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July 19, 2013

Auburn notes: Rhett Lashlee hopes to know starting quarterback by mid-August (UPDATED w/video)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — If things turn out the way offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee hopes, Auburn will know who its starting quarterback will be a few weeks into fall camp.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee met with media members on Friday to discuss the Tigers' quarterback battle heading into the fall along with other topics.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee met with media members on Friday to discuss the Tigers’ quarterback battle heading into the fall along with other topics.

But the Tigers won’t come to a decision until they are sure they have settled on the right person for the job — simply put, the player who gives the team the best chance at winning. Lashlee said there was “no cutoff line” as far as when as when the starter will be named.

“We have on our mind a date that, ‘Hey, we’d like to know by now,’” Lashlee said on Friday. “As quick as we can make that decision, we’re going to make it. When it becomes evident that this is the individual that needs to lead our football team and gives us the best chance to win, I don’t think you wait.”

In Lashlee’s best-case scenario, one of the four candidates for the position — junior Kiehl Frazier, sophomore Jonathan Wallace, junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson — will set himself apart from the others early on. That way, the starter will get a chance to build a rapport with his teammates.

“You give your team as much time leading up to that first game as you can to develop continuity,” Lashlee said, “and give them all the reps with the right guys.”

Since all four players are able to create plays with their feet, Lashlee said making them go “live” in practice and available for defenders to bring down won’t play a major factor in distancing one candidate from another. Lashlee echoed head coach Gus Malzahn in noting that with each member of the quartet equally “capable of winning the job,” discerning among them won’t be easy.

Because of that, Lashlee said it’s on him to “get creative” in divvying up the reps between them.

“That’s probably the one thing that will be somewhat challenging, because they’re all going to get reps,” he said. “But are they getting enough reps, and enough reps of things we need to see them doing?”

Lashlee wouldn’t rule out possibly going into the season with a two-quarterback system, either. However, he did emphasize it is both he and Malzahn’s preference to settle on one quarterback.

“At the same time, we’re going to do what gives us the best chance to win, and if it’s a two-quarterback system, then so be it,” Lashlee said. “But that’s not necessarily what we’re looking for right now. We’re looking for the one person who can lead our football team, protect the football and win football games.”

Being able to run the “Wildcat” effectively won’t figure into the decision, especially given the amount of former high school quarterbacks on Auburn’s roster. Lashlee gave a few examples, highlighting receiver Marcus Davis.

“What you do like is guys who either have played quarterback before, like a Kodi Burns did, or guys who have handled the ball a lot before, because you know you can trust them,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing. We’re going to put a guy back there, but he’s got to be a playmaker and he’s got to be able to protect the football if you’re going to snap it to him.”

And while it’s the option of last resort, Lashlee said the Tigers would wait until the week before the season opener against Washington State to make an announcement on the starting quarterback if they have to.

“You’ll do that because I think the most important thing is getting it right,” he said. “If you get it right, then everything else will fall into place. What you don’t want to do is try to rush to get it done so quick that you get it wrong.”

Lashlee: Tigers’ receivers ‘need to step up and start making plays’

During SEC Media Days earlier this week, Malzahn said finding a “go-to” receiver was one of the team’s biggest goals during fall camp, the quarterback battle notwithstanding. Lashlee reiterated that sentiment on Friday, saying that the Tigers’ receivers need one player to make a move to the top of the class.

“Look, let’s just be honest,” Lashlee said. “We need Sammie Coates, we need Jaylon Denson, we need Ricardo Louis and those guys to step up and start making plays. And Ricardo and Sammie are younger, but it’s time to step up. And then you’ve got Jaylon, you’ve got Quan (Bray), Trovon (Reed), (guys) that have been here that are all going to be juniors. It’s time for them to step up and start making plays, too.”

While still searching for a lead receiver, Lashlee felt comfortable with the depth of the unit, despite 2013 signee Earnest Robinson not qualifying academically and the status of another potential freshman, Jason Smith, still up in the air. “Nine or 10 true receivers” was what Lashlee was hoping to have on this season’s roster, but counting players like Brandon Fulse and C.J. Uzomah, the Tigers won’t be lacking for receiving options.

“We’re obviously trying to sign enough young men in this class to get us to where we need to be numbers-wise,” he said. “But I feel good about having guys like (Fulse and Uzomah), who can make plays with their hand down in the backfield or split out. That helps us with wide receiver numbers.”

Lashlee not worried about rule change on spiking ball

Steve Shaw, the SEC’s coordinator for officiating, went over some alterations to the rulebook which have occurred during the offseason on Wednesday.

