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September 3, 2013

ODDS AND ENDS: Notes and quotes from Gus Malzahn’s Tuesday press conference

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Defensive end Dee Ford (left knee injury) and “Star” Justin Garrett (left foot sprain), who both sat out against Washington State, were back at practice Monday. Naturally, it led to questions about their availability for this Saturday’s game.

Gus Malzahn kept his comments curt on the matter.

Senior defensive Dee Ford missed Auburn's season opener against Washington State with a left knee injury. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was back at practice Monday, but was unsure whether the senior would be able to play this Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior defensive Dee Ford missed Auburn’s season opener against Washington State with a left knee injury. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was back at practice Monday, but was unsure whether the senior would be able to play this Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

“We’re hoping,” Auburn’s head coach said.

The status of Jeff Whitaker isn’t as murky.

He’ll be out for an extended period of time after injuring his right knee and undergoing surgery last week. The senior defensive tackle was seen on crutches prior to kickoff last Saturday. At this point, Malzahn said Whitaker is week-to-week.

Contingent upon how much time he misses, Malzahn said pursuing a medical redshirt was a definite possibility.

“Hopefully we can get him back sooner rather than later but if that does happen, we’ll have that conversation,” he said. “We’ve not had that conversation yet. Jeff is a leader on our team, if not the leader, and he’s very important to us as a whole.”

Linebackers’ lack of influence doesn’t faze Malzahn

Auburn’s linebackers had a rough go of it versus Washington State – and that’s putting it lightly. The unit had only five total tackles, with four from Kris Frost and one courtesy of Cassanova McKinzy. Malzahn wasn’t worried, however.

He said it was more a function of the Cougars’ pass-happy offense than anything the linebackers did wrong.

“Sometimes when teams pass the ball as much as they did, it takes the linebackers kind of out of the game,” he said. “I think we’ll learn more as we go, the more we face running teams.”

MORE MALZAHN QUOTES

On the victory over Washington State:

“It was a big win for us. I’m really proud of our guys. They found a way to win. My biggest question was how were we going to deal with adversity, and we had quite a bit of it on both sides of the football, but they overcame it. Also, it gave us a chance to see where we’re at as a team, and that was a big question for me going into this game and our coaches. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we know that and our players know that. But the good thing is most of the things that we saw are correctable. We’re playing a bunch of young, inexperienced guys, and they’ll have a chance to improve. I’ve been saying our goal is real simple: It’s to improve each practice and each game, and so we’re going to hold true to that, and I believe we definitely can do that.”

On watching the film from the game:

“The thing about an offense is all 11 guys have to be doing their job or it gets pretty ugly. Most of our plays that we didn’t execute, it was one or two guys, but it still makes everything look really bad. I believe we’ll have a chance to get better and improve in that area.

“Defensively, it’s kind of the same thing. One or two mistakes makes you look different, too. But I’m going to tell you this: A lot of that first game was about evaluation for us. We learned a lot about our players. We thought we had ideas about certain things, and some things were exactly what we thought and some things were a little bit different.”

On how much of the Tigers’ offensive playbook was used last Saturday:

“My big thing is you’ve got to be able to adjust in first games, because you think you know how they’re going to play and then you get out there and it’s usually a little bit different. We’re just not to that point where we can have our whole playbook to adjust. We’ll get there. But we’ve got a plan, you take it in and you have tweaks off of it, but each week we’ll add more stuff and get more comfortable.”

On players that impressed him in the season opener:

Montravius (Adams) was one of them, there’s no doubt. Our secondary overall really played well. They played specifically man in the second half against some pretty good receivers, and I thought they did a good job. Trovon Reed probably graded out as high as anybody did. Didn’t have a whole lot of snaps, but he’ll have more. He did a lot of things right.”

On developing a “go-to” receiver:

We still haven’t found him, I’ll tell you that. Hopefully here in the next game or two, everything will come to light. At the same time, a lot of them weren’t given a whole lot of chances, so we need to give them a few more chances. Then I think we’ll figure out who that guy is.”

On his heated exchange with receiver Ricardo Louis on the sideline last week:

“I did? I chewed a lot of people out.”

