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August 24, 2013

Auburn football: With ‘the past’ behind him, Nick Marshall looks to turn around Tigers’ fortunes

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Nick Marshall’s feats with his feet are well-documented.

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. All Auburn's starting quarterback cares about is this season and getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. Marshall’s sole focus is getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Sure, many quarterbacks can extend plays and make something out of nothing thanks to fancy footwork. But few have shown the ability to excel at Marshall’s level. Take a look at the 1,095 yards he ran for last year in junior college. Also take note of the 19 touchdowns he accounted for on the ground, the second-most of any player in the National Junior College Athletic Association in 2012.

Or one could just check out his 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash.

Elusive as he may be, there are two storylines Auburn’s new signal-caller won’t be able to outrun this fall.

The first is the way his career at Georgia ended.

The other narrative, which will have far longer shelf life, is tracking his trajectory against the backdrop of a pair of SEC quarterbacks blessed with similar skill sets.

Richt: ‘I hope Nick has success’

Even though he was a record-setting quarterback at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Ga., that meant nothing to the Bulldogs, already set at the position with Aaron Murray. A member of Georgia’s heralded “Dream Team” class in 2011, Marshall shifted to cornerback upon arrival, playing in 13 games that fall. His tenure with the Bulldogs came to an unceremonious end, being dismissed along with fellow cornerback Chris Sanders and wide receiver Sanford Seay for a violation of team rules in February 2012. The three were reportedly involved in stealing money from a teammate’s dorm room.

No charges were ever filed in the case, however.

Following the dismissal, Marshall hit the reset button. He enrolled at Garden City Community College in Kansas and returned to quarterback. After one stellar season at the junior college level — along with his aforementioned rushing totals, he also threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns — he became part of the Tigers’ 2013 recruiting haul in February. Now, he’s entering the season as Auburn’s starter after coming out on top of the team’s four-man quarterback battle during fall camp.

He’ll make his debut Saturday in Auburn’s season opener, taking on Washington State in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Marshall hasn’t — or won’t — allow himself to reflect on his journey to this point, especially when the topic of the Bulldogs is broached.

“I don’t too much worry about that,” he said. “I’m an Auburn player now, so that’s in the past. I’m just going to move forward.”

Georgia never looked back, either. The Bulldogs have won back-to-back SEC Eastern Division titles, and are favored to make it three straight this season. His team’s lofty goals didn’t prevent Georgia head coach Mark Richt from being happy for Marshall when he heard Auburn’s quarterback search had come to a close.

“I like Nick,” he said. “I hope Nick has success other than our game.”

If he was still with the Bulldogs, Richt believes they would have already taken advantage of Marshall’s talents, building specific packages for him to shine offensively.

“We were thinking that we would somewhere along the line in his career,” he said, “but we never got to it.”

Marshall joined LSU’s Zach Mettenberger in a strange club: Both former Georgia players begin this fall as the starting quarterback at another SEC school. It’s a startling statistic; given other teams’ success with his former players, Richt was asked whether he would consider adding any ex-SEC castoffs in the future.

Depending on the circumstances involved, he wouldn’t rule it out.

“You just have to know all the facts and decide if this person would be in the best interest of Georgia and (if) the person, whatever they did, learned from it,” he said. “It would be a possibility.”

Marshall deflects comparisons with other QBs

The script nearly writes itself.

A highly-touted recruit runs into off-the-field trouble at an SEC school, transfers to a junior college — lighting up the circuit along the way — and then finds redemption as Auburn’s starting quarterback.

Obviously, this arc describes Marshall’s path to Auburn. It also is strikingly similar to Cam Newton, almost to the letter.

Like Marshall, Newton is a native of the Peach State. Regarded as one of the top players in the Class of 2007 out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, Newton ended up committing to Florida. Things never got off the ground for him in Gainesville, Fla., though. He spent two seasons with the Gators, departing in 2008 after being suspended by then-head coach Urban Meyer. The suspension stemmed from an arrest, as Newton was accused of stealing another student’s laptop. The charges were eventually dropped after he completed a pretrial diversion program for first-time offenders. Newton pushed on and finished out the fall semester of 2008 before leaving Florida in what he said was a search for more playing time.

And he found exactly what he was looking for at Blinn College in Texas.

Newton led the Buccaneers to a national championship in 2009 and pledged to Auburn soon after. In another piece of symmetry with Marshall, Newton came out on top of his own four-way quarterback competition at Auburn in the spring of 2010.

Everyone knows how Newton’s story goes from there.