One of those changes involves a quarterback spiking the ball late in games. Under the new rules, at least three seconds will have to be remaining on the game clock when a quarterback spikes the ball for another play to be allowed. But if a quarterback spikes the ball with two seconds or less in an attempt to create another “set” play, officials would be required to disallow it, which would end the game in the process.

Lashlee was not bothered by the move, saying that getting the new rule into his quarterbacks’ heads would be as easy as teaching a new offensive wrinkle.

“That’s our job to coach them up,” he said. ” … Rules like that are nothing we have to do that no one else has to do, too.”

July 17, 2013

SEC Media Days, Day 2: Gus Malzahn address quarterback situation, stresses need for ‘go-to’ receiver

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn addressed various topics regarding the Tigers on Day 2 of SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

@wareagleextra

HOOVER, Ala. Gus Malzahn spent a lot of his time at the podium on Wednesday discussing Auburn’s quarterbacks.

Not that it should come as any surprise given the unsettled nature of the position for the Tigers, as four different players are vying for the open spot. Two are players who started games for Auburn last year in junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. The other two are new additions to the program in junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson.

Malzahn refused to play favorites, saying the coaching staff enters preseason camp with “an open mind.”

“Any time you’re going to have four guys, that’s definitely a concern,” he said on Day 2 of Southeastern Conference Media Days. “I felt very strong we knew about the two guys in spring, but I wanted to give those two new guys a fair chance. We’ll be doing things a little bit different in fall camp early, and hopefully one of those guys will emerge sooner rather than later.”

Identifying who the starter will be is the team’s “No. 1 priority” heading into the fall, according to Malzahn. The coach also said he plans “to be as honest” as possible with all the quarterbacks to let them know where they stand in the race, whether that means daily, weekly or bi-weekly updates. One thing Malzahn refused to accept was making a rash decision.

“The No. 1 thing we need to do is make sure that we’re right,” he said.

Malzahn: Tigers seeking a lead receiver

Emory Blake was the unquestioned “go-to” option at wideout last season, and the numbers bear it out. Blake account for a staggering 42 percent of the Tigers’ receiving yardage, tallying 789 of the team’s 1,879 yards.

Malzahn said it was imperative Auburn finds someone to fill the void left by Blake.

“We’ve got to have somebody step up and be a go-to guy, somebody that wants the ball on third down, wants the ball when the game is on the line,” he said. “In the spring we tried to put them in as many situations as we can, and at times, all guys responded. But somebody has got to emerge.”

Quick hitters

Malzahn confirmed that Class of 2013 receiver signee Earnest Robinson is planning on enrolling in junior college. Malzahn said the status of another possible junior college enrollee, Jason Smith, “is still up in the air.” …  All returning players should be healthy and ready to start preseason practice Aug. 2, Malzahn said. The only question mark is defensive end Keymiya Harrell. “Harrell is a guy that we’ll see as we go, but things are looking pretty good right now.”

April 28, 2013

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn quarterbacks, offensive line & special teams spring rundown

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BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the second of a three-part series through Monday, 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’ quarterbacks, offenslive line and special teams.

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We learned the quarterback has to play in a two-minute offense, but the decision on who that’ll be will resemble a 14-play, grind-it-out marathon to the end zone.

Here’s what we know: every time head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who will impart a very specific set of skills on all their quarterbacks, were asked about the QBs’ progress, they resorted to vague statements indicating slight progress in their abilities but none in the individual battle.

Here’s what we can reasonably infer: junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace, who each started and completed four games last season, are good guys who want to get better and will roll with the punches of re-learning an offense they mastered in high school.

Here’s what we don’t know: because Lashlee was politically correct in never once identifying one guy ahead of the other throughout spring, is that a bad sign that neither candidate has what it takes to separate himself?

Here’s what we know: Jeremy Johnson, Nick Marshall and Jason Smith will be on campus very shortly to fill out the quarterback pool.

Here’s what we also know: Nineteen weeks until the Washington State opener. Don’t hold your breath on Auburn naming a starter.

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We learned where there’s uncertainty at quarterback, there is chalk on the offensive line. Left tackle? Greg Robinson. Center? Reese Dismukes. Right guard? Chad Slade. Duh, duh, and duh. Right tackle looks like Patrick Miller, though Avery Young will get a chance to win the spot back once his shoulder’s totally healed; but honestly, J.B. Grimes can’t go wrong with either of those guys over on the right side.

That leaves left guard up for grabs. John Sullen graduated, so who replaces him? Jordan Diamond got the first crack, then Alex Kozan seemed to hang onto the job for most the spring, though Devonte Danzey got a look late. Kozan’s probably the pick. Offensive line requires chemistry and continuity, and Grimes must be very pleased it’s been a relatively drama-free spring selecting his starting five.

