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August 31, 2013

Last look: Capsule for Saturday’s game, including key matchups (and edges)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Washington State (3-9 in 2012) at Auburn (3-9 in 2012)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

TV: ESPNU

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 1-0AU logo

Quick game notes: Auburn has never had a problem holding