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August 28, 2013

Auburn football: Tigers hope to see go-to receiver ‘prove it on Saturdays’ this season

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn didn’t dodge the question.

Auburn’s head coach admitted the team failed to address one of its key priorities during fall camp. Yes, the top objective was accomplished, as the Tigers found their starting quarterback in junior college transfer Nick Marshall. However, Auburn still has no idea who Marshall’s go-to receiver will be heading into Saturday’s season opener against Washington State. Even as Malzahn acknowledged the role was still a question mark, he wasn’t panicking, either.

Quan Bray is one of the many players trying to step up and become Auburn's go-to target in the passing game this fall. (File photo)

Junior Quan Bray is one of the many receivers trying to step up and become Auburn’s go-to target in the passing game this fall. (File photo)

He’s been in a similar situation before, after all.

“In 2009, when we first got here, we were saying the same thing,” he said. “We thought Darvin Adams had a chance to be (the No. 1 receiver), but he showed it on the field. When I say that I’m real curious to see how some of our guys to respond, (that includes) the receivers. We need somebody to step up and be the go-to guy. How you do that is prove it on Saturdays. It’s not just practice. That’ll be definitely something that we’re looking forward to seeing.

Adams rose from obscurity to become the Tigers’ top option four years ago. Coming off a three-catch season in 2008, the Canton, Miss., native exploded in 2009, setting a single-season school record with 60 receptions (10 for touchdowns) and tallying 997 receiving yards, the third-best mark in Tigers’ history.

Will any receiver on this year’s roster be able to duplicate Adams’ feat?

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee didn’t rule it out, but said it wouldn’t be fair to place that expectation on just one player.

“I hope it’s a couple guys,” he said. “Last year our leading receiver (at Arkansas State) was a redshirt freshman (J.D. McKissic), and he had 103 catches and he didn’t even play the year before. He would probably have been your third or fourth choice going into the season, not that the other guys didn’t play well. It was just the way it all worked out.”

Lashlee went a step further by naming specific players, which Malzahn has been reticent to do this fall. A quartet of names came to Lashlee’s mind: Quan Bray, Jaylon Denson, Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis have been in the Tigers’ system long enough that it’s time for all of them to “grow up” and start producing at a high level.

“I think (wide receivers) Coach (Dameyune) Craig has done a really good job with that whole room of bringing them along,” Lashlee said, “not only making plays and all, but mentally with their confidence.”

Bray took the words to heart, noting it was a “humbling experience” to know how much the coaching staff expects of him.

“I’m just trying to be that guy, I’m just trying to make every play,” he said. “It’s not a lot of pressure. I’m just trying to do what I normally do, what I’ve always been doing. It’s definitely a great experience.”

Bray isn’t the only junior wideout the Tigers are counting on — Denson falls into the same category.

“He did make a few ‘wow’ plays in the spring,” Lashlee said. “We’ve got him in a role now where he’s more of a steady guy. And he’s still making some great catches at times. He’s probably about as versatile a guy as we have, from being a physical wideout to being involved in (both) the run game and in the pass game. I just hope he keeps it up.”

It’s a sophomore who may have the most star potential, though. Louis was touted time and again by teammates during fall camp for his “explosive” plays in the passing game.

The next order of business is making those type of catches on a regular basis.

“He’s one of those guys that can be very special,” Lashlee said. “He’s still young. This is going to be his second true year to be here and to be playing, and he didn’t play a whole lot last year. But he has a lot of ability and there are times he makes some plays and you just go, ‘Wow.’ There’s no doubt we’d like him to do that consistently.”

Bray left no doubt that he hopes to see himself and the rest of the receiving corps reach the end zone with regularity this season.

The Tigers will have to make a handful of those plays right out of the gate, however, if they want to reach Bray’s targeted point total on Saturday.

“Hopefully, it won’t be a shootout,” he said. “On our part it will be a shootout. We’re trying to put up 70.”

August 27, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn ‘curious to see how’ Nick Marshall responds in season opener

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — When Nick Marshall takes the field for the first time on Saturday, his coach will look on anxiously.

Nick Marshall will start his first game as Auburn's quarterback on Saturday. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was 'curious' to see how the junior responds. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Quarterback Nick Marshall will make his first start at Auburn on Saturday. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was intrigued to see how his new signal-caller will react upon taking the field. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Gus Malzahn’s apprehension is understandable. During his press conference on Tuesday, he noted that without the benefit of spring practice, it’s hard to predict how Marshall will react.