On Tre Mason’s fumble late in the fourth quarter:

“That was a big turnover. That was a very critical play. As a coach, sometimes you just get a feel and when you’re trying to build a program, there’s certain things that as a coach you just use your instincts and you try to give a guy like that an opportunity. I know a lot about Tre from the fact that I coached him before. He’s a competitor. He was disappointed. I wanted to give him a chance to redeem himself. He did that. I think that’ll help us moving forward.”

On the possibility of running the Wildcat with Cameron Artis-Payne:

“He’s a big, strong back. He can find ways to get yards, maybe when everything’s not perfect. The Wildcat’s pretty unique because you put a guy back there and there’s a good chance you’re going to run it and he’s got some playmaking ability.”

September 1, 2013

First take: A quick look at Arkansas State

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Arkansas State (1-0; beat Arkansas-Pine Bluff 62-11 on Saturday) at Auburn (1-0; beat Washington State 31-24 on Saturday)

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. ETArkansas_State_Red_Wolves2

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

TV: FSN

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 2-0

When last they met: Auburn began its 2010 campaign season with an easy 52-26 victory over Arkansas State. It marked the first game with Cam Newton at quarterback for the Tigers, and he provided a glimpse of what was in store for the remainder of the season — making the spectacular look routine. The dynamic Atlanta native threw for 186 yards and three touchdowns, completing 9 of 14 through the air. He didn’t look bad carrying the ball, either, rushing for 171 yards and two scores on 15 carries. Freshman running back Michael Dyer tacked on another rushing touchdown and totaled 95 yards on the ground, while Quindarius Carr collected two receptions for 87 yards and a touchdown. The Red Wolves were able to move 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, it doesn’t mean much when your opponent’s score doubles that.

Quick facts on Arkansas State: Bryan Harsin is the third head coach the Red Wolves have had in as many seasons. Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze led the team in 2011 and Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn was at the helm last year. … Arkansas State snapped a three-game losing streak in season openers with its 62-11 win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday. … The Red Wolves tied a Division I record in Saturday’s victory, as it had four players — David Oku, Sirgregory Thornton, Michael Gordon and sophomore Fredi Knighten — rush for more than 100 yards. In sum, Arkansas State tallied 509 rushing yards, the fifth time in school history it broke the 500-yard barrier on the ground. … The Red Wolves are one of 16 teams in the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision to win at least 20 games over the past two seasons. They are also the two-time defending champions of the Sun Belt Conference.

Which Tiger is primed for a big performance: The Red Wolves don’t have any glaring weaknesses defensive, with a stout defensive line led by sleeper All-American candidate Ryan Carrethers and a secondary that returns players who multiple games at both corner and safety positions. The one question mark is at a pair of its linebacker positions alongside Quashaun Lee. So look one of the Tigers’ trio of running backs — Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant — to see if they can put pressure on the back end of the Red Wolves’ untested front seven.

Which Red Wolf could give the home team fits: After Auburn allowed 344 passing yards to Washington State, Red Wolves wide receiver (and Phenix City native) J.D. McKissic could be a thorn in the Tigers’ side this Saturday. He had a fantastic season last year, winning the Sun Belt Conference’s Freshman of the Year award after catching 103 passes for 1,022 yards and five touchdowns.

Extra point: Two of Division I’s five active coaches who haven’t been part of a losing season as a head coach or full-time assistant (minimum three years of experience) will stand across the sidelines from one another this Saturday in Malzahn and Harsin. The other three? Southern California’s Lane Kiffin, Nebraska’s Bo Pelini and West Virginia’s Dana Holgorsen.

THE GRADES ARE IN: Assessing Auburn’s 31-24 victory versus Washington State

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Some good things happened for Auburn on Saturday night.

Some not-so-good instances occurred, too.

Auburn was able to celebrate a victory in its season opener against Washington State on Saturday night. But how did they fare on Ryan Black's report card?