In one of the most remarkable seasons in recent memory, Newton took the college football world by storm. With uncanny athleticism for a player his size and a knack for rising to the occasion when he was needed most, Newton led the Tigers to a 14-0 record and their first national title since 1957. His gaudy individual numbers — 2,854 passing yards and 30 touchdowns and another 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground — also landed Newton the Heisman.

Not surprisingly, when his name was mentioned during Marshall’s first meeting with reporters, Auburn’s newest quarterback immediately shut down anyone seeking to draw parallels.

“I really can’t compare myself to him,” Marshall said. “I’ll just be myself.”

What sets the two apart is sheer size. Newton has four inches (6-foot-5 to 6-foot-1) and 35 pounds (245 to 210) on Marshall. That’s why Matt Miller, Marshall’s offensive coordinator at Garden City, invoked the name of another winner of the bronze trophy whose stature is more reminiscent of his former protege: Johnny Manziel.

Once more, Marshall rejected any notion of being compared to another player.

“Again, I don’t worry about what everybody else does,” he said. “I just worry about me and worry about my team.”

While he wouldn’t acknowledge coming in with a chip on his shoulder, Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn picked up on it the moment he began recruiting Marshall.

“He definitely had something to prove,” Malzahn said. “He’s had that attitude since he’s been here. He’s really studied hard. He’s worked hard. He’s been in that playbook. He’s showed (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee that it’s very important to him. He showed his teammates, too. And that’s the most important thing. He’s got a lot of respect from his teammates, and they’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

Yes, he knows he won over the Tigers with his play on the field. But Marshall said that wouldn’t have come without watching extra hours of film by himself.

Everyone around the program knows the expectations already being placed upon Marshall are sky-high. That’s why the Tigers are going to give him every opportunity to succeed this fall.

“We’ve got a good line, we’ve got some good backs, we’ve got some wideouts that are going to have to step up and make plays for him, and that’s the key,” Lashlee said. “Don’t feel like you have to do too much. Play within the system, and over time the system will grow as you feel better with it.”

In Lashlee’s estimation, the most memorable play Marshall has made thus far is an example of the patience he hopes to see from the quarterback once the regular season begins. In one of the Tigers’ scrimmages during camp, the offense faced a third-and-14. Lining up in a four-wide receiver set, Marshall’s protection broke down. Instead of tucking the ball and running at the first sign of distress, however, Marshall stood tall and dumped it off to his safety valve on the play, Corey Grant. The running back took care of the rest, picking up 16 yards to keep the drive alive.

Lashlee, a former quarterback, couldn’t have been more pleased if he had run the play himself.

“We convert a third-and-14 just because he does his job and doesn’t try to do more than he has to do,” he said. “And to me, that showed great maturity and that, ‘Hey, he’s buying in. He’s trying to play within the system and do what we asked him to do.’”

That doesn’t mean Marshall will always decide to stay in the pocket. Far from it. He just knows his limitations.

Playing one year in the SEC — even if it was on defense — taught him to pick his spots.

“In this league, you can’t take too many hits at quarterback,” Marshall said. “I’ll use it to my advantage to get out of bounds or just get down.”

Undoubtedly, the questions about his one-year stay at Georgia and Newton will surface in myriad forms for the duration of the season. Whether Marshall will ever respond at length is up to him. People shouldn’t hold their breath on either count.

All Marshall cares to talk about is getting Auburn back on the right track.

“I know the team is behind me and I’m behind them 100 percent,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and win games.”

4 at 4: Just the links, ma’am

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — No fluff with this afternoon’s links, folks.graphics4

Yes, sometimes I turn the link-heavy pieces into longer articles, interspersing my thoughts between nearly every item.  There’s no reason to do that here; you got enough of that in my “7 at 7″ this morning. Besides, the longest feature since I began working for the Ledger-Enquirer last month will be posted here later this evening. It’s a story I’m sure many will be interested in. For now, my lips are sealed. Don’t want to give away too much, you know.

(And before we move on to the links, I hope some of you appreciated the “Dragnet” reference in the headline. If not … well, shame on you.)

1. Not much news on the Auburn beat today (not surprising since we’re on Day 2 of no media availability), so instead we turn to the most high-profile Tiger in the NFL, Cam Newton. His Carolina Panthers are doing fine this preseason if judged solely on the win-loss record: The team is 2-1. It’s the first-team offense — led by Newton — that is struggling to get off the ground, writes Judy Battista of NFL.com. Carolina’s first-string offense has scored only one touchdown on 14 possessions in its three preseason contests.

2. Elsewhere in the sporting world, former world heavyweight champ Mike Tyson revealed he has had a sobriety slip and that he’s “on the verge of dying because I’m a vicious alcoholic.”

