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August 22, 2013

UPDATED (w/video):Cassanova McKinzy believes weakside linebacker spot will showcase ‘everything I can do’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — The raw numbers don’t come close to an accurate retelling Cassanova McKinzy’s 2012 season.

A true freshman, he played in eight games and made two starts. In that time on the field, he made 23 tackles and forced a fumble. And McKinzy did this, he admitted, playing in a position that didn’t suit him.

Cassanova McKinzy (30) felt he played out of position last season at middle linebacker. Now he's back on the weakside, where he feels much more comfortable. (File photo)

Cassanova McKinzy (30) felt he played out of position last season at middle linebacker. Now he’s back on the weakside, where he feels much more comfortable. (File photo)

A star at outside linebacker at Woodlawn High School in Birmingham, Ala., then-Auburn defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had other ideas for McKinzy, deciding to shift him to middle linebacker. Forced to deal with making the calls for the defense negated his ability to simply react to the play, which McKinzy believes is his best attribute.

“You’ve got to make the call, make sure all the linemen are right and then you have to do your assignment,” he said. “Then you have to make all the checks. This is SEC football; you have to make a lot of checks. Communicating with the D-linemen was the hardest part.”

McKinzy also bulked up to 254 pounds last year, the highest weight of his playing career, believing it was required if he wanted to be able to compete in the SEC.

But when new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson arrived, weight was lifted off McKinzy’s shoulders, both literally and figuratively.

Johnson told him to cut some pounds from his frame: McKinzy was moving back to the weakside.

“I felt like I had to drop weight so I can run with the receivers since I wasn’t playing middle linebacker anymore,” he said, noting he now tips the scales at 241 pounds. “I transferred to Will, so I had to cover a little bit more.”

He couldn’t have been more pleased with the switch, finally back at a spot where he feels comfortable.

“I like it because I get a chance to show what I really can do besides playing the box and stopping the run,” he said. “It gives me an opportunity to show everything I can do.”

And during fall camp, Johnson said the sophomore did just that.

“His change of direction — redirect on counters, coming out of your break when you drop in zone and those types of things, just acceleration and explosion to the point of attack — he’s gotten better and he can practice longer at a high tempo,” Johnson said. “He would not finish a practice (in the spring) and I felt like he was too heavy and out of shape.”

McKinzy isn’t just playing faster since he’s lighter than last year. He said it’s also due to Johnson’s 4-2-5 system, which is far less complicated than the 4-3 scheme VanGorder used.

“It’s a big difference,” he said. “The only thing I’ve got to worry about is who I’m playing with — who is on my left , who is on my right, what my defensive line is doing in front of me. I feel more free.”

As the Tigers continue to prepare for the season opener against Washington State, McKinzy said the defense has been practicing out of both their base formation and a dime package. Against a team as pass-heavy as the Cougars, having an effective dime formation is integral.

McKinzy wasn’t sure which package the Tigers would use most often.

“It’s been a little bit more dime just in case,” he said. “We’ve got certain schemes we want to have base on the field because the size of the linebackers, the difference between a dime back, they’re much faster than an outside linebacker. We’ve just been working real hard on both because we don’t know what they can do.”

But McKinzy at least has a bit of an idea of the things that will occur on the field. He has that playing time last season to thank for it, after all.

Even if it came at a position that was an ill fit for him.

“By me playing the little time I played (last year), I feel like it did a lot for this year playing SEC games,” he said. “Coaches had been saving me for those out-of-conference games. They always put me in to stop the run. I appreciate what they did last year by giving me a chance when they came. “

April 17, 2013

“STAR” IN THE MAKING: LB/S Justin Garrett continues to thrive in hybrid defense (w/ video)

Photo by Todd Van Emst

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – When he wasn’t running for daylight and gobbling up touchdowns in Saturday’s scrimmage, Auburn tailback Corey Grant couldn’t believe how he kept getting toppled by the same tackler out of nowhere.

The swooping star, Justin Garrett, has had that effect on his teammates and coaches throughout spring football practices.

“He may be on the other side of the field, but by the time you’re getting tackled, he’s the one tackling you, and you’re like, where did he come from?” Grant said. “He’s just a hard hitter. He never gives up. He’s all over the field, always working.”

It’s nothing personal. Garrett doesn’t even remember smacking Grant around a few days later.

“When they set the ball down, and the quarterback hikes the ball,” Garrett said with a shrug, “I just try to play all out. I just love to hit.”

Once a downtrodden backup on a team spiraling south, Garrett’s in position to become potentially the face of Auburn’s new-look defense, embracing the “star” position in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s unique 4-2-5 defense.

“I’m ecstatic about having an opportunity to play,” Garrett said. ““I just felt like if I was to be patient and keep working hard, in due time, my time will be able to come where I could be able to shine.”

Johnson once referred to that hybrid linebacker/safety position as the ‘spur’ at South Carolina. While the label “star” is quite literal, Garrett’s quickly becoming a metaphor.

“Justin Garrett is,” Johnson said last Friday, “probably the best football player we’ve had from day one until now at his position.”

There’s been plenty of that kind of praise. The soft-spoken Garrett is pleased with his progress, but isn’t beating his own chest on the field or in media sessions.

“I know deep down inside I have a lot of stuff I need to work on before I consider myself that type of player,” Garrett said, “before I can take on that stage.”

The 6-foot-1, 215-pound Garrett admitted he wasn’t quite familiar with this “star” role when Johnson was hired Dec. 6 to replace Brian VanGorder. The backup to Jonathan Evans last year, Garrett showed the ability to roam the field both in rush defense and pass coverage, thus finding his way onto the first unit this spring.

Decision-making on the fly will be key to Garrett’s success.

“I play in space a lot and I come into the box. So I just have to be able to do multiple different things,” Garrett said. “Play some linebacker, safety, sometimes play as a corner out in space. And play some defensive end sometimes.”

Backups, or other candidates in the “star” search, have included JaViere Mitchell, a defensive end out of high school, and Robenson Therezie, who’s bounced around at cornerback, running back and punt returner.

