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August 28, 2013

VIDEO: Jake Holland and Alex Kozan meet with media

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Senior linebacker Jake Holland and redshirt freshman left guard Alex Kozan took to the podium on Tuesday as Auburn continues its preparations for Saturday’s season opener against Washington State. Check out video of their interviews below.

Holland

Kozan

August 26, 2013

Auburn football: Coordinators discuss positional rotations prior to depth chart release

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn has yet to release a depth chart heading into its season opener against Washington State on Saturday.

Until that time comes — it is expected to be released at some point Tuesday — which players will fill out the two-deep lineup remains a mystery. One of those positions is safety, where the dismissal of senior safety Demetruce McNeal left a gaping hole.

Senior cornerback Chris Davis (11) was one player Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had no worries about heading into Saturday's season opener versus Washington State. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior cornerback Chris Davis (11) was one player Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had no worries about heading into Saturday’s season opener versus Washington State. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Former cornerback Josh Holsey stepped in at the spot during the spring and stayed there for the duration of fall camp. With McNeal gone and barring any issues arising between now and the opener, Holsey will take the field as the team’s starting boundary safety.

As it stands, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he was comfortable with three safeties as Saturday nears.

“You’ve got Holsey, Ryan Smith and (Jermaine) Whitehead,” Johnson said. “So I think right now, it would have to be some kind of a three-man rotation. Unless one of them got hurt, and then Kiehl Frazier will be ready to go.”

It was the same story at the two linebacker positions, Johnson said, at ease with the trio of Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Anthony Swain.

“I think Jake could move to the Will (line)backer if he had to,” Johnson said of the likely starter at middle linebacker. “Swain’s had a pretty good week of practice. I think first I’d probably put Swain on the field if he played well and did OK. If not, I’d move Jake over there. Frost and Holland are (the) only players at Mike right now.”

Johnson reiterated that view when asked whether weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy would stay on the field in Auburn’s dime package and shift to the middle, where he played last season.

“Cass hasn’t worked any at that,” he said. “It’s just too much for him to learn right now. When we go to dime, whatever Mike linebacker is on the field stays out there. They’re not asked to do anything outside the box. There’s really nothing they physically can’t handle, but we’ll usually leave that mike linebacker on the field. It’s about the fewest number of guys going on and off the field.”

The three-man approach didn’t stop with linebackers and safeties, though. Johnson said it also extended to cornerback, where the Tigers are content with Chris Davis, Jonathon Mincy and Ryan White. Auburn is still trying to find a replacement for Jonathan Jones, who broke a bone in his ankle in an off-field accident near the end of fall camp. No timetable has been announced for his return.

The three players vying for time in Jones’ absence all lack experience, comprised of a redshirt freshman (T.J. Davis) and a pair of true freshmen (Kamryn Melton and Johnathan Ford).

Ford in particular has continued to impress Johnson since moving from running back to cornerback following Jones’ injury.

“Johnathan’s still learning. He’s not ready yet, but he physically is the most impressive of the bunch,” Johnson said. “You never know how much improvement they can make when we restrict the game plan and cut it down for them mentally. Sometimes that hesitation and confusion can lead to playing poorly fundamentally. If we clean that up, I think he is really going to be a good player there.”

Unlike the defense, the offense has few positions still undecided.

One is at right tackle, where Patrick Miller and Avery Young split reps throughout fall camp. Young, however, started to switch between tackle and guard as fall camp came to a close. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee couldn’t find enough good things to say about the sophomore, who sat out spring practice while rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Though the average person may not know finer points of what it takes to be an offensive lineman, Lashlee believed Young would be easy to spot even to the untrained eye.

Young’s talent stands on its own merit.

“He’s an athletic guy,” Lashlee said. “At guard he can really pull. At tackle he’s very athletic, really good in the run game. Shoot, he hasn’t done it yet, but he would probably be a really good center. He’s just a real versatile guy.”

