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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.”

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 22, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Defensive line

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

AUBURN Miss State

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts and musings:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Montravius Adams

Statistically speaking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15 – Times Auburn was whistled for offsides in 2012.

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

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

Clemson_Auburn18_9-1-12

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

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

March 12, 2013

2012? What 2012? New Auburn football coaches choose to work with a clean slate

AUBURN FOOTBALL

By AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – It’s not a popularity contest. It’s not up for the fans, media or alumni to decide. It’s not even really up to Rodney Garner or the other coaches, when it boils down to it.

Auburn’s 2013 football starting lineup could easily look like a shell of its former (2012) self, and it’s all based on what happens in positional competition, starting with spring practices opening two weeks from Wednesday.

When guys like 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason aren’t guaranteed playing time – running backs coach Tim Horton’s assessment when assistant coaches discussed the team Feb. 21 – that sets the tone for a rebuilding Auburn program.

Garner obviously has a rapport with the incoming freshmen – Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson, to name three defensive linemen – and knows a few of the returning players from his recruitment attempts to Georgia.

“But they’re all starting at first base with me,” Garner said. “Obviously, it’s wide open, because I haven’t coached any of them. So it’s going to be based on how they perform in workouts, how they progress in spring practice. I have no preconceived ideals about any of them. I’m going to evaluate everybody on their body of work that they do under my watch.”

Special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Scott Fountain, who returns more continuity at those positions than most of his colleagues, is more apt to utilizing 2012 game tape.

Fountain was on Auburn’s support staff last fall, so he’s already familiar with tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse, kicker Cody Parkey, punter Steven Clark and the return and coverage squads.

“I’m going to go back and reevaluate those guys, see what they did last year, maybe even what they did the year before,” Fountain said. “But I’m not going to put a ton of stock into, ‘well, he had a bad year so he’s not any good.’ It’s more evaluating play on his effort every day in practice.”

Both the offensive and defensive playbooks will look completely different than last year’s systems, a big reason why head coach Gus Malzahn chose not to start spring practices until March 27.

“There has to be trust and respect that what you’re telling them is the right thing,” wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said. “We’re building that as a staff, and the kids are responding well to that.”

One of the biggest detractors to reviewing game tape of his players under another coach’s tutelage, Melvin Smith is presently concerned with getting to know his cornerbacks on a personal level.

“I’ve got to focus on trying to get my guys to have a relationship with me,” Smith said, “where they can come and tell me, Coach, you know, my dad is in prison and I’ve got that on my mind. How can you help me get that off my mind so I can focus?

“I don’t think I can develop that relationship overnight, and I don’t think I can develop that relationship chewing ‘em out when they did it right, or praising them when they did it wrong. I’ve got to teach them what I want, and grade them on what I taught them. I’m not going to grade them on what somebody else taught them.”

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes plans to integrate game tape for Malzahn-led teams – i.e. Auburn from 2009-11 and Arkansas State from 2012. But Grimes isn’t completely burning the film from Auburn in 2012.

“I’ll watch it because I’m evaluating athleticism, and how they play in game situations,” Grimes said. “But as far as what they did offensively and what we’re going to do offensively, it’s not the same. So you can’t teach off of it at all.”

February 13, 2013

Pre-spring Q&A: Malzahn mystique, the QB duel are big storylines going into late March

Photo by John Reed

During the season, I conducted Q&As with beat writers with Auburn opponents to take their temperature going into each Saturday’s matchup.

Here in February, The Saturday Edge (@SaturdayEdge), a sports blog encompassing college football around the country turned the mike around. It’s still a long wait of six weeks before Gus Malzahn blows the whistle on his first practice, but here’s what we’re looking at going into spring ball.

The Saturday Edge: 2012 review – How’d Auburn do last year vs. how you thought they’d do? Was Chizik the main reason for Auburn’s disappointing season last year?

Brenner: There’s no way anybody thought whatever … that … was in 2012 could possibly happen on the Plains. The program’s first 0-8 SEC season ever. And that ignominious record doesn’t tell the whole story; Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama were playing the backups by the third quarter in utter destructions of the Tigers. Just three wins – one over an FCS foe, one over a 1-11 WAC team, and one that would’ve been a loss to Louisiana-Monroe if its kicker was halfway capable. Without question, the worst season since a winless 1950 campaign.

Gene Chizik had to go, regardless of what happened in 2010. The program was in dire need of a new direction – we’ll get to that in a minute – and while there were many culprits for last fall’s disaster (poor gameplanning, underachieving stars, a slew of strange injuries, etc.), the responsibility sure landed at the feet of a man who hoisted the BCS crystal ball just two years prior.

The Saturday Edge: What are Auburn’s main strengths heading into spring practice?

Brenner: We can start with Tre Mason, who rushed for his 1,000th yard on the final merciful snap of Auburn’s 2012 season. Let’s just say Adrian Peterson isn’t the only tailback who faces nine-man fronts play after play after play. A junior-to-be, Mason will have some help, too, in the form of highly-touted junior college back Cameron Artis-Payne and a couple of top incoming freshmen Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford. The offensive line and secondary are young, but those positions bear some experience thanks to some growing pains.

Defensive end Dee Ford, if healthy, gives Auburn a bona fide quarterback disrupter. Punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey will be seniors, and they’re both rock-solid. Finally, this is a top-notch coaching staff Gus Malzahn crafted, and the assistants should be counted upon to whip this squad into shape in no time.

Jonathan Wallace

The Saturday Edge: What are Auburn’s main weaknesses?

Brenner: We’ve all heard it said: when you have two quarterbacks, you have none. How about five? Auburn will let Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace duke it out at quarterback in the spring, before three freshmen join the fray this summer. There’s no clear-cut Cam on this squad, so that’s Gus Malzahn’s top task. Calling wide receiver a black hole in 2012 is an insult to black holes – the Tigers must develop some trusted talent there.

The front seven will look much better in the fall than the spring – because recruiting prizes Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel are still wrapping up high school. Just because the new coaches have impressive credentials doesn’t guarantee their schemes will work immediately – the veteran players are now learning their third playbook in as many years.

The Saturday Edge: Your thoughts on the coaching change?

Brenner: Even before the hire was made, you could find a decent amount of Auburn fans who credited the mastermind of Gus Malzahn (Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11) more so than Gene Chizik’s genius for the 2010 national championship. We’ve all seen the seismic shift in college football (and now NFL) offensive philosophies – faster is better. Chip Kelly perfected it, Kevin Sumlin erupted with it, and now it’s Malzahn’s turn to prove to the nation he can manage an entire football program while terrorizing defenses with his hybrid, hurry-up-no-huddle attack.

Malzahn is an absolute machine with his work habits – he will outwork just about anybody else on the recruiting trail, in the film room and everywhere else. Malzahn cleaned house upon his arrival, making it clear this is his program and the past is the past. Throw in the addition of seasoned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, and an army of position coaches with recruiting coordinator experience, and Auburn has most certainly won the offseason. Soon enough, we’ll see if Auburn can win the regular season.