3. I only wish I was making this story up: Robert G. Kaiser, an associate editor of The Washington Post and the paper’s managing editor from 1991-98, admitted the esteemed publication dropped the ball on the day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

Kaiser explains below.

“In that paper of Aug. 29, 1963, The Post published two dozen stories about the march. Every one missed the importance of King’s address. The words “I have a dream” appeared in only one, a wrap-up of the day’s rhetoric on Page A15 — in the fifth paragraph. We also printed brief excerpts from the speeches, but the three paragraphs chosen from King’s speech did not include “I have a dream.”

An incredible oversight by one the nation’s top newspapers. I’m still shocked even though I’ve gone back and read the story multiple times.

4. It’s item No. 4, so you know I’m linking to another classic Auburn football clip courtesy of Mr. Scott Scroggins, master statistician in Auburn’s athletic department. His number today was seven — as in, the days remaining until the Tigers begin the 2013 season and the number of consecutive games Joe Cribbs rushed for 100 or more yards in 1978, which still stands as a school record.

Check out some of Cribbs’ highlights below.

August 17, 2013

Who’s Nick Marshall? 10 things to know about Auburn’s starting quarterback

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

It’s official: Nick Marshall has taken the reins as Auburn’s starting quarterback. So what are some things you should know about the Georgia native and junior college transfer (if you don’t know already)?

Here are 10 quick-hitting facts about Marshall to fill in a few blanks.

Nick Marshall was named Auburn's starting quarterback on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Nick Marshall was named Auburn’s starting quarterback on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Age: 21

Hometown: Pineview, Ga.

High School: Wilcox County (Ga.)

College experience: University of Georgia, Garden City Community College (Kan.)

Why he’s no longer at Georgia: Arriving as a heralded quarterback prospect in 2011, Georgia didn’t need Marshall with Aaron Murray entrenched as the starter. He moved to cornerback and appeared in 13 games for the Bulldogs that fall. He was dismissed from Georgia in February 2012 for a violation of team rules.

Junior college stats (one season): 7-4 record at quarterback for Garden City CC in 2012; scored 37 touchdowns (19 rushing, 18 passing); passed for 3,142 yards and was team’s leading rusher with 1,095 yards; had turnover issues, throwing 20 interceptions and fumbling the ball eight times, losing five

Star ratings: Scout ranked Marshall as a four-star prospect, while Rivals and 247Sports deemed him worthy of three stars.

What he brings: Marshall has been blessed with incredible athleticism. His arm strength is nearly unmatched, and he’s equally adept at tucking the ball and running with it. Either way, defenses will never be comfortable when Marshall has the ball in his hands.

Red flags: Marshall’s “violation of team rules” and eventual dismissal from Georgia was reportedly due to stealing money from a teammate’s dorm room. If Marshall has any issues at Auburn, head coach Gus Malzahn has already shown he knows how to get tough on prominent players, dismissing senior safety (and the team’s leading returning tackler) Demetruce McNeal after being arrested for marijuana possession on Saturday.

What to expect: Though some wanted to immediately anoint Marshall as the “Second Coming of Cam (Newton)” on Signing Day, that’s a bit off the mark. Newton stands at 6-foot-5 and weighs in at 245 pounds, dwarfing Marshall at 6-foot-1 and 210 pounds, respectively. And to think he’ll be able to match Newton’s epic 2010 season numbers-wise — when Newton threw for 2,854 yards and 30 touchdowns and rushed for 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns en route to winning the Heisman Trophy — is a bit too much to ask, even for someone of Marshall’s talents. Setting sights slightly lower — say, 2,500 yards passing with 20 touchdowns and 750 yards rushing with 10 touchdowns — is far more reasonable. If Marshall compiles those kinds of stats, it should bode well for the Tigers’ 2013 season as a whole.

July 31, 2013

4 at 4: Assorted links (Auburn and otherwise) to whet your whistle on Wednesday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — How much more can I really say at this point?

You’re ready for football. I’m ready for football.

Let’s just jump right in to the links in today’s “4 at 4.”graphics4

1. If you didn’t get a chance to read either of my earlier stories today, well … here’s your chance. The first highlights five newcomers to watch for during Auburn’s fall camp, while the second notes how the Tigers will honor four of the greatest teams in school history during the 2013 season.