With that in mind, Malzahn said the coaching staff is going to do its best to “protect” the junior college transfer.

“I’ll be curious to see how he responds,” Malzahn said. “In practice, you put him through — it doesn’t matter if it’s quarterback or any other position — as many game-type situations as you can. But until you get him in that arena, that’s when everything becomes very clear.”

Marshall has shown no traces of the 20 interceptions he threw last season at Garden City Community College, as Malzahn trumpeted his signal-caller’s pinpoint precision.

“He’s very accurate, he really is,” Malzahn said. “He’s shown that he is accurate, not just in the vertical game but intermediate and short also.”

But as the well-worn cliche goes, doing it in practice is one thing. Doing it in a game — with live defenders waiting to pounce, which Marshall rarely faced in fall camp — is an entirely different story. To combat any nerves Marshall might have, Malzahn wants the quarterback to get comfortable before the Tigers start taking any chances.

“Then as the game goes on, you kind of get a feel when they come to the sidelines how they’re taking things in,” he said. “We’ll definitely keep that in mind early in the game.”

Malzahn was asked what the last thing he would say to Marshall before leaving the locker room Saturday. Getting Marshall to play without a hint of indecision is the goal, he said.

Not surprisingly, Malzahn’s hypothetical conversation will involve a generous dose of confidence-boosting advice.

“‘You’ve already done the work. You’ve already done the preparation,” he said. “It’s just a matter of, ‘Hey, you’re our guy. Just go out there and do your thing and have fun.’ That’s more or less the message that we’ll have for Nick.”

Tigers’ secondary prepares to battle Cougars’ ‘Air Raid’ attack

Malzahn’s take on the Tigers’ defense was concise: The coaching staff feels “as comfortable as we can” with five days remaining until Auburn hosts Washington State in the season opener for both teams.

“I know our coaches have worked extremely hard and our players really responded well,” he said.

No unit that will be tested more than the secondary, given Washington State’s penchant for passing; the Cougars had 624 attempts last season, more than any team in the nation. It doesn’t help matters that Auburn’s defensive backs have been thinned out by injury (cornerback Jonathan Jones) or dismissal (safety Demetruce McNeal). Regardless, the Tigers will have to press on, Malzahn said.

And it wouldn’t hurt if the defense is able to harrass Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday to alleviate the pressure on the secondary.

“When the quarterback had time (last year) they were very effective,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to get a pass rush. They’re going to throw it a lot, so we’re going to have to have some depth in the secondary. It’ll be a good challenge for our defense.”

Quick hits

Aside from Jones and defensive end Dee Ford, Malzahn said he couldn’t rule any other players out for Saturday “right now.” … According to Malzahn, the Tigers have yet to choose their captains for the game. … Auburn will have three coaches in the booth this season: defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith and wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig.

August 9, 2013

Auburn football: Search continues for go-to wide receiver

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said every player in his unit has impressed since fall camp began last week.

Auburn receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig said the team isn't any closer to finding the go-to option Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee desire. (File photo)

Auburn receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator Dameyune Craig said the team isn’t any closer to finding the go-to option Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee desire. (File photo)

Therein lies the problem: With each receiver playing equally well, no one has stepped to the fore to become the Tigers’ unquestioned go-to option, which head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have repeatedly said needs to emerge.

“I think the guys are so competitive right now, there’s not a lot of separation,” Craig said. “Everybody is playing well. They’re doing the things they’re supposed to do — the little things.”

Of course, Craig joked, the receivers could make it easier on the coaching staff, too.

“We’re just looking for that guy to go out there in practice and make five people miss and score a touchdown,” he said. “Once you get that, you know, ‘OK, that’s the guy.’ That wouldn’t be bad.”

Until that happens, Craig is at least comfortable with the depth of his pass-catching group, especially given their gains this summer.

“I thought they worked hard, they got in excellent condition. All the guys got stronger,” he said. “They’re being physical. They’re learning how to play without the ball in their hand. The only other thing is experience. You can only get that by playing. That’s what they lack right now.”

April 11, 2013

Brenner: Patience is a virtue as Auburn spring football practices play out before our eyes

10Auburn8

AUBURN, Ala. – Three A-Days ago, Cam Newton only threw eight passes. Completed three.

Florida fans questioned Tim Tebow’s ability to go from gimmick to general for the 2007 season. Sam Bradford’s 2008 spring game at Oklahoma was marred by three interceptions; Johnny Manziel failed to complete half his passes and averaged just 5.7 yards an attempt in last year’s Texas A&M spring game.

