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August 25, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Auburn Football

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

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

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

In his absence, Sanders has stepped to the fore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Davis already in line for playing time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick hits

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

August 21, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

Who starts at right tackle?

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

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

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

Who is the team’s go-to receiver?

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

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

What happens at defensive end without Dee Ford?

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

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

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

Who holds the edge at middle linebacker?

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

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

That should tell people all they need to know.

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

What’s the deal with the secondary?

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

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

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

August 11, 2013

Auburn football: Rodney Garner ready for defensive line to stop talking and start producing

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Rodney Garner admits he’s a tough critic.

Auburn’s defensive line coach doesn’t dabble in public relations. You won’t find him striking an optimistic tone if he deems his unit’s performance underwhelming. If his unit plays badly, he’ll say it. Garner believes that’s the only way to be fair to the players he’s tasked with molding into dominant defensive linemen.

Auburn defensive line coach has no interest in sugarcoating anything about his unit's performance, for better or worse. (File photo)

Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner has no interest in sugarcoating anything about his unit’s performance, for better or worse. (File photo)

And after a less-than-stellar performance in the team’s first scrimmage of fall camp last week, Garner said he “went off the deep end.”

“I didn’t get it done,” he said. “My guys have got to play better, perform better. We’ve got to be more physical, got to maintain gap containment, keep the quarterback (in the pocket), seal the edges. This is a bottom line business.”

A zero-sum game, yes. But playing for the Tigers is also an incredible opportunity — something Garner can speak of first hand. He was an All-SEC selection and an All-American honorable mention as a member of Auburn’s offensive line in 1988, a season that saw the Tigers capture the SEC Championship.

That’s why he tells his players they need to treasure the chance they’ve been given.

“They’ve got an awesome, awesome opportunity,” he said. “They’re at a school where the fans love you, and they love you unconditionally. It’s truly a family. When you go 3-9 and you have 84,000 people show up for your spring game, that’s unconditional love.”

The outpouring of support should come with a price, Garner said. They have to reciprocate the affection by producing on the field.

“That’s why the pressure needs to be on us, to make sure we don’t disappoint,” Garner said. “We’ve got to do our part.”

After the Tigers added three highly-prized freshman defensive linemen in Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — with Adams’ signing being universally attributed to the relationship he had developed with Garner when the coach was still at Georgia — to go along with their returnees, the questions started. How good could Auburn’s defensive line be? Garner hates those kinds of queries.

Talk is cheap, as the saying goes.

“There are some talented guys in this group, but we’ve got to raise our level of play,” he said. “We can’t talk about it. We’re going to be judged by what we put out there on the field.”

It’s a matter of commitment, Garner said. If they want to put their best foot forward on Saturdays this fall, his players need to put as much time into studying their playbook and practicing their techniques away from the field as they do when they’re around the coaching staff.

“It’s just like investing in the (stock) market,” he said. “To get a great return, you’ve got to be willing to make the right investment. If you’re investing a lot, you’re probably going to get some more on the back end. If you’re investing very little, you’re going to get very little.”

The biggest perpetrator to lackluster effort on the field and in the film room is none other than recruiting hype. To combat this mind-set, Garner said it requires building players up, breaking them down and then building them back up once more.

“Like I told them, ‘In recruiting, you’re never as good as we say you are, or ever as bad. It’s somewhere in between,’” he said. “And you know, people expect you to show out. ‘Potential’ is the worst adjective that they can use to describe you. At some point, it’s my responsibility to get it out, but you’ve got to be willing to put it out.”

Getting over their own positive press clippings — and knowing it means nothing once they enroll in classes — is the best thing that ever happened to Lawson, Adams and Daniel.

Garner wished a few of his other players would finally come to that realization.

“I’ve got a couple other ones in my room, that for some reason, they didn’t get derecruited, so they aren’t handling the ‘hard coaching’ part,” he said. “It’s a physical, very demanding position. And if you let me intimidate you, then we’ve got problems. If I intimidated him, what’s 89,000 going to do to him? I want to know today. I don’t want to find out on Saturdays.”

For a lesson in perspective, Garner said the Tigers’ defensive line can look to one of his former players, Geno Atkins. The Cincinnati Bengal is now one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL and preparing to sign a long-term contract extension that will make him a wealthy man.

But when he returned to Georgia to work with Garner following his rookie season, his old coach was amazed at Atkins’ lack of pretension.

“I’m like, ‘Geno, you bought a car yet?’” Garner recalled. “He’s like, ‘Naw Coach, I’m going to wait to until I get my income taxes in.’ He’s still driving the same Honda Accord. I’ve got some guys in my room that wouldn’t do that. They like talking about what they’re going to do — they haven’t done anything. Not anything.”

