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August 28, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 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 8, 2013

Been busy lately? Links to all recent Auburn content in one place

Auburn A-Day Jordan-Hare Stadium

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Look, we all lead busy lives.

So believe me, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings if you’re not caught up with everything that has been posted on WarEagleExtra.com since Tuesday. That’s more than understandable given the prodigious production of content over the better part of 48 hours. To wit: There have been a whopping 19 items added to the blog during that span.

But there’s no reason to scroll through page after page to read every story and watch every video — especially when we’ve compiled them all right here in one handy dandy post.

Whether it’s a notebook, practice report, a player profile or a video interview — or perhaps something else entirely — you’ll find it below. (And for your convenience, each item is sectioned accordingly.)

NOTEBOOKS

8/6 — Tigers cut Tuesday practice short to focus on first scrimmage of fall

8/7 — Defense believes it won first scrimmage of the fall ‘hands down’

8/8 — Malzahn pleased with toughness of quarterbacks, disappointed with energy at Thursday morning practice

PRACTICE REPORTS

8/6 — Tigers don full pads for first time, Demetruce McNeal inactive once again

8/7 — Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes absent from first scrimmage of fall

PRACTICE VIDEO

8/7 — Quarterbacks run read-option, Cody Parkey works on point-after attempts and field goals

VIDEO INTERVIEWS, POST-PRACTICE

8/6 — Ellis Johnson hopes defenders ‘will start to polish things up’ in coming days

8/6 — Rhett Lashlee says coaching staff ‘learned a lot more’ about offense during last two practices

8/6 — Gus Malzahn: Tigers ‘very physical’ in shortened Tuesday practice

8/7 — Senior H-back Jay Prosch glad to be ‘able to hit somebody’ in first full-pads practice

8/7 — Junior wide receiver Jaylon Denson predicts newcomers at position will play ‘a lot in the fall’

8/7 — Gus Malzahn: Tigers treated scrimmage ‘just like a regular football game’

8/8 — Running back Corey Grant ‘saw a lot of positive things’ from quarterbacks during scrimmage

8/8 — Safety Jermaine Whitehead excited enough for season he would ‘play in the parking lot’ if need be

8/8 — Gus Malzahn: Film of scrimmage provided ‘some good information’ on quarterbacks

PLAYER/POSITION PROFILES

8/6 — Rhett Lashlee: Quarterbacks ‘are bringing themselves along nicely,’ but battle still far from over

8/6 — Tigers still trying to sort out playing time at linebacker

8/7 — Kris Frost fighting to establish himself as Auburn’s starting middle linebacker (w/video)

8/7 — Quarterbacks take licks and dish them out as no-contact ban lifted during scrimmage

August 7, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/7: Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes absent from first scrimmage of fall

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to watch approximately 20 minutes of practice on Wednesday, which was scheduled to be Auburn’s first scrimmage of fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short viewing window on Day 6 of the Tigers’ preseason.

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was not seen at the team's practice on Wednesday.

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was not seen at the team’s practice on Wednesday.

  • The Tigers were set to scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium. However, a patch of bad weather rolled through the area, soaking the field and forcing the team to move to the indoor facility.
  • No doubt the biggest news of Wednesday centered around an absence — and no, it wasn’t Demetruce McNeal for once. (More on him later.) Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was not in attendance. Though details obviously weren’t available immediately, Gus Malzahn will likely field a question about Grimes in his post-practice presser.
  • The team’s quarterbacks put blue jerseys over their usual “no-contact” orange uniforms as the viewing portion ended. Was it a possible precursor to the signal-caller’s being subject to contact during the scrimmage? We’ll see.
  •  In other quarterback notes, the quartet worked on read-option plays with running backs, doing things such as faking handoffs and getting outside the tackle box. They also tossed the ball around with each other, as Nick Marshall paired up with Jeremy Johnson while Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier comprised another tandem. (And for those interested, walk-on Tucker Tuberville also took part, throwing back-and-forth with junior wide receiver Jaylon Denson.)
  • It’s time for our daily McNeal update: The senior safety was out for the sixth straight practice, and 11th consecutive time dating back to the spring. He had a helmet and jersey on, but did nothing other than holding on to a football and occasionally flinging it around. McNeal is recovering from a minor surgical procedure caused by an infection.
  • Cody Parkey didn’t miss any of his point-after attempts or field goals. And he wasn’t kicking off a tee, as the Tigers lined up and simulated live PATs and field goals, with defenders rushing toward the ball.