Auburn’s Robenson Therezie (27), Tre Mason (21) and the rest of the Tigers were able to celebrate a victory after a victory in the season opener against Washington State on Saturday night. But how did they fare on Ryan Black’s report card? (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Irrespective of the final stats or big plays they produced or allowed, the Tigers accomplished their sole objective against Washington State: They won, beating the Cougars 31-24 in the season opener. It was far from easy, though, as the game’s fate hung in the balance deep into the fourth quarter. Auburn was finally able to breath easy when Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday misfired on a fourth-and-five attempt from the Tigers’ 27-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, as his pass wasn’t close to any receiver.

Tre Mason took care of the rest. He picked up a pair of first downs to help the Tigers set up a “victory formation” and give head coach Gus Malzahn a win in his first game on the Plains.

So, in the aftermath of Saturday night, we’ll head to the report card.

This will be done every Sunday following Auburn’s game the previous day. You might not agree with the grades, but the comments section is there for a reason.

Let’s begin.

OFFENSE: B-

For those paying close attention, this is the same grade Nick Marshall gave when asked to take stock of his performance on Saturday. First, the good news: The Tigers did as everyone expected, staying committed to the ground game, totaling 297 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Auburn spread the wealth, as four different players — Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne, Mason and Marshall — touched the ball at least nine times. We all knew how deep the backfield was heading into the game, and Saturday provided on-field proof of those preconceived notions.

Now, the bad news. Those who watched the game saw this coming from a mile away, and that is … (Hold on a second. Marshall just overthrew another receiver before I could finish the last sentence.) Joking aside, Auburn’s signal-caller had a solid game, at least in the realm of his decision-making and not turning the ball over. That being said, Marshall had the potential to put together an even better game through the air if he just reined himself in a bit. He overthrew countless open receivers, including three great opportunities to score on the same drive late in the third quarter. The Tigers eventually ended up punting the ball away.

On Saturday, Marshall’s misfires didn’t sink the Tigers’ hopes at victory.

It might not come back to haunt them next week against Arkansas State, either. But the Tigers can’t afford to be one-dimensional when they get into the heart of their SEC schedule and reasonably expect to win.

DEFENSE: B

Yes, the Tigers allowed 464 yards of total offense. And yes, 344 of those yards came through the air. However, they also intercepted the ball three times — one more than they had all of last season — and gave up only one passing touchdown. The reason for this grade, then, is that even though it took the Cougars 35 completions to rack up those 344 yards, they still averaged nearly a first down per completed pass, at 9.8 yards per catch.

Auburn also gave up far more on the ground than anyone would have expected; Washington State averaged right at 29 rushing yards per game last season, the lowest in Division I. Saturday night, the Cougars had nearly 100 yards more than that, finishing with 120. And after scoring only six rushing touchdowns in 12 games last year, Washington State had two against Auburn, matching the Tigers’ own total.

Finally, if not for true freshman Montravius Adams playing well beyond his years, Auburn’s push up front would have been non-existent. Time and again, Halliday was allowed ample time to look downfield and hit open receivers. If the Tigers’ pass-rush doesn’t improve dramatically in the weeks to come, they likely won’t be able to escape with a victory like they did on Saturday.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A+

There is no need for nitpicking here, especially given everything the Tigers did right. To wit: They scored on a 100-yard kickoff return by Mason. Cody Parkey had five touchbacks, with only one returned kick, which was taken back 30 yards. The senior place kicker also went 3-for-4 on his field goal attempts, only missing from 50 yards out. The Tigers also didn’t have a punt return against them. Needless to say, no unit was more stout than special teams Saturday night.

OVERALL: A

There were some tense moments, but those are to be expected. As defensive line coach Rodney Garner would say, football “is a bottom-line business.” The Tigers won Saturday night. Period.

Everything else is meaningless by comparison.