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: Ellis Johnson says Jake Holland has ‘edge’ over Kris Frost at middle linebacker

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. —There’s a new name at the top of Auburn’s middle linebacker depth chart, and he’s no stranger to the starting lineup.

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Sunday that senior Jake Holland, who has started 16 games over the last two seasons, has vaulted past sophomore Kris Frost at the position.

Auburn senior Jake Holland has moved back to the top of the middle linebacker depth chart since  fall camp began. He excited the spring as the backup to Kris Frost at the position. (File photo)

Auburn senior Jake Holland has moved back to the top of the middle linebacker depth chart since fall camp began. He excited the spring as the backup to Kris Frost at the position. (File photo)

“I feel like Jake Holland has had two really good scrimmages,” Johnson said. “Everybody else has been inconsistent. He’s certainly right now got an edge on that starting spot, but it’s still a very good competition between him and Kris.”

Frost’s level of play hasn’t dropped since the spring, heading into the offseason as the No. 1 “Mike” linebacker. Johnson said the bigger factor has been Holland’s improvement.

“Jake’s better than he was in the spring,” he said. “He’s making plays. He’s the most consistent linebacker I’ve got, but he’s also making tackles and he’s done a lot of good things.”

There hasn’t been any change at the weakside spot, though, as Johnson said Cassanova McKinzy remains the starter. But his day-to-day form during fall camp has fluctuated far too much for Johnson.

“(McKinzy) continues to make the best linebacker plays and do some things that you really can’t coach,” he said. “The outstanding physicality, technique and those type of things (are there), but he’s been very inconsistent. Got to get more consistent in assignments and run fits, coverages, all of the above.”

Johnson’s biggest concern with the linebacker corps is finding players to fill out the rotation, ideally identifying four or five who will challenge for playing time.

“Because it’s very seldom that you get through the season with all of them healthy, he said. “Right now, it’s still a little bit muddled.”

There are a few players trying to work their way into the argument, with Johnson mentioning that Kenny Flowers, LaDarius Owens and Javiere Mitchell have been “doing some pretty good things” since fall camp started. They’re still well behind McKinzy, however, and Johnson said it’s the same story at middle linebacker, where Anthony Swain is still far outpaced by Holland and Frost.

Johnson said that inexperience doesn’t excuse some lapses, though.

“I think a little bit of the over-installation has created some of the mental mistakes,but we’re not tackling as well as we should,” he said. “I don’t think we’re doing a lot of things in a lot of areas as well as we should.”

August 7, 2013

Auburn notes: Defense believes it won first scrimmage of the fall ‘hands down’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Jermaine Whitehead had no doubt which unit won Wednesday’s scrimmage.

Of course, the junior safety admitted he’s far from an impartial observer. Nonetheless, he said it was a no-contest in favor of the defense.

“Hands down, we won,” he said. “I don’t care if (the offense) put up a hundred. We won.”

Senior linebacker Jake Holland was pleased with the defense's performance in Wednesday's scrimmage. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Senior linebacker Jake Holland was pleased with the defense’s performance in Wednesday’s scrimmage, calling it ‘a progressive day.’ (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

While he was being a bit factitious, Whitehead walked off the field feeling good about the unit’s performance. However, he reined in his enthusiasm a bit when asked for a letter grade.

“I’d say, B, B-minus” he said. “But I won’t know until I watch the film. I think we made some great plays. I think it was probably way better than a B. But being hard on myself, I always want to get better, so I never give (things) an A.”

Jake Holland was more restrained in his assessment of the scrimmage.

“I felt like today was a good day,” he said. “There were mistakes made, but there were some good plays, too. … I thought it was a progressive day. I thought we got better.”

The senior linebacker was just happy to get back on the field, seeking to further distance himself from the Tigers’ disastrous 3-9 record last year.

“It’s definitely a different feel,” he said. “Our calls and adjustments, we’re able to get them in really fast and play really fast. That’s allowing us to make plays. That’s helping us a lot.”

Whitehead agreed.