Video will be posted soon.

VIDEO: Junior wide receiver Jaylon Denson predicts newcomers at position will play ‘a lot in the fall’

AUBURN, Ala. — Junior Jaylon Denson met with reporters for a short time after Tuesday’s practice concluded. The receiver discussed what he has seen out of the freshmen trio of Tony Stevens, Marcus Davis and Dominic Walker as well as how much of the offensive playbook he retained since the end of spring practice.

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.”

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 15, 2013

7 at 7: Seven questions about the Tigers this fall

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

Yes, there is still one major event to get through — this week’s SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. — before Auburn players report back to campus and preseason camp gets underway. Until that happens, however, here are seven questions (and answers) about the Tigers in the style of the War Eagle Extra’s “7 at 7″ format, as the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31 gets closer by the day.

1. Who will start at quarterback?

Ah yes, the topic du jour surrounding the Tigers heading into the season. There are four candidates vying for the position, with two having an opportunity to stake their claim to the job in the spring (junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace) and two arriving this fall (junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson). Frazier and Wallace were unable to create any separation amongst themselves, exiting the spring as co-No. 1s on the depth chart. They both hold an advantage over the newcomers in the regard that they at least know some of the playbook already, but will that be enough to stave off either Marshall or Johnson?

Largely due to being the best runner of the quarterback quartet, many believe Marshall is the front-runner to capture the job. That, of course, is nothing more than pure speculation at this point. Besides, the quarterback battle will be settled where it should be — on the field — and only when the coaches believe they know which signal-caller gives them the best chance to win in 2013.

2. What’s the status of the backfield?

Tre Mason Auburn A-Day

Tre Mason headlines a deep stable of Auburn running backs headed into the fall. Photo by Todd Van Emst

When it comes to the running back position, the Tigers should be able to rest easy, with Tre Mason coming off a 1,000-yard season and both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant having great springs. Still, it was a huge surprise when head coach Gus Malzahn revealed his two-deep post-spring depth chart and Mason was not listed as the unquestioned starter. Instead, Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant all had “OR” separating their names, being listed that way on both the first-team and second-team offense.

Then again, there are worse problems to have than worrying about how to divvy up carries between multiple talented ball carriers.

3. Who will assume the role of lead receiver?

It’s possible that the Tigers may be one of those teams without a go-to option at wideout. That’s not to say one won’t develop eventually. Between Jaylon Denson, Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis, Auburn has a nice pool of hopefuls to choose from. One thing is certain: The receiving corps isn’t lacking for heirs to the throne Emory Blake vacated. (And to show just how reliant the Tigers were on Blake last season, his 789 receiving yards accounted for a whopping 42 percent of Auburn’s 1,879 receiving yards.)

4. Who replaces Philip Lutzenkirchen at tight end?

No single player will be asked to replicate the production of Lutzenkirchen. Instead, it will be a shared assignment between C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse. The two complement each other well, as Uzomah is more noted for his pass-catching ability while Fulse is known as a hard-nosed blocker. But both have made it a point to shore up their perceived weaknesses, with Uzomah working on his blocking and Fulse practicing his route running. Jay Prosch (normally a fullback) may also see time at tight end as a utility blocker, and expect fellow H-back Ricky Parks to get a few reps at the position, too.

5. Can the secondary make some much-needed strides?

It’s still a shocking number any time you see it: one. That’s the number of interceptions Auburn’s secondary came away with in 2012. But there is reason to believe the secondary will be vastly improved when it steps back on the field this season. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are firmly entrenched with the first-team defense at the two corner positions, and there are a handful of players — notably Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Jones, Robenson Therezie and Ryan White — behind them to lend depth to the unit.

Questions still remain at safety, though, as Holsey was moved from cornerback to boundary (also known as strong) safety in the last week of the spring after Demetruce McNeal missed the final five practices due to an undisclosed off-the-field matter. Free safety, or “field safety,” as it is referred to in coach speak, should be capably manned by junior Jermaine Whitehead.