August 31, 2013

Last look: Capsule for Saturday’s game, including key matchups (and edges)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Washington State (3-9 in 2012) at Auburn (3-9 in 2012)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

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

TV: ESPNU

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 1-0AU logo

Quick game notes: Auburn has never had a problem holding serve at home to begin the season, owning a 34-6 record all-time in opening games at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers have won six home openers in a row, with the last loss coming at the hands of Georgia Tech in 2005. … Auburn coach Gus Malzahn prefers to lean on his running game, and the stats from his stint at Arkansas State last year back him up: The Red Wolves ran the ball 56.7 percent of the time (540 rushing attempts out of 952 total offensive plays). Washington State coach Mike Leach is at the other end of the spectrum, as no team in Division I put the ball in the air more than the Cougars last season. In 12 games, Washington State attempted 624 passes, averaging out to 52 per game. …  The SEC hasn’t been friendly to the Cougars over the years. Washington State has played against the SEC six times in its history, posting a 1-5 record. The Cougars are 1-4 against Tennessee, and lost to Auburn on the road in the 2006 season opener 40-14, which marked the last time they faced an SEC foe.

KEY MATCHUPS

Washington State receivers vs. Auburn secondary

The Tigers return three starters from last season in corners Jonathon Mincy and Chris Davis alongside free safety Jermaine Whitehead. Strong safety was formerly occupied by Demetruce McNeal, but he’s no longer with the team after being dismissed following an arrest during fall camp. In his place is Josh Holsey, a former corner who moved to safety in the spring and has remained there ever since. They will line up across from a Cougars’ receiving corps that brings back players who accounted for 70 percent of their yardage in 2012. The unit’s top pass-catcher is Brett Bartolone, a sophomore. He’ll be joined by a cadre of other options in Gabe Marks, Kristoff Williams, Dominique Williams and Isiah Myers. The team is also expecting big things from junior college transfer Vince Mayle, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound physical specimen.

EDGE: Even. The Cougars might hold the advantage here when it comes to depth, but there’s only so many receivers they can put on the field at the same time. Assuming the Tigers don’t suffer any injuries in the secondary during the game, they should be fine.Washington-State-University

Washington State offensive line vs. Auburn defensive line

Most games are decided up front and it won’t be any different in tonight’s tilt. It doesn’t matter how many times the Cougars want to throw if quarterback Connor Halliday doesn’t receive enough protection to get the ball out of his hands. That’s where Washington State’s much-maligned line comes in. It allowed more sacks than any team in the country (57) in 12 games last season, but those close to the team — including beat writer Christian Caple — seem to believe they have made great strides during the offseason. The Tigers are missing their top pass-rusher off the edge, as senior Dee Ford is out for an indefinite period of time with a knee injury. That being said, it has opened the door for less-experienced players to get an opportunity, as Auburn’s two first-team ends — LaDarius Owens and Craig Sanders — are both making their first career start on Saturday.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with Ford out, it’s hard to give a nod to the nation’s most woeful offensive line in 2012. Expect the Tigers to be able to get pressure on Halliday with regularity.

Auburn running backs vs. Washington State’s front seven

The Tigers will try to get their ground game established from the outset. But the Cougars aren’t going to make it easy on them, as the strength of their defense lies with the front seven, led by linebacker Darryl Monroe, the team’s second-leading tackler last year. Fellow linebacker Justin Sagote started the last 10 games of last season, collecting 61 takedowns in that span. And along the line, Washington State brings back three players who saw significant action last season in Ioane Gauta, Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole to anchor its base 3-4 scheme. Auburn will try to run it right at them, with the option of handing it off to one of four players out of the backfield: Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber. That’s not even mentioning quarterback Nick Marshall, who is as dangerous with the ball in his hands as any player in the country.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with the experience the Cougars have returning, it’s not as if their run defense was stingy last season, as they only ranked 64th in the country in that category in 2012, allowing an average of 163.4 yards per game. Given the Tigers bevy of weapons at tailback and the fact they’ll be running behind an offensive line with four starters back, this matchup ends up in Auburn’s favor.

August 28, 2013

7 at 7: Taking a stroll around the SEC

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — In case you didn’t know by now, it’s Wednesday, folks.SEC_new_logo

(Cue up the annoying Geico “Hump Day!!” camel ad. I’m just not a fan. Hope that doesn’t offend anyone, and if it does … well, deal with it.)

But back to more important matters. Now that it’s just three days away from Auburn’s season opener, we’ve already settled into a routine here at War Eagle Extra as far as weekly content is concerned. I’ll post the finalized schedule soon enough, but until that happens, take note: Every Wednesday, “7 at 7″ will consist of links from around the SEC, both Auburn and otherwise.