Johnson is beginning to install some dime packages putting Garrett and Therezie on the field at the same time. Those two were each four-star recruits, yet combined for just 16 tackles in 2012 as sophomores.

“It’s like a dynamic duo,” Garrett said, “for both of us playing out there together.”

Therezie’s also taking kindly to his chance at the “star” job.

“I feel like physical is my middle name,” Therezie said. “That’s what I like about it.”

Compared to last year’s inconsistent defense, Garrett is confident knowing the fresh unit focuses on reacting, not thinking.

“The calls we make, we play off what the offense does,” Garrett said. “It makes us play a lot faster to know what we’re doing before the offense gets lined up.”

It’s a “see ball, hit ball” mentality, which is why Garrett doesn’t take note of any specific instances he’s laid the hit stick on his teammates.

He just tries to do it routinely, which leaves some bruises on his teammates in the spring. But Grant doesn’t mind, knowing Garrett’s preparing to be step up as a big hitter in the fall.

“Especially when they’re on your team,” Grant said, “that’s great.”

March 31, 2013

‘Student of the Game': Refocused Kris Frost prepared for larger linebacker responsibilities

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Listed as the projected third starting linebacker out of spring football in 2012: Kris Frost, coming off a redshirt year and looking to line up next to Daren Bates and Jake Holland.

However, then-defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder had cautionary words for Frost, labeling him a “developmental player” teeming with athleticism where he lacked in awareness.

“He still doesn’t see things. It’s still a fast game to him, I guess is the best way to put it,” VanGorder said last spring. “He’s got to be able to calm his game down. He will – it’s just a matter of when that will happen.”

It didn’t happen the ensuing fall, at least not in VanGorder’s eyes. Frost settled for a backup role behind Bates while the Tigers employed mostly a nickel defense with two linebackers on the field. (Jonathan Evans was technically the ‘sam’ linebacker starter.)

Not that Frost was a headcase, but he didn’t appear soon to preside over instructional tapes explaining how to play defense. Which is why Frost turned heads last Wednesday following the first spring practice under new coordinator Ellis Johnson, sounding like a brand-new man.

“There’s a lot of stuff I had to learn last year when it came to the concept of football, that I just didn’t know,” Frost said. “Being a student of the game was really my most important thing last year, and I feel like I did that. I got a major leg up on this season.

“Little different defense, but the concepts are still the same. Certain things on the field still have to be taken care of.”

Like tackling – an oft-headache for VanGorder and part of the reason that entire staff was dismissed. Johnson’s 4-2-5 set means it’s almost guaranteed there will only be two pure linebackers on the field at all times.

While Johnson insisted depth chart projections are ‘in pencil’ this early in spring, he indicated the senior Holland is double-training at mike and will, while Frost is learning how to play the mike position. Sophomore Cassanova McKinzy, who siphoned playing time in 2012 from Holland, is playing will.

“They’re younger: I don’t want to get them confused,” Johnson said. “Jake’s a little older – I’ve got him right now trying to pick up both.”

Said Frost: “I feel comfortable at mike. I’m liking it. Anytime I can be vocal, I like it. It’s fun making the calls and everything.”

That means Frost, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound sophomore from Matthews, N.C., is in the driver’s seat to take command as the heart of this defense.

“I feel like the communication is greater in this type of offense, communicating with the defensive line, the fellow linebacker right beside you, as well as the safety when he’s coming down and making sure your voice gets heard,” Frost said. “You still have your responsibility. Football’s football and linebacker’s linebacker. We’re all learning a lot.”

Frost had five tackles in 10 games his freshman year, saving his top effort for the finale – three tackles and forcing a second-half fumble (recovered by Auburn safety Ryan Smith) in the 49-0 shellacking at the hands of Alabama.

“Being a student of the game is really being willing to learn – being open to different things, being willing to sit down and be coachable, listen and work to get yourself better,” Frost said. “You’ve got to open yourself up and make it important for you to learn.

“The more you watch film and make an effort to learn, the more you’ll come out prepared. It becomes second nature to you.”

Does Frost expect to start?

“Of course. If you’re not, you’re in the wrong sport,” Frost said. “I feel really confident going into this season.”

March 24, 2013

BACK TO THE FUTURE, Part IV: All the good, the bad & the ugly from LSU 12, Auburn 10 | plus an early preview of (who else?) LSU

Auburn Tigers entrance

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Remember dem fightin’ words? From LSU fullback J.C. Copeland, after his team pulverized Auburn 45-10 in the 2011 season?

“After the first couple of hits, everybody was just backing up. They didn’t want to hit at all … before I got to them, they just fell down and just laid on the ground.”

The Auburn defense heard those words repeated by its coaches all week leading up to the 2012 rematch. Daren Bates, Corey Lemonier, Demetruce McNeal … these people didn’t care for that smack talk one bit.

And they played like it.

It wasn’t a victory for the home team six months ago, but Auburn’s 12-10 defeat proved the Tigers had a real SEC defense. Granted, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger was wobbly in his first road SEC start, but LSU’s running game had absolutely nothing going for the majority of a Saturday night fight at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The Auburn offense … well, that too was ineffective. So, if you like the words “field position”, this was the game for you.

Oh, and Copeland will be a senior next fall. Auburn gets one more shot at him, and LSU, in the rematch six months from Thursday night, down in Baton Rouge. A preview of that game follows our look back at last year’s nail-biter.

LSU 12 Auburn 10 Ware

LSU 12, AUBURN 10 ~ Sept. 22, 2012, ESPN

Jordan-Hare Stadium, Auburn, Ala.

The Good

Auburn opens the game three-and-out, which includes three passes – a 4-yard loss and two incompletions. Yet, here’s what ESPN color commentator Todd Blackledge says: “I know they didn’t get a first down, but I think Kiehl Frazier looked comfortable on those first three plays.” He’s right. Frazier, who had a phone conversation slash pep talk with Jason Campbell earlier in the week, looked more poised and confident from the get-go. More on that in the first ‘Bad’ entry.