2. One former Tiger, Erique Florence, found a new home Tuesday. Troy University sent out an official release welcoming the Valley, Ala., native to the program. But could Auburn be bringing in another player looking for a new school in the near future? According to former War Eagle Extra beat writer Joel Erickson, dismissed Texas receiver Cayleb Jones lists Auburn as a school he’s interested in, along with Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, East Carolina, Clemson and UCLA. The Tigers do have one connection with Jones, as former receiver Emory Blake is his cousin. Wherever Jones decides to go, he’ll have to sit out a year; however, he will have three years of eligibility remaining.

3. Cam Newton always makes headlines, but on Tuesday, it was for good reason. Coming off the field following practice, Newton stopped and chatted with a Carolina fan with cerebral palsy. He then gave her his signed cleats and signed another football the family brought with them. Simply a heartwarming story regardless of what NFL team or player you cheer for.

But Tuesday also had some sobering news from another former Tiger in the NFL. Washington coach Mike Shanahan said that Tristan Davis has decided to retire, per the club’s official Twitter feed. Shanahan said the former Auburn running back told him “his heart wasn’t into playing football anymore.” The 27-year-old also had stints with Pittsburgh, Miami, Minnesota and Detroit after entering the league as an undrafted free agent in 2009.

Below is a YouTube clip of Davis in happier times on the field, when he ran 162 yards on eight carries against Kentucky in 2005. (Hat tip to Scott Scroggins for the link.)

4. Our thoughts are with the family and friends of Polo Manukainiu and two others who were killed in a car wreck in New Mexico on Monday night. Manukainiu, a defensive end for Texas A&M, redshirted last season.

As excited as people are for football to be here, tragedies like these always help to remind us to treasure every moment of our lives.

July 29, 2013

4 at 4: Catching up on the weekend with some links

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Luckily for me, it was a slow news weekend. Why was that good, you ask? Well, when trying to move into a new place, the last thing you want is for a major story to break to prevent being able to get your life unpacked. But I’m ready and rarin’ to go now, and thankfully, things will pick up soon enough, as Auburn players report on Thursday and open fall camp on Friday.graphics4

Until then, we’ll be doing something similar to “7 at 7,” just in a shortened version.

I give you, good readers, “4 at 4.”

1. It appears former Auburn running back Michael Dyer’s landing place has now been uncovered. On Monday afternoon, Jonathan Lintner of The Courier-Journal in Louisville reported that Dyer might be joining the Cardinals, noting that “the school’s registrar’s office has Michael Dyer in its database, but the 2011 BCS MVP not yet admitted/enrolled.” Lintner’s article says the team can’t comment on Dyer’s situation yet, but that he has until Aug. 26 to register for the fall semester.

2. Could Stephen Davis Jr. follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Tiger? It’s definitely a possibility, the linebacker/defensive back out of Dutch Fork High in Irmo, S.C., told AL.com on Friday. Along with Auburn, Davis Jr. holds offers from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Clemson, Vanderbilt, Missouri and North Carolina. His father might have to work on him a little more, since the younger Davis noted Georgia, Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee are the schools that appeal most to him at the moment, and that he still “has to think” more about Auburn. He’s got a lot of time, though, since he doesn’t graduate until 2016. (The article includes a full video interview where Davis Jr. addresses all of these topics.)

3. Count former Auburn (and current Carolina Panthers) quarterback Cam Newton as a supporter of testing for human growth hormone in the NFL. The league and its players union are trying to iron out an agreement on testing for HGH that is both safe and not overly invasive, since it would likely involve drawing blood from players. It doesn’t bother Newton, since he said it “wasn’t a big deal” and that he’d “be prepared” to do any test the NFL requires.

4. After I linked to an article last week which reported Auburn’s Police Department had an aggressive ticket “quota” system in place, it’s only fair to link to the response to the accusations from the police chief at the time, Tommy Dawson. The City of Auburn also released a statement in regard to Tracy Oppenheimer’s piece for Reason.com.

July 10, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Arkansas State

With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. Starting today and running through Monday, we’ll preview Auburn’s foes this fall at an output of two per day. We continue with the Arkansas State Red Wolves, where Gus Malzahn served as head coach last season before taking over the Tigers last December.

Who: Arkansas State

When: Saturday, Sept. 7Arkansas_State_Red_Wolves2

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

All-time series: Auburn leads 2-0

When last they met: Auburn opened the 2010 season with a convincing 52-26 victory over Arkansas State. It marked the first game with Cam Newton at quarterback for the Tigers, and he flashed glimpses of what was in store for the remainder of the season — making the spectacular look routine, which he did, often with ease, on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. The electric signal-caller threw for 186 yards and three touchdowns against Arkansas State, going 9 of 14 through the air. He was every bit as good carrying the ball, rushing for 171 yards and two scores on 15 carries. Freshman running back Michael Dyer tacked on another rushing touchdown, and tallied 95 yards on the ground, while Quindarius Carr collected two receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. The Red Wolves had some success moving the ball against the Tigers’ defense, especially through the air, as quarterback Ryan Aplin rang up 278 yards and a touchdown. And the Red Wolves were able to put some points on the board — 26 in all. Then again, that means little when your opponent doubles you up. After this win, well, I don’t need to tell you how the rest of the Tigers’ year unfolded.