They have their chance to change that this fall, of course. And Garner, no doubt, will be the first one to sing their praises if they do.

He has no problem telling it like it is, after all.

August 8, 2013

Auburn notes: Malzahn pleased with toughness of quarterbacks, disappointed with energy at Thursday morning practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn was not happy Thursday.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn (right) and coordinators Rhett Lashlee (left) and Ellis Johnson (center) broke down film of Wednesday's scrimmage along with the rest of the coaching staff. Malzahn came away impressed with the quarterbacks' resolve under pressure. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn (right) and coordinators Rhett Lashlee (left) and Ellis Johnson (center) broke down film of Wednesday’s scrimmage along with the rest of the coaching staff. Malzahn came away impressed with the quarterbacks’ resolve under pressure. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn’s head coach had just walked in from the team’s morning practice, the first of two sessions scheduled for Thursday. Known for his punctiliousness, there may have been a valid reason Malzahn was running late to his post-practice meeting with reporters.

He was too busy lighting into the Tigers for what he considered a lackluster effort.

“I pulled the team up afterward and just told them that, bottom line, (I) wasn’t happy with the way we responded,” he said. “I didn’t feel like our approach was good and we’re going to have to make sure we are mentally and physically ready to practice each time.”

The morning practice was spent correcting mistakes made in Wednesday’s scrimmage. Malzahn and the rest of the coaching staff broke down film of the scrimmage and passed along their critique along to the players.

“We just felt like it was important that each one of the guys understand the expectations for each position the coach has,” Malzahn said, “and make sure the expectations were clear. ”

Malzahn came away from his film study pleased with the way the quarterbacks handled pressure.

“We had some guys hanging in the pocket. All four of them showed toughness and that’s one of the No. 1 things that you look for in a quarterback,” he said. “Can they hang in the pocket when the pressure is on? And they all took pretty good licks. I think we got some good information.”

Each of the four quarterbacks competing for the job — Kiehl Frazier, Nick Marshall, Jonathan Wallace and Jeremy Johnson — had their share of gaffes, though, as the defense picked off multiple passes.

The signal-callers weren’t necessarily at fault for all of them.

“There was some pressure, there was some routes on some that weren’t right, so it wasn’t all the quarterbacks,” Malzahn said, “but at the same time, the bottom line is the quarterback is the most responsible person for any kind of mishaps. ”

Those miscues helped the evaluation process, since Malzahn said the coaching staff is specifically looking at how each quarterback responds under duress.

“We’re going to try to put those guys in the same situation, not only today, but in our next scrimmage,” he said. “The plan will be after that next scrimmage, hopefully we can start to narrow some things down.”

One aspect that livened up Wednesday’s scrimmage was “going live” with the quarterbacks, which gave defenders free rein to knock them to the ground. With another scrimmage on tap Saturday, Malzahn was asked whether he would institute a similar strategy.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m still trying to work through that. Me and (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee will decide that sometime tomorrow.”

Freshmen defensive linemen making their mark

Quarterbacks were far from the only players auditioning for playing time during the scrimmage. That’s the the case at nearly every position, after all.

“It’s very good to see how the (newcomers) react and see how much they improve,” Malzahn said. “We have pretty good information on our old guys (after) going through spring, but they’re also getting good reps.”

Malzahn noted the highly-touted trio of freshmen defensive linemen — Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — have also been showing signs of progress.

“They’re getting a lot of reps,” he said. “I know (defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner is getting a good look at them. Saturday will be big trying to figure out these guys — who can handle it mentally and who can’t.”

McNeal, Grimes on the mend

Demetruce McNeal, who has yet to take part in fall camp following a minor surgery caused by an infection, did not participate Thursday morning. Malzahn didn’t expect him back for Thursday’s afternoon session, though he said the senior safety “possibly” could be suited up for Saturday’s scrimmage.

McNeal has missed 12 straight practices dating back to the spring.

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was also absent Thursday morning. He missed Wednesday’s scrimmage after undergoing an unknown medical procedure earlier in the day.

Malzahn confirmed Grimes would be back with the Tigers for their second practice Thursday.

Quick hits

Malzahn said there were “a couple of guys banged up” coming out of the scrimmage, but nothing serious enough to hold a player out. … Thursday’s second practice will be split into two halves, with one part focused on special teams and the other on the further installation of offensive and defensive schemes. Malzahn said the Tigers will likely practice in “shells” (helmets and pads), but won’t put on full pads.