DE Dee Ford really attacked the run in this game. I wrote yesterday he’s only got two sacks in 24 career SEC games, but he did impact this football game in other ways.

On the first-quarter goal-line fumble by LSU, DT Jeffrey Whitaker was looming right on top of backup center Elliott Porter, and Whitaker was the Tiger who fell on the loose ball when Porter mistook a routine snap for a shotgun delivery.

LSU converted four of its first five 3rd-down attempts, before DE Corey Lemonier decides he’s had enough of that. Lemonier just flings quarterback Zach Mettenberger to the ground, DT Angelo Blackson falls on it, and suddenly Auburn’s got excellent field position.

Immediately, a reverse pitch to RB Tre Mason goes for 26 around left end, aided by LT Greg Robinson’s excellent block. RB Onterio McCalebb punches it in two plays later, getting Auburn right back in the game down 9-7.

This play was fun: tailback Spencer Ware, meet DT Gabe Wright’s left forearm. Wright flat-knocks Ware back, allowing a tackle for loss by LB Daren Bates … Mr. Right Place Right Time, Wright celebrates by showing his sideline two tickets to the gun show.

Gabe Wright flex

Wright later had another line-of-scrimmage pass block, getting his big left wrist on a Mettenberger throw.

Then on 3rd-and-6, Mettenberger scrambles looking for the first-down marker, but SS Jermaine Whitehead arrives first with a vicious hit. Whitehead later had some very nice tight deep coverage on a slant-and-go, forcing an Odell Beckham Jr. drop.

FS Erique Florence saw his longest action of the year on this night, absorbing a big hit from Ware, mixing it up with Copeland, and launching his body at receiver Jarvis Landry to allow his mates to arrive and make a third-down stop. Clearly, Florence is physical enough to play safety.

LSU 12 Auburn 10 TherezieCB Robenson Therezie, too. Showed good instinct and tackling ability, though a nice wrap-up on wide receiver Kenny Hilliard was negated by CB Chris Davis’ face-mask away from the play.

CB Joshua Holsey, the true freshman who broke out this game, made a g-r-e-a-t breakup on Russell Shepard in the end zone, saving a touchdown.

FS Demetruce McNeal zooms in to stuff tailback Michael Ford. Where was this physical play all year? There was just no running room inside for LSU once Brian VanGorder made some adjustments.

Coaches raved about QB Jonathan Wallace’s toughness, and he showed it in the Wildcat package, with no fear against one of the meanest defenses around and getting blown up by safety Craig Loston. 

The Bad

On 2nd and 14, Frazier targets WR Sammie Coates in stride deep down the left sideline. The perfect spiral hits Coates directly in his outstretched hands. Coates simply did not catch the football, taking his eye off it for a brief second. Yeah, he took a little tug from LSU corner Tharold Simon, but Coates beat himself up in the next week’s press conference for not coming through in a big moment – and he should have.

Another day, another bad decision by Frazier, lobbing to TE Philip Lutzenkirchen and letting his tight end get roughed up by linebacker Luke Muncie for the pick.

Copeland has his way with LB Jake Holland in the first quarter, trucking the linebacker and clearing an 18-yard run for Ford.

Ware dodges Whitehead on a draw, pinballs through Holsey and CB Jonathan Mincy for a big gain to set up Ford’s touchdown run – beating DE LaDarius Owens to the edge on a goal-to-go run. Auburn’s run defense was shaky early.

Too much dancing in the backfield, Tre Mason. LSU doesn’t play games like that.

PR Quan Bray cost his team this game when he let a low-flying fair catch go through his hands, off his stomach and into a mass of LSU Tigers at midfield. That directly led to the game-winning field goal.

LSU 12 Auburn 10 Frazier

The Ugly

Awarded momentum on LSU’s goal-line fumble, Auburn gave it right back by playing into LSU’s hands. After Robinson’s false start to cram the line of scrimmage back to the 1, Mason hesitates on a stretch play, reading the eyes of defensive tackle Bennie Logan, who’s forcing C Reese Dismukes backwards. In fact, the offensive line was pushed back into the end zone, and when linebacker Kevin Minter knocks FB Jay Prosch to the ground, Mason trips over Prosch for an LSU safety.

Frazier’s helter-skelter improvisation continues to astound, and not in a good way, when Logan’s helmet knocks the ball loose on a rare Frazier scramble. WR Emory Blake fell on it, but still. To Frazier’s credit, he had a nice response – a pinpoint throw leading Lutzenkirchen on a very H-backy route out of the no-huddle.

Doesn’t help the quarterback when RT Patrick Miller (making his first start), RG Chad Slade and TE Brandon Fulse all miss blocks on the same playaction call.

Wallace’s first-ever snap on a college football field? Spoiled by LG John Sullen flinching. False start. Frazier replaces Wallace. So much for that element of surprise.

WR Jaylon Denson, you can’t retaliate by slapping Simon. The refs always catch the second guy.

Notes and tidbits

A week after Auburn’s penalties nearly cost it a victory, LSU made its bed the same way: nine penalties, 80 yards, though none came in the final 18 minutes.

Plays to open first-quarter drives for Auburn: a quick toss to Lutzenkirchen (minus-4 yards), Mason run (minus-1), McCalebb run (minus-4), McCalebb run (minus-4). Scot Loeffler said that week picking up yards on first down was critical. Oops.

More Kiehl Frazier analysis in the final complete game he’d play: somewhere in there lurks a decent quarterback. He just needs a smoother approach – instead of looking at all times for the big play, he needs to make the smart play. Reel him in, Rhett Lashlee.

Florence had a stinger, and returned to the game. We mentioned his toughness, at least physically when he gets his chance in the game.

Lemonier recently said he’s never really played outside linebacker, but he did line up on a 3rd-and-6 standing up. Just to give LSU a different look. It worked; Mettenberger rolled right, had nothing available, and actually nailed Les Miles in the shoulder throwing it away – a ball actually tipped by McNeal.