The coach: Bryan Harsin (0-0; First year as a head coach; served as Texas’ offensive coordinator the past two seasons)

2012 record: 10-3, 7-1 Sun Belt (won conference title and beat Kent State 17-13 in GoDaddy.com Bowl)

Total offense: 466.69 ypg (23rd in Division I, 2nd in Sun Belt)

Scoring offense: 34.92 ppg (26th, 2nd)

Total defense: 383.69 ypg (51st, 2nd)

Scoring defense: 24.46 ppg (43rd, 1st)

2012 Year-in-Review: Things couldn’t have gone much better in Malzahn’s only year leading the Red Wolves. A double-digit victory total, a conference title and a bowl victory? What’s not to like? (Though Malzahn didn’t coach in the bowl game; instead, interim coach John Thompson led Arkansas State to a 17-13 win over Kent State.) The Red Wolves’ only defeats came to Oregon, Nebraska and Western Kentucky. But Arkansas State’s success has also been (a bit of) a curse, as Harsin represents its third head coach in three seasons, following Malzahn’s one-year tenure in 2012 and Hugh Freeze’s one-year stop in 2011.

Biggest area of concern: Who’s going to replace Aplin? The Sun Belt Player of the Year flourished in Malzahn’s up-tempo scheme. The senior threw for 3,342 yards and 24 touchdowns (against only four interceptions), while completing 68 percent of his attempts (276 of 406). He even added 438 rushing yards for good measure. Incredibly, there were only six (!!!) passes the Red Wolves attempted last year that didn’t come from Aplin; sophomore Fredi Knighten played in eight games and threw five times, and “first-team all-cool name” selection Phillip Butterfield appeared in one game and threw a solitary pass. Alas, it fell incomplete.

The best thing going for Aplin’s eventual successor? He’s got a lot of talent to work with on the Red Wolves’ offense. (More on that below.)

Key returning player/unit: Take your pick between senior running back David Oku or redshirt sophomore receiver J.D. McKissic (a Phenix City native, for those readers in the Columbus/Phenix City greater metropolitan area). You can’t go wrong either way.

Oku was one of the top-rated all-purpose backs in the nation in the 2009 class, and originally committed to Tennessee. Oku thrived on kickoff returns, leading the Volunteers in return yardage as both a freshman and a sophomore. But when he saw his name dropping down Tennessee’s tailback depth chart, he announced plans to transfer in January 2011. He signed with Arkansas State last June, and the move paid immediate dividends for both Oku and the Red Wolves. Oku ran for 1,061 yards and 16 touchdowns, averaging 4.4 yards per carry. He was also fourth on the team in receptions, snagging 20, with seven of them being scoring plays.

One player Oku trailed in the receiving department, of course, was McKissic. He had a dazzling redshirt freshman campaign, winning the Sun Belt Conference’s Freshman of the Year award and being named to numerous all-freshman teams. And the proof is in the pudding: McKissic caught 103 passes for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns. McKissic also captured the GoDaddy.com Bowl’s Offensive Most Valuable Player award after hauling in 11 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown.

It’s hard to believe Oku’s and McKissic’s numbers won’t be every bit as good — if not better — this season as they were in 2012.

Extra point: Kudos to USA Today’s Paul Myerberg for tweeting out this delicious nugget Wednesday morning: There are only five active coaches in the FBS who haven’t been a part of a losing season as a head coach or full-time assistant (minimum three years of experience), and two of them will be opposing each other in this game in Malzahn and Harsin. The other three? Southern California’s Lane Kiffin, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen.

7 at 7: Auburn’s ‘Ultimate Team,’ Malzahn’s past and links galore

A lot of great links to get to in this morning’s edition of “7 at 7,” so I won’t waste time by slowing you readers down.

Let’s just dive right in.

Vandy Auburn1. As it often likes to do, ESPN has decided to hold a contest to determine which college football program has the “Ultimate Team,” combining the best players at each school spanning across time. ESPN created a 16-team bracket for the contest, which will be decided via fan vote, with Auburn receiving the No. 15 seed and drawing No. 2 Southern California in the opening round.