Without further ado, I give you today’s batch of items from around the league:

1. To keep with a time-honored tradition (dating back to last month), I’ll begin by shamelessly self-promoting the things posted to the blog the previous day, beginning with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s declaration that Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne are neck-and-neck at the top of the running back depth chart heading into Saturday. We also had wire-to-wire video coverage of Malzahn’s 16-minute press conference as well as a feature on left guard Alex Kozan. Oh, and don’t forget Tuesday’s notebook, which detailed Malzahn’s intrigue regarding Nick Marshall’s debut in an Auburn uniform.

2. Josh Kendall, the South Carolina beat writer for The State in Columbia, S.C., had an interesting article on Tuesday. As hard as it is to believe, the Gamecocks have only five seniors (!!!) listed on this year’s roster. Kendall explains how that came to be. And ESPN.com SEC blogger Chris Low had a good piece on Kelcy Quarles, one of South Carolina’s “other” defensive linemen, who is trying to do whatever he can to escape the long shadow of Jadeveon Clowney.

3. You’ve probably heard about the GQ profile on Nick Saban. If you haven’t read it yet, here’s your chance. It doesn’t disappoint, making Saban out to be the maniac everyone would think given his normal joyless demeanor.

4. Just how good is Robert Nkemdiche, the unquestioned top recruit in the Class of 2013? Hugh Kellenberger of the Jackson Clarion-Ledger tries to find an answer.

5. Speaking of highly-regarded recruits, LSU picked up a massive commitment for its 2015 class on Monday. The Tigers were able to keep hometown running back Nicholas Brossette to stay in Baton Rouge. An Auburn target, he also had offers from Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Florida, Mississippi State, Notre Dame, Ole Miss, Tennessee, UCLA and Vanderbilt — just to name a few — after he rushed for a school-record 2,118 yards and 44 touchdowns as a sophomore last season.

6. Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops announced that the Wildcats will play two quarterbacks against Western Kentucky in Nashville, Tenn., on Saturday. It consists of the sophomore pair of Max Smith and Jalen Whitlow. And yes, they have settled on a starter — Stoops just refused to reveal it to reporters.

7. Georgia will play in this week’s marquee game when it heads on the road Saturday night to square off against Clemson. For Bulldog tight end Jay Rome, it will be an opportunity to beat his father’s alma mater. (Stan Rome lettered in football in 1975, but he was an even better basketball player, as he still ranks 14th on the Tigers’ all-time scoring list.)

And since I normally like to end these with a video when I can, why not embed a video of one player leaping over another one? Besides, when you have a video like that, I think you’d probably have to find a reason not to post it, right? My colleague at The Telegraph in Macon, Seth Emerson, talked to linebacker (and Harris County graduate) Jordan Jenkins about his leap over freshman running back Brendan Douglas during one of the Bulldogs’ preseason scrimmages.

The video is provided below. And it didn’t end up being all for show — Jenkins’ display of athleticism led quarterback Christian LeMay to throw the ball right into the hands of linebacker Amarlo Herrera.

August 27, 2013

Auburn football: Starting running back position a toss-up between Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne entering Saturday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — The race to be in the backfield with Auburn’s first-team offense on Saturday is too close to call.

Head coach Gus Malzahn said during his Tuesday press conference that Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne were “pretty much on equal ground right now” heading into the season opener against Washington State.

Gus Malzahn said Cameron Artis-Payne (above) is 'on equal ground' with Tre Mason as the first-team running back heading into Saturday's season opener. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Gus Malzahn said Cameron Artis-Payne (above) is ‘on equal ground’ with Tre Mason as the first-team running back heading into Saturday’s season opener. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

“They both had outstanding fall camps,” he said. “Corey Grant’s a guy you could see in the mix too. The best thing is we feel like we’ve got some quality depth at the running back position going in. You can never have enough of that.”

Malzahn went on to list the attributes he believes will help Grant contribute on offense this fall.

“Definitely he’s a speed guy, but he’s a strong guy,” he said. “And he can do the different things we ask our tailbacks to do. You could see him doing just like Tre and Cameron.”