The missed Drew Alleman field goal in the final minute which would have put away Auburn, instead giving the home team one last gasp? The field-goal unit was confused, forced to race onto the pitch for one of those Chinese-fire-drill attempts. LSU had no timeouts left, but it was a 34-yard attempt; just take the five-year penalty and let Alleman calmly kick it through instead of rushing. Oh, Les Miles, how you fail to get along with clock management.

LSU Mettenberger Dee Ford

THREE STARS

3) Demetruce McNeal, FS. Flies around the field and finds the football.

2) Daren Bates, LB. Rolls out of bed and makes a tackle.

1) Corey Lemonier, DE. I tweeted at halftime how much money Lemonier made in the 30 minutes against LSU. Seeing as he was nonexistent the rest of his season, and he projects as a second-round pick entering the NFL draft as an underclassman, that game (two sacks, a forced fumble) in hindsight was huge for his professional aspirations.

*************

GUS’ GAME 4: Auburn at LSU, Sept. 21, Tiger Stadium, Baton Rouge, La.

LSU 2012 record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC (lost 25-24 to Clemson in Chick-Fil-A Bowl)

LSU head coach: Les Miles, ninth year (85-21)

LSU returning starters (o/d): 12 (8/4)

LSU-Auburn series: LSU leads 26-20-1, including 15-5-1 at Tiger Stadium. LSU has won five of the past six meetings.

LSU-Auburn previous meeting: See above.

Notes: The Tigers lost an incredible 11 underclassmen to the NFL Draft, including six – SIX! – defenders: Logan, Mingo, Minter, Montgomery, Reid and Simon. However, LSU still has Mettenberger at quarterback, Hill and Hilliard with him in the backfield, Boone, Beckham and Landry out wide and three offensive linemen back. So that offense should be firing on all cylinders early next year, but the defense could have some question marks still lingering with the Week 4 matchup.

LSU Les Miles

March 22, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Defensive line

This is the third of an 8-day series previewing each Auburn position leading into spring football. Tomorrow: special teams.

AUBURN Miss State

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – There’s not a more enticing position group on the roster.

How awesome has Rodney Garner’s job got to be? He’s got like a 12-car garage, stocked with all shapes and sizes of vehicles to drive his defensive line.

Rodney GarnerOf course, Garner won’t make it a smooth ride for his pass-rushers and run-stuffers, young and old. A sense of entitlement just won’t do – after all, this unit had its moments in 2012 yet ultimately underachieved in setting the tone for an up-and-down defense.

Because of how personnel shakes out for 2013, the entire defensive line has got to be the heart of the unit. If they can attack quarterbacks and plug gaps for the guys behind them to make plays, this defense can match up with the top SEC offenses. If not, well, prepare for more shootouts which might not roll Auburn’s way.

Former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder ordered up a nine-man rotation on the line, and Garner’s already promised five ends and five tackles need to be ready to play in September. With a mass of 14 returning scholarship players (eight ends, six tackles) raring to go in spring, joined by three stud recruits this summer, the internal competition will be as fierce as it will be fun.

Here’s a look at Auburn’s defensive line, leading into spring football scrimmages:

Auburn 31, ULM Louisiana-Monroe 28Who’s been playing: DT Angelo Blackson (jr.), DT Kenneth Carter (sr.), DE Nosa Eguae (sr.), DE Dee Ford (sr.), DE LaDarius Owens (jr.), DE Craig Sanders (sr.), DT Jeffrey Whitaker (sr.), DT Gabe Wright (jr.)

Who’s in waiting: DE Justin Delaine (jr.), DE Keymiya Harrell (so.), DT Tyler Nero (r-fr.), DE JaBrian Niles (so.), DE Gimel President (r-fr.)

Who’s out the door: DE Corey Lemonier, DE Devaunte Sigler, DT Jamar Travis

Who’s in the door: DT Montravius Adams (Vienna, Ga.), DT Ben Bradley (Norcross, Ga.), DE Elijah Daniel (Avon, Ind.), DE Carl Lawson (Alpharetta, Ga.)

Who’s coaching ‘em up: Rodney Garner, 23rd year (all in SEC)

Who’d they replace, where is he now: Mike Pelton, Georgia Tech

Thoughts and musings:

Gut feeling on who’s listed as the starters when Gus Malzahn’s post-spring depth chart is released: Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae at the ends, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright at the tackles.

Primary backups: Nero/Bradley inside, Lawson/Sanders outside. We’ll see.

It’s spectacular to think that if Lemonier felt he needed one more year to prove himself to NFL scouts, essentially the entire stable of linemen would be back in spring … to be bolstered by three four- or five-star prospects as true freshmen, depending on which recruiting service you favor. That’s outrageous.

But remember: just like a basketball team laden with McDonald’s All-Americans, there’s only so much space in the lineup. It’s about who proves they can get the job done not just on first down, but on all three downs.

A great line I remember being told by a high school defensive line coach I know and respect: out of an entire football team, he takes the four guys he’s most want on his side in a fight and sticks them on the defensive line. What’s interesting is the group of guys in this program – Wright, Whitaker, Ford, et al – are generally nice, pleasant dudes. But as Wright and I talked about Wednesday, they’ve got to flip that switch the moment they hit the field, and get MEAN.

There’s already a pair of Georgia natives on the defensive line in Whitaker (Warner Robins) and Wright (Columbus). Adams, Bradley (a Hutchinson juco transfer) and Lawson give Garner a total of five guys he recruited while he himself was at Georgia … and they were or are all fairly high recruits.

Now, with that said, Jamar Travis was a 4-star defensive tackle, per Rivals.com. The nation’s No. 11 defensive tackle in his class, per ESPN. Offered by Alabama, Clemson and Florida State. Lettered four years at Auburn and is graduating. Nine career tackles. Don’t get hung up on recruiting stars, folks. Seriously.

Montravius Adams

Statistically speaking:

6 – Sacks for Dee Ford last year, leading the Tigers.

