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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 9, 2013

Scott Fountain says Gage Batten ‘really coming on’ at H-back (and quotes)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — The light is starting to come on for Gage Batten.

Tight ends/H-back coach Scott Fountain praised the progress of Gage Batten since switching from linebacker this summer. (File photo)

Tight ends/H-back coach Scott Fountain praised the progress of Gage Batten since switching from linebacker this summer. (File photo)

After struggling during the first few practices of fall camp, the former linebacker has started to turn the corner on grasping his responsibilities as an H-back. The redshirt freshman’s improvement has been significant, according to his new position coach, Scott Fountain.

“These last two practices, he’s really come on,” Fountain said. “We felt like if we could bring him over (to the offense), he could be a good blocker for us on our power, our counter game. It’s what we needed, and he’s starting to show a lot of promise. I’m really excited for the young guy.”

Batten’s position change took on more importance after Ricky Parks was dismissed for a violation of team rules on the first day of fall camp. Parks exited the spring as the Jay Prosch’s backup. Fountain said if Batten was still on defense, it likely would have meant an increased role for both C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse at H-back.

He’s just glad that situation is only a hypothetical at this point.

“(Batten) making the progress that he has really got me very, very excited,” Fountain said, “regardless of whether we would have had (Parks) or not.”

 MORE FOUNTAIN QUOTES

On the improvements he’s seen from Prosch, Uzomah and Brandon Fulse:

“C.J. is a guy I told after the spring, ‘The thing we’re going to have to get you better at is run-blocking. I want you to focus on that this summer.’ And in camp I’ve been super impressed with how far he’s come. I see a guy that I feel like can really help us as a split-side tight end and in the backfield, whereas Jay is kind of a backfield guy at heart. Then we’ve got Brandon Fulse who has stood out at the 5 and at tight end. … And at times, you’ll see them on the field together.”

On Prosch’s pass-catching:

“I knew he could block this spring, but I wasn’t sure what else he could do. And boy, he’s a guy that can catch, and he just keeps getting better and better. He’s a guy that we can trust catching the football.”

More on Fulse’s progress:

“He’s more focused in terms of what we’re doing in our route game. He’s a guy that can block fairly well coming out of spring. In high school he (played) in tight spaces, and now we’re doing a lot more of that with them. He’s a guy that’s an emerging player in practice, so I’m expecting some big things out of him this year, too.”

On Uzomah’s versatility allowing him to play at nearly any offensive skill position:

“He’s a guy that No. 1, is willing to do it. You’re normally catching the ball, and now you’ve got to put your hand down and block Dee Ford. So that part is really hard. And then once past that, then you’ve got the mental aspect of learning the different positions. There is some carryover, but I think he’s the guy who’s most versatile for us, and those guys are really hard to find.

On how much his background as a high school quarterback helps:

“Coach Malzahn is really big on wanting to sign quarterbacks and inserting them into the offense. And I think that’s been really big for (Uzomah), but I also think his approach to it. There’s no question his quarterback background in high school him understand the whole grand scheme of coverages and fronts and things like that.”

August 3, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn addresses depth at H-back, updates quarterback race

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — After Ricky Parks was dismissed for a “violation of team rules” on Friday, Auburn’s depth at H-back took a hit just one day into its fall camp.

Following the second day of fall camp on Saturday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn both the H-back and tight end positions will have to be reshuffled to address depth issues. (File photo)

Following the second day of fall camp on Saturday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said both the H-back and tight end positions will have to be reshuffled to address depth issues. (File photo)

Parks came out of the spring as Jay Prosch’s backup at H-back on the Tigers’ two-deep depth chart. Gus Malzahn isn’t worried, though.

Auburn’s head coach said they’ll just have to move some players around a bit more.

“Right now, we’ve got C.J. Uzomah doing a little bit,” Malzahn said Saturday. “Obviously Brandon Fulse has done that before. We’re kind of playing around with Gage Batten and a couple of other guys. They’ll be more defined probably in the next two or three days, because that position is also a position that when you have pads on, you can properly evaluate better than you can with just helmets.”

Uzomah and Fulse also are expected to share snaps at tight end. Malzahn said the position was something the team is “still working through.” Like H-back, the tight end spot will have various players shuffled in and out to bolster the unit.