Unlike others, Malzahn said Grant hasn’t been promised a minimum number of touches each game.

“There are certain guys on offense that we do want to have certain touches,” he said, “but I can’t say right now that Corey’s one of those guys.”

Malzahn was also asked whether Johnathan Ford would return to running back at some point in the season. Ford, a true freshman, moved to cornerback following Jonathan Jones’ off-field injury, which happened near the end of fall camp.

“He’s made the transition to defensive back, and we’re letting him, especially being a freshman, really focus on playing corner and playing special teams,” Malzahn said.

August 23, 2013

Auburn football: Tigers not lacking for options in the backfield

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Tim Horton was sure it would happen eventually.

Junior Corey Grant is just one of the running backs Auburn will be able to hand the ball to this fall, joining returnees Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne as well as true freshman Peyton Barber. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Junior Corey Grant is just one of the running backs Auburn will be able to hand the ball to this fall, joining returnees Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne as well as true freshman Peyton Barber. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

When Auburn’s first-year running backs coach met with reporters during fall camp, he acknowledged the depth at the position was a bit more “than I’ve been used to.” Yes, the same man who coached the likes of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis, Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson at Arkansas said this year’s Tigers were as deep a unit as he’s ever seen. He was confident it wouldn’t stay that way for long.

Depth is always a fleeting matter, especially in the rough-and-tumble SEC.

“One thing about playing running back in this league is (that) you never have enough depth,” he said. “Because about the time you’re feeling pretty good — ‘Hey, we’ve got four or five guys’ — the next thing you know, two of them are gone and you have no depth. You’re trying to move a defensive player over there.”

Ironically, the opposite has occurred.

With returnees Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant along with true freshman Peyton Barber, it wasn’t an issue to move Johnathan Ford to defense to combat the lack of bodies at cornerback.

“He’s a phenomenal running back, but we need help in the secondary,” head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “You’ve got to have depth in the secondary. He played some in high school, and he’s off to a good start.”

Ford’s temporary conversion didn’t affect the coaching staff’s view of the running back position. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee touted the options they have with the trio of Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant.

“We’ve said that since the spring (and) it’s kind of a broken record, but really all three of those guys bring something different to the table for us and I think all three are going to play and probably play a good amount,” he said. “There’s some good versatility there.”

Those three won’t get every carry, however. Barber showed Lashlee enough during fall camp that the true freshman will get his fair share of snaps as well.

“Barber is a guy that, from a physical standpoint, we feel is ready to play,” he said. “It’s just a matter of (him being) a true freshman. But you know, when certain moves happen, that will thrust people up quicker than normal. He’s got to be ready to go. At this point the three older guys are there, but he’s got to be on high alert.”

Whenever he returns to offense, Ford should be able to jump right back into the running back rotation. Lashlee compared him favorably to Grant due to his speed and ability to make plays in space, an important component of the Tigers’ hurry-up, no-huddle system.

“They’re really fast guys,” Lashlee said. “Corey is bigger. He’s a junior and has been in college longer. I think Rudy is one of those guys, when he gains 10, 12 pounds over the next year or two, it will really help him. But he can really run. More than anything, there’s no fear.”

Horton says he has seen more than that from Ford and Barber, though. Their love of the game shines through, he said. From poring over the playbook to putting in extra work at practice, there are certain things that can’t be coached.

That innate inner drive sets the duo apart, and Horton couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve been real pleased with their attitudes and their efforts,” he said. “And if they’ve got a good attitude and they’ve got good effort, then we can work with them from there.”

August 20, 2013

Auburn football: True freshman Johnathan Ford switching from running back to cornerback

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — No one can say Auburn’s offensive players aren’t selfless.

True freshman running back Johnathan Ford voluntarily moved to corneback following Jonathan Jones' off-field injury. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

True freshman running back Johnathan Ford voluntarily moved to corneback following Jonathan Jones’ off-field injury. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

For the second time in as many weeks, one of its players will be moving over to work with the Tigers’ defense. Running back Johnathan Ford offered to switch to cornerback, one week after Kiehl Frazier dropped out of the quarterback race to focus on becoming a safety. And echoing Frazier’s actions, Ford wasn’t asked to shift to defense by the coaching staff.