1 – Sack for Dee Ford last year in eight SEC games.

2 – Sacks for Dee Ford in 24 career games against SEC competition. Great player, entertaining personality, but Ford simply must impact more conference games.

5 – Sacks for Corey Lemonier in his first four games of 2012, settling him in at 16.5 for his career, good for ninth all-time at Auburn.

0.5 – Sacks for Corey Lemonier his final eight games of 2012.

T-77 – The Tigers’ national rank in team sacks, with 22. Seeing as pass-rushing was considered a team strength, that tells the story, no? (For comparison, Auburn quarterbacks were sacked 37 times – ranked tied for 107th.)

5 – Different starting lineups along the defensive line in 12 games last year. Starters aren’t the biggest deal in a rotation, but the tackles were spread out between Blackson, Whitaker, Carter and Wright, while at end Lemonier, Ford and Eguae split opportunities.

2 – Number of pass break-ups, number of forced fumbles, and number of blocked kicks … in 2012, for Angelo Blackson.

4.9, 197.6 – Average yards per rush, and average rushing yards per game, Auburn allowed in 2012. Those figures were 101st and 100th nationally, and both were dead last in the SEC.

15 – Times Auburn was whistled for offsides in 2012.

4 – Times Auburn’s opponents were whistled for offsides in 2012.

17 – Options Rodney Garner will have this fall to fix an underachieving unit – ten ends, seven tackles. (It’s a point worthy of repeating.)

Clemson_Auburn18_9-1-12

Good Twitter follows: Follow Gabe Wright @NineORhino (5,063 followers) and Dee Ford @dee_ford_ (3,559), thank me later. LaDarius Owens at @KingLO1091 (2,213) is also quality, and if you’re lucky enough to get approval from Carl Lawson @CarlCarltp, well, you’re in luck.

Say what? “I have no preconceived ideals about any of them. I’m going to evaluate everybody on their body of work that they do under my watch. It ain’t going to be a popularity contest, the media’s not going to decide, the alumni’s not going to decide. Whatever the film says, who’s productive and who deserves to play, that’s who’s going to play.” – Garner

March 12, 2013

How much do Malzahn’s assistants bank? Just a little bit less than their Auburn predecessors, and less than Tennessee & Arkansas staffs

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – As much experience and star power Auburn’s esteemed group of assistant football coaches bring to their new school, it’s still a less pricey bunch than its predecessors and a couple of conference rivals.

Former head coach Gene Chizik ($3.5 million) led a nine-man staff with annual salaries combining for $3.635 million, which translated to the sixth-most expensive coaching crew in America per USA Today’s salary database.

New head coach Gus Malzahn ($2.3 million) has hauled in big names like seasoned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson ($800,000), Auburn lettermen Rodney Garner ($500,000) and Dameyune Craig ($350,000), and former recruiting coordinators Charlie Harbison ($425,000) and Tim Horton ($250,000).

The nine new coordinators and position coaches will make approximately $3.41 million, according to figures obtained through Open Alabama Financial Reports. Adding Malzahn’s deal, the total price of Auburn’s 2013 coaching staff settles in at roughly $5.71 million.

That would mean Malzahn’s assistants bring in $225,000 less per year than the previous staff.

Gus Malzahn 9

Auburn has yet to release official contracts for seven co-coordinators and position coaches, despite the other three SEC institutions with new regimes (Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas) doing so in January.

Tennessee and Arkansas, led respectively by Butch Jones and Bret Bielema, are paying their entire staffs (head and assistants) more than $6 million, while Kentucky’s price tag for Mark Stoops and company is just under $4.7 million.

Rich Bisaccia, who was hired Jan. 3 to coach Auburn running backs and special teams, banked $38,044 for three weeks of work before leaving to coach the Dallas Cowboys’ special teams. The NFL coaching veteran stood to make half a million dollars this year had he stayed.

Bisaccia’s spot was replaced by the promotion of Scott Fountain from support staff to an on-field coaching position, though Fountain does not appear to have received a raise from last year’s $210,000 salary based on the financial report.

29-year-old offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s salary is $350,000. The staff is completed by offensive line coach J.B. Grimes ($275,000) and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith ($250,000).

The Tigers’ ten coaches have been in college coaching for a combined 197 years, including 99 in the SEC in some capacity.

Photo by Todd Van Emst

Of course, Auburn University still owes hefty buyouts to Chizik and his assistants after firing them in early December. Via their contracts, any income earned through coaching, broadcasting, publishing media or any other type of football-related endeavors through the expiration of those contracts will be subsidized from Auburn’s financial commitment.

Chizik and ex-assistant head coach Trooper Taylor remain unemployed, though Chizik was part of ESPNU’s National Signing Day coverage as a guest analyst.

The other eight Chizik assistants have found full-time jobs: defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is coaching New York Jets linebackers, Scot Loeffler (offensive coordinator) and Jeff Grimes (offensive line) are at Virginia Tech, Tommy Thigpen (linebackers) and Willie Martinez (defensive backs) are with Tennessee, Curtis Luper (running backs) is at TCU, Mike Pelton (defensive line) is with Georgia Tech and Jay Boulware (special teams/tight ends) made his way to Oklahoma after initially being hired by Wisconsin.

Some but not all of their new contracts have been released. Based on Open Alabama Financial Reports released for the month of February, those eight coaches figure to subtract upwards of $1.5 million per year from Auburn’s buyout as long as they remain employed.

Chizik’s buyout, which opened at $7.7 million when he was terminated Nov. 25, will be paid in monthly installments through Dec. 31, 2015. The Loeffler, VanGorder and Taylor buyouts last through June 30, 2014, while the other six assistants are off the books on June 30 of this year.

March 1, 2013

BACK TO THE FUTURE, Part I: The good, the bad & the ugly from the Clemson game, plus an early preview of Washington State

AUBURN, Ala. – Alrighty. Here we go. A look back at the football game Auburn played six months ago tonight, and how these lessons from the film room apply to next season. We’ll do this each Friday from now until the end of May.