“We all seen great strides especially from the spring,” he said. “I think we learned the defense, it kind of (sunk in) on us and we got a chance to run it and perfect it. Some day we (will run) it to perfection. We missed a play or two a day, but we’re going to get it perfect. We’re going to get it right.”

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes absent

A key piece of Auburn’s coaching staff was missing from Wednesday’s scrimmage.

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was absent after having an undisclosed medical procedure performed earlier in the day. Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn said Grimes won’t be gone for long, though.

“He’ll be back tomorrow,” Malzahn said. “It shouldn’t be a problem.”

To fill the void, Malzahn stepped in to help the offensive line “a little bit more” during the scrimmage. He wasn’t alone, as offensive graduate assistant Johnny Brewer pitched in, too.

“And of course, (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee was on top of them a little bit more,” Malzahn said. “I think we just all combined. We’ve got good leadership and (junior center) Reese Dismukes. It wasn’t an issue today.”

Indoor scrimmage doesn’t hinder Tigers

Jordan-Hare Stadium was originally the intended venue for Wednesday’s scrimmage.

Mother Nature had other ideas.

Rough weather moved into the area before the Tigers stepped on the field, soaking the playing surface. Though it cleared up, Auburn decided to move the scrimmage back to its indoor practice facility.

It wasn’t ideal, but Malzahn didn’t think his team was negatively affected by holding the scrimmage indoors.

“I was curious to see how our kids would react,” he said. “I know there’s nothing like going into our stadium but I was really impressed with the way our players were excited to scrimmage.”

Whitehead proved to be the embodiment of that sentiment.

“Football is football,” he said. “We’ll play in the parking lot. I want to play football.”

Quick hits

Safety Demetruce McNeal sat out the scrimmage, marking the 11th consecutive practice he has missed dating back to the spring. He is day-to-day after having minor surgery caused by an infection. … There were no injuries to report following the scrimmage. “I think everybody made it out pretty much OK,” Malzahn said. …. The Tigers will likely have two practices tomorrow, according to Malzahn. “We’ll have another good practice,” he said. (Then) we’ll focus on some special teams in the second practice.”

Auburn football: Quarterbacks take licks and dish them out as no-contact ban lifted during scrimmage

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn spiced up Auburn’s four-way quarterback battle on Wednesday.

Each of the four quarterbacks fighting to become Auburn's starter got "fairly equal" reps during Wednesday's scrimmage. With the no-contact ban on them lifted, the signal-callers took some hits and dished them out, too. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Each of the four quarterbacks fighting to become Auburn’s starter got “fairly equal” reps during Wednesday’s scrimmage. With the no-contact ban on them lifted, the signal-callers took some hits and dished them out, too. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

With the Tigers holding their first scrimmage of fall camp, the head coach decided to make the quarterbacks “live,” meaning they were fair game for defenders. All four candidates for the position — Kiehl Frazier, Jonathan Wallace, Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson  took snaps during the scrimmage, with Malzahn saying they had “fairly equal reps.”

Malzahn couldn’t think of a better way to assess the quartet than to open them up to contact.

“I thought it was very important, especially when you’re trying to evaluate four guys, to give them a chance to make plays, just like a regular football game,” he said. “So that’s the way we ended up.”

The last time Malzahn could recall lifting the “no-contact” restriction on quarterbacks at practice was at some point during the spring. But it’s not every day a team has so many quarterbacks bidding for the starting spot this close to the regular season, either. It wasn’t a decision Malzahn sprung on his signal-callers at the last minute.

The coaching staff informed them of the plan earlier this week, wanting to give them time to mentally prepare for it.

“When it’s not live, you’re blowing the whistle,” Malzahn said. “You don’t if they could break a tackle, you don’t know if they’d escape pressure. It gives you a chance to evaluate them. I think all four guys were extremely excited to be live.”

The defense was excited as well, according to Jermaine Whitehead.

The junior safety described the mood among defenders when the news first surfaced.