****

Auburn 31, ULM Louisiana-Monroe 28

We learned Cody Parkey can’t just cruise into his senior season. A 75 percent career kicker, he really struggled in the fast-paced field goal fire drill sessions we saw. A couple times, I saw Parkey with a forlorn look on his face on the sideline moments after missing a 45-yarder or so. Because this coaching staff tends to brandish a go-for-it mentality, Parkey will have to prove he’s reliable enough from well outside 40 to get the nod when those tough decisions come up in October.

****

We learned there’s a really good chance Wallace has become the wild playmaker/play breaker, and Frazier has evolved into the safe-guarded game manager. Why? Well, could be Frazier’s gun-shy to draw the boos again after making mistakes, and Wallace figures he’s got nothing to lose but flinging it out and seeing if he can hit the home run. Wallace was explosive yet precarious on A-Day, while Frazier took what was given more often.

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We learned Shon Coleman’s more determined than you and me. Debilitating injury and illness – not least of which is cancer – has derailed careers on so many unfortunate occasions. Yet there’s Coleman, backing up Robinson at left tackle and deadset on finally suiting up and maybe appearing in his first college game after beating leukemia in 2010.

AUBURN FOOTBALL

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We learned punt and kick returner is, uh, a couple of jobs up for grabs. Tre Mason, Corey Grant, Ricardo Louis, Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Jonathan Jones, Jonathon Mincy, Chris Davis, Robenson Therezie … I mean, I think I saw Aubie out there shagging returns a few times this spring.

****

We learned Frazier and Wallace don’t hate each other’s guts.

Well, to be fair, we knew that already.

“We are good friends off the field, and it’s competitive on the field,” Frazier said. “I’m rooting for him to do well, but at the same time everybody wants to be the starter. But that’s not really something we focus on. We’re just focusing on getting better this spring.”

Wallace pointed more to the journey both young men continue to plod, since they know whoever ends up taking control of this offense will face a restless fan base in the fall.

“It’s been a lot of work. A LOT, a lot of work,” Wallace said. “We’ve been able to get a lot of reps, and everything. We’re different guys. Of course, the receivers run different routes, the backs, one may be faster than the other. But overall, we were able to have some type of competition as well and push each other. That was good this spring.”

Kiehl Frazier

April 21, 2013

A-Day follow-up notes: McNeal’s mysterious absence leaves Auburn thin at safety

Auburn A-Day

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Demetruce McNeal has missed the last three practices – including Saturday’s A-Day scrimmage – and remains out indefinitely for undisclosed reasons.

“He’s dealing with some things off the field, and it’s day to day,” head coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday. “That’s really all we know at this time.”

McNeal’s absence combined with Trent Fisher nursing a bad ankle leaves the Tigers painfully thin at safety. Walk-on Blake Poole was called upon to work with the first unit Saturday.

Clearly, Auburn could use the painless return of its leading returning tackler. Whether McNeal is on the roster in 2013 or not, reinforcements in the fall include junior college transfer Brandon King and high-schooler Khari Harding.

Auburn A-Day

Winning them back: Three times in October and November, the turnstiles at Jordan-Hare Stadium were spinning around and around like a broken carousel.

In people flowed by kickoff. Out they fled by halftime.

See, fan support is everything to major-college head coach job security, which is why Gene Chizik’s perch was officially in jeopardy Oct. 6 when the fans decided they’d had enough well before the end of a 24-7 loss to Arkansas, treating a cherished Saturday SEC game like a bad movie.

It was even worse weeks later vs. Texas A&M (63-21) and Georgia (38-0), ushering Chizik out and leading to Malzahn’s return as head coach.

So for Auburn senior associate athletic director for external affairs Scott Carr – a man whose job relies heavily on public perception – and other high-ranking officials to hear the mind-boggling number “83,401” rattle the record books at Saturday’s A-Day was, well, vindicating.

“There’s been so much positive energy built since we hired coach Malzahn and the staff he put together, and the recruiting class we had,” Carr said. “We knew there was a lot of that positive momentum building. To have it culminate with A-Day, this type of crowd shows that the feedback we’ve been hearing from people about their excitement level is accurate.”

Added Malzahn, “We had a tough year last year, but for them to come out and support our team, it’s overwhelming. I know our players had big eyes, and they really appreciate it.”

Clash of titans: After 13 practices of knocking heads against each other, Auburn’s offensive and defensive lines share a common goal.

In defensive tackle Gabe Wright’s own words: total domination.

“It starts up front. There’s no bigger slogan than that,” Wright said. “So if we can get that tenacity back up to par, and learn how to flip that switch, that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”

Shake it off: After quarterback Jonathan Wallace made a bad decision throwing behind Quan Bray and getting intercepted by Ryan Smith, he didn’t sulk. His teammates noticed.