Allow me to reiterate: obviously, last year stunk. I saw it myself. This is a way to utilize what we’ve learned about the returning Tigers and how they’ll fit in with the 2013 team, which is why you won’t read a ton of elaboration on guys who are gone (T’Sharvan Bell, Emory Blake, etc.) It also won’t overrate how particular schemes played out, because, again, those coaches are gone. Out with the old, in with the new, for sure. This is just applying the old players to new schemes.

OK, no more disclaimer. Let’s get started. And don’t forget to read below for a (very) early look at Auburn’s season-opening opponent, Washington State.

Clemson_Auburn2_9-1-12

 NO. 14 CLEMSON 26, AUBURN 19 ~ Sept. 1, 2012, ESPN

Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic, Georgia Dome, Atlanta

The preview | The review

The Good

On Clemson’s opening possession | DE Dee Ford destroys two blocks, and races down quarterback Tajh Boyd for the sack. Already an impact player.

On Auburn’s opening possession | for their first snaps in Auburn uniforms, FB Jay Prosch puts a nice lead block on free safety Xavier Brewer, and LT Greg Robinson pancakes defensive end Corey Crawford, springing RB Onterio McCalebb for 5 yards.

For their first boots as juniors | K Cody Parkey knocks a touchback, and P Steven Clark skies one 45 yards producing a fair catch. They’ll do.

For his first carry | RB Tre Mason picks up five yards after contact. Already, he’s showing he’s a tough guy to bring down.

For his first touchdown | QB Kiehl Frazier. Playaction. WR Emory Blake. Boom.

Coaches will later point out RT Avery Young not just once, but twice rerouted defensive tackle Grady Jarrett from touching Frazier, allowing Kiehl time in the pocket to deliver a perfect spiral 57 yards downfield on the money.

Frazier elatedly leaps into Mason’s arms on his way down the field. It was far and away his happiest moment of the season. (Only his 33-yard TD catch and Hail Mary throw against ULM even kind of compare.)

On the final play of the first quarter | LB Daren Bates gets a sack, following up a controversial exchange you’ll read about in a moment. I bet a lot of Auburn fans assessed after the first 15 minutes, “It’s gonna be a good season.”

On its own 1-yard-line | Mason goes 40 yards in two carries, both with Prosch clearing a path. However, Mason then fumbles at midfield, popped loose by defensive tackle Josh Watson when Tre doesn’t protect enough with his left arm.

Late in the first half, 2nd and 10 | With Clemson on Auburn’s 41 threatening to open up its lead, a total team sack snuffs the threat. CB Chris Davis and LB Jake Holland draw O-Line blocks, which allows DT Gabe Wright to apply pressure. When Boyd has to improvise, DE Corey Lemonier has time to wrap him up from behind. The LB-CB blitz blew up Clemson’s home-run play call.

On Bates’ interception to start the fourth quarter | Wright was the one following the ball outside the trenches. He leaps, keeping his hands up and cutting off Boyd’s passing lane, forcing Boyd to throw behind tight end Sam Cooper, causing the pick.

Mason didn’t take long to show how he’s a hybrid back – he’s sleek yet powerful, he’s got quick burst yet he’s durable. Looked like a college version of Steven Jackson. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be an elite back in this new system going forward.

Clemson_Auburn23_9-1-12The Bad

On Kiehl’s first 3rd-down snap | There he is, watching the rush. Flips wildly to Mason, which he can’t grab, and Auburn goes three-and-out. This became, as they say, a thing.

When Boyd has to come out after losing his helmet | backup quarterback Cole Stoudt comes in on 2nd and 12. Stoudt, no real threat to throw, hands off on a zone draw to tailback Andre Ellington, who breaks FOUR tackles – FS Ryan Smith, Lemonier, Davis and SS Jermaine Whitehead in order – for a 15-yard pickup. Inexcusable.

Auburn DBs backpedal on a couple 3rd-and-longs | allows Clemson receivers to roam. DC Brian VanGorder’s stance was his secondary wasn’t prepared for press coverage.

On 2nd and 12 in the red zone | WR Trovon Reed completely lost track of his feet in the back of the end zone. Frazier’s throw was fine, but Reed didn’t keep his toes in bounds, negating the TD. Auburn would settle for three.

On the offensive line | Robinson did have the pancake on that Blake TD, but he also had a false start and a fatal-timed hold in the red zone.

The Ugly

Can’t believe I forgot about this play in hindsight | Boyd scrambles, DE Nosa Eguae forces a fumble tackling him in traffic, and Wright recovers. The refs initially rule Auburn ball. Somehow, it’s overturned, when it’s judged Boyd’s knee was down first. Upon replay, it looked like Boyd bobbled the football before his knee touched the turf, or at least it was too close to overturn. Even ESPN play-by-play man Brad Nessler seemed to disagree, saying, “Well, there’s our opinion, and then there’s the one that counts.” Then the refs even needed another delay to properly set the sticks. Bad exchange all around which could have allowed Auburn to grab some swagger.

On Ellington’s “flip-and-fly” run for 68 yards |Holland flat-out lost his grip on Ellington. CB Jon Mincy stutter-stepped, expecting Holland to take care of the job himself, and failed to cut off the angle, allowing Ellington to spring free. A huge momentum swing.

On Auburn’s opening possession out of the halftime locker room | there’s 12 men in the huddle once, and a timeout is later called to regroup. Unnecessary miscommunications, which you could certainly attribute to the first game with a new system.

Ugly on Clemson’s part | too many dropped balls. Shot themselves in the foot.

Clemson_Auburn8_9-1-12Notes and tidbits

Kiehl Frazier assessment | at best, he was poised and in control; at worst, he was a little inaccurate in his first spotlight appearance. Plenty of playaction and playfakes were called for him; though he wasn’t quite comfortable running downfield, he did have one nice scramble, sacrificing his body to pick up a first down. Give it a B-plus effort.