“Seeing them put on the blue jerseys today definitely put a smile on our face as a defense,” he said. “We got a chance to get after them today.”

Being a member of the secondary, it was added motivation for Whitehead, who said the quarterbacks run their mouths a bit too much for his liking.

“Man, don’t let them complete a pass,” Whitehead said. “They carry it on for the rest of the day. Whoever completes a pass is going to talk.”

The defense was able to silence the signal-callers a few times during the scrimmage, as Whitehead happily noted there were at least two interceptions, maybe three.

“I don’t want to miss nobody,” he said. “I know Chris Davis had one and Jake Holland had one while I was on the field. I don’t know who had ones on the second and third teams.”

Holland was already enthused when he heard there were no limitations on tackling.

Picking off a pass was just icing on the cake.

“We were doing a little blitz in red zone,” the senior linebacker said. “I was a hole player. I was spying the quarterback. I got lucky because he threw it right to me. It was about a 70-yard return.”

Seventy yards was good.

It just wasn’t good enough.

“I was gassed at the end,” he said. “I was caught at about the 20-yard line.”

The interceptions weren’t the only way the defense made it tough on the quarterbacks. Whitehead said they got their fair share of licks, too.

“We got to them in a couple of sacks and smashed down to the ground a little bit,” he said, “but I don’t think we got to take anybody’s head off.”

But the quarterbacks dished it out just as well as they took it when they decided to keep the ball themselves.

“The ones that think they bad, they can run somebody over,” Whitehead said. “They took their chances with the ball when they got it. They got that yardage. They tried to hit us back, which was good to see from me — that they would deliver a blow.”

That’s exactly the kind of give-and-take Malzahn hoped to see when he opted to go live.

Whether the Tigers will make the quarterbacks open to contact again is a topic for another day, though.

“I don’t know. I’ll sit down with (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee and we’ll see where we’re at,” Malzahn said. “It’s a possibility.”

August 6, 2013

Tigers still trying to sort out playing time at linebacker

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s veteran linebackers put the summer to good use.

Sophomore weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy is one player who likely won't have to worry about his playing time this fall. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wasn't nearly as certain about the rest of the positional depth chart. (File photo)

Sophomore weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy is one player who likely won’t have to worry about his playing time this fall. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wasn’t nearly as certain about the rest of the positional depth chart. (File photo)

It didn’t take long for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to notice, either.

Every player picked up fall camp right where they left off in the spring — if not a tick better, Johnson said. From the weight they’ve lost in offseason workouts to the retention of coverage assignments, Johnson couldn’t be more pleased.

Now, the next test waits.

“The physicality of it, we don’t know,” Johnson said. “We’ve been running around with shorts, so we really don’t know. We’ll start to find out more in the next few days.”

The Tigers will don full pads for the first time this fall during Tuesday’s practice. And that’s when Johnson and the rest of the defensive coaching staff will weed out those who are merely workout warriors.

“Sometimes a player that doesn’t look real cute in a drill, he’s just a good natural player,” Johnson said. “Sometimes (you have) a player that can do all the things when you walk through the barrels and go out and run it five minutes later and he’s good, but when you run it five days later, he can’t remember. We’ll just have to see who surfaces.”

Like nearly every other position on the team, Johnson said he hasn’t begun to put together any semblance of a depth chart.

“I feel like there’s a few guys that have an edge on other guys but it’s certainly too early to say that a player has not played his way into contention or doesn’t have a chance,” he said. “We haven’t done enough at this point for me to tell you if a guy can play linebacker or not.”

Johnson had no worries about three of his most experienced players. With Kris Frost and Jake Holland battling for supremacy in the middle and Cassanova McKinzy on the weakside, Johnson was confident the Tigers wouldn’t lack for leadership.

McKinzy, in particular, has impressed Johnson with the gains he made in the offseason.