Bo Jackson joins quarterback Cam Newton and fellow running backs Cadillac Williams, Ronnie Brown and Rudi Johnson in the backfield. Receiver Tyrone Goodson was the last member of the Tigers’ offense. Defensively, the Tigers boast Nick Fairley and Quentin Groves on the line, Takeo Spikes and Karlos Dansby at linebacker and Carlos Rogers in the secondary. On the other side, the Trojans have Matt Leinart at quarterback, with running back Marcus Allen lined up behind him. USC has a plethora of options at wide receiver in the forms of Keyshawn Johnson, Mike Williams, Dwayne Jarrett and Robert Woods. The Trojans are similarly stacked at linebacker, with Clay Matthews, Rey Maualuga, Willie McGinest and Chris Claiborne comprising a fantastic four. Safety Troy Polamalu rounds out Southern Cal’s representatives.

Jackson, tabbed as the captain for this mythical squad, served as a guest host of ESPN’s College Football Live on Tuesday and discussed how this team of Tigers might fare on the field.

Thus far, Auburn is doing just fine. As of this posting, the Tigers were leading the Trojans by 10 percentage points in the fan vote, 55 percent to 45 percent.

2. AL.com’s Brandon Marcello is road trippin’ across Arkansas, going back to see where Auburn coach Gus Malzahn began his career and how it helped him get where he is today. Marcello’s first article in this series ran on Tuesday, and it’s fantastic. Definitely a must-read.

3. If you weren’t able to check out War Eagle Extra on Tuesday, Auburn had two more players named to preseason award watch lists, and the Tigers also announced their player representatives for next week’s SEC Media Days proceedings.

4. Speaking of SEC Media Days — and for those who care about this type of thing — next week will mark a first for ESPN, as the network will bring its College Football Live show to the annual conference get-together at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, Ala.

Just when you thought the circus that is SEC Media Days couldn’t get any bigger, one more act is squeezed under the big top.

5. Oh, you know, just a trio of links relating to, directly or indirectly, (pretty much) everyone’s favorite punching bag, the NCAA. The first involves Ed O’Bannon and his seemingly never-ending quest to start to profit off his name and get his own cut of the NCAA’s revenue. In this episode, which played out Tuesday, O’Bannon’s lawyer asked the NCAA “to agree in writing” not to take action against any current player(s) who decide to join the lawsuit against the organization.

In a move that might raise some eyebrows, Ole Miss is not expected to be punished for allowing an ineligible player to participate in six games last season. The rationale? The player in question, walk-on cornerback Carlos Davis, participated without the school being made aware he wasn’t in good standing academically. At the time, Davis’ ACT scores were still being reviewed. The testing center later invalidated those scores, rendering Davis ineligible. The school self-reported the incident and pleaded innocent, and the NCAA apparently agreed. The only person who didn’t get away unscathed is Davis, who will be forced to sit out the Rebels first six games this fall. (For a more detailed explanation, click on the link to read Hugh Kellenberger’s article, and I also suggest watching the accompanying video embedded into the aforementioned story.)

And in the third and final link, wow. More trouble at North Carolina over parking tickets and how the vehicles fined have been tied to the same convicted felon Tar Heels’ leading scorer P.J. Hairston was linked to he was arrested last month.

6. Sports are great because they usually allow us a few hours of diversion from every day life. Because life is harsh and isn’t always fair. That’s why it’s always sobering when those two worlds collide to shatter the barrier between the real world and the things occurring within the realm of the “sports bubble.” One such example came on Tuesday, as the family of former Ole Miss player Bennie Abram III was finally able to reach a settlement with the university regarding their son’s death. Abram III, a walk-on, collapsed on Feb.19, 2010, during the first day of formal offseason workouts that year. Abram III died shortly thereafter, and the autopsy revealed the death arose from complications associated with the sickle cell trait. Abram’s parents allege the Rebels didn’t follow workout guidelines established by the NCAA which regulate how strenuously schools are able to train carriers of the sickle cell trait. Though Abram’s family reached a settlement that will see them receive $325,000 ($50,000 from Ole Miss and $275,000 from an NCAA insurance policy), the sad reality remains that all the money in the world won’t bring their son back.

Stories like this are what help us keep sports — passionate as we are about following them — in the proper perspective.

7. To end on an upbeat note for the second straight day, we have an atypical story previewing Auburn’s coming season. Over at Warblogle.com, they got their hands on an advance copy of NCAA Football 2014. And Warblogle did exactly what you’d expect when given an early copy of such a popular game: It ran five simulations with games against the Tigers’ 2013 slate.