CB Ryan White and Ryan Smith opened the season in the starting lineup on defense. No, really. Look it up. Smith was said to be someone who “gets it”, as far as VanGorder’s complex playbook. Smith made a curious decision to leap toward Ellington on a sweep, instead of plugging a gap or wrapping up, and Ellington went for 45 yards. Both Ryans soon lost their starting jobs, even though White led the Tigers with 12 tackles that night.

Kick return coverage starters | Parkey, Davis, Josh Holsey, Jaylon Denson, Craig Sanders, Ikeem Means, T’Sharvan Bell, Anthony Swain, Jon Jones, Jon Evans, Demetruce McNeal. Only Means, Bell and Evans were seniors.

Clemson’s first quarter | 29 plays, 127 yards (4.34 yards/play), 11:43 possession

Auburn’s first quarter | 7 plays, 78 yards (11.14 yards/play), 3:17 possession

However, Auburn led 7-3.

Fourth quarter | Ellington 8 rush, 80 yards; Boyd 6 rush, 49 yards. They rushed for six first downs together (three for Ellington, three for Boyd), including three on third down. Defensive breakdowns, not being able to contain the run (particularly Boyd), stopped Auburn from stealing this game.

THREE STARS

3) Cody Parkey. Four for four on field goals, including a 46-yarder, is what you’re looking for.

2) Daren Bates.  A sack, an interception and sideline-to-sideline coverage even with a stinger. Gutty performance.

1) Jay Prosch. He had one hell of a game, the final time his mother watched him play football. Recovered a Kiehl Frazier fumble in the final minute to keep the game alive, and made Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason look really, really, really good.

Clemson_Auburn3_9-1-12

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GAME 1: Washington State at Auburn, Aug. 31, 2013, Jordan-Hare Stadium

A LOOK AT WASHINGTON STATE

2012 record: 3-9, 1-8 Pac-12

Head coach: Mike Leach, second year (@Coach_Leach)

Returning starters (o/d): Wazzu 19 (10/9)

Base formations: Offense – 4-WR spread | Defense – 3-4

Wazzu-Auburn series: Auburn leads 1-0 (preseason fourth-ranked Tigers won 40-14 in 2006 opener at JHS)

Notes: Auburn is 92-26-2 in season openers, with the Clemson loss breaking a six-game winning streak … Washington State was one of three BCS conference squads in 2012 to rank outside the top 100 both in scoring offense and scoring defense (Kansas, Colorado) … Auburn is 7-3 all-time against the Pac-12, while Wazzu is 1-9 all-time against the SEC … six of Auburn’s last nine season openers have been televised by the ESPN family of networks.

February 7, 2013

Roundup: Brian VanGorder joins the Jets; Becky Jackson’s No. 34 retired on Feb. 17

Brian VanGorderAUBURN, Ala. — Now both of Auburn’s former coordinators, and nearly the entire 2012 staff, has found a job elsewhere.

Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder will return to the NFL after a one-year stint on the Plains, with the New York Jets announcing VanGorder as their new linebackers coach Thursday.

Auburn was ranked 81st in total defense last year, plagued by inconsistency and victimized by the likes of Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama. VanGorder, whose son Mack remains a walk-on for the Tigers, was let go along with the rest of Auburn’s coaching staff following a 3-9 season.

VanGorder was the Jacksonville Jaguars’ linebackers coach in 2005, and spent five years with the Atlanta Falcons from 2007-11, the last four as defensive coordinator. VanGorder signed a deal last year worth $850,000 annually, and is still owed that amount from Auburn less whatever he makes with the Jets until June 30, 2014 (the expiration of his Auburn contract.)

Rex Ryan is entering his fifth season as the Jets’ head coach, and has overseen four straight years of a top-ten total defense in the NFL – though New York has gone from first to third to fifth to eighth subsequently the past four seasons.

Only head coach Gene Chizik and assistant head coach/wide receivers coach Trooper Taylor remain unemployed since being dismissed by Auburn Nov. 25. Both are expected to take the season off from coaching.

Moving on from last fall’s staff are offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and offensive line coach Jeff Grimes (now at Virginia Tech), running backs coach Curtis Luper (TCU), tight ends and special teams coach Jay Boulware (Wisconsin), defensive line coach Mike Pelton (Georgia Tech), linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen and secondary coach Willie Martinez (Tennessee).

Women’s basketball great Becky Jackson’s number to be retired

Last month, Auburn Arena saw Mike Mitchell’s name and number added to the rafters among the men’s basketball program legends.

Since then, there’s been a black curtain draped on the opposite side of the arena, covering an unknown name.

Auburn made that name known Thursday. Becky Jackson, who left Auburn as the all-time leading scorer and rebounder in women’s basketball history, will take her rightful place in the Ring of Honor when her No. 34 jersey is retired in a Feb. 17 ceremony, before the Tigers take on Alabama.

A 6-foot-2 center, Jackson was all-SEC for four years from 1980-84, finishing her illustrious career with 2,068 points and 1,118 rebounds. She was an American Women’s Sports Foundation All-American in 1981 and 1983, and MVP of the 1983 SEC tournament. Only DeWanna Bonner has surpassed her scoring, and Jackson remains the Tigers’ top rebounder.

No. 21 Carolyn Jones, No. 25 Ruthie Bolton and No. 50 Vicki Orr will be joined by Jackson’s company in the north side of Auburn Arena, opposite the six men’s names and numbers.

The Alabama game is also the annual “Pink Zone” game to promote breast cancer awareness. Visit AUBTIX.com or call 1-855-AUB-2010 for tickets.

February 5, 2013

‘True colors': Proud day for Toney, Johnson, and the nine commits who stuck with Auburn

AUBURN, Ala. — Cameron Toney had his convictions. The linebacker from Huntsville, Ala. knew why he was all in on Auburn.

Not because of Gene Chizik. Not because of Brian VanGorder or a particular defensive scheme.

Because it’s Auburn.