July 31, 2013

Auburn football: Five newcomers to watch during fall camp

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — The football season is tantalizingly close.

Auburn’s players report on Thursday and waste no time getting to work, as fall camp begins on Friday. Things are a bit different than in the past, when nearly all incoming freshman and junior college transfers didn’t arrive until “Report Day.” Now, many of the newcomers have been on campus during the summer; however, the only people who have seen a glimpse of what they may be able to do this fall are their fellow players. So who are some new Tigers to keep an eye on with fall camp just days away?

Nick Marshall is expected to come in and immediately be in the running to become Auburn's starting quarterback this fall.

Nick Marshall is one of four candidates in the running to become Auburn’s starting quarterback this fall.

The Ledger-Enquirer picked five candidates — a few who should already be familiar names to ardent Auburn fans.

Nick Marshall, QB (Garden City Community College, Garden City, Kan.): From the moment he signed with the Tigers, Marshall immediately leapt to the top of the quarterback depth chart in many people’s minds. With the ability to make plays with his feet and blessed with a rocket arm, the Georgia native appears to be the perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle attack. And Marshall will be given every opportunity to prove that during fall camp.

Carl Lawson, DE (Milton High School, Alpharetta, Ga.): One of the most highly-touted prospects in the country (other than another Peach State product in Robert Nkemdiche), Lawson should be able to step in and play immediately. And not just play, but possibly start. The left end position is held down by senior Dee Ford, but right end was still up for grabs at the end of the spring, with Nosa Eguae trying to fend off Kenneth Carter. Expect Lawson to throw in his name in the mix early on and push for a spot in the starting lineup.

Montravius Adams, DT (Dooly County High School, Vienna, Ga.): Auburn came out of nowhere to get Adams’ signature, though most would say it’s due to the relationship the defensive tackle had already developed with defensive line coach Rodney Garner. Whatever the reason, it will pay dividends for the Tigers this fall and beyond. Even though he’s joining one of the deepest units on the team at the tackle position, don’t be surprised if Adams garners significant playing time in 2013.

Elijah Daniel, DE (Avon High School, Avon, Ind.): While not talked about as much as Lawson — possibly because he’s from more of a hoops hotbed in Indiana than a football-crazy Southeastern state — Daniel shouldn’t be counted out during fall camp, either. He could easily be a part of the fight for the right defensive end position, and even if he doesn’t capture a starting job, he’ll likely figure prominently in the rotation this season whenever the first-teamers need a breather.

Tony Stevens, WR (Evans High School, Orlando, Fla.): Among the incoming receivers, none have turned more heads than Stevens. Tight end C.J. Uzomah couldn’t say enough good things about the Florida native after seeing what he could do during this summer’s player-led “captain’s practices.” Given the uncertain status of two of his fellow 2013 pass-catcher signees — Earnest Robinson is taking the junior college route after not qualifying academically and Jason Smith may do the same — Stevens may be able to take advantage of their absence if he continues to impress during fall camp.

July 27, 2013

‘Eager to learn’ freshman defensive line trio don’t disappoint in summer workouts

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Not all players are built the same.

Carl Lawson

Carl Lawson

Take the much talked-about freshmen defensive line trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. All three arrived on campus physically fit far beyond their years.

It didn’t take their new teammates long to notice, either.

“Those guys came in with college bodies,” senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “We’re all looking forward to it. They’re all eager to learn. Me and Carl (Lawson), we sat down for 30 minutes just going over the playbook the other day.”

Eguae left little doubt that he believed all would be able to step in and help the Tigers from Day 1.

“Definitely, they do,” he said. “But you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to do it with the pads on. We all know that and they know that. We’re all looking forward to getting those pads on, getting with (defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner, getting into the grind of two-a-days and making plays.”

Then again, that doesn’t make the trio any different than the rest of Auburn’s 2013 recruiting class. Head coach Gus Malzahn said the expectation is that all first-year players — be they true freshmen or junior college transfers — will be given the chance to get on the field right away.

“That’s just where we’re at as a team,” he said. “We’re going to go into this thing and try to give them as many opportunities early in fall camp so we can evaluate them and try to make quick decisions. That’s the tough thing as a coach — you’ve got to make decisions fairly quick about moving forward, especially with young guys. But they’re all going to have an opportunity to help.”

The difficult equilibrium the coaching staff has to maintain is between pushing them to contribute instantly and expecting too much, too soon.

After 30-plus years in coaching, Tigers defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has confronted this issue on countless occasions.

“They’re very capable talent-wise, and we do have some areas where we think their ability is going to be key — third down, edge pass rush,” he said. ” … Still, until you get them on the field and start working with them in the big picture, you just never know.”