I won’t spoil what five records it foresaw, other than noting only one didn’t have Auburn making a bowl appearance. (For the record, when Warblogle ran this same simulation last year, it spit out records of 11-2, 9-4, 8-5, 12-2 and 9-4.) Will the simulations fare better this season? Obviously, the jury is still out on that one.

I highly recommend checking out the full article, especially if you’re into video games at all. Warblogle went in-depth regarding many issues he had with the game, most notably in its ratings for various players.

Remember, though, any likeness to actual collegiate athletes is purely coincidental.

Just don’t tell that to O’Bannon.

April 23, 2013

Gene Chizik feels “no remorse, no regrets and no bitterness” after 2012 downfall

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – History shows nobody’s experienced the extreme emotions of college football coaching – specifically, the plunge from high to low – like Gene Chizik.

National champion to unemployed, bridged by just one Christmas, Chizik finally spoke publicly Monday, an opportunity to contemplate a wild four-year term as Auburn’s head coach.

On the Tigers’ staff for two undefeated seasons in the past decade yet taking the fall for an unprecedented plunge to 3-9, Chizik was asked, point-blank: how does he look back on his time at Auburn?

“I’m very appreciative that we were able, in our first three years, to accomplish a lot of memorable moments. That’s something that I’ll always look back on very fondly,” Chizik said. “We had an SEC championship, a national championship, a Heisman Trophy winner (Cam Newton), and a Lombardi Award winner (Nick Fairley). There’s a lot of people that can wear the Auburn colors, they can wear that shirt that says national championship on it, and I’m very proud of that.

“Obviously, I don’t want to go into detail about last year, but it was very disappointing for myself as a coach, and anybody that loves Auburn.”

AUBURN Miss StateThe school’s defensive coordinator from 2002-04, Chizik returned to Auburn after floundering in his first crack at head coaching, going 5-19 from 2007-08 at Iowa State. The former Florida linebacker quieted doubters with a 30-10 mark his first three years, highlighted clearly by the 2011 BCS championship victory over Oregon.

But when he lost all eight SEC games in 2012, along with fan support and firm control of the program (with abundant player attrition and reported curfews enforced), Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs had no choice but to make a change.

“I’m a big boy, and I understand the business. Whether it’s the SEC or the NFL, the bottom line is you have to win,” Chizik said. “In 27 years, I’ve never been dismissed from a job. So I’m in unchartered waters and unchartered territory.

“I have no remorse, no regrets and no bitterness. … It’s water under the bridge. Auburn did what they had to do.”

Chizik, his wife Jonna (the daughter of Gene’s high school coach) and their three children still live in Auburn, five months after being fired Nov. 25 – the day after a 49-0 loss to rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl, the final straw of a horrendous season.

“People have been very positive,” Chizik said of his interactions with the public. “This is a great community, and that’s why we chose to stay in it.”

Per his contract, Chizik is being paid out monthly installments of a $7.5 million buyout lasting through 2015 – banking more than $200,000 each month while he remains out of work.

Other than serving as a guest analyst on Feb. 6 during ESPNU’s National Signing Day coverage, Chizik said he has been “consulting with different teams.”

“Certainly we’ve looked at different possibilities job-wise, not just in football but in other arenas as well,” Chizik said. “But there’s no decisions definitively that have been made.”

At the same time, the refueled 51-year-old adds he’s got much to add in coaching. He wouldn’t dictate a preference between returning as a head coach or defensive coordinator.

“It’s been a time of reflection,” Chizik said. “I’m not one to dwell on the past and look at all the ‘what-ifs’ … but naturally, you reflect. I’ve spent a lot of quality time with my children and my wife, which I needed to do, and will continue to do.

“But I’ve also stayed busy. I’m in a place right now where I’m continuing to map out a plan.”

April 22, 2013

SPLASH ZONE: Jacobs, Chizik ardently defend Auburn from ongoing allegations (w/ video)

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – So much for a culture of silence.

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs and former head coach Gene Chizik, splintered in working relationship but united as men hell-bent on preserving their reputation, individually unleashed powerful resistances to widely-distributed reports earlier this month by ESPN.com and Roopstigo.com filled with negative accusations and would-be NCAA violations.

An internal investigation lasting nineteen days resulted in a hefty response by Jacobs and his team Monday morning, thoroughly dismantling reports by Roopstigo.com’s Selena Roberts with a nearly 1,000-word letter and official comment on 11 different allegations.

AUBURN FOOTBALLThen Chizik, who since his firing Nov. 25 only had surfaced once publically (as part of ESPNU’s National Signing Day coverage), finally let his voice be heard. And oh, was there fury in that voice – a polar opposite of Chizik’s demeanor throughout the 3-9 season that cost him his job.