“There’s three or four guys that we’re talking about,” said Malzahn, though he declined to name specific players.

No separation in quarterback battle

Those hoping to see much of an update in the Tigers’ four-way quarterback battle will have to keep waiting. Malzahn said Saturday’s proceedings were “similar” to Friday’s, though he noted newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson looked more comfortable on Day 2.

“We’re throwing a lot at them, just from the sideline,” he said. “They’re feeling more comfortable with (the) sideline (calls). They were able to relax a little bit more and play football.”

Meanwhile, veterans Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace continued to show their command of the offense, much the way they did during spring practice.

“Any time you’re comfortable doing something and you’ve been through a spring and you kind understand what to expect and different looks (it helps),” Malzahn said. “There’s nothing like experience.”

Sunday’s practice will take on a different look than the first two days, as Malzahn said the signal-callers will “mix and match” more.

But the coach cautioned they’re still in the early stages of what figures to be a long race to decide who starts against Washington State on Aug. 31.

“We won’t throw them into the fire until we think they’re ready,” Malzahn said, “but it’ll be very quick.”

McNeal inactive for second straight practice

Safety Demetruce McNeal made progress in one area on Saturday: He put on a helmet for the first time this fall. However, just like Friday’s practice, he sat out team and position drills for the second straight day. Malzahn said he expects the team’s top returning tackler to be back at full speed “fairly soon.”

“It’s not anything major,” Malzahn said. “We just want to make sure he’s 100 percent before we get him back out there. He’s a veteran guy and has a lot of experience.”

Despite his inactivity thus far, Malzahn was confident the senior won’t miss a beat when he rejoins the secondary and attempts to capture the starting spot at boundary safety.

“He’ll have a chance to compete for playing time, just like the rest of them,” Malzahn said. “But he does have experience, and that usually helps.”

Quick hitters

Wide receiver Trovon Reed has been one of four players fielding punts at practice the first two days of fall camp. He said there haven’t been any muffs — yet. “I don’t want to jinx us,” he said. … Defensive back Joshua Holsey said he picked off a pass during practice. Wallace was the unlucky victim. “It came off a tipped ball, so I was fortunate to get a good one today,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll probably get some more to try and catch them slipping.” … Prior to Saturday’s practice, two Tigers received their bachelor’s degrees in commencement ceremonies. Defensive back Ryan Smith majored in Public Administration, while defensive end Craig Sanders was a Human Development and Family Studies major.

July 19, 2013

Auburn notes: Rhett Lashlee hopes to know starting quarterback by mid-August (UPDATED w/video)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — If things turn out the way offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee hopes, Auburn will know who its starting quarterback will be a few weeks into fall camp.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee met with media members on Friday to discuss the Tigers' quarterback battle heading into the fall along with other topics.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee met with media members on Friday to discuss the Tigers’ quarterback battle heading into the fall along with other topics.

But the Tigers won’t come to a decision until they are sure they have settled on the right person for the job — simply put, the player who gives the team the best chance at winning. Lashlee said there was “no cutoff line” as far as when as when the starter will be named.

“We have on our mind a date that, ‘Hey, we’d like to know by now,'” Lashlee said on Friday. “As quick as we can make that decision, we’re going to make it. When it becomes evident that this is the individual that needs to lead our football team and gives us the best chance to win, I don’t think you wait.”

In Lashlee’s best-case scenario, one of the four candidates for the position — junior Kiehl Frazier, sophomore Jonathan Wallace, junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson — will set himself apart from the others early on. That way, the starter will get a chance to build a rapport with his teammates.

“You give your team as much time leading up to that first game as you can to develop continuity,” Lashlee said, “and give them all the reps with the right guys.”

Since all four players are able to create plays with their feet, Lashlee said making them go “live” in practice and available for defenders to bring down won’t play a major factor in distancing one candidate from another. Lashlee echoed head coach Gus Malzahn in noting that with each member of the quartet equally “capable of winning the job,” discerning among them won’t be easy.

Because of that, Lashlee said it’s on him to “get creative” in divvying up the reps between them.

“That’s probably the one thing that will be somewhat challenging, because they’re all going to get reps,” he said. “But are they getting enough reps, and enough reps of things we need to see them doing?”

