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August 9, 2013

Scott Fountain says Gage Batten ‘really coming on’ at H-back (and quotes)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — The light is starting to come on for Gage Batten.

Tight ends/H-back coach Scott Fountain praised the progress of Gage Batten since switching from linebacker this summer. (File photo)

Tight ends/H-back coach Scott Fountain praised the progress of Gage Batten since switching from linebacker this summer. (File photo)

After struggling during the first few practices of fall camp, the former linebacker has started to turn the corner on grasping his responsibilities as an H-back. The redshirt freshman’s improvement has been significant, according to his new position coach, Scott Fountain.

“These last two practices, he’s really come on,” Fountain said. “We felt like if we could bring him over (to the offense), he could be a good blocker for us on our power, our counter game. It’s what we needed, and he’s starting to show a lot of promise. I’m really excited for the young guy.”

Batten’s position change took on more importance after Ricky Parks was dismissed for a violation of team rules on the first day of fall camp. Parks exited the spring as the Jay Prosch’s backup. Fountain said if Batten was still on defense, it likely would have meant an increased role for both C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse at H-back.

He’s just glad that situation is only a hypothetical at this point.

“(Batten) making the progress that he has really got me very, very excited,” Fountain said, “regardless of whether we would have had (Parks) or not.”

 MORE FOUNTAIN QUOTES

On the improvements he’s seen from Prosch, Uzomah and Brandon Fulse:

“C.J. is a guy I told after the spring, ‘The thing we’re going to have to get you better at is run-blocking. I want you to focus on that this summer.’ And in camp I’ve been super impressed with how far he’s come. I see a guy that I feel like can really help us as a split-side tight end and in the backfield, whereas Jay is kind of a backfield guy at heart. Then we’ve got Brandon Fulse who has stood out at the 5 and at tight end. … And at times, you’ll see them on the field together.”

On Prosch’s pass-catching:

“I knew he could block this spring, but I wasn’t sure what else he could do. And boy, he’s a guy that can catch, and he just keeps getting better and better. He’s a guy that we can trust catching the football.”

More on Fulse’s progress:

“He’s more focused in terms of what we’re doing in our route game. He’s a guy that can block fairly well coming out of spring. In high school he (played) in tight spaces, and now we’re doing a lot more of that with them. He’s a guy that’s an emerging player in practice, so I’m expecting some big things out of him this year, too.”

On Uzomah’s versatility allowing him to play at nearly any offensive skill position:

“He’s a guy that No. 1, is willing to do it. You’re normally catching the ball, and now you’ve got to put your hand down and block Dee Ford. So that part is really hard. And then once past that, then you’ve got the mental aspect of learning the different positions. There is some carryover, but I think he’s the guy who’s most versatile for us, and those guys are really hard to find.

On how much his background as a high school quarterback helps:

“Coach Malzahn is really big on wanting to sign quarterbacks and inserting them into the offense. And I think that’s been really big for (Uzomah), but I also think his approach to it. There’s no question his quarterback background in high school him understand the whole grand scheme of coverages and fronts and things like that.”

August 6, 2013

Auburn notes: Tigers cut Tuesday practice short to focus on first scrimmage of fall

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s players got a bit of a reprieve on Tuesday.

With the team's first scrimmage of the fall on tap Wednesday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made the decision to cut Tuesday's practice short. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

With the team’s first scrimmage of the fall on tap Wednesday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made the decision to cut Tuesday’s practice short. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

The fifth practice of the fall marked the first time the Tigers had on full pads, finally giving players the chance to take part in contact drills. But it didn’t last for long, as head coach Gus Malzahn made the decision to end practice early.

No need to get players too banged up with the first scrimmage of the fall set to take place on Wednesday, after all.

“We just want to make sure everybody gets to the scrimmage somewhat fresh and has a chance to mentally prepare because it will be a big scrimmage for us,” Malzahn said. “Not only for players, but (for) the coaches evaluating them.”

Jay Prosch couldn’t want to get back inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for the first time since the A-Day game.

“Really just looking for the plays, people getting the plays right, lining up right, being fast and execution, obviously,” he said. “That’s what getting everybody working together as one unit. That’s what I’m looking for mostly and hopefully we can do that.”

The senior was also pleased with the Tuesday’s practice, since the burly fullback never shies away from an opportunity show off his physicality.

“Finally able to hit somebody instead of using your hands and slowing down before contact,” he said. “So it was nice.”

Fellow senior Craig Sanders is equally anxious for the scrimmage to arrive. The defensive end said the coaching staff told them to treat it like the first game of the NFL preseason.

“During the scrimmages we have to show out because they’ll start evaluating us,” he said. “That will determine who is going to be on the scout team and who is not going to be on the scout team.”

Malzahn said the format for the scrimmage will involve only the most basic schemes offensive and defensively.

“The main thing is to evaluate our players and try to put them in different situations,” he said. “Really, (just) try to get on the field to make plays.”

Malzahn continues stonewalling on quarterbacks

In what has become routine since fall camp opened, Malzahn talked only in generalities about the quarterback race. In fact, he refused to even address any of the four candidates for the job by name. But Malzahn did say “the two new guys” — junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson — are starting to get more comfortable with the offense.

“You can tell, as far as the procedures pre-play and I think they’re getting a better understanding,” he said. “We’re putting our installs in, so there’s a lot going on.”

Marshall did make one mistake during the portion of practice open to reporters. While working on handoff drills with Cameron Artis-Payne, Marshall mishandled the exchange and fumbled the ball away.

Malzahn didn’t make much of it, though.

“As a coach you make sure, no matter what it is, that ball security is very important to us and it starts with the quarterback,” Malzahn said. “He just got here. He’s learning the expectations and everything that goes with that.”

When asked how much closer the coaching staff is to naming a favorite, Malzahn said the team continues to stay “open-minded.”

“There’s some ups and downs and stuff like that,” he said. “One guy plays better each practice than the other, but I think they are all four solid quarterbacks.”

And it should go without saying how important the scrimmage will be when the coaching staff begins to mold the positional depth chart. Regardless, Malzahn said Marshall, Johnson, Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier have been reminded of the scrimmage’s significance.

“I really believe they’ll be ready,” Malzahn said. “There’s nothing better to evaluate a quarterback than a scrimmage situation with live bullets coming and everything that goes with that. Some people find a way to raise their level and some people get a little nervous.”

Second-team offensive line mixes up rotation

Jordan Diamond has been practicing at right guard with the second-team offensive line since the beginning of fall camp. But Will Adams was in his place at Tuesday’s practice.

Malzahn said it was just a matter of rotating players into different personnel groupings.

“We try to give them opportunity with different groups and all that until you get to the scrimmages,” he said. “(Then) things will start taking care of themselves, but right now we’re just trying to give them some opportunities.”

Quick hitters

Malzahn confirmed that safety Demetruce McNeal missed his fifth practice of the fall and 10th in a row dating back to the spring, still recovering from a minor surgical procedure caused by an infection. Malzahn expects the senior to be back at practice “in the next few days.” … After Ricky Parks was dismissed last week, Prosch said Gage Batten has been getting the lion’s share of reps behind him at H-back. “He came over from linebacker, so he’s been adjusting,” Prosch said. “He’s never blocked before in his entire life so he’s been adjusting to that but he’s done a really good job. (He’s) finally starting to feel it out and get a good hang of it.”

August 5, 2013

Auburn notes: Ellis Johnson explains finer points of the star position, Rhett Lashlee says receivers showing ‘inconsistency’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Ellis Johnson didn’t mind teaching a little “Football 101″ on Monday.

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was happy to explain to reporters how the "star" position functions in his 4-2-5 scheme following Monday's practice. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was happy to explain to reporters how the “star” position functions in his 4-2-5 scheme following Monday’s practice. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

During its limited viewing window at practice, media members saw Auburn’s defense working on its dime package. On a few of the run-throughs, the Tigers had two of their hybrid safety/linebacker “stars” — Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie — on the field simultaneously.

Not surprisingly, Johnson was asked about it after practice.

And the defensive coordinator was more than happy to enlighten those not “in the know.” He explained that the star functions, for all intents and purposes, as a weakside linebacker.

“There’s a lot more carry-over to what the star does every day fundamentally and his zone drops,” Johnson said. “He can take it to the other side of the ball and it’s almost a mirror in zone coverage techniques. Then you’ve got a faster guy who skill-wise can matchup on a decent wide receiver.”

One of the benefits of the hybrid position is that nearly any linebacker or bigger defensive back with “football intelligence” can learn to play it.

“I’ve had guys be the extra back that played corner as a starter,” Johnson said. “Guys that played free safety drop down there and play the nickel and bring in a new free safety.”

But there can be drawbacks to moving someone to the star as well, Johnson said.

Sometimes players used to playing outside don’t do well on the inside, since they tend to struggle with zone coverage. Or taking a player who has spent a majority of his career on the back end of a defense doesn’t respond well to moving closer to the line of scrimmage.

“He’s not always a great blitzer or a a great guy that can play the draw or the lead draw and get in the box and those types of things,” Johnson said. “It doesn’t always mean it’s (good).”

That’s why Johnson is thankful to have both Garrett and Therezie manning the hybrid spot.

“I don’t know how many more talented kids we have on the football team, physically,” he said, “and they’re learning a position that has a lot of transition advantages.”

Lashlee sets record straight on Denson’s position

Tight end C.J. Uzomah caused a bit of a stir on Sunday when he said receiver Jaylon Denson was seeing time at tight end. Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee put that rumor to bed quickly.

Melvin (Ray) and Jaylon have really been working at our slot receiver spot,” he said on Monday. “They haven’t been playing hand-down tight end any.”

Lashlee said Uzomah and Gage Batten have “been getting a lot of reps” at tight end, though, and that he feels fine about the depth of the position.

Lashlee couldn’t say the same about the team’s wide receivers, saying there has been “a lot of inconsistency” since fall camp started.

“I do see improvement,” he said. “We’ve got guys that are playmakers. Now it’s just a matter of those guys deciding they want to be playmakers every day.”

Johnson sheds light on McNeal’s absence

Johnson revealed that safety Demetruce McNeal has missed the first four days of practice due to an infection which required minor surgery, saying the senior is still day-to-day.

“I don’t want to say anything more than that because I don’t know,” he said. “We’ve been told we won’t have him for several days.”

Johnson hopes the Tigers get the senior “back as soon as we can.” And it’s not just for the benefit of the position, where Johnson acknowledged depth is still a concern.

If McNeal misses too much time, it would put him in jeopardy of missing the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31.

“If you can’t put on a game jersey, you can’t play,” Johnson said. “And I don’t mean that facetiously, but obviously, he can’t play right now, so we’ve got to have a plan. But we fully expect him to be ready soon enough to get ready to go before the first game. I don’t know all the medical details, but it’s something that’s got to heal up.”

Quick hitters

Through the first four days of practice, Johnson admitted the coaching staff has “probably overloaded” the younger members of the defense. “But there’s just no way around it,” he said. “A lot of times when the defense can’t hit without pads, one thing you like to do is really put your focus on install. Once you get the pads you go back to fundamentals. We’ll slow down a little with that part on the mental overload and hopefully kids will start to polish things up.” …  Lashlee wasn’t sure whether the team would do any full-contact, 11-on-11 drills on Tuesday, which marks the first practice the Tigers will put on full pads. “I know it’s possible,” he said. “But I haven’t seen the (final) practice plan yet, so I don’t know.”

August 3, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn addresses depth at H-back, updates quarterback race

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — After Ricky Parks was dismissed for a “violation of team rules” on Friday, Auburn’s depth at H-back took a hit just one day into its fall camp.

Following the second day of fall camp on Saturday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn both the H-back and tight end positions will have to be reshuffled to address depth issues. (File photo)

Following the second day of fall camp on Saturday, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said both the H-back and tight end positions will have to be reshuffled to address depth issues. (File photo)

Parks came out of the spring as Jay Prosch’s backup at H-back on the Tigers’ two-deep depth chart. Gus Malzahn isn’t worried, though.

Auburn’s head coach said they’ll just have to move some players around a bit more.

“Right now, we’ve got C.J. Uzomah doing a little bit,” Malzahn said Saturday. “Obviously Brandon Fulse has done that before. We’re kind of playing around with Gage Batten and a couple of other guys. They’ll be more defined probably in the next two or three days, because that position is also a position that when you have pads on, you can properly evaluate better than you can with just helmets.”

Uzomah and Fulse also are expected to share snaps at tight end. Malzahn said the position was something the team is “still working through.” Like H-back, the tight end spot will have various players shuffled in and out to bolster the unit.

“There’s three or four guys that we’re talking about,” said Malzahn, though he declined to name specific players.

No separation in quarterback battle

Those hoping to see much of an update in the Tigers’ four-way quarterback battle will have to keep waiting. Malzahn said Saturday’s proceedings were “similar” to Friday’s, though he noted newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson looked more comfortable on Day 2.

“We’re throwing a lot at them, just from the sideline,” he said. “They’re feeling more comfortable with (the) sideline (calls). They were able to relax a little bit more and play football.”

Meanwhile, veterans Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace continued to show their command of the offense, much the way they did during spring practice.

“Any time you’re comfortable doing something and you’ve been through a spring and you kind understand what to expect and different looks (it helps),” Malzahn said. “There’s nothing like experience.”

Sunday’s practice will take on a different look than the first two days, as Malzahn said the signal-callers will “mix and match” more.

But the coach cautioned they’re still in the early stages of what figures to be a long race to decide who starts against Washington State on Aug. 31.

“We won’t throw them into the fire until we think they’re ready,” Malzahn said, “but it’ll be very quick.”

McNeal inactive for second straight practice

Safety Demetruce McNeal made progress in one area on Saturday: He put on a helmet for the first time this fall. However, just like Friday’s practice, he sat out team and position drills for the second straight day. Malzahn said he expects the team’s top returning tackler to be back at full speed “fairly soon.”

“It’s not anything major,” Malzahn said. “We just want to make sure he’s 100 percent before we get him back out there. He’s a veteran guy and has a lot of experience.”

Despite his inactivity thus far, Malzahn was confident the senior won’t miss a beat when he rejoins the secondary and attempts to capture the starting spot at boundary safety.

“He’ll have a chance to compete for playing time, just like the rest of them,” Malzahn said. “But he does have experience, and that usually helps.”

Quick hitters

Wide receiver Trovon Reed has been one of four players fielding punts at practice the first two days of fall camp. He said there haven’t been any muffs — yet. “I don’t want to jinx us,” he said. … Defensive back Joshua Holsey said he picked off a pass during practice. Wallace was the unlucky victim. “It came off a tipped ball, so I was fortunate to get a good one today,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll probably get some more to try and catch them slipping.” … Prior to Saturday’s practice, two Tigers received their bachelor’s degrees in commencement ceremonies. Defensive back Ryan Smith majored in Public Administration, while defensive end Craig Sanders was a Human Development and Family Studies major.