“He’s lost some weight and his change of direction — redirect on counters, coming out of your break when you drop in zone and those types of things, just acceleration and explosion to the point of attack — he’s gotten better and he can practice longer at a high tempo,” Johnson said. “He would not finish a practice and I felt like he was too heavy and out of shape. He did a good job of dropping some pounds and I think it really shows.”

Another pair of linebackers have made their presence known, too.

Anthony Swain has improved,” Johnson said. “Swain has moved into the Mike (middle) linebacker and LaDarius Owens has moved out to the Will (weakside). That took them a couple of days. They were a little out of sorts but they’ve started to pick things up.”

Owens has been moving between back and forth, though Johnson said his preference is to keep him at weakside for now. And Owens isn’t the only one cross-training at the two positions. To keep his options open, Johnson said there are multiple players learning both the Mike’s and Will’s responsibilities.

One player who may work his way into that rotation before fall camp concludes is Kenny Flowers.

Johnson couldn’t heap enough praise on the junior college transfer, enamored with his size and physical tools.

All Flowers has to do now is learn the defense.

“Physically, he’s in the right company. He belongs right where he is in the SEC,” Johnson said. “I think he’s going to give us some good plays this year. Everything right now is sort of a crystal ball. I don’t know that he is (going to be good), but I think he will.”

August 1, 2013

‘Winning my spot back’ drives Jake Holland entering fall camp

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn players never got tired of hearing the bell in the locker room this summer.

Senior linebacker Jake Holland was excited to see many of his teammates set personal records in the weight room this summer. Now he's ready to win wrest the starting middle linebacker spot away from Kris Frost. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Senior linebacker Jake Holland was excited to see many of his teammates set personal records in the weight room this summer. Now he’s ready to wrest the starting middle linebacker spot away from Kris Frost. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

When the bell rang, it meant good things were happening, signifying that someone in the locker room achieved a personal record. The player doing the honors of ringing the bell, of course, was the same one who set a new high.

“When somebody rings the bell, it fuels the emotions in the weight room,” linebacker Jake Holland said Thursday. “Everybody gets pumped up and cheers everybody on. It makes it more of a unit instead of just one guy getting better.”

Strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell’s program has done wonders for the Tigers, Holland said. Not just from helping them get into better shape, but due to the spirit of competition it fostered.

“He gives us goals, the PRs (personal records), that we like to hit,” Holland said. “A lot of people have hit that. That gives you a goal, a platform, to get better every week.”

Holland will similarly have to use fall camp as a platform to state his case for increased playing time. After starting 16 games over the last two seasons, Holland enters fall camp as the backup to Kris Frost at middle linebacker. In his four years at Auburn, Holland said he couldn’t recall a time when there was so much competition among the linebackers unit.

The Pelham, Ala., native welcomed the challenge it presents.

“I’m looking forward to getting better, going out there and learning from Coach (Ellis) Johnson and winning my spot back,” he said.

As tough as it is for an experienced player like Holland to crack the starting lineup, it’s even tougher for an incoming freshman joining the fray. It’s not just about learning what to do on the field. It means adapting to living on your own for the first time and dealing with the rigors of college-level classes.

So what advice does Holland have for true freshman Cameron Toney?

“Cameron and I are good friends,” he said. “I’m looking forward to passing it along to him, teaching him what I know. I’m looking forward to this camp to see what he has to offer. Coming from high school, it’s a big step. You’re living on your own. You’re having to go by a schedule everyday. It’s a little different. If you have guys ahead of you to show you the ropes like I did, it makes it a lot easier.”

July 24, 2013

Despite missing time in the spring, Jake Holland where he ‘wants to be’ headed into fall camp

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — At the beginning of the summer, Jake Holland set a goal for himself.

Auburn senior Jake Holland enters fall camp as the backup to Kris Frost at middle linebacker.

Auburn senior Jake Holland enters fall camp as the backup to Kris Frost at middle linebacker.

Tipping the scales at 245 pounds, he wanted to trim off five pounds to get to 240. After a summer full of workouts, he can consider that goal reached. And in addition to cutting five pounds from his figure, he also decreased his body fat from 14 percent to 12 percent.