“The way I saw it, it’s very frustrating because you know you’re operating this football program exactly the way you need to do it,” Chizik said to local beat reporters in an impassioned 34-minute on-campus interview.

“It’s really hard to operate day-by-day with what I consider to be the most scrutinized, and sometimes villainized, program in the country. I just didn’t see the facts and the data that ever indicated it should have been. I still don’t.”

In the past, Auburn opted for canned statements and rare direct response to constant scrutiny, be it the Cam Newton investigation in 2010, rumors of recruiting transgressions and other reported misdeeds.

In a short video released by Auburn University explaining why speak up now, Jacobs said it best: “I’m tired of it. I’m tired of these attacks on Auburn, and when people attack Auburn, I’m going to fight for Auburn as strongly as I possibly can.

“If we make a mistake, we’re going to admit it. But when people say things that aren’t true, we’re going to set the record straight.”

During an earlier radio appearance on WJOX in Birmingham, Chizik asserted, “we want to make as big a splash as we can with the truth.”

AUBURN FOOTBALLPatient and firm, Jacobs swore he’d get to the bottom of an avalanche of allegations hurled at his football program in “Auburn’s Tainted Title: Victims, Violations and Vendettas for Glory”, posted April 3 on Roberts’ six-month-old web site.

The most serious accusation in the Roopstigo.com report alleged academic fraud, when three players said the university changed grades for up to nine players, including star tailback Michael Dyer, to keep them eligible for the 2011 BCS championship game. Defensive end Mike Blanc was quoted as saying “Auburn found a way to make those dudes eligible,” but immediately disputed his involvement in the article following its publication.

According to Jacobs, “Auburn Athletics and Auburn University Internal Auditing have completed independent reviews of the academic allegations. There is no evidence academic fraud occurred.”

Specifically on Dyer, Auburn stated he passed 15 credit hours in the fall of 2010 – the NCAA student-athlete minimum is six – and carried a 2.8 GPA at the end of the semester.

An Auburn spokesperson confirmed the university worked in conjunction with the NCAA on investigating the academic fraud allegations.

Later in his letter, Jacobs acknowledged the Tigers’ brutal athletic year – 0-8 in SEC football, and last place in men’s basketball and baseball division standings.

Jacobs, largely unpopular among fans during the on-field struggles, announced university president Jay Gogue’s plan for a committee to check on all elements of the department, adding “We welcome this review.”

“As part of our efforts to get better, we are also committed to being as transparent as possible with our stakeholders,” Jacobs wrote. “That is why I wanted to let you know that a top-notch team of current and former coaches, athletics administrators, student-athletes and business executives will be coming in to give us a comprehensive evaluation.”

Gogue, according to Jacobs, has tasked the review committee with “a top-to-bottom review” of the same five factors listed as Jacobs’ specific objectives.

Those five areas are, listed in order: academics, finances, fan experience on gameday, competition and management/leadership structure.

Numerous media reports already had poked holes in the Roopstigo report – mostly when several players quoted by Roberts retracted their involvement.

The lone named source who had yet to respond, former receiver Darvin Adams, broke his silence Monday. Via Chizik’s representation, Adams stated: “I never took any improper money from anyone at Auburn – coach or booster. I was never offered any money by anyone to stay at Auburn for my senior year.”

When requested for comment by the Ledger-Enquirer, Roberts made a brief response, saying “I’m working on a story on it. It’s a work-in-progress (and) I will address some of the issues Auburn raised.” adding Auburn’s Monday statement was “self-revealing.”

This week’s edition of ESPN the Magazine has a 9-page story delving into Auburn players’ involvement with synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as “spice.” While the university responded April 4 with facts debunking that narrative, Chizik added a separate viewpoint Monday.

“The notion that 50 percent of our football team was smoking it: let me tell you this. This is not a performance-enhancing drug. It’s a performance-debilitating drug,” Chizik said. “So if half of our football team is on it during our 2010 national championship run, how were we performing at a level that was the best football team in the country? That doesn’t even make sense.”

The university did work with Chizik and his reps over the past 19 days to craft a response.

“Coach Chizik came to Auburn with a strong record of rules compliance and a reputation as a man of the utmost character and integrity,” Jacobs said. “I have enormous respect for Coach Chizik, the way he ran his program throughout his entire tenure at Auburn and also the way he left – with dignity and class.”

Jacobs has released three statements this month on the matter, but has not been made available to answer questions.

April 17, 2013

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

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BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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