Would four future Heisman winners be enough to sway you on where this is going?

I can’t sit here and tell you spring doesn’t matter. If it doesn’t, they wouldn’t bother with the activity – or at least we fans and media wouldn’t be dumb enough to squeeze four to six weeks of coverage and attention out of it. (Would we? Don’t answer that.)

But we’ve got to stop expecting any coaching staff – especially a brand-new one like Auburn’s, with very little preconceived notions of the existing players – to have answers for us without delay.

It’s a now-now-now world, where we stomp our feet like Veruca Salt and demand a depth chart this instant.

I roll my eyes at coachspeak as much as the next guy, but I can buy into any coach who downplays any questions about an inside linebacker playing outside or a third-string skill player gets a few snaps with the second-stringers.

Here’s where I think we can read into spring developments:

- Major position changes, like if a receiver starts playing cornerback or something. In this year’s case, I think Justin Garrett standing out at Ellis Johnson’s ‘star’ safety position in the 4-2-5 is quite significant.

- Guys missing significant time due to injury. Should Tre Mason be worried that his left leg injury is giving coaches more time to love Cameron Artis-Payne? It’s not unheard of for incumbent starters to lose their gig due to spring absence.

- Altered body types from the previous season. CJ Uzomah looks cut and ready to be a matchup nightmare. Kiehl Frazier looks like he needs to regain some athleticism after gaining weight in the offseason – he says he’ll burn it off quickly, but actions speak louder than words.

Other than that, it’s all conjecture. Yeah, it’s fun for water-cooler talk, but that’s about it.

Ultimately, these 15 practices in Auburn – and Arkansas, and Tennessee and Kentucky, come to mention it – are icebreakers in the heat of a Southern spring.

The “evaluation period” – apologies for coachspeak rubbing off – gives Johnson and Dameyune Craig and Rodney Garner an opportunity to see who fits the schemes Auburn’s installing five months from now.

Spring ball’s a nice appetizer to fill a month, an interlude bridging March Madness to summer vacation.

Nothing more. Nothing less.

Aaron Brenner, abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

April 8, 2013

Auburn notes: No spring practice Monday, Toomer’s Oaks wood made into mementos, Dameyune Craig enters Tiger Trail

Dameyune CraigBY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Auburn canceled its eighth scheduled spring practice Monday morning, its first change to the format in two weeks. The team held positional meetings but was not on the field.

There was no reason given for the change, and a reschedule plan hadn’t yet been determined.

Theoretically, since there are no more consecutive-days breaks leading up to April 20, Auburn could hold an additional practice after A-Day.

The Tigers return to the practice field Wednesday.

Remembering Toomer’s: Once they’re removed safely, wood chunks of Toomer’s Oaks will be licensed and distributed as mementos to Auburn fans, Auburn University announced Monday.

All money collected from the sale will be placed in a scholarship fund for Auburn students, and the university will be working with several licensed manufacturers to turn the trees into keepsakes.

“This is a very special way for the Auburn Family to remember one of our best-known traditions,” said Debbie Shaw, vice president for alumni affairs. “Generations of our fans have gathered beneath the oaks over the years, and it is fitting that future generations of students will benefit from the scholarships they will provide.”

The final rolling of Toomer’s Oaks will be on A-Day, April 20, following the football team’s public scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The trees will be removed April 23.

Harvey Updyke was sentenced March 25 to three years in prison for criminal damage of an agricultural facility, poisoning the trees in 2010.

The university is urging fans to look for a specially-designed Auburn Oaks licensed hangtag to ensure they purchase official merchandise, of which proceeds go to the scholarship fund.

Dameyune Craig joins Tiger Trail: Former Auburn quarterback Dameyune Craig is one of six Auburn legends who will be inducted to the Auburn Chamber of Commerce’s Tiger Trail on April 19, the day preceding A-Day.

Craig was a 2-year starter for the Tigers, recording an 18-7 record in 1996-97. His 216 completions and 3,227 passing yards in 1996 still stand as school single-season records.

After spending the past three years as a Florida State assistant, Craig is now Auburn’s wide receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator.

The class is rounded out by men’s golfer Jimmy Green, women’s basketball forward Lauretta Freeman, equestrian Lindsay Neubarth, men’s basketball forward Jimmy Fibbe and baseball third baseman Jim Barfield.