Most of the credit, he said, is due to the strength and conditioning program of coach Ryan Russell, who held a similar position with Gus Malzahn last year at Arkansas State.

“Coach Russell’s strength program is very, very good,” Holland said Tuesday, which marked the last day of Auburn’s summer workouts. “We’re enthusiastic in the workouts. Each, to a man, I believe, we all got stronger and faster. I really enjoyed his system.”

Of course, the senior linebacker didn’t get into better shape for no reason. He wants to see the field more this fall after starting 10 games last season, when he collected 73 tackles. Holland believes he’s now at his optimum playing weight.

And he pointed out it doesn’t hurt that defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme complements the Tigers so well, since they boast a wealth of quick-twitch defenders.

“It’s definitely a high-tempo defense,” he said. “I would say that it gives us more of an edge because it matches up with the speed offenses in the SEC.”

Holland has worked at both the “Mike” (middle) and “Will” (weakside) linebacker spots during the team’s “captain’s practices,” but said his preference is to play in the middle. There’s only one problem: Kris Frost stands in his way at the moment, heading into fall camp as the Tigers’ starting middle linebacker.

But Holland said there was “no tension” between he and Frost, and that the only thing he cares about is the entire team getting better.

“We’re all here together,” he said. “Whoever Coach Johnson decides to start, that’s what he decides. But, as far as there being a nice rotation, that’s what I like because any time you’re playing 80 to 90 snaps a game your body is going to wear down. The rotation is going to be a huge help for us with all of the depth at linebacker, because now we’ll have two instead of three.”

Holland isn’t just playing behind Frost at the moment, either.

He is literally playing from behind after missing some practices and numerous meetings in the spring because of a class conflict.

But what he may have missed in the spring is balanced by the seasoning he’s had the last three years.

“I don’t necessarily feel mentally behind because I have some SEC experience playing in the past,” he said. “With the time during the summer I’ve been able to study and know the defense. I’m ready to go. It’s just about getting reps and making sure that I get to the position I want to be.”

Besides, with a new coaching staff, Holland noted “you have to prove yourself” more than once to show you”re worthy of playing time. Johnson, the man who will ultimately dictate how much Holland gets on the field this fall, knew it was “hard” for the Pelham, Ala., native to “no-show” for practices and meetings this spring, especially when trying to learn a new system.

College football can be cruel that way sometimes.

“Had he been in the same system going into his senior year after four years, I probably wouldn’t hardly rep him,” Johnson said. “Putting in a new system and a new defense, it wasn’t a good situation for him. He’s close to already graduating and he’s in his last year. It’s something that could not be moved. We had to leave it where it was. We practiced and met in the mornings. It was very unusual that he had that class conflict.”

Even if he was an unquestioned starter, however, Holland said he would still practice with the same intensity.

“Just because you have to be ready for the season and you’re coming off the summer ready to go,” he said. “As far as where I stand, everything is right where I want to be.”

And the place Holland wants the Tigers to be is in a bowl. Yes, the team is “excited to get started” and “ready to move on” from last season. Those mantras will be repeated to nigh infinity until Aug. 31 rolls around and Auburn tees it up against Washington State.

Holland said it should go without saying that winning championships — both of the SEC and BCS variety — is what the Tigers are striving to achieve in 2013. A bowl, however, is the “minimum” that would be acceptable for Holland to deem the season a successful one.

Good thing Holland believes the Tigers are primed to make a run to the postseason, then.

“From what I see, going off past years, this team is probably the closest we’ve been in a long time,” he said. “Bowl capability? There’s no doubt in my mind.”

April 29, 2013

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn defensive line, linebackers & defensive backs spring rundown

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the third and final piece of a three-part series, revisiting the past month in Auburn spring football and taking stock of valuable developments.

Adopting the style of WarEagleExtra.com’s popular “7 at 7” features, let’s go through seven bullet points of what you need to know about the Tigers’ defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.