While Lawson, Adams and Daniel have yet to don pads, they have impressed their teammates all summer during “captain’s practices.” Perhaps the most readily-apparent trait they’ve brought is an endless supply of energy.

That exuberance can get a bit out of control at times, though.

“I have to remind some of them, ‘Listen, this is no pads,’” senior defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker said. “And they’ll look at me like, ‘No problem, no problem.’ And then they go out there and try to bullrush. And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no. We’re just walking through the steps. We’re going to be all right.’”

Reese Dismukes echoed Whitaker, noting how much enthusiasm the three have displayed during the player-led summer practices. But he wasn’t willing to go too far in his praise, pointing out that doing it in the summer is fine. What really counts is doing the same in front of the coaches during fall camp, and eventually, during the season itself.

“I mean, they all look good,” the junior center said. (But) you never know what the guy’s going to do until you put pads on, and you get out there and it’s 110 degrees and everything’s flying at you. You never know how anyone’s going to respond to that.”

Aside from their natural talent, Dismukes said the group has one other factor in its favor which others may not take into account.

“I think it’s better that they’re on the D-line,” he said. “They have more of a chance to step in and provide. I’m not real familiar with their scheme or anything, but I know that it’s not as intense as learning the whole offensive playbook. But I think they’ll all have a chance to succeed.”

An attribute all three have been blessed with is a quick first step, with members of both the offensive and defensive lines continually praising how well they “get off” the ball. It doesn’t hurt that they join an already-stacked unit to lean on for advice.

Left defensive end Dee Ford is one of the top players in the SEC at his position, joined by Eguae on the right side. Then there’s Whitaker, Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson at tackle, not to mention Kenneth Carter, who saw time at end during spring practice after spending his first three years at tackle. Needless to say, the Tigers have no shortage of talented defensive linemen — and that’s before throwing Lawson, Adams and Daniel into the mix.

Whitaker, for one, couldn’t contain his excitement. The defensive line is a sight to behold.

He hopes to be able to say the same this fall and in the years to come.

“When we were out there the other day during warmups, it was like a whole team of D-linemen,” he said. “It just makes you feel better about the young group. The future looks good.”

July 23, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 3

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextraSEC_new_logo

We’ve now hit Day 3 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which will end Saturday as the two teams at the top of the league entering the fall are unveiled. Until then, we’ll count down the teams, two at a time, from worst to first. The format will involve a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.

With four teams down, we’ve reached the top 10. How will the rankings shake out from here?

Let’s continue answering those questions now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …

10. MISSISSIPPI STATE

Dan Mullen didn’t exude excitement at his SEC Media Days’ appearance this year, a trait which normally has been a staple of his personality. Then again, coming off a 1-5 finish to the 2012 season, maybe there was a reason for his subdued manner? As far as this fall is concerned, the Bulldogs are at a bit of a crossroads. After dominating arch-rival Ole Miss in Mullen’s first three years on the job, Mississippi State is now the team in the Magnolia State which has to drum up enthusiasm, which the Rebels did by the bushel in last year’s turnaround campaign and subsequent star-studded 2013 recruiting class.

The Bulldogs have both their starting quarterback (Tyler Russell) and running back (LaDarius Perkins) back on offense, along with four returnees upfront. The biggest worry for Mississippi State is finding someone to catch the ball, as its top three receivers from last year are long gone.

It’s the same story on defense, where Mississippi State has six starters returning, led by linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive end Denico Autry, though the unit was a middle-of-the-road squad in the SEC last year, ranking eighth in both total defense (387.38 yards per game) and scoring defense (23.31 points per game). There are also holes in the secondary, where three starters from last year have moved on.

If the Bulldogs don’t find some receivers for Russell and the defensive secondary isn’t plugged quickly, it might add up to a long season in Starkville.Mississippi_State_Bulldogs

