on the field was part of it,” Malzahn said. “He’s got a very high motor and he rushes the passer adequately.”

Getting pressure on the quarterback is key in any game. But when playing a team as dependent on the passing game as Washington State, Malzahn said it took on added importance.

He also jumped to defend the team’s pass rush despite Ford’s absence. The senior was the Tigers’ only returnee who had more than one sack last season.

“We’ve got confidence in our guys and like I said when I first got here, we didn’t worry about anything in the past,” Malzahn said. “(We) tried to put it behind us and tried to give everybody an equal foot moving forward and we feel like we’ve done that.”

Malzahn said the Tigers’ highly-touted true freshmen defensive line trio — Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — will also get their chance to play Saturday.

“Those young guys are extremely talented they’ve shown flashes of being very good,” he said. “It’s just a matter of those young guys being consistent and being able to play play-in and play-out.”

Chris Davis to field punts

Perhaps the biggest surprise on the depth chart was Chris Davis capturing the Tigers’ punt return duties. Receivers Quan Bray and Trovon Reed handled every punt for the team in 2012, but Malzahn said the senior cornerback earned the job thanks to his playmaking ability and his sure-handedness with the ball.

“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Malzahn said. “He’s been the most consistent guy catching the football. When he has made some interceptions in the spring and in fall camp he usually does something positive with them. We felt like it was good to give him a chance to show what he could do.”

Another (smaller surprise) was C.J. Uzomah not being listed by himself as the first-team tight end. Instead, just as he did exiting the spring, he shared equal billing with Brandon Fulse.

Malzahn said each candidate had his strengths and their playing time would depend on specific plays and packages.

“C.J. has really gotten better with his blocking and Brandon has gotten better with his receiving,” he said. “I think both of them are very versatile. Like I’ve said before, both of those guys were recruited specifically for our offense.”

Quick hits

Freshman receiver Tony Stevens, who has battled a nagging hamstring injury since fall camp, should be good to go Saturday, according to Malzahn. “(We’re) pretty confident,” he said when asked about the chances of Stevens playing in the season opener. … Malzahn didn’t want to speculate how much playing time Kiehl Frazier would see against the Cougars. The former quarterback enters Saturday as Josh Holsey’s backup at strong safety. “We’ll just see how the game unfolds,” Malzahn said. “Obviously the guys that have experience, we know a little bit more about them. But at the same time, he’s our backup at that position right now.”

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 25, 2013

Auburn notes: With Dee Ford out, Craig Sanders ‘excited’ to make first career start

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Auburn Football

Senior Craig Sanders (13) is set to make the first career on Saturday in Auburn’s season opener against Washington State. Sanders has appeared in 37 games in the past three seasons. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

AUBURN, Ala.Craig Sanders has appeared in 37 games at Auburn in the last three seasons.

Not a single one of those appearances included a start. That is set to change Saturday. After Dee Ford injured a ligament in his knee during the second scrimmage of fall camp, the Tigers’ starting left defensive end position was vacated for an undetermined period of time, though defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said the senior will certainly miss the season opener.

In his absence, Sanders has stepped to the fore.

“I’m excited about it because this is my first start ever in my college career,” he said following Sunday’s practice. “I want Dee back as fast as he can get back because we want that rotation. Whether it’s him starting or me starting, we want to rotate in with both of us working because we need that rotation and depth.”

Johnson said Sanders has most the most of the work he’s had with the first-team defense since Ford went down.

“Craig’s been really consistent assignment-wise,” he said. “Not many missed assignments. He’s done some pretty good things in pass rush. There’s no question I think all the additional repetitions have helped him fundamentally, but he’s done pretty well.”

It will be difficult to replace Ford’s production, however. He was the team’s top returning pass-rusher, totaling 6.5 sacks last season. Sanders said he will do his best to try to fill the void, hoping the gains he made during the offseason will carry over to this fall.

“My thing was using my hands when I was pass rushing,” he said. “With (defensive line) ‘Coach G’ (Rodney Garner) and Coach Brandon Wheeling, they have been helping me one-on-one with flipping my hips and using my hands off the ball. Since the spring actually it has improved greatly. I’m very satisfied with how it’s improved.”

He’s not the only defensive end who has made improvements. Johnson said he’s also seen growth from the Tigers’ other pass-rushers, most notably the true freshman duo of Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson.