March 29, 2013

Trovon Reed: “Time is flying. I can’t just keep sitting back.” Veteran receiver vows to fill a critical leadership role (with Reed video)

Arkansas Auburn Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Heads were spinning on the first day of Auburn’s new football era, the structured chaos a stark contrast from last year’s moderate pace wowing many youngsters.

Not Trovon Reed. The only offensive skill player still around who was on the roster during that magical Cam Newton-led 2010 national championship season, Reed’s perfectly accustomed to Gus Malzahn’s frenetic style.

“I was like a little kid on the playground the first day of school,” Reed said following Wednesday’s inaugural spring practice. “Everybody was flying around, enjoying this fast-paced offense.

“We’ve been sitting on it for a long, long time. No football, all working out. Just thinking about 3-9.”

It’s not all fun and games for the 6-foot, 190-pound redshirt junior, whose fellow five-star Scout.com recruits from that ballyhooed class of 2010 – defensive end Corey Lemonier and running back Michael Dyer – have moved on. Since taking a medical redshirt the title year, Reed’s caught 30 balls for 286 yards and just one touchdown in his full two seasons – underachieving figures by any standard.

“Time is flying. I can’t just keep sitting back. I have to start attacking,” Reed said. “I’ve got to start doing all the right things, on and off the field – gotta start making plays. I just want to win, whether I perform well or don’t perform well.”

Last year’s demons haunt Reed. A native of Thibodaux, La., nestled on the Gulf Coast and not too far south of Baton Rouge, Reed went home to Louisiana during winter break with no bowl game to prepare for.

Reed had to hear it from his LSU-supporting friends who since Auburn’s championship victory have watched the ‘other’ Tigers go 23-4 – including a 2012 BCS title game loss to Alabama, and coming within one play of knocking off the defending champion Crimson Tide in the 2012 regular season.

Meanwhile, Auburn’s gone 11-14 in that span, sunk by last year’s nightmare.

“I’m taking it more serious. 3-9, that’s embarrassing,” Reed said. “That’s all I kept hearing: ‘You went all the way to Auburn to do that? You could’ve stayed here and helped us, blah blah blah, we would’ve had you that one play, could’ve got us to the national championship.’

“Little things like that get under my skin. It just made me work even harder. I’ve got to show them picking Auburn wasn’t a mistake.”

The current coaching staff – Malzahn, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig – are definitively more familiar with Reed’s potential than perhaps that of younger prospects.

“I think it’s time,” Malzahn said. “I think he’d say the same thing, that it’s time for him. The good thing about Trovon is he understands our system. He’s been in it, so this is a year that will be very critical for him. I’ve got very high expectations for him.”

Reed’s not shy about his inner sensitivity – “When we’re not doing too good, I hear it. I don’t show it, but I hear it.” – nor about his desire to take over the ‘Lord of the Wides’ role vacated by past role models Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery and Emory Blake.

“I sat in the back seat for a long time, and now I’m that older guy in the room,” Reed said. “Now I have to lead. All I’ve been around is winning, so last year, like, really got under my skin. Now I’ve got to lead our room back to that path they led.”

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 27, 2013

The final Auburn positional battles to watch: Wide receivers, tight ends, H-backs

This is the final piece of an 8-day series previewing each Auburn position leading into spring football, which begins Wednesday morning and concludes with A-Day April 20.

Auburn Vanderbilt Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Let’s play the blind taste test game.

Receiver A: 50 catches, 789 yards, 3 TD in all games; 38 rec, 556 yds, 2 TD in SEC games.

Receiver B: 39 catches, 527 yards, 3 TD in all games; 29 rec, 303 yds, 0 TD in SEC games.

Obviously, you want the first receiver.

Oh, one more hint: Receiver A was 6-foot-2, 193 pounds. Receiver B measures in at more than 42 feet and close to 1,400 pounds.

Emory Blake vs. every other Auburn receiver in 2012 was a complete mismatch.

And that’s a major reason the Tigers’ passing game was an inexcusable mess last year. It’s also a major reason Blake’s departure should be a warning bell to his younger teammates that it’s time to step up.

Blake isn’t the only veteran out the door. Philip Lutzenkirchen is one of the most accomplished tight ends in school history, but even he’s already endorsed his heir apparent, tweeting Monday “Look for (C.J. Uzomah) to have a great spring. The kid’s a beast but an even better person off the field. Much love to the little big brother” and “He could break every TE record in Gus (Malzahn’s) offense.”

Add the blocking ability of Brandon Fulse, and tight ends looks to be a somewhat secure position in 2012.