  • Best-case scenario: The Bulldogs get a good start right out of the gates, as they defeat Oklahoma State in Houston to open the season. Mississippi State follows it up with three more wins (Alcorn State, Auburn and Troy) before suffering its first loss of the season, courtesy of LSU, 21-17. The Bulldogs get back to their winning ways in the next two games, dropping Bowling Green and Kentucky at home. But much like last year, when the schedule toughens, it doesn’t bode well for the Bulldogs. Three straight losses (South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama) leaves Mississippi State at 6-4 with two games to play. But Mississippi State shakes off any lingering effects those losses might have had to pick up back-to-back victories over Arkansas and arch-rival Ole Miss. The latter was especially sweet as it avenged last season’s defeat, which marked the first time the Rebels felled the Bulldogs during Mullen’s tenure. With eight wins, Mississippi State returns to the Gator Bowl for the second year in a row and third time in four years. The Bulldogs opponent? Another “state” team, in the Spartans of Michigan State. The Bulldogs make up for a lethargic showing in the 2013 Gator Bowl, when they lost to Northwestern 34-20, by beating the Spartans 37-17. With nine wins, Mullen gets his groove back — and it’s evident at the 2014 Media Days, as he drops the word “excited” on 20 different occasions during his time at the podium. And even better for the Bulldogs, that “school up north,” as Mullen always refers to the Rebels in public, is crushed under the weight of immense expectations. Ole Miss goes 5-7, with its loss in the Egg Bowl preventing the Rebels from achieving bowl eligibility.
  • Worst-case scenario: The secondary is singed in the season opener, as Oklahoma State passes early and often in a 59-14 demolition. Though the Bulldogs get a breather in Week 2 with Alcorn State, an Auburn team playing with confidence beats them in the SEC opener. Troy then adds to the misery in Game 4, as the always-pesky Sun Belt Conference foe outlasts Mississippi State 45-42 in a double-overtime thriller. Drained from that loss, it doesn’t get any better when the Bulldogs head to Death Valley to face LSU. The Tigers wipe them away 31-20 to drop the Bulldogs to 1-4. Mississippi State rallies with consecutive victories over Bowling Green and Kentucky, but then a brutal three-game stretch sets in: South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama. The Bulldogs lose all three, giving them seven losses to eliminate them from bowl contention with two games left to play. Mississippi State pulls itself off the canvas to beat Arkansas on the road, but it goes on to lose the only game that really counts with a bowl no longer a possibility: Ole Miss wins going away in the Egg Bowl, 41-21, as Mississippi State ends the year at 4-8. It marks the worst season for the Bulldogs since they posted the same record in 2008. With that kind of record, Mullen’s spirits fall even further. His usual bright demeanor is replaced with a more somber look, leading local beat writers to start jokingly referring to him as “Sullen Mullen.” And to top it off, the Rebels go 11-2, doing what the Bulldogs couldn’t in their season opener: beat the Cowboys, which the Rebels do in a 38-27 Cotton Bowl victory.

9. AUBURN

I don’t think I need to do too much rehashing of things on this particular team for regular readers of the blog. With that being said, let’s give the up-tempo version of things (with as many short, concise sentences as possible) up to this point, which Gus Malzahn would no doubt appreciate.

(And Bret Bielema would no doubt hate, since he would say he prefers long, flowery prose, and that he only reads “normal American literature.”)

Anyway, on to the “Auburn 2012 recap, The Up-Tempo Version” …

The Tigers go 3-9. Gene Chizik is fired. Malzahn is brought back to recapture glory. Team motto of “It’s A New Day” (or “A New Day” or “New Day,” depending on your preference) is coined. Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson fill the two coordinator spots. Rodney Garner returns to Auburn to coach the defensive line after 15 years at Georgia. Tigers sign two stud defensive linemen prospects in Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Nick Marshall joins the quarterback fray as a junior college transfer. Malzahn and Bielema square off at SEC Media Days over danger (or lack thereof) posed by hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. Fall camp set to open Aug. 2.AU logo

We good?