“Elijah and Carl have some pass-rush ability that some of the other guys don’t have,” he said. “They’ve gotten a lot of work. They’re making some mistakes, some mental errors, but they’re going to have to play. And I think all this extra work has really helped them.”

Until Ford returns, however, the Tigers will mix-and-match at the two defensive end spots. Sanders said he and LaDarius Owens — who just shifted back to the defensive line after moving to linebacker this spring — have seen the majority of the reps at left end. Seniors Nosa Eguae and Ken Carter will be part of the rotation as well, along with the aforementioned freshman pair of Lawson and Daniel.

Regardless of what happens Saturday, Sanders said he just wants to be able to revel in the moment when his name is announced as part of the starting lineup.

“I’m going to be pumped,” he said. “I’ll be able to jump 10 feet in the air. It will be awesome. I’m ready. I’m really ready.”

Marcus Davis already in line for playing time

When offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was asked which true freshman would “definitely play” Saturday, only one name came to mind: Marcus Davis. The receiver kept “showing up” in practices every time Lashlee turned around.

Eventually, it became too much for the coach to ignore.

“He’s kind of put himself in the mix for some playing time,” Lashlee said. “There’s some of those guys that are on playing time on teams as well, but he’s the one that keeps standing out the most, probably.”

What has Davis done to catch the eye of the coaching staff? Cliche as it sounds, “all the little things,” Lashlee said.

Davis’ background as a quarterback hasn’t hurt, either, as Lashlee believes that has helped for a quick transition from high school to college.

“He came in you could tell he wasn’t in the moment of, ‘Hey, I’m in college and these guys are bigger and faster,’” Lashlee said. He’s been steady. I’m not going to say he’s made a lot of ‘wow’ plays, although he’s made a few. He’s just been steady and he’s worked hard, he’s listened and he’s tried to do everything the coaches say.”

Fellow receiver Quan Bray praised the Delray Beach, Fla., native as well.

“I’ve seen him come in with (the right) mentality,” Bray said. “He’s young but he’s definitely ready to play because he’s a baller. Coach (Gus) Malzahn said it — he’s a natural all the time.”

Quick hits

Johnson said hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett has “looked pretty good” since he returned to practice. The junior sprained his foot during fall camp, which forced him to miss 12 straight practices. “He’s looked like the old Justin,” Johnson said. “If you need to know how he feels, you’d have to ask him. But he’s made some plays.” … Lashlee said Avery Young has continued to move back and forth between tackle and guard on the offensive line. “He was tackle early, then it was guard and lately he’s been doing some of both,” Lashlee said. “We’ve had him at tackle probably the last week or so.”

August 22, 2013

Auburn notes: Kiehl Frazier ‘in the mix’ for playing time in season opener, Justin Garrett returns to practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Kiehl Frazier appears to be a quick learner.

Kiehl Frazier has made enough strides at safety that both head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he's 'in the mix' for playing time in the season opener. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Kiehl Frazier has made enough strides at safety that both head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he’s ‘in the mix’ for playing time in the season opener. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Though the former quarterback has been at safety only 10 days, there are signs he is already making a push to break into Auburn’s two-deep depth chart at the position. Following the Tigers’ practice on Thursday, head coach Gus Malzahn said Frazier is “in the mix” for playing time.

“I think everyday he feels more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “It’s like anything else. The more that you do, the better you get at it. He’s a competitor, he’s a smart football player, he understands offensive concepts and there’s a good chance he’ll be out on the field.”

Ellis Johnson was even more effusive in his praise of Frazier on Monday. The defensive coordinator said it was a seamless transition for the former quarterback, who picked up the scheme and immediately started “making some checks those young JUCO guys and freshmen guys weren’t making for two weeks.” That’s why he’s confident Frazier will be just fine.

All the junior needs is more time.

“Fundamentals and technique and pulling the trigger, seeing and reacting to things right now, he’s sort of in slow motion but it’s coming along for him,” Johnson said. “Once he gets comfortable back there, I think he’ll play quite a bit for us.”

Whether he gets on the field before Ryan Smith is still a question mark. A career backup, Smith has made only three starts in his career, including two last year — the season opener against Clemson and the season finale versus Alabama. Despite his scarcity of starts, Johnson said the senior is “more game-ready” than Frazier at the moment.

“Ryan probably would start on our dime package at one of the deep safeties when we move (Josh) Holsey up to dime,” Johnson said. “(He) has had a good two, three practices (and) been working a lot of that package the last three days. He really has done a good job.”