So is the new h-back in that aforementioned Malzahn offense. Jay Prosch has the brute strength and soft hands ideal to fit that role, moving over from fullback to a hybrid position.

Granted, the quarterbacks were far too inconsistent to help their receivers. But that’s a two-way street: those same wideouts didn’t exactly help the passers, so the sooner Dameyune Craig whips his youngsters into shape to match their potential, the better for the Tigers.

Alabama A&M vs Auburn

Check out our positional breakdowns entering spring football:

Part I: Defensive backs
Part II: Linebackers
Part III: Defensive line
Part IV: Special teams
Part V: Quarterbacks
Part VI: Offensive line
Part VII: Running backs

Here’s a look at Auburn’s wide receivers, tight ends and H-backs, leading into spring football practices:

Who’s been playing: WR Quan Bray (jr.), WR Sammie Coates (so.), TE Brandon Fulse (jr.), WR Ricardo Louis (so.), H-back Jay Prosch (sr.), WR Trovon Reed (jr.), TE C.J. Uzomah (jr.)

Who’s been waiting: WR Jaylon Denson (jr.), TE Chris Landrum (so.), TE Ricky Parks (r-fr.)

Who’s out the door: WR DeAngelo Benton, WR Emory Blake, FB Blake Burgess, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, WR Anthony Morgan, WR Travante Stallworth

Who’s in the door: WR Marcus Davis (Delray Beach, Fla.), WR Earnest Robinson (Pinson, Ala.), Tony Stevens (Orlando, Fla.), WR Dominic Walker (Orlando, Fla.)

Who’s coaching ‘em up: WRs – Dameyune Craig, 8th year (1st in SEC); TEs/H-backs – Scott Fountain, 13th year (1st in SEC)

Who’d they replace, where are they now: WRs – Trooper Taylor, unemployed; TEs – Jay Boulware, Oklahoma

Thoughts and musings:

- The returning contributors – Quan Bray, Sammie Coates, Jaylon Denson, Ricardo Louis and Trovon Reed – had 33 catches, 378 yards and 3 TD last year. Funny thing is, Bray and Reed combined for 38 receptions by themselves as freshmen in 2011, so the ability is clearly there.

- Bray and Louis are also being counted on – at least initially – to figure in at punt and kick returner. Reed has competed for those positions in the past, but it’d be wiser for the former five-star recruit to work on potentially starting at slot receiver

- Coates was courageous enough (or dumb enough, pending your perspective) to call out the 2012 senior class for not leading the way it should have. He also agreed he’s willing to take on a leadership capacity. He can do it by shoring up his sure-handedness; he dropped some big balls last year that could have swung games.

- Uzomah can play with his hand on the ground at tight end, or split out wide. He’s got the body and athleticism to do either. Don’t be surprised if he ends up Auburn’s leading receiver.

- Prosch should get a chance to block, run and catch in this attack, so fans who grumbled about his limited playing time last fall should be acquiesced.

Photo by Todd Van Emst

Statistically speaking:

9 – Games in which Emory Blake had more than two catches in 2012. Philip Lutzenkirchen did so twice, and Onterio McCalebb once.

3 – Games in which anybody else had more than two catches. One was a receiver (Quan Bray, six vs. Mississippi State), one was a tight end (C.J. Uzomah, three vs. Texas A&M) and one was a tailback (Tre Mason, three vs. Georgia).

13 – Receptions of 20-plus yards by Emory Blake.

11 – Receptions of 20-plus yards by every other returning player combined – led by Uzomah’s three, which were all against Texas A&M.

103, 1022 – Receptions and yards for J.D. McKissic, a freshman receiver (from Central-Phenix City) last year in Gus Malzahn’s and Rhett Lashlee’s only year at Arkansas State. The catches led all freshmen nationally (7th overall) and the yards were third among FBS rookies.

5-10, 185 – McKissic’s measurements.

5-10, 183 – Quan Bray’s measurements.

Quan Bray

Good Twitter follows: CJ Uzomah @CJUzomah81 (5,116 followers) offers the play-by-play from his day, which includes the goings-on with his roommate, Kiehl Frazier. Fan favorite Jay Prosch @DaRealJayProsch (3,278) quotes ‘Remember The Titans’ yet does not care for Band-Aids or ill-tempered ATMs.