“If you make a bad play, you have to hold your head high on the next play. Jonathan Wallace threw a pick and he was on the sideline getting us ready for the next series,” tight end Brandon Fulse said. “He was telling us not to get down. He told us to be winners and we were winners today. He inspires us.”

Wallace was 18-for-26 with 191 yards and two touchdowns against the two turnovers.

In their ear: Throughout Saturday’s scrimmage, Malzahn stood about 10 yards behind the quarterbacks, so he could get a front-row view of Kiehl Frazier’s and Wallace’s command of the offenses.

They wore orange no-contact jerseys, which might have been different if the health of Frazier and Wallace wasn’t such a precious commodity.

“I wish we could be live, but we only have two scholarship guys going through spring to evaluate them a little bit better,” Malzahn said. “But today gave us some good information, especially with them.”

Malzahn restated every position – from quarterback to kicker – will be won by the best player available, meaning the competition will be infused with Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith for the fall.

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Mincy mistake: New rules dictate that players can be ejected for targeting a defenseless receiver above the head.

Because the refereeing crew Saturday is asked to treat A-Day like a real game, first-team cornerback Jonathon Mincy got the boot for pasting Dimitri Reese on a screen pass, causing Reese to stay down for a few minutes before walking off woozy.

“I have to say 15-yard penalties are unacceptable,” Malzahn said. “We have asked our guys to play hard, but I promise you, that will be corrected. That was not good, no doubt.”

Mincy remained on the sideline but did not return to the field.

Hold on: The seven touchdowns were encouraging for a previously stagnant offense, but four turnovers – including three lost fumbles, all unforced errors by offensive players – were troubling.

“Yeah, that’s definitely a concern,” Malzahn said.

April 17, 2013

Auburn notes: Pat Sullivan stops by practice, QB race “status quo”, top DBs are no-shows

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BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Now two of the three men who’ve brought a Heisman Trophy back to Auburn have attended a spring football practice under the new coaching regime.

Following Cam Newton’s lead from last week, 1971 Heisman-winning quarterback Pat Sullivan was the most famous spectator at Wednesday morning’s practice. Sullivan, 63, was seen spending a few minutes chatting separately with head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.

Now the Samford head coach, Sullivan was one-third of the university-assigned committee who recommended Malzahn for the position last fall.

“That’s a pretty big deal. I’m a big fan of his,” Malzahn said. “It was not only big for me. It was big for our coaches and our players. He’s a true class individual that was a great player.”

While Sullivan represented past Auburn quarterbacks, incoming freshman Jeremy Johnson stopped by as well, one of the three future passers to join the program this summer.

Bo Jackson, who’s been busy promoting Bo Bikes Bama at the end of this month, would be the third and final Heisman winner to catch practice.

No separation: Through 11 practices, quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace have yet to distinguish themselves in the race to start opening day – a race which could be muddled next month by the arrival of Johnson, Nick Marshall and Jason Smith.

“Each practice, we grade the guys and we try to keep up, but right now everything is status quo. They’re getting equal reps with equal groups,” Malzahn said. “We’re getting to a point where we’re actually getting guys in the right position so we can properly evaluate them.”

Competitive spirit: Auburn hopes to reveal the A-Day scrimmage format sometime Thursday, but Malzahn has twice said there will be a certain element of competition missing from previous open-to-the-public spring scrimmages under ex-head coach Gene Chizik.

“We’re going to make this thing as close to a game as possible for our fans, and also for our coaches and players,” Malzahn said. “It’ll be great for us to evaluate the guys in front of a crowd and see how they react.”

Malzahn continues to insist there’s no first-team or second-team units, though from brief media windows a pecking order has been taking place over the past week and a half.

The fear of serious injuries – for instance, Clemson lost a backup quarterback and starting tight end to ACL tears in its spring game Saturday – won’t deter the Tigers.

“You put the ball down, that’s part of the deal,” Malzahn said. “Any time you’re evaluating guys and playing game-type situations, that is a factor, but we’re not going into that thing thinking that way.”

McNeal, Therezie no-shows: The most notable void from Wednesday’s practice was starting safety Demetruce McNeal, the Tigers’ No. 2-leading tackler in 2012.

Malzahn would only say McNeal “took care of some things off the field,” but expected his return Friday.

Personal reasons was also the reason given for cornerback/”star” safety Robenson Therezie’s absence. Running back Tre Mason tweeted Tuesday night a photo and message congratulating Therezie on the birth of his daughter.

Receiver Melvin Ray was held out with an ankle injury and linebacker Jake Holland missed his fourth practice due to a mandatory class, while Mason, defensive tackle Angelo Blackson, offensive tackle Avery Young, offensive guard Devonte Danzey and “star” safety Javiere Mitchell continued to work their way back in from assorted ailments.