The Tigers likely won’t make a decision on Frazier’s playing time until just before the season opener.

“I think he’s learned everything we do but right now (but) he just doesn’t have that quick twitch and that reaction,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of (his vision) and knowledge. He knows the assignments. He knows the adjustments. But as far as keys and reaction and all that, some of it’s still just a blur to him right now.”

Notes

As has been the case since the beginning of fall camp, the starting right tackle position is undecided, Malzahn said. The two-man competition between Avery Young and Patrick Miller continues. “The good thing is we have more depth at tackle than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” Malzahn said. … Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett returned to practice Thursday, according to Malzahn. The junior missed the last 12 practices of fall camp due to a foot sprain suffered in the Tigers’ second scrimmage.

August 21, 2013

Auburn football: Five questions (and five predictions) as Tigers head into regular season

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn wrapped up its fall camp on Tuesday, the first since Gus Malzahn took over as head coach.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn found his starting quarterback during fall camp, but the Tigers still have question marks heading into their season opener Aug 31. (File by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn found his starting quarterback during fall camp, but the Tigers still have question marks heading into their season opener Aug 31. (File by Todd Van Emst)

The Tigers were able to solve what Malzahn considered “the No. 1 priority” heading into the regular season — settling on a quarterback. That four-man race concluded last Saturday, when Nick Marshall was named the starter. But with just 10 days left before Washington State comes into Jordan-Hare Stadium for the season opener, Auburn is still looking for answers at other positions.

Here are five questions (in no particular order) the Tigers will try to figure out prior to squaring off against the Cougars on Aug. 31, with (bold) predictions on what the outcomes will be:

Who starts at right tackle?

For the duration of fall camp, it appeared Avery Young and Patrick Miller were neck-and-neck at the position, as both saw time with the first-team offense. Earlier this week, however, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Miller had “been working there a lot” in recent practices. During the same interview session, Lashlee said Young had moved inside and started taking snaps at both guard spots, though he saw more time on the left side, which has been manned by Alex Kozan.

Malzahn refused to shed any more light on the situation following practice on Tuesday, but expect a decision by the beginning of next week — even if the coaching staff doesn’t make its choice public.

Bold prediction: Miller becomes the right tackle, and Young, who Lashlee said is “talented enough to play all five positions,” steals the left guard spot from Kozan.

Who is the team’s go-to receiver?

One of the biggest unknowns heading into fall camp remains the same at its closure. The Tigers have a lot of options at receiver, but none has stood above the rest. Just see what Lashlee had to say earlier this week. “I’ll be honest right now,” he said. “I don’t know who our leading receiver is going to be.” Lashlee lauded juniors Quan Bray and Jaylon Denson for their consistency, but didn’t rule out tight end C.J. Uzomah possibly developing into the best pass-catcher the Tigers will have this fall.

Bold prediction: Sophomore Ricardo Louis, who was the “most explosive” player in camp according to teammates, establishes himself as the Tigers’ top receiver this season (and beyond).

What happens at defensive end without Dee Ford?

The Tigers certainly would have liked to have some semblance of a rotation in place by now. Injuries have made that difficult. The starter at left end, Ford has already been ruled out for the opener due to a ligament injury in his knee. But he’s far from the only player who dealt with an affliction during camp. Fellow ends Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae have missed time, while Keymiya Harrell has yet to practice after having surgery knee surgery this spring. To combat their lack of healthy bodies, the Tigers also moved LaDarius Owens back to end after he had shifted to linebacker during spring practice.

The absences allowed true freshmen Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel to audition for a possible starting spot, and they have done their part to impress defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, saying the duo already comprises “two of our best pass-rushers.”

Bold prediction: Though Johnson said he would prefer to have his “veterans prepped up to be the starters,” Lawson is on the field at one of the end positions with the first-team defense versus Washington State.

Who holds the edge at middle linebacker?

Kris Frost entered the fall No. 1 on the depth chart, but he didn’t stay there long. Time and again, Johnson said Jake Holland has been the steadier player during practice, and as such, moved him ahead of Frost. Johnson explained the difference between the two on Monday.

“Kris had two or three days where he kind of went backwards, had some missed assignments and some things that were uncharacteristic and shouldn’t have done,” he said. ” … The two legitimate scrimmages that we had, Jake just had more production, had more tackles, more plays, had a pick (and) hasn’t had as many missed tackles.”

That should tell people all they need to know.