Lashlee wouldn’t rule out possibly going into the season with a two-quarterback system, either. However, he did emphasize it is both he and Malzahn’s preference to settle on one quarterback.

“At the same time, we’re going to do what gives us the best chance to win, and if it’s a two-quarterback system, then so be it,” Lashlee said. “But that’s not necessarily what we’re looking for right now. We’re looking for the one person who can lead our football team, protect the football and win football games.”

Being able to run the “Wildcat” effectively won’t figure into the decision, especially given the amount of former high school quarterbacks on Auburn’s roster. Lashlee gave a few examples, highlighting receiver Marcus Davis.

“What you do like is guys who either have played quarterback before, like a Kodi Burns did, or guys who have handled the ball a lot before, because you know you can trust them,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. We’re going to put a guy back there, but he’s got to be a playmaker and he’s got to be able to protect the football if you’re going to snap it to him.”

And while it’s the option of last resort, Lashlee said the Tigers would wait until the week before the season opener against Washington State to make an announcement on the starting quarterback if they have to.

“You’ll do that because I think the most important thing is getting it right,” he said. “If you get it right, then everything else will fall into place. What you don’t want to do is try to rush to get it done so quick that you get it wrong.”

Lashlee: Tigers’ receivers ‘need to step up and start making plays’

During SEC Media Days earlier this week, Malzahn said finding a “go-to” receiver was one of the team’s biggest goals during fall camp, the quarterback battle notwithstanding. Lashlee reiterated that sentiment on Friday, saying that the Tigers’ receivers need one player to make a move to the top of the class.

“Look, let’s just be honest,” Lashlee said. “We need Sammie Coates, we need Jaylon Denson, we need Ricardo Louis and those guys to step up and start making plays. And Ricardo and Sammie are younger, but it’s time to step up. And then you’ve got Jaylon, you’ve got Quan (Bray), Trovon (Reed), (guys) that have been here that are all going to be juniors. It’s time for them to step up and start making plays, too.”

While still searching for a lead receiver, Lashlee felt comfortable with the depth of the unit, despite 2013 signee Earnest Robinson not qualifying academically and the status of another potential freshman, Jason Smith, still up in the air. “Nine or 10 true receivers” was what Lashlee was hoping to have on this season’s roster, but counting players like Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah, the Tigers won’t be lacking for receiving options.

“We’re obviously trying to sign enough young men in this class to get us to where we need to be numbers-wise,” he said. “But I feel good about having guys like (Fulse and Uzomah), who can make plays with their hand down in the backfield or split out. That helps us with wide receiver numbers.”

Lashlee not worried about rule change on spiking ball

Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator for officiating, went over some alterations to the rulebook which have occurred during the offseason on Wednesday.

One of those changes involves a quarterback spiking the ball late in games. Under the new rules, at least three seconds will have to be remaining on the game clock when a quarterback spikes the ball for another play to be allowed. But if a quarterback spikes the ball with two seconds or less in an attempt to create another “set” play, officials would be required to disallow it, which would end the game in the process.

Lashlee was not bothered by the move, saying that getting the new rule into his quarterbacks’ heads would be as easy as teaching a new offensive wrinkle.

“That’s our job to coach them up,” he said. ” … Rules like that are nothing we have to do that no one else has to do, too.”

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.

April 26, 2013

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

Auburn Spring Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

Whew. That’s eleven names for five spots.

****

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

Why is all this relevant?

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

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

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

****

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

17Auburn3

****

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

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

****

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

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

****

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

April 21, 2013

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

Auburn A-Day

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

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

Auburn A-Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

April 20, 2013

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

Auburn A-Day

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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April 14, 2013

TALK OF THE TOWN: Take note of five Tigers turning heads with one week left in spring

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – The winds of change have blown across the Plains since the day of head coach Gus Malzahn’s hiring.

With a new day comes new faces, new contributors who might have been patiently waiting their turn or old standbys reinventing themselves as this coaching staff pinpoints who they’ll rely upon to officially relegate the misery of 3-9 to ancient history.

Take a look at five Auburn Tigers who have been consistently lauded for their efforts this spring. Coincidentally, they’re all entering their junior season:

AUBURN FOOTBALLWR JAYLON DENSON

Old dog: One of those guys who gets into games (25 in two years) but rarely gets named (one catch, 12 yards.)