  • Best-case scenario: It really does look like “a new day,” as the Tigers match their victory total from 2012 in the first three games of 2013, beating Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State to jump out to a 3-0 start. No, they don’t complete the “state” quartet, as they lose to LSU in Week 4, but that does little to stunt the team’s momentum. Auburn gives Texas A&M all it can handle at Kyle Field before Johnny Manziel comes up with a pair of electrifying touchdown runs in the fourth quarter, finally putting the Tigers away 42-31. But the Tigers brush off the defeat to go on a four-game win streak, which includes a 45-17 shellacking of Arkansas and Bielema in Fayetteville, Ark., and is highlighted by a 27-24 victory against Georgia which knocks the Bulldogs out of the national title race. The game’s hero is none other than Marshall, the former-Bulldog-turned-Tiger who puts on a decent Cam Newton impersonation, gashing the Bulldogs for three touchdowns (two passing) and 395 total yards of offense, with 297 yards through the air. He also comes up with a whirling, game-winning 6-yard touchdown run with two minutes to play to snap a two-year drought for the Tigers in “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” Auburn can’t put together two upsets in a row, falling to Alabama in a hard-fought 30-24 defeat. But nine wins with a bowl to go isn’t too shabby. The Tigers head to Atlanta, where they face the Miami Hurricanes in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In one of the best games of the year — on the final day of 2013, no lessthe Tigers are able to squeeze past the Hurricanes in overtime, 38-35. Malzahn’s 10 wins in his debut season is the best first-year showing for an Auburn coach since Terry Bowden’s NCAA-sanctioned team went 11-0 in 1993. The good news keeps coming in when the Tigers ink a top-five recruiting class for 2014. And to make things even better, Arkansas and “normal American football” don’t mesh well in Year 1, as the Razorbacks struggle to a 3-9 finish. Oh, and Alabama’s “three-peat” aspirations are extinguished in the most painful of ways. The Crimson Tide lose to the Ohio State Buckeyes 31-28 in the BCS National Championship Game, as former Florida coach Urban Meyer ends the SEC’s vise grip on hoisting the crystal football (also known as the AFCA National Championship Trophy) at seven years.
  • Worst-case scenario: “A new day” ends up looking a lot like the old one. Or in this case, 2013 looks a lot like 2012. The season starts off well enough, with the Tigers picking up consecutive wins to begin 2-0. But Washington State and Arkansas State don’t do enough to prepare Auburn for SEC play, as the Tigers lose their first three league games (Mississippi State, LSU and Ole Miss). Hapless Western Carolina provides a way for the Tigers to get back on the right track — for one week, at least. Texas A&M rolls over Auburn for the second straight season in a 52-10 thrashing in College Station, Texas. Auburn rebounds to beat Florida Atlantic one week later, but then the Tigers head on the road to face the Razorbacks. In a game pitting the two SEC Media Day coaching combatants, Arkansas comes out on top, winning 23-17 on a last-minute rushing touchdown, giving Bielema a 1-0 lead in the “Normal American football vs. Hurry-up, no-huddle scheme” series. The Tigers are able to fend off Tennessee to avoid going winless in the SEC for the second straight year, but end the season with back-to-back losses to Georgia and Alabama to finish 5-7. To make matters worse, Arkansas is SEC’s surprise team, making it to a bowl in Bielema’s initial go-round in the league, which he makes sure to point out at the 2014 Media Days, asking, “So how about that up-tempo stuff, huh? Give me ‘normal American football’ any day of the week.” Oh, and Alabama becomes the first team in the modern era of college football to win three straight championships, making for another miserable offseason on the Plains.

July 15, 2013

7 at 7: Seven questions about the Tigers this fall

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

Yes, there is still one major event to get through — this week’s SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. — before Auburn players report back to campus and preseason camp gets underway. Until that happens, however, here are seven questions (and answers) about the Tigers in the style of the War Eagle Extra’s “7 at 7″ format, as the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31 gets closer by the day.

1. Who will start at quarterback?

Ah yes, the topic du jour surrounding the Tigers heading into the season. There are four candidates vying for the position, with two having an opportunity to stake their claim to the job in the spring (junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace) and two arriving this fall (junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson). Frazier and Wallace were unable to create any separation amongst themselves, exiting the spring as co-No. 1s on the depth chart. They both hold an advantage over the newcomers in the regard that they at least know some of the playbook already, but will that be enough to stave off either Marshall or Johnson?

Largely due to being the best runner of the quarterback quartet, many believe Marshall is the front-runner to capture the job. That, of course, is nothing more than pure speculation at this point. Besides, the quarterback battle will be settled where it should be — on the field — and only when the coaches believe they know which signal-caller gives them the best chance to win in 2013.

2. What’s the status of the backfield?

Tre Mason Auburn A-Day

Tre Mason headlines a deep stable of Auburn running backs headed into the fall. Photo by Todd Van Emst

When it comes to the running back position, the Tigers should be able to rest easy, with Tre Mason coming off a 1,000-yard season and both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant having great springs. Still, it was a huge surprise when head coach Gus Malzahn revealed his two-deep post-spring depth chart and Mason was not listed as the unquestioned starter. Instead, Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant all had “OR” separating their names, being listed that way on both the first-team and second-team offense.

Then again, there are worse problems to have than worrying about how to divvy up carries between multiple talented ball carriers.

3. Who will assume the role of lead receiver?

It’s possible that the Tigers may be one of those teams without a go-to option at wideout. That’s not to say one won’t develop eventually. Between Jaylon Denson, Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis, Auburn has a nice pool of hopefuls to choose from. One thing is certain: The receiving corps isn’t lacking for heirs to the throne Emory Blake vacated. (And to show just how reliant the Tigers were on Blake last season, his 789 receiving yards accounted for a whopping 42 percent of Auburn’s 1,879 receiving yards.)