Respect for Toomer’s: Malzahn plans to stop by the post-scrimmage block party Saturday celebrating the final rolling of Toomer’s Oaks, and is expected to speak sometime that evening.

“It’s one of the best traditions in college football,” Malzahn said. “For the Auburn family, it’s really unbelievable. I’m looking forward to being a part of that after the A-Day game. I know that will be very special.”

April 12, 2013

Auburn notes: Ellis Johnson rejuvenated by return to coordinating, prefers Holland balance football & school; Lashlee says Mason’s fine

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the fourth time Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has segued back from head coaching into a defensive coordinator role.

He’s using the same system and playbook language as he has in other stops, and has experience coaching with safeties coach/co-coordinator Charlie Harbison and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith to further smooth the transition.

“I’m probably sticking my foot in my mouth, but there are actually times in ball games as a head coach where if you’re not calling both sides … boredom isn’t the right word, but you find yourself having to pull the reins in and stay out of the way,” Johnson said. “It’s almost a self-control thing.”

Johnson seems more comfortable as a top assistant than the main man – his 17-40 college head coaching record but constant coordinator success would support that.

“Going from a head coach who didn’t coordinate either side of the ball,” Johnson said, “it’s been a shot in the arm and kind of energizing.”

AUBURN FOOTBALL

Mason on the mend: Junior tailback Tre Mason was catching kick returns Friday during Auburn’s ninth spring practice, but he remains very limited with a left leg injury. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said it’s nothing major.

“You don’t want to ever have anybody miss time because the reps are critical… but at the same time he’s fine,” Lashlee said. “We’re not playing a game on Saturday. So we don’t have to rush guys back. It’s really been good for Cameron (Artis-Payne) and Corey (Grant) to get more reps, and to see how they handle it when the load increases.”

Class conflict: It’s a good thing linebacker Jake Holland has the maturity to multitask, because younger players wouldn’t be so much in Johnson’s good graces with this predicament.

Holland, a building sciences major, takes a mandatory Monday-Wednesday-Friday morning course, Construction Sciences, which has forced him to miss three practices and several position meetings.

“It can’t help but affect a player. I think that can hamper your progress as much as anything,” Johnson said. “His level of experience and knowledge with football and the fact that he’s played for three years, that helps him overcome that, but it’s not a good situation.”

Johnson has voiced trust in Holland, who’s working out at both mike and will linebacker. But Johnson also told the senior, who’s on track to graduate May 2014 in four years of work, he’s got to clear his schedule this fall if he plans on being the heart of this defense.

“We’ve got to get it to where we don’t have guys missing meetings in classes,” Johnson said. “That’s very important, that’s why they’re here – but when the game’s over on Saturday, nobody asks you what classes they went to the week before. We’ve got to get it to where they’re going to be on the practice field, they’re going to be in the film sessions and they’re going to be there on Saturday ready to play winning football in the Southeastern Conference.”

Holland, who has started 16 of his 31 career games, was present Friday.

New kids on the block: While Lashlee couldn’t detail what materials can be shipped to incoming freshmen, he intends on having all his new players on campus as soon as they graduate from high school and can move to Auburn.

“We just try to do everything we can within the rules,” Lashlee said. “Nowadays, most of the guys come in in the summer and that helps them get a head start.”

Particularly at quarterback, Lashlee will have three new candidates to evaluate in junior college transfer Nick Marshall and preps Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith.

“Quarterback, it’s a unique spot,” Lashlee said. “To play as a true freshman, you’ve got to be mentally tough, first of all, in this league. And you’ve got to love it. You’ve got to love football and study like crazy to learn everything and to get up to speed that quick.”

Outside dog: Formerly a defensive tackle, Kenneth Carter is settling in on the edge, and lined up with the first-team defense in Friday’s pace vs. defense drill.

“I don’t know that he’s a natural end, but he’s played extremely well for his first time moving out there,” Johnson said. “I think (DL coach) Rodney (Garner’s) been pleased with him. At this point in time, he’s holding down the No. 1 spot at the right end.”

Knocked out: Javiere Mitchell remains out of action, which Johnson revealed to be the cause of a concussion. Mitchell had been working at the ‘star’ safety spot with the second unit, an opportunity cornerback Robenson Therezie has seized in the interim.

“Those things now, as of a couple of years ago, they’re certainly handled in a different manner – wisely so,” Johnson said. “He’s kind of rounding second base and headed for third.”

AUBURN FOOTBALL

March 24, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Quarterbacks

This is the fifth of an 8-day series previewing each Auburn position leading into spring football. Tomorrow: offensive line.

Photo by Todd Van Emst

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Gotta have a quarterback in order to win football games. At least that’s what the papers and talk shows and contemporary wisdom says.