Bold prediction: Frost continues to fight the good fight, but Holland is in the starting lineup come game time.

What’s the deal with the secondary?

Much like the defensive line, injuries have taken their toll on the Tigers’ back end. Jonathan Jones will miss the opener (and possibly more) after breaking a bone in his ankle in an off-field mishap. That means the No. 3 corner on the Tigers will come from a trio of first-year players: redshirt freshman T.J. Davis and true freshmen Kamryn Melton and Johnathan Ford, who switched from running back this week.

Demetruce McNeal’s decision-making didn’t help matters, whose arrest last Saturday led to his dismissal and weakened an already-lean unit at safety. Originally a cornerback, Josh Holsey has been at the strong (or boundary) safety position since the end of the spring, when McNeal missed the last five practices for undisclosed personal issues. McNeal then sat out the first 10 practices of camp following an infection that required minor surgery, which forced Holsey to remain at safety. Many thought he would finally move back to corner after McNeal regained his health, but the senior was dismissed before the Tigers ever reached that point. If anything were to happen Holsey or fellow safety Jermaine Whitehead, it would be down to Ryan Smith and quarterback-turned-safety Kiehl Frazier.

Bold prediction: The two former offensive players — Ford and Frazier — see more action on defense than they ever would have imagined one month ago.

August 14, 2013

4 at 4: Off day provides time to catch up on latest news in college football

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — It’s a rare day on the Auburn football beat.graphics4

First, there’s no media availability. Second, and of greater import to non-reporters, the Tigers aren’t practicing today.

Head coach Gus Malzahn said this day will be used exclusively for the coaching staff to continue its evaluations of every player, as well as to start to pare down the positions that are still up for grabs.

With that in mind, it seems like a good day for a “4 at 4,” with some links highlighting both Auburn and other teams around college football.

1. I normally like to lead off with links to recent content published on the blog for those who might not have had a chance to read them yet. I see no reason to change that, so let’s start with a few pieces from the last two days: Avery Young and Patrick Miller continue to tussle to become the team’s starting right tackle, while receiver Sammie Coates said the game has “slowed down” for him entering his third season on the Plains. We have a post which includes post-practice video interviews with Coates, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and center Reese Dismukes. Finally, we have quarterback content galore: an update on the competition from Lashlee’s perspective along with a pair of profiles on current (and former) signal-callers, with the first focusing on Jonathan Wallace and the second on the Tigers’ newest safety, Kiehl Frazier.

And something to keep in mind for Thursday: I’ll be live chatting at 3 p.m. ET. I hope you’ll join.

2. In other Auburn news, Jason Dufner sure seems to be reaping the rewards of his victory in the PGA Championship. Heck, he even slept with the Wanamaker Trophy. (Check out the photo posted by his wife, Amanda, on her personal Instagram account.)

And a good get from colleague Brandon Marcello, who tracked down Matt Miller, the offensive coordinator at Garden City Community College in Kansas, where Nick Marshall lit up the junior college circuit last year. His former coach thinks Marshall “could be as good as any quarterback in the SEC” and compared him to former Kansas State great Michael Bishop, the Heisman Trophy runner-up (to Ricky Williams) in 1998.

3. How about a few interesting stories around college athletics? According to The Washington Post, Maryland’s move to the Big Ten hasn’t paid immediate dividends, as the athletic department is projected to operate at a deficit “until at least the 2017-18 academic year.” Meanwhile, Dallas Cowboys receiver Dez Bryant hopes the NCAA punishes Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel if the reigning Heisman Trophy winner is proven to accepted money in exchange for his autograph.

Speaking of punishment, Alabama has suspended starting inside linebacker Trey DePriest for a violation of team rules; meanwhile another SEC linebacker named “Trey” is looking to exit the league completely — LSU’s Trey Granier is seeking to transfer, according to Jim Kleinpeter of The Times-Picayune.

4. As we’ve done multiple times in the past, a tip of the cap to Scott Scroggins — the master statistician who works in the media relations arm of Auburn’s athletics department for finding another great video to bring today’s “4 at 4″ to a close.

Scroggins has been counting down the days until Auburn’s 2013 campaign begins, now standing 17. With that number on “Scroggins’ noggin,” he decided to link to the famous “Punt Bama Punt” game, which Auburn won 17-16 over Alabama in 1972, thanks to two blocked punts by Bill Newton. Both were returned for touchdowns by David Langner, who also came up with an interception on the final drive of the contest to seal the victory and help the Tigers topple the No. 2 Crimson Tide.