“Before I committed,” said Toney, who did so in April 2012, “I always told myself, pick a school that you’ll fall in love with, not just for football. Auburn’s all about family, the student section, the atmosphere, and also the education, most importantly. I didn’t commit because of a coach or coaching staff.”

Neither did eight other players who originally said ‘yes’ to Chizik and his staff, but will end the long wait by signing their national letters of intent today to play for Gus Malzahn and his assistants.

LIVE CHAT: Get all-day updates Wednesday

Quarterback Jeremy Johnson. Defensive end Carl Lawson. Skilled athletes Earnest Robinson, Jason Smith and Tashawn Bower — they all had to hear Malzahn and company convince them to stick around.

“I just see more discipline in this new coaching staff,” Toney said. “More discipline than the last one.”

It’s not always an easy task, to be told twice by two different voices to stick with the same decision.

“Yeah, you would think the kids would pick the school for more about the school and just one or two coaches, or even the team,” said Chad Simmons, Fox Sports/Scout.com national recruiting analyst.

“But all these kids dream about playing in the NFL, so they go to these schools thinking that this quarterbacks coach or that defensive scheme can help me get to that elite level.”

Therefore, Simmons continued, any new coaching staff — and Auburn wasn’t alone in the SEC, with Arkansas, Kentucky and Tennessee also in transition — has an uphill battle to climb.

“The head coach has to show the kid and the family they’re still the perfect fit, the perfect environment for them,” Simmons said. “It’s a tough job when a coach comes in early- to mid-December and really only has six weeks to really build that relationship that some schools have had for two or three years.”

The process was especially confusing for a guy like five-star defensive tackle Montravius Adams, who saved his final official visit for Auburn this past weekend.

“I got close to both coaching staffs — I probably was a little closer to the last one, because I’ve been over here and I met them a lot,” Adams said. “But I like (this) coaching staff.”

Adams’ interest in Auburn was saved by new associate head coach Rodney Garner, who was close with Adams when recruiting him to Georgia on the other side of Christmas.

“Yeah, I think anytime a completely new staff comes in, you’re going to play catch-up,” Malzahn said Jan. 19. “But our coaching staff’s done a great job of identifying the guys and really recruiting them hard, so I’m very pleased.”

Knowing he couldn’t be wavered, Toney began his own recruitment efforts — trying to keep this class together and strengthen the group much as possible.

“There’s a couple guys I know that committed to Auburn just because of the coaching staff,” Toney said. “But I always told them, college football is a business, they come and go … you never know, this might be the best thing. Everything happens for a reason, and a coaching change could help in the long run.”

It didn’t work on everybody. It never does.

Half the Auburn class of commits the morning of Nov. 25 are expected to sign somewhere else, as linebacker Reuben Foster, defensive tackle Dee Liner and seven others decided to withdraw their commitment.

So there will be a certain sense of pride for Toney, Johnson and the others when they affirm their wire-to-wire commitment, through thick and thin, with pen to paper.

“The true colors come out when things go wrong, when things go bad,” Toney said. “And the nine guys that stayed committed are letting their true colors come out.”

January 18, 2013

Notebook: OL Shon Coleman granted a sixth year of eligibility, after battling leukemia

Photo by Todd Van Emst

Photo by Todd Van Emst

AUBURN, Ala. – Shon Coleman will get his chance to fulfill a complete football career at Auburn.

A 6-foot-6, 302-pound offensive lineman from Memphis, Coleman was granted a sixth year of eligibility from the NCAA Friday. He essentially receives two medical hardship waiver years for battling leukemia during the 2011 and 2012 football seasons.

“This is great news for Shon, who has been through a lot medically during the last few years,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He has been courageous in his fight and we look forward to him returning to the football field. We’re also very appreciative of the NCAA staff for their understanding of his situation and granting him his sixth year.”

Coleman, 21, was diagnosed in the spring of 2010 with leukemia and underwent treatment at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, and while he was cleared by doctors for limited practice at the end of spring drills, he did not see the field last season.

Coleman was listed on the season’s final depth chart as the backup to tackles Greg Robinson and Patrick Miller.

He was a four-star recruit in the class of 2010, named a first-team all-state honoree by the Mississippi Association of Coaches his senior year at Olive Branch High School. Coleman participated in the 2009 Alabama-Mississippi All-Star game and 2010 Army All-American Bowl.

Landing on their feet

More than half the 2012 Auburn assistants have taken jobs at other Division I colleges, which is good news for the university as its final payouts continue to subsidize.

Earlier this offseason, linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen and secondary coach Willie Martinez landed at Tennessee, while offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler grabbed the same position at Virginia Tech and special teams/tight ends coach Jay Boulware was hired at Wisconsin.

Within the past week, Loeffler brought former Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes with him to Blacksburg, as dictated by the Hokies’ official web site.

Local newspaper reports have ex-Auburn running backs coach Curtis Luper heading to TCU – where his son, Cameron Echols-Luper, recently switched his verbal commitment out of Auburn High School – and defensive line coach Mike Pelton stopping off at Georgia Tech under Ted Roof, Auburn’s 2011 defensive coordinator.

Those six assistants had a combined 2012 salary of more than $2.1 million. Per their Auburn contracts, whatever salaries they earn from their new institutions will be docked from their buyouts.

The remaining unemployed members of Auburn’s fired staff: head coach Gene Chizik, defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder and wide receivers/assistant head coach Trooper Taylor.

Three Tigers play Saturday

Tailback Onterio McCalebb, left guard John Sullen and linebacker Daren Bates started a combined 30 games their seniors seasons at Auburn.

None are projected to be selected highly – if at all – in this upcoming April’s NFL Draft, but they get a chance to impress some scouts today at the inaugural Raycom College Football All-Star Classic at Montgomery’s Cramton Bowl. The game begins at 3 p.m. ET and will be broadcast live on CBS Sports Network.

McCalebb, Sullen and Bates will suit up for the ‘Stars’ squad, coached by former NFL head coach Jim Bates. They’ll take on the Stripes, led by Dan Reeves.