Why, just look at the teams playing in the national championship last year: gobs and gobs and gobs of passing yards, right? Uh … not exactly. Notre Dame ranked 72nd in the category, and Alabama 76th, in 2012.

Of course, AJ McCarron led the most efficient passing offense in the country, but the Crimson Tide also attempted the 114th-most throws. High-flying Oregon was 7th in passer rating.

Everybody else honored with a BCS berth? Further down the bench, like major-conference champions Florida State (13) and Kansas State 25). Some were much further: Rose Bowl foes Wisconsin (62nd) and Stanford (73rd) had their quarterback struggles, Florida dominated the SEC with the No. 69 passing game (118th in passing yards!), and Notre Dame got by with the 75th-rated pass offense.

Oh, and it’s tough get hung up on true dual-threat guys. Only two of the nation’s top 10 rushing quarterbacks – NIU’s Jordan Lynch and K-State’s Collin Klein – went bowling in the BCS.

Convinced the quarterback’s an overrated position?

Don’t go that far. One last set of stats to consider: Alabama threw 31 touchdowns, just three interceptions. Seven of the other nine BCS squads had better than 2-to-1 TD-INT ratios, and Notre Dame and Kansas State weren’t far off from that mark.

Auburn – yes, this is ultimately about the Tigers – threw eight touchdowns and 15 interceptions. That was the second-worst ratio in Division I football.

So what did we learn? Gunslingers need not apply. Especially in Gus Malzahn’s offense, which favors the quick routes and misdirections far more than flinging it downfield on a wing and a prayer.

By the way, Arkansas State’s figures last year under Malzahn: No. 12 in passer rating, No. 6 in TD-INT ratio (25-5).

Auburn’s starting quarterback doesn’t have to be Johnny Manziel. But vast, swift improvement is inevitable and, frankly, crucial to the resurrection of this program.

Here’s a look at Auburn’s quarterbacks, leading into spring football practices:

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Who’s been playing: Kiehl Frazier (jr.), Jonathan Wallace (so.)

Who’s out the door: Clint Moseley

Who’s in the door: Jeremy Johnson (Montgomery, Ala.), Nick Marshall (Rochelle, Ga.), Jason Smith (Mobile, Ala.)

Who’s coaching ‘em up: Rhett Lashlee, 3rd year (1st in SEC)

Who’d they replace, where is he now: Scot Loeffler, Virginia Tech

Thoughts and musings:

- So let’s talk about Kiehl Frazier. Upon reviewing game tape from his 2012 season, he really did have his moments when it was clear a decent quarterback leered inside that athletic 6-foot-2, 226-pound body of his. Primarily, his greatest demon was his inability to read coverages against slow-developing routes, leading to sacks, scrambles and scatterbrained throws into throngs of multiple defenders awaiting the almighty pick.

- Please don’t forget: Kiehl Frazier isn’t just familiar with the Gus Malzahn offense. He was born to play in it. When Rhett Lashlee was tabbed to be Malzahn’s right-hand man – Lashlee is really just an older version of Frazier – it almost seemed like Frazier himself was sidled up to the hiring committee as they went about replacing the previous staff, which spent the first half of 2012 trying to squeeze what they could out of the true sophomore.

- What should Frazier fine-tune this month? Soak up everything Lashlee says. Work on accuracy. Shed the fear of taking a big hit. Regain the undying respect of the locker room. And finally, get his edge back. One of Malzahn’s favorite mantras probably pertains more to nobody else but No. 10.

- Ah, and yes, Jon Wallace returns. The Central-Phenix City product’s teammates looooooove him. His intangibles struck everybody in his presence – his work ethic, desire to learn, ability to accept whichever role the coaches asked of him. He’s got that ‘it’ factor, which is why he’ll succeed in college and in life.

- Can’t completely ignore his shutouts against Georgia and Alabama, his lone two SEC starts. Not like Frazier was much better against Mississippi State, LSU and Arkansas, but still. Wallace had something going with CJ Uzomah and a few others against Texas A&M’s prevent defense. The next step is becoming part of an all-encompassing passing package tailored to Wallace’s skills.

- What should Wallace fine-tune this month? To borrow three of his favorite words, “just keep working.” He doesn’t have the obvious natural gifts other quarterbacks bear, but he’s got what it takes to force the coaching staff to look his way. If he puts on a little bit of size without hindering his athleticism, that would help his cause. If the coaches would like to keep a Wildcat package handy, Wallace is the man for that job.