4. Who replaces Philip Lutzenkirchen at tight end?

No single player will be asked to replicate the production of Lutzenkirchen. Instead, it will be a shared assignment between C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse. The two complement each other well, as Uzomah is more noted for his pass-catching ability while Fulse is known as a hard-nosed blocker. But both have made it a point to shore up their perceived weaknesses, with Uzomah working on his blocking and Fulse practicing his route running. Jay Prosch (normally a fullback) may also see time at tight end as a utility blocker, and expect fellow H-back Ricky Parks to get a few reps at the position, too.

5. Can the secondary make some much-needed strides?

It’s still a shocking number any time you see it: one. That’s the number of interceptions Auburn’s secondary came away with in 2012. But there is reason to believe the secondary will be vastly improved when it steps back on the field this season. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are firmly entrenched with the first-team defense at the two corner positions, and there are a handful of players — notably Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Jones, Robenson Therezie and Ryan White — behind them to lend depth to the unit.

Questions still remain at safety, though, as Holsey was moved from cornerback to boundary (also known as strong) safety in the last week of the spring after Demetruce McNeal missed the final five practices due to an undisclosed off-the-field matter. Free safety, or “field safety,” as it is referred to in coach speak, should be capably manned by junior Jermaine Whitehead.

6. What player is primed for a breakout season on offense or defense?

If you haven’t prepared yourself for it, here’s an advance warning: Justin Garrett, who shined in the hybrid safety/linebacker position created by defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson specifically for his 4-2-5 scheme, will have plenty of terrible headlines centered around his spot’s name — “Star.” As corny as it sounds, the junior is truly a “star” in the making. He drew rave reviews for his progress during the spring, and Johnson has put him in a position where his hard-hitting talents can be put to best use. Expect a few highlight-worthy hits from Garrett to make the rounds this fall.

7. Which true freshmen — if any — will push for major playing time?

It’s a toss-up between two stud defensive line prospects, with Montravius Adams at tackle and Carl Lawson at end. The pair of Peach State products were two of the top players in the country at their respective positions, and their talent may be too great to keep them from playing significant roles from Day 1. If forced to choose one as the “most likely to steal a starting job,” I’ll go with Lawson barely. It’s mainly a function of the depth chart: While the Tigers can mix-and-match between Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker and Ben Bradley inside with relatively little drop-off, the same can’t be said at end.

Dee Ford has the left side starting spot locked down, but right end is still up for grabs. Nosa Eguae began the spring as the starter at right end, but when he wasn’t developing fast enough for the coaching staff’s liking, tackle Kenneth Carter was moved outside in the hopes that it would push Eguae to step it up.

With that in mind, don’t be surprised if Lawson comes in and nails down a spot in the starting lineup opposite Ford by the end of preseason camp.

March 29, 2013

Quick observations from Auburn practice No. 2 plus Malzahn, Johnson, Lashlee comments

AUBURN, Ala. – The first-day luster is wearing off. Now we’re into the grind of every-other-day sessions, and we’ll see what can be ascertained from a 30-minute window.

Today, we saw mostly stretching, special-teams work and a slice of team drills.

AUBURN FOOTBALL

Take it for what it’s worth, but in the one drill I saw involving the entire defense, this was the first unit working together Friday:

Safeties: Jermaine Whitehead, Demetruce McNeal. Cornerbacks: Jonathan Mincy, Chris Davis. Star LB/S: Justin Garrett. Linebackers: Jake Holland, Cassanova McKinzy. Defensive tackles: Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson. Defensive ends: Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae.

Garrett would be the interesting name to watch there. A potential hybrid linebacker/safety.

Top defensive end recruits Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel were on hand, closely watching the defensive line drills. I blogged yesterday that J.B. Grimes was my pick for which coach yells the loudest – and he might still be the pick pound-for-pound pick – but defensive line coach Rodney Garner is going to be in those linemen’s ears all spring and summer long.

Well, Grimes does have competition in the little-guy-loud-yeller department from a support staffer. Strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell has an unmistakable bark.

The Charlie Harbison and Melvin Smith storyline is those two are like brothers. They’re basically twins when they stand 30 yards away opposite each other, leading the same drill, coaching the same techniques to Harbison’s safeties and Smith’s corners.

Take it for what it’s worth, but in the one drill I saw involving the entire offense – which was that two-minute drill with no subbing – this was the first unit working together Friday:

QB Jonathan Wallace, RB Corey Grant, H-back Jay Prosch, WRs Ricardo Louis and Melvin Ray (again, grain of salt, people), TE/slot Brandon Fulse, LT Greg Robinson, LG Jordan Diamond, C Reese Dismukes, RG Chad Slade, RT Patrick Miller.