August 13, 2013

Auburn football: Starting right tackle battle ongoing, Rhett Lashlee says Tunde Fariyike ‘improved’ snaps since spring

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Reese Dismukes isn’t worried about the right tackle position.

Auburn’s starting center knows whoever winds up winning the job — be it redshirt freshman Avery Young or sophomore Patrick Miller — will man it capably.

Patrick Miller (51) is continuing to battle Avery Young to become Auburn's starting right tackle. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Patrick Miller (51) is continuing to battle Avery Young to become Auburn’s starting right tackle. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

“They’re both coming out every day, competing hard and that’s what we need,” Dismukes said following Tuesday morning’s situational scrimmage. “They’re getting the best of each other and that’s what happens when you get a competition going like that. I think that they’re just doing the best they can and whichever one wins the job we’ll stick with.”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wasn’t worried, either, saying both Young and Miller “are good players.” When the job is finally settled, Lashlee said it will also have implications for the rest of the offensive line.

“How does it work shuffling everything else, from backup guards to centers to left tackle, all those things will play into that (right tackle) position,” he said. “Those guys have really come along and gotten much better. Whoever wins that job will also alter how we go in with our top six, seven, eight linemen going into the game.”

Four spots on the line seemed set heading into the season, with Greg Robinson at left tackle, Alex Kozan at left guard, Chad Slade at right guard and Dismukes at center.

Kozan, specifically, has impressed Dismukes.

“He’s taking a big step in the film room,” he said. “Really just focusing on technique each and every day and just going out there every day and getting better. That’s the big thing he’s done. Still same guy he was in the spring. He’s just kind of set himself apart in the fall. I think that’s what he wanted to do and that’s what’s happening.”

Lashlee felt the same about Tunde Fariyike, noting the gains he has made snapping the ball after struggling during the spring. Though he’ll likely serve as Dismukes’ backup this season, Lashlee said Fariyike’s versatility makes him a valuable asset.

“He’s a guy that could maybe get in the mix at other spots on the line too in a reserve role,” Lashlee said. “I do think we’ve got three or four guys that can snap the football behind Reese, (who) certainly is kind of the leader and anchor of that unit. We got to be very cautious with him and he’s very important to us, but if something were to happen, we feel like we’ve got several options, with Tunde being one of them.”

Dismukes said he does his best to assist his teammates — linemen or otherwise — any way he can.

“My main goal is for us to win football games,” he said. “Whatever guy needs help out there, whether a receiver needs help or quarterback needs help, I just try to help them. I think everybody can be replaced.”

August 9, 2013

Right tackle position still two-way tussle between Avery Young and Patrick Miller

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — One week into fall camp, Auburn isn’t any closer to knowing the identity of its starting right tackle.

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes said Friday that Avery Young and Patrick Miller are neck-and-neck for the starting right tackle spot. (File photo)

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes said Friday that Avery Young and Patrick Miller are neck-and-neck for the starting right tackle spot. (File photo)

The two candidates battling for the job were both starters at the position last season. Avery Young was in the starting lineup for Auburn’s first three games of 2012 before going down with a shoulder injury. Patrick Miller then stepped in and started the final nine games, and held down the position during the spring while Young recovered from surgery on his injured shoulder.

Getting back on the field and becoming reacclimated with the speed of the game is the most important thing for Young now.

“It’s no different than shooting a 3-point shot,” offensive line coach J.B. Grimes said. “If you go through a full year and you don’t shoot threes, your percentage shooting threes isn’t going to be a real good one the first time you go out there on the court. So we’ve just got to knock the rust off.”

Both Young and Miller have seen time with the first-team offense during fall camp, but Grimes said focusing on that would be a case of misplaced priorities.

“The No. 1 thing is just to get them both reps and evaluate,” he said. “It’s not, ‘Who’s No. 1 and who’s No. 2?’ It’s how many reps they’ve had. That’s the key component right now.”

Grimes wouldn’t put a cutoff date on naming a starter. That would be overstepping his bounds, since he said that would be left up to head coach Gus Malzahn. Grimes hopes one player has clearly separated himself by the end of next week, though.

He also said the coaching staff will at least begin putting together a tentative depth chart heading into Saturday’s scrimmage.

“Trying to figure out, ‘Hey, who are the top guys? Who (makes up) our two-deep (depth chart)?’” Grimes said. “And that will probably take place tomorrow and Sunday. We’ll have a huge personnel discussion this afternoon and (discuss) what happens if this guy goes down, who’s going to do this, and what are the different scenarios you would do.”