- Quick rundown of the three fall QBs: Nick Marshall could be the most athletic person on the entire team next season, but his 25 interceptions at Garden City CC last year are a red flag. He should be motivated, though, given second life in the SEC. Jeremy Johnson’s the centerpiece of the future, and would be a dark horse to wrest the job in his first of four years. Jason Smith is perceived to project better as a wide receiver, but that kid has proved doubters wrong before. Don’t forget about him at QB.

NickMarshall

Statistically speaking:

139.6 – Jonathan Wallace’s passer efficiency in 2012, setting an Auburn freshman record – barely ahead of Jason Campbell’s 139.41. If Wallace had maintained that rating all by himself through the whole season (unlikely, but still), the Tigers would have ranked 44th nationally, instead of 96th.

99.87 – Kiehl Frazier’s passer efficiency in 2012. Better than only two FBS teams. No bueno.

57.2 – Pass completion percentage by the team. Wallace was even with that mark, Frazier was below it at 53 percent.

67.9 – Ryan Aplin’s completion in 2012, under the tutelage of Malzahn and Lashlee.

0.79 – Average net yards per rush for Frazier and Wallace, which does include sack totals. Throw in the total of 7 passing touchdowns (one, by the way, was by Quan Bray), and by no statistical measure was the quarterback position competent.

33 – Yardage on Bray’s TD toss to Frazier on a trick play against Louisiana-Monroe.

6-9-122-2 – Completions, attempts, yards and touchdowns for Wallace when thrown into the fire against Texas A&M. Granted, the Aggies were playing prevent defense, but it was still an impressive performance for the rookie’s first extended action.

Good Twitter follows: We’ve already dropped their handles earlier this week, but here they are again: Kiehl Frazier (@KiehlFrazier10) and Jonathan Wallace (@JWall_4). Frazier took a break from Twitter during the season, but he’s back now and the dude looooooves his fútbol.

Say what? “I mean this, it may sound like coachspeak – I really want to give them a fresh start. To me, the first day is day one. I don’t care what happened. I really don’t … I look at it as 15 days to find out what is our ceiling, how high can we go with these guys? We’re going to install it like we always have, it’s fresh to them, it’s brand-new to Jonathan, it’s probably going to seem brand-new to Kiehl after a major difference of what was done last year. So we’re going to get after it and kind of let the chips fall where they may.” – Lashlee

March 18, 2013

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

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

February 11, 2013

Auburn notes: Let the QB games begin, Pro Day on March 5, ‘All You Can Eat’ hoops night

Jonathan Wallace

AUBURN, Ala. – Let the water-cooler talk and barroom debates begin.

Auburn’s quarterback position was a nightmare last fall, so it’s never too early to begin dreaming of who will fulfill the lead passer position in Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee’s QB-friendly offense in 2013.

The incumbent is sophomore-to-be Jonathan Wallace, a Central-Phenix City product who started the final four games and set an Auburn freshman record for passing efficiency (139.60.)

Another returner is junior Kiehl Frazier, Auburn’s 2012 passing leader with 753 yards in five starts and a disciple of Malzahn’s playbook at Shiloh Christian in Springdale, Ark.

Wallace and Frazier are joined by three new signees last Wednesday: Carver four-star recruit Jeremy Johnson, Garden City CC gunslinger and former Georgia defensive back Nick Marshall, and McGill-Toolen athlete Jason Smith from Mobile.

“We’re going to give all three of those guys a shot at quarterback, and they’re all very talented at that position,” Malzahn said on national signing day Wednesday. “As you’ve all seen in the past, the dual-threat type guys that can do a lot of different things – and keep plays alive – can be very successful with what we do.”

Malzahn referred to Johnson as “one of the centerpieces offensively” of this 2013 class, which includes Smith, three solid running backs and four more receivers.

“I think it’s perfect for Jeremy Johnson,” Fox Sports South and Scout.com national recruiting analyst Chad Simmons said of Malzahn’s offense.

“We saw last year, the personnel just didn’t work with what Scot Loeffler wanted to do with that offensive scheme. I’m not sure Johnson would have been good in that system either … when you have a kid like that who’s used to playing in that 4- or 5-wide, 1-back or zero-back offense, Jeremy’s good with mobility. If Jeremy ever was looking around, I think when Gus Malzahn got the job, his looking was done. He knows he’s a perfect fit for that system.”

Simmons went on to call Marshall a “high-risk, high-reward type of player”, referring to Marshall racking up both touchdowns and interceptions through the air.

“Nick’s one of the best I’ve probably ever covered from an athletic standpoint,” Simmons said. “He definitely as a quarterback will sling it around. In high school, some compared him to a kid like Charlie Ward – the type of kid that can run the ball, that can throw the ball, that can make all the different plays you look for in a quarterback. But he also has trouble reading defenses, and takes maybe a little bit too many chances than he should, trying to force the ball in there.”