Seeing how thin the Tigers’ cornerback unit became following Jonathan Jones’ recent off-field mishap — which saw him break a bone in his ankle after slipping on wet steps, ruling him out for the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31 — the true freshman felt his talents could be put to use.

“I know he came to us and said, ‘Coach, I want to help the team win and win now,'” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said following Monday night’s practice. “Right now that’s what is best for our football team. He’s a big-time athlete, so to be able to be young and come in and prove yourself on offense and go right over and us think he’s got a chance to help us on defense, I think says a lot about his character as a person, his toughness and his ability.”

The Big Cove, Ala., native was one of the top running back prospects in the country last year after rushing for 1,669 yards and 27 touchdowns at New Hope High School. He was already making a case for playing time during camp, despite the depth in the backfield thanks to returnees Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant as well as fellow freshman Peyton Barber.

“We love ‘Rudy.’ He’s going to be a really good player,” said Lashlee, invoking one of Ford’s many nicknames. “We feel like his future is very bright. He was slated to play on a lot of teams so we were going to find a way to get him into the mix, but at the end of the day we’ve got to win and do what is best for the team.”

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson acknowledged Ford won’t be able to transform himself overnight. And he’s fine with that.

He knows a gifted player when he sees one.

“It’s going to take him a little while to learn it,” Johnson said. “He looks really good physically, now. He’s got all the skills.”

Ford has worked alongside redshirt freshman T.J. Davis and another true freshman in Kamryn Melton as the trio attempts to fill in at the No. 3 cornerback spot manned by Jones.

Whenever the sophomore recovers from his ankle injury, Ford will likely return to running back.

Lashlee will welcome him back with open arms.

“It just came down to, at the end of the day, it helps to move Johnathan to defense right now and he’s one of those guys that wants to play and wants to help us win,” he said. “(So) that’s the move we made.”

August 16, 2013

Auburn football: Tre Mason ready to silence doubters en route to setting school rushing record

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Tre Mason doesn’t write his goals down.

Junior running back Tre Mason says he wants to rush for a minimum of 1,500 yards this season. Bo Jackson's school record of 1,765 yards is on his mind, too. (File photo)

Junior running back Tre Mason wants to rush for a minimum of 1,500 yards this season. He said Bo Jackson’s school record of 1,786 yards is on his mind, too. (File photo)

Of course, that’s not a problem when those ambitions are committed to memory. And no one can say he’s not aiming high — the junior wants to rush for a minimum of 1,500 yards this season. Only two players in Auburn history have ever hit that plateau: Bo Jackson ran for a school-record 1,786 yards in 1985, while Rudi Johnson tallied 1,567 in 2000.

Consider Jackson’s number squarely in his sights.

“That’s one of my goals, to break the rushing record here,” he said. “I want to be the first to do that. ”

Tim Horton doesn’t mind that Mason states his objectives so publicly. The Tigers’ running backs coach said he never gives it a second thought.

His focus is more on his players’ gradual progress than their long-term aspirations, anyway.

“We’re more day-to-day. ‘Let’s have a good practice, let’s have a good day and a good meeting this afternoon’ and things of that nature,” he said. “You know, you do want them to have goals. I think goals are important, and hey, let’s shoot for the stars.”

Can Mason reach that record-setting level, though?

“Oh, I think so, and there are so many factors involved with that,” Horton said. “But he’s obviously a very good running back and he’s going to have to be very productive for us to have a good season. I think he’s got a lot of ability.”

One thing Mason will have to prove is that he’s durable enough to reach his target. Not that the Palm Beach, Fla., native isn’t used to being overlooked due to his compact stature.

“People (always) told me I wasn’t big enough, I wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t fast enough maybe,” he said. “I take all of that as motivation to get bigger, stronger and faster and try to prove everyone wrong.”

As much as he craves becoming the Tigers’ workhorse back, Mason knows he has to work within the parameters of what head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee choose.

“You can’t really go against what a coach is doing,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s his call. When you do get that opportunity you got to show out and do what you’re supposed to do with the ball.”