Say what? “With receivers, sometimes you play two, three, four, so we have to create competition within that group to be the best player they can be individually to help each other out.” – Craig

March 18, 2013

OLD SCHOOL: Rebuilding Auburn WRs, former Tigers QB Dameyune Craig preaches consistency on and off the football field

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – One day, Dameyune Craig forced himself out of bed to run a few miles as a morning wake-up call. The first time, the second and third and fourth and fifth, they were challenging.

“When I first started off, I had to be consistent,” Craig said. “Now I’m used to it.”

Distance running is a skill and hobby of Craig’s, but it’s not his full-time craft. His is coaching, educating, and mentoring the wide receivers at his alma mater Auburn, a crew of highly-touted young products who largely underachieved in 2012.

Chat live with WarEagleExtra.com’s Aaron Brenner, Thursday 3 p.m. ET

Craig also has four incoming freshmen he convinced to follow him to the Plains – it took two tries, but head coach Gus Malzahn pried Craig away from Florida State to become the Tigers’ co-offensive coordinator.

Consistency, willpower, accountability … these aren’t tangible skills taught and learned in a few practice sessions. Craig refuses to preach the same values day after day – he insists on making it a mindset, swearing to be great no matter what.

“It starts off the field: every day when you wake up, what’s the first thing you do? Brush your teeth, wash your face, comb your hair,” Craig said. “If you do it every day, you’ll become consistent. We want to become consistent doing the small things. If you do the little things right, you go to class every day, it becomes a habit.

“We don’t talk about being consistent; we just make it happen.”

Craig’s former program is a model of consistency – Florida State has the nation’s longest active streak of consecutive winning seasons (35), bowl appearances (31) and bowl victories (5), capped by its 31-10 Orange Bowl domination over Northern Illinois the night of New Year’s Day.

Dameyune CraigTwo days later, Craig, 38, was wooed to Auburn, where he was a two-year starting quarterback in 1996-97. He still remembers idolizing Bo Jackson, Tracy Rocker, Reggie Slack and Stan White among others, primarily for their work ethic.

“I’m from the old school,” Craig said. “They were hard-nosed guys. They were talented, but they worked hard. My first day of practice here, I would see guys running 100-yard sprints after they got the ball. I was like, ‘wow, I’ve got to pick it up.’ So I understood from day one what it took to be an Auburn Tiger.”

That unwavering commitment to greatness may have, well, wavered in previous years, allowing the unthinkable to unfold – embarrassing losses to Arkansas, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama by a combined 167 points.

The new staff, adamantly, isn’t concerned with recent history. Ancient history, however, helped mold Dameyune Craig, who won the Independence and Peach Bowls his junior and senior year, as well as the 1997 SEC Western Division crown.

“I think what we always hung our hat on here: we outworked everybody,” Craig said. “We felt like going into the game, that week, nobody had worked harder than us in the offseason, and during the week, and we felt good about the game. That’s what we’ve got to get back.

“So I’ve got to work these guys as hard as I can so when they step on that field, they feel like they’ve prepared because you’ve outworked everybody you’re going to face.”

One step in the process is complete: landing signed letters of intent from four-star receiver Tony Stevens from Orlando, his high school teammate Dominic Walker, fellow Floridian Marcus Davis and in-state product Earnest Robinson. Another commit from Alabama, Jason Smith, could eventually play receiver, though he’ll start his career working at quarterback.

It’s the Tigers’ greatest position of need; no returning receiver had more than 14 catches in 2012.

“We met the demands,” Craig said. “We got the guy who attacks you deep, we got the guy that stretches you horizontally and we got the guy who makes you miss and stretches the field vertically. Everything we wanted, we hit on all of (it.)”

When Craig joined new head coach Jimbo Fisher’s staff in December 2009, the Seminoles had just sent Bobby Bowden into retirement with a 7-6 season. The program was still on sound footing, but far away from its heyday in the 1990s with 14 consecutive double-digit win seasons.

“It was a shock to me when I stepped on that campus and saw the talent level that was there, what we had to work with and where we had to go,” Craig said. “But we turned it around really, really quick – because we were able to go out to get some great football players that bought into the system, trusted the coaches.”

Fisher, of course, was Auburn’s quarterbacks coach from 1993-98 under Terry Bowden. The coaching tree has branched its way back to Auburn, and Craig is fixated on restoring Auburn to its customary levels of success.

“My coaching style and expectations won’t change for these guys,” Craig said. “I am who I am. It’s ingrained in me. We gotta make them do it, or we gotta find somebody that can. Those are the only two options.”

March 12, 2013

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

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

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

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

Gus Malzahn 9

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Todd Van Emst

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

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

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

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

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