And then there’s Smith, who was presumed to shift over to wide receiver near the end of his recruitment. But Malzahn explicitly referred to Smith as a quarterback multiple times Wednesday.

“He’s electric. He’s got phenomenal skills,” Malzahn said. “He can do a lot of different things. We’re very excited about Jason.”

Pro Day on March 5

Two weeks after they let scouts get a good look at their skills at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, former Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier, tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen and tailback Onterio McCalebb will do it again with some home-field advantage at Pro Day on Tuesday, March 5.

That trio will be joined by old teammates wide receiver Emory Blake and offensive guard John Sullen. It’s not yet known whether linebacker Daren Bates will be in attendance.

Lemonier has been projected to be drafted anywhere from late in the first round to the fourth round. Lutzenkirchen is looking to be taken in the middle rounds, while the rest of the ex-Tigers are holding out hope to hear their name called in the seventh round, or get a phone call in free agency.

Save room for seconds … and thirds

Ladies and gentlemen, start your metabolism.

Auburn Arena is running a promotion Wednesday night for the Arkansas-Auburn men’s basketball game, tipping off at 9 p.m. ET. For fans who purchase an “All You Can Eat” seat for $25 in the 200 level, unlimited concessions will be provided including hot dogs, burgers, nachos, popcorn, pretzels and soft drinks.

This is also an “All Auburn, All Orange” game, as fans are encouraged to wear orange. For those who watch from home, it will be televised by CSS.

February 8, 2013

Nick Marshall gets second chance in the SEC, this time at Auburn as a quarterback

NickMarshall

AUBURN, ALA. — Wilcox County High School coach Mark Ledford understands that not every player ‘gets it’ right away.

“College ball, and the professional league too, is full of players that’s had second chances,” Ledford said. “Some have had more than that.”

That said, Ledford had some tough love for his former pupil, Nick Marshall, the day after being sent home to Pineview, Ga., for screwing up his shot as a defensive back at Georgia.

It was just before last year’s Super Bowl, just after last year’s Signing Day, and Marshall was excused from Mark Richt’s program along with two other Bulldogs for a violation of team rules. That was later reported to be theft of teammates’ cash from a dorm room.

“First, I wanted to find out that he was remorseful for what happened there, and he was honest,” Ledford said. “He’s been honest with everyone in this process.”

So Ledford demanded his former quarterback go back to the position in which he’d thrived at Wilcox County. And do it far, far away from home.

“When I left Georgia, I just wanted to start over,” Marshall said. “I wanted to try quarterback – turned out to be the right decision.”

Marshall went on to Garden City (Kan.) Community College, scoring 37 touchdowns – splitting the scores evenly with his active arm and his fleet feet.

“He had a tremendous year,” Ledford said. “It was maybe a chance to get his priorities in order, and give him a chance to come back and do what he’s always wanted to do.”

Now, Marshall gets that long-awaited second chance in the SEC, after officially signing his national letter of intent Wednesday morning to join the crowded quarterback derby in Auburn.

The Tigers also signed four-star preps Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith, while already returning eight combined 2012 starts in junior-to-be Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. But the competition is wide open, and Marshall insisted “he’s playing quarterback, 100 percent” instead of automatically settling for a defensive back role.

“That (spread offense),” Marshall said, “is what I’m made for. “I think coming (out of Georgia) was the best move for me, so I could get out of there and have an open mind, and have a successful junior college season like I did.”

Marshall is already familiar with head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee from being recruited to Arkansas State last year, as well as new wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig when Marshall was a Florida State target out of high school.

“He’s a great athlete. He’s one of those impact players, throws the ball extremely well, has a very strong arm,” Malzahn said. “We feel like he can come in here and give us a chance right of the bat.”

Malzahn openly admitted he craved a crowd of quarterback candidates, since it’s his job to fix Auburn’s 116th-rated passing offense from last year.

Of course, that was in a pro-style system that meshed with Auburn’s particular personnel like ships mesh with storms. Malzahn prefers the hurry-up, no-huddle madness that helped Cam Newton lead the Tigers to the 2011 BCS National Championship with Malzahn as the offensive coordinator.

“As you’ve all seen in the past,” Malzahn said, “the dual threat type guys that can do a lot of different things, keep plays alive, can be very successful with what we do.”

Marshall’s ready to roll, after this long, strange road, granted a second chance in the nation’s most powerful college football conference – and first as a signalcaller.

“I think there have been players, such as Cam Newton, (Zach) Mettenberger, different kids who follow that route and have success,” Ledford said. “That’s the way the system works. Maybe when those kids make it back to a Division I program, maybe they’ve learned some lessons that they maybe need to learn, that they didn’t follow the first time around.”

Added Marshall, “I’m looking to go in and have a great season, compete for an SEC championship.”