Mason wasn’t able to do that much earlier this year, as he was sidelined for a majority of spring camp with an ankle injury. That opened the door for Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, who ended the spring in a three-way logjam at the top of the running back depth chart alongside Mason.

Even though he wasn’t able to contribute much on the field, Artis-Payne said Mason helped him get acclimated to Auburn after transferring from Hancock Community College in California.

“I (learned) some things from Tre as far as how to handle different situations in a game or practice,” he said. “The biggest thing I took away from Tre is preparation. I’ve never played at Division I, so I didn’t know (what to do) in that aspect.”

Ironically, the things he taught Artis-Payne could end up being the reason he fails to reach his lofty intentions this year.

“I think the one thing we do have is that we’ve got more than just one running back,” Horton said. “I feel pretty confident about four or five of these guys, so I’d like to think we could get some carries from everybody.”

Artis-Payne doesn’t think spreading the wealth will slow Mason down, though.

“I think Tre’s going to shock a lot of people,” he said. “You know, me and Tre, we talk a lot, and he’s really determined to show us what he can do, especially on a bigger stage, because I don’t think we’re going to go 3-9 again.”

So go ahead and doubt Mason and his planned assault on the school’s rushing record. While you’re at it, he said, doubt the Tigers, too.

The underdog role is one Mason has gotten used to by now.

“We will shine,” he said. “Coach Malzahn said ‘It’s a new day,’ and it will be a new day August 31. We’ll show it.”

August 5, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/5: Demetruce McNeal sits out fourth straight practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to see about 20 minutes of practice on Monday, which marked Day 4 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short viewing window.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins on of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins one of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

  • Safety Demetruce McNeal continues to be the headliner during the media’s short stay at practice. For the fourth time in as many days of fall camp, the senior did not participate in drills while reporters were in attendance. Including the final five sessions of the spring, it marks the ninth consecutive time the College Park, Ga., native missed an Auburn practice. As he did Saturday, McNeal had a helmet on. However, with the team practicing in “shells” (helmets and pads), the safety was sans shoulder pads. In his post-practice meeting with media member’s on Sunday, Gus Malzahn said McNeal was “getting better.” But apparently not good enough to be cleared to practice just yet.
  • Avery Young was with the first-team offensive line, working at right tackle. Young and Patrick Miller have seemingly been going back-and-forth at the position (in the first-team lineup) during the first few days of fall camp.
  • The defense was working on its “dime” package, which included two of the hybrid safety/linebacker “star” position players on the field at the same time in Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie. Other members of the first-team defense (in that particular formation) had Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter manning the two ends and Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright inside. The linebackers were Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and the secondary consisted of cornerbacks Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead and Josh Holsey at safety.
  • Malzahn stayed around the quarterbacks for a few minutes, but then drifted over to watch the defense running through its various formations. The quarterbacks once again practiced their footwork today as well as executing proper handoffs. Jonathan Wallace and Nick Marshall worked with Cameron Artis-Payne, Tre Mason and Corey Grant, while Kiehl Frazier and Jeremy Johnson were paired with Johnathan Ford, Peyton Barber and Patrick Lymon.
  • Punt returners were mostly the same as it was during the portions of practice reporters saw Friday and Saturday. Wide receivers Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Marcus Davis were back, as well as cornerback Chris Davis. There was one new member, however, as another receiver — true freshman Tony Stevens — joined the fray. Kick returners mostly stayed to form, too. Mason, Grant, Ford, cornerback Jonathan Jones and wide receiver Ricardo Louis were seen fielding kicks, with one new addition in Therezie.
  • Right guard Chad Slade got an earful from offensive line coach J.B. Grimes during one drill. As the line was practicing its footwork once the ball is snapped, Slade didn’t have his feet in the proper position — and Grimes let him know it. “Check your splits!” said Grimes, before moving the junior’s feet where they needed to be. “I’m trying to help you!”
  • The media once again walked out as the team finished up its stretching drills with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell. If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate while Russell leads drills, it’s that he has an incredible amount of energy. It’s no wonder the team has touted his offseason workout program at every opportunity.