6. What player is primed for a breakout season on offense or defense?

If you haven’t prepared yourself for it, here’s an advance warning: Justin Garrett, who shined in the hybrid safety/linebacker position created by defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson specifically for his 4-2-5 scheme, will have plenty of terrible headlines centered around his spot’s name — “Star.” As corny as it sounds, the junior is truly a “star” in the making. He drew rave reviews for his progress during the spring, and Johnson has put him in a position where his hard-hitting talents can be put to best use. Expect a few highlight-worthy hits from Garrett to make the rounds this fall.

7. Which true freshmen — if any — will push for major playing time?

It’s a toss-up between two stud defensive line prospects, with Montravius Adams at tackle and Carl Lawson at end. The pair of Peach State products were two of the top players in the country at their respective positions, and their talent may be too great to keep them from playing significant roles from Day 1. If forced to choose one as the “most likely to steal a starting job,” I’ll go with Lawson barely. It’s mainly a function of the depth chart: While the Tigers can mix-and-match between Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker and Ben Bradley inside with relatively little drop-off, the same can’t be said at end.

Dee Ford has the left side starting spot locked down, but right end is still up for grabs. Nosa Eguae began the spring as the starter at right end, but when he wasn’t developing fast enough for the coaching staff’s liking, tackle Kenneth Carter was moved outside in the hopes that it would push Eguae to step it up.

With that in mind, don’t be surprised if Lawson comes in and nails down a spot in the starting lineup opposite Ford by the end of preseason camp.

April 29, 2013

Final four questions answered from spring | Grading each position, guessing 7-5 season

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. — Back on Feb. 13 – I know, that seems eons ago to me too – I was the Auburn beat writer rep answering a few questions entering spring football for The Saturday Edge, a web site dishing out info on the SEC and college football.

In the same style as before, here’s a wrap-up Q&A before we enter the dog days of summer. Answers are my own. I was particularly intrigued to answer the third of these four questions.

Gus Malzahn

What was the biggest takeaway this past month? Were any of the pre-spring question marks successfully addressed?

Easily, the storyline was howfreakingfastAuburnwillmoveonoffense. The players’ heads were spinning after just one practice, and I’m not sure they ever got completely used to their old offensive coordinator slash new head coach’s tempo, which clearly trickled down to all the new assistants who obliged to Gus Malzahn’s orders.

Name a few unknown players who could have breakout seasons.

Justin Garrett is known to beat writers and diehard, attentive fans who read the coverage. To the rest of the SEC and nation at the moment, he’s just a guy with two first names. That’ll change as soon as he produces his first impact game with double-digit tackles or two forced turnovers. He’s loving that “star” hybrid spot in Ellis Johnson’s defense. Also file away names like tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, receiver Jaylon Denson and defensive end Kenneth Carter.

Grade each position group & special teams (ex. QB – B, RB – B+, etc) …… time permitting, if the grade is exceptionally high or low, can you expand on why you believe this to be so?

QBs: C. Nobody separated himself. Troubling news.

RBs: A-. Tre Mason wants three 1,000-yard rushers. Might not be so outlandish.

WRs: B-. Decent options. Not great right now. Check back in August.

OL: B+. Starting five seems in place, but they’ll have their hands full with SEC Ds.

DL: B. Rodney Garner has to be salivating over the incoming freshmen.

LB: C+. Some uncertainty here, even though the potential is fairly respectable.

DB: A. Corners have been great, Garrett’s locked in at star. Just need a free safety.

ST: B-. Punter and kicker are solid seniors, but return game lacks playmakers.

Are there any “surprises” we can expect from this team (is there a reason that makes you think this team is better or not as good as the pundits/public think they are)?

I’d say the consensus is Auburn’s looking at a 7-5 regular season, and maybe a Gator or Music City Bowl appearance. Which would pretty much match Gene Chizik’s first year in 2009 coming off a bowl-less season. Gus Malzahn’s system has the capability to fire off an upset at LSU or in Jordan-Hare Stadium vs. Georgia. Conversely, the young Tigers, still licking wounds from 3-9, are just as susceptible at home to Mississippi State or Ole Miss the first five weeks of the season.

Generally, this fan base would settle for a bowl game. Considering the steady yet unspectacular progress, the schedule appears too daunting to expect a 10-win renaissance … but as J.P. said in Angels in the Outfield: “hey, it could happen.”