New tricks: The tallest of the current crop of receivers at 6-foot-3, Denson looks like one of those multi-tool players who could catch the ball some and be a force as a downfield lead blocker.

Don’t take our word for it: “I think Jaylon Denson’s been extremely consistent for us … he’s not only making plays with the ball, he’s doing what he’s supposed to do when he’s not getting the ball.”
- Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee

Fall forecast: Watch out when the incoming freshmen arrive. Good thing for Denson and his understaffed mates, they’re getting overloaded with practice reps

10Auburn2 (1)C REESE DISMUKES

Old dog: Although he played well last year, the argument can be made the 2011 all-SEC freshman teamer lit the fuse for Auburn’s implosion by getting suspended for public intoxication the week before the 2012 opener.

New tricks: Ask pretty much anybody who the offensive leaders are, and Dismukes’ name keeps coming up. In his one interview this spring, he seemed contrite with a chip on his shoulder.

Don’t take our word for it: “I’ve seen him grow up. He’s not that same Reese. He’s a good person now. He’s got his mind right. He’s mentally, physically tough. He’s one of the leaders out there.”
- OL Chad Slade

“Reese has been solid … We say it’s a new day – everything in the past, I don’t care. From what I know right now, that’s a guy I can trust.”
- Lashlee

Fall forecast: His starting spot is unquestionable. We’ll see if he truly takes command when times are tough.

AUBURN FOOTBALLRB COREY GRANT

Old dog: Nobody thought much of the fourth-stringer last year, mopping up just nine carries – all in blowouts of New Mexico State and Alabama A&M.

New tricks: Because Tre Mason’s been hurt all spring, Grant’s learning curve has accelerated, and he punctuated his presence with two long TD runs in Saturday’s intrasquad scrimmage.

Don’t take our word for it: “Ah, yeah, Corey had a couple of breaks. You really got to see his speed out there. He’s really fast, very explosive, makes explosive cuts and things like that. Corey’s a really good guy. He’s a really good running back for us, and just looking forward to seeing him more.”
- QB Jonathan Wallace

Fall forecast: Mason won’t relinquish his starting spot easily upon regaining his health, but maybe Grant transforms himself into a mini-Onterio McCalebb.

Photo by Todd Van Emst

“STAR” JUSTIN GARRETT

Old dog: Disappointed by lack of playing time, Garrett wasn’t able to overcome the likes of Jonathan Evans – who wasn’t a three-down ‘backer – or Anthony Swain on the depth chart.

New tricks: Square peg, meet square hole. Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 system with a “star” hybrid player who has a linebacker’s size and safety’s speed is perfect for Garrett.

Don’t take our word for it: “I just think he found a position that really works for him. With his body type and his speed, he really is going to help that star position. Mentally, it’s encouraging for us and him.”
- LB Jake Holland

Fall forecast: Nobody’s been praised more than Garrett. If he hits as hard as offensive players say he does, he’ll be a household name by Labor Day.

LSU 12 Auburn 10 TherezieATH ROBENSON THEREZIE

Old dog: Those who read the message boards know Therezie was long-rumored to be considering a transfer from Auburn University. Other than a cameo against LSU, he was a non-factor.

New tricks: Therezie wishes he had the football more often, and he’s certainly getting an opportunity as a returner. With JaViere Mitchell sidelined with a concussion, Therezie’s currently backing up Garrett.

Don’t take our word for it: “He seems more comfortable up near the line of scrimmage … he’s a speed player. He’s a contact player. You like to have a 6-1, 215-pound Star, but right now he fits it perfect and I’ve really been tickled to death with his progress.”
- Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson

Fall forecast: The best players find a way to get on the field. If Therezie keeps his mind right, he’ll make an impact somehow, someway.

TAKE FIVE

The best of the rest of the breakouts and newsmakers:

WR Quan Bray, jr. – Like Dismukes, refocused following 2012 adversity

DE Kenneth Carter, sr. – Making the move outside from tackle

OL Jordan Diamond, fr. – Still battling with Alex Kozan for starting guard

LB Kris Frost, so. – Tantalizing talent might be harvested soon

TE Brandon Fulse, jr. – Known for his blocking, showing some solid hands

April 10, 2013

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.