It appears four-star recruit and redshirt freshman Alex Kozan is getting a look at center, but he’ll need to work on shotgun snaps. A high delivery was tipped by his quarterback, Kiehl Frazier, and tailback Cameron Artis-Payne grabbed it instinctively, which meant the flow of the drill wasn’t interrupted.

A number of players are getting chances to return punts. Quan Bray, Ricardo Louis, Tre Mason and Corey Grant are the usual suspects. Scott Fountain wants a playmaker back there, it might take up until the season begins to find one specifically at that position.

A balance of guys wore short-sleeved jerseys, and guys wore long Under Armour shirts or leggings. It was still chilly, but warming up from Wednesday’s early-morning frost.

Guests from Montgomery, Florida and Georgia were on hand. (I’m sure there were from other locations too.) Former Florida State assistant Dameyune Craig was shaking hands with some Florida guests.

Later today: coach Gus Malzahn, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson address the media at 10 a.m. CT.

March 25, 2013

“As far as talent, we’re stacked”: Wright, Ford insist Auburn’s D-line can flip the switch

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Seated at three different roundtables spread out in the Rane Room of Auburn’s athletic complex were three top returning defensive linemen, and the conversations were congenial, not repugnant.

Gabe Wright, Dee Ford and Jeffrey Whitaker were being who they are March 20, a few good men shooting the breeze and talking some football.

Of course, they were wearing street clothes, not pads. They were facing reporters, not 300-pound offensive linemen or a blocking dummy.

Nice guys finish last in the trenches, which they completely understand is a mindset that must change once they step on that field – any field, whether it’s the practice turf in spring scrimmages or Jordan-Hare Stadium in November against top-ranked SEC opposition.

“You don’t want a nice guy on the offensive or defensive line at all,” Wright said. “And I believe we don’t have any nice coaches.”

AUBURN FOOTBALLSurrounded by chuckles at the odd-sounding comment, Wright grinned and started over.

“Off the field, they’re great men. Let me rephrase that: you want a guy who will praise you, but you don’t want somebody who babies you, because that’s definitely not going to be good for you in the long run.”

Wright, a Carver High School grad who started the final six games of 2012, has a friendly demeanor in person. Now entering his junior year under his third defensive line coach (Rodney Garner) in three seasons, Wright understands what it takes to mentally and physically combat SEC offensive linemen.

“Without a doubt, there’s a difference between being mean on the field and being who you are off the field,” Wright said. “Nick Fairley could have been one of the meanest players in college football off the field, but I’m told he was one of the coolest guys off the field.

“That’s something I’ve got to learn how to do – flip that switch. I’m not nice on the field, but I’ve still got to learn how to get meaner. Coach Garner can definitely bring that out of me.”

Overall, Wright was disgusted with his own production last year and knows many of his linemates feel similarly.

“I’m not a statistic guy, but I feel like I did little to none to help my team,” Wright said. “I hold myself to a high standard. Angelo (Blackson’s) my roommate, and I know we talk about it all the time – we literally did little to nothing in terms of what we know we can do. If you look at drills, we’re the most athletic defensive line by far that I’ve seen.

“I think that’s how a lot of guys feel. It’s time to produce. Guys signed here to do that.”

Ford’s six sacks led the team last year despite missing time due to a back injury, aided by the attention paid to his bookend Corey Lemonier. With Lemonier foregoing his senior year to enter the NFL Draft, Ford is taking on greater leadership roles – both in the locker room and on the field.

“I’m going to be a game-changer,” Ford said. “Doing my assignment, being accountable, having that trust from the entire defense I’m going to do my job every play.”

Ford added he’s got trust in other experienced ends like Nosa Eguae, part of a large group that will be bolstered by the arrival of top recruit Carl Lawson.

“We have a great opportunity to prove a lot of people wrong, because nobody believed in the d-line last year,” Ford said. “Don’t see it being any different this year. We have a lot of things to prove.”

Added Whitaker: “I embrace the competition. It’s a great time: Auburn’s always been like this on the D-line. It’s getting back to, the backups are just as good as the starters.”

Wright agrees it’s time for the defensive line to take charge, and flip that switch – not just with coaxing from Garner, but from themselves.

“As far as talent, we’re stacked,” Wright said. “There’s no better secret to success than competition within a program, I can guarantee that. But there’s a difference between talent and potential. Everybody in the d-line can have potential, but it’s up to us to bring it out. I’m going to harp on that to myself, and to the d-ends and the rest of the d-tackles.

“I feel like Coach Garner will get that out of us, and the guys will do less thinking during the games and just play.”

Clemson_Auburn17_9-1-12