MORE GRIMES QUOTE(S)**

**NOTE: I walked in during the middle of this answer, but I assume Grimes had been been asked what gains he had seen from the unit since the spring. (The paragraph breaks are my own.)

“So you’re able to see each day, each scrimmage how much better they got, and it culminated in the A-Day Game. And I’m looking at small defects. I’m looking at those things like extension and steps and pad level, hand placement and footwork, eyes — things like that. And there was just an unbelievable amount of improvement from the first day we went to the field to the day we played the A-Day game. And we’ll make those same kinds of improvements during the course of this year, because we get 29 practices. We only get 15 in the spring, so we almost double-up our practices before we play our first ballgame.

“Now the whole key for us right now is the discipline to carry the coaching and carry those details out on the field and not let yourself fall prey to doing your own thing when the play starts. One of the key coaching components is this: To make it as black-and-white as you can pre-snap. Before that ball is snapped, you know what you see in front of you. You know exactly where that foot, those eyes, those hands are going to go pre-snap. It makes you a more efficient player when all hell breaks loose when the ball is snapped. Then, instinct takes over. But if you can keep it black-and-white pre-snap, that’s the essence of coaching. And that’s the essence of coaching: being able to buy into those things.

“The biggest thing that we have to work on now is the discipline of taking that to the field when I’m not out there with them. I’m not going to play a down. I’m just going to watch. So hopefully they’ll have the discipline to be able to do that.”

(Yes, believe it or not, that constituted one response from Grimes. I’d wager Malzahn could have answered 10-12 questions in that same span.)

August 6, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/6: Tigers don full pads for first time, Demetruce McNeal inactive once again

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to approximately 20 minutes of practice on Tuesday, the first time the team donned full pads during practice. It also marked Day 5 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short viewing window.

This wide-lens photo of strength and condition coach Ryan Russell working the team through stretching drills was about as interesting as it got at Auburn's practice on Tuesday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

This wide-angle photo of strength and condition coach Ryan Russell working the team through stretching drills was about as interesting as it got at Auburn’s practice on Tuesday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

  • This was the least-interesting practice reporters have had a chance to see thus far. And that’s being generous. Due to rain, most of the Tigers’ drills were forced to take place inside, and the ones on display likely wouldn’t enrapture the fan base. But we’ll forge on nonetheless.
  • Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson finally lifted the curtain on what’s been ailing Demetruce McNeal on Monday: The senior safety had an infection that required a minor surgery. Johnson figured McNeal would be out for “several more days,” and his prediction was right. Safety No. 16 at least seemed to be moving around well on Tuesday, bobbing his head and twirling a football on his fingertips. He also had some fun with right tackle Avery Young during stretching drills. After Young finished one of his steps, McNeal jogged by and tapped him on the helmet with a football. “You know I got you, dog,” Young told him.
  • The quarterbacks didn’t throw any passes while media members were present. Jonathan Wallace was a holder on field goals, with the rest of the quarterbacks off to the side running with ropes tied to them. Jeremy Johnson paired up with Tucker Tuberville and Kiehl Frazier did the same with Nick Marshall.
  • The first-team offensive line stayed the same, with Greg Robinson at left tackle, Alex Kozan at left guard, Reese Dismukes at center, Chad Slade at right guard and the aforementioned Young at right tackle. There was a change on the second-team line, however, as Will Adams replaced Jordan Diamond at right guard. The rest of Auburn’s second-team offensive line: Shon Coleman at left tackle, Devonte Danzey at left guard, Tunde Fariyike at center and Patrick Miller at right tackle.
  • The only contact that took place during the viewing portion was courtesy of the defensive backs. Coach Melvin Smith had his unit working on jamming drills.
  • The punt returner group was identical to Monday, consisting of wide receivers Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens as well as cornerback Chris Davis. The punt returns were also the only unit adversely affected by practicing indoors, as many of Steven Clark’s kicks reach the roof of the facility. (Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a running tally, though I saw at least five bounce off the ceiling.) Wide receiver Sammie Coates was a new face among the kick returners on Tuesday. He joined a trio of running backs in Tre Mason, Corey Grant, Johnathan Ford, wide receiver Ricardo Louis and cornerback Jonathan Jones.
Read more here: http://www.wareagleextra.com/#storylink=cpy

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.