April 26, 2013

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and H-backs

Auburn Spring Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the first 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’ running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and H-Backs.

We learned, in general, that “starter” is a technical title and little more in this offense. Tre Mason should be the No. 1 guy, but Cameron Artis-Payne will get serious carries, and maybe Corey Grant too. Brandon Fulse has been the preferred first-team tight end, but it’s impossible to believe CJ Uzomah won’t be heavily involved in the passing game, and Jay Prosch must be used as a utility blocker. Receivers? Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed seem to have the edge as starters, with Quan Bray right there with them. But the coaches love Ricardo Louis, and Sammie Coates should get his shot as well.

Whew. That’s eleven names for five spots.

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We learned if you dare traipse in his way, Cameron Artis-Payne will seek you out and run you over. The video of CAP destroying T.J. Davis in a high-tempo spring scrimmage speaks volumes.

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Brandon Fulse, Trovon ReedWe learned Rhett Lashlee has a long memory. “I keep using the analogy of the first year we were here we had a guy who only had three catches in his career and had 60 in our first year,” the 29-year-old offensive coordinator said Friday, for about the third time this spring. Check out this chart:

2008: WR Darvin Adams 3 rec, 18 yards; WR Terrell Zachery 2 rec, 24 yards; RB Mario Fannin 20 rec, 223 yards, 2 TD; RB Eric Smith, 2 rec, 3 yards

2009: Adams 60 rec, 997 yards, 10 TD; Zachery 26 rec, 477 yards, 5 TD; Fannin 42 rec, 413 yards, 3 TD; Smith 17 rec, 219 yards, TD

Of course, 2009 was the first year of the Gus Malzahn-guided offense, first year of Gene Chizik as head coach, first year of Trooper Taylor as wide receivers coach and first year of young Lashlee – just 26 at the time – serving as offensive graduate assistant.

By the way, Adams and Zachery weren’t one-year wonders; they combined for 96 grabs and nearly 1,600 yards in the 2010 championship season. It’s not just about this year, it’s laying groundwork for the future.

Why is all this relevant?

2012: WR Quan Bray 14 rec, 94 yards; WR Trovon Reed 9 rec, 122 yards, TD; TE CJ Uzomah 7 rec, 136 yards, TD; RB Tre Mason 7 rec, 86 yards; WR Sammie Coates 6 rec, 114 yards, 2 TD; WR Ricardo Louis 3 rec, 36 yards; WR Jaylon Denson 1 rec, 12 yards (!!!!), TE Brandon Fulse 1 rec, 8 yards.

Team stats – 2008: 184 rec, 1985 yards, 7 pass TD … 2012: 147 rec, 1879 yards, 8 pass TD.

Team stats – 2009: 218 rec, 2857 yards, 25 pass TD … 2013: Stay tuned.

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We learned we might not have our finger on how Uzomah and Prosch will be utilized. Those were two of the three green-jersey guys from Day 1 due to their strength and conditioning prowess (along with defensive tackle Gabe Wright), but they were often running with the second unit in media windows (and sometimes not at all.) We never heard specifically of injury issues, but Uzomah had just one catch for 20 yards on A-Day – for the blue squad – and Prosch registered no stats, albeit as the starting first-team H-Back.

17Auburn3

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We learned Corey Grant is quietly humble, but won’t shy away from the challenge of Tre Mason; a guy who last fall didn’t actually say “Gimme the ball” but basically, yeah, said “No, seriously, gimme the ball.”

“It is important – knowing he has that mentality, you’ve got to come with that mentality also to fight for position, fight for reps, fight for carries,” Grant said. “Overall, it will help the team if you have that mentality.”

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We learned Brandon Fulse should be taken seriously as a starting skill player. Because when coaches returning to their old school and re-teaching their unique system say things like “that’s what we recruited so-and-so for,” it’s significant.

“That’s what we recruited Brandon Fulse for: for that position standing up, doing a lot of dirty work, a very physical blocker,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “The very first year, we lost Eric Smith, and so he had to do a lot of the H-Back stuff that Eric Smith did. He’s finally coming into his own at the position we recruited him for.”

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We learned Marcus Davis, Earnest Robinson, Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker should be ready to compete from the time they get here. Because those five returning wide receivers hardly distinguished themselves. There are playing reps to be had.