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Photo by Todd Van Emst

We learned the most promising defender Auburn has to offer isn’t, in fact, a lineman, linebacker, cornerback or safety.

But he is a star in the making. A shooting star. A star on the rise. And other groan-worthy puns you’re bound to hear over and over connected to junior hybrid Justin Garrett.

“Justin Garrett’s been the best player we’ve had on defense, if you just measure all 12 full-speed practices we’ve had at this point,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “He’s probably made as many impact plays and has played as well as any player on that side of the ball. So that was a very pleasant accomplishment.”

He’s fast enough to play safety and large enough to play linebacker, but mainly, Garrett’s hard-hitting presence is why his expectations have soared.

“I’ll tell you what, he has had an outstanding spring,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “Coach Johnson, I believe, has him in the right position, letting him play.”

Unless Garrett’s humble to a fault in his first month in the spotlight – entirely possible – he’s not even sure he’s close to fulfilling his potential.

“I feel like overall (my spring) was OK. I’ve just got to get back and watch film on my own and see what I can do better,” Garrett said after A-Day. “Technique and fundamentals, I feel like I can improve a lot.”

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We learned Malzahn is hands-off with the defense. Johnson has the keys, Charlie Harbison’s riding shotgun, and Rodney Garner and Melvin Smith are back-seat drivers … but the vehicle is titled in Malzahn’s name. If that makes sense.

Let me put it this way: Malzahn fielded ten questions after the A-Day scrimmage pertaining specifically to the offense. He took three on the defense.

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We learned playing against the hurry-up, no-huddle offense for three and a half weeks will work to naturally benefit Auburn’s defense.

“It’s real. At the beginning of the spring it was tough but we figured we would eventually get used to it,” senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “It’s hard to get used to that pace but you just come out there every day and you get better. You have to focus on the technique and the little things.

“We came out and continued to work, and we’re starting to get used to that pace for sure.”

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AUBURN FOOTBALL

We learned cornerback should not be a problem position in 2013.

Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are entrenched with the first unit – Johnson specifically mentioned them as starters – but there’s plenty of depth behind them in Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Jones, Ryan White and Robenson Therezie.

“I think our corners have tackled extremely well,” Johnson said. “This offense forces your perimeter players to make a lot of open-field tackles, and our corners have been outstanding.”

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We learned safety might be a problem position in 2013.

Because of Demetruce McNeal’s absence the final five practices including A-Day (though a recent tweet indicated he might be good to go) and Erique Florence leaving the program, Harbison had to squeeze water from a rock. Jermaine Whitehead better stay healthy and maintain his progress. Because other than him, it’s Ryan Smith, former walk-on Trent Fisher with a sore ankle, Holsey moving over from corner, and walk-ons.

Brandon King will have his chance from day one. So will Khari Harding and maybe Mackenro Alexander. That position’s a little frightening right now.

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We learned the first four on the field at defensive line were ahead of the rest of their backups in the middle of spring. Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter on the ends, and Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright at tackle seemed to be the top group, though Angelo Blackson had a nagging shoulder.

Eguae should get reps, Keymiya Harrell’s leg will heal and Carl Lawson arrives this summer, so the DE depth should improve. Speaking of incoming freshmen, it’s been said all along: Montravius Adams probably makes the rotation from day one. But Garner’s goal of five game-ready tackles and five game-ready ends by Labor Day seems a bit ambitious at the moment.

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We learned we’re going to find out real quick what Jake Holland’s made of.

Johnson praised Holland early and often for his maturity, trusting him to learn both mike and will linebacker positions. But when Holland had to miss numerous practices for a mandatory course in his major, the senior fell behind on the depth chart, giving Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy every opportunity to take the job away.

Holland has played in 31 games, starting 16. He hasn’t always been the most popular player on the team to fans or message board lurkers. As a rare senior on this team, Holland’s senior leadership could hold the same value as T’Sharvan Bell last year, and that’s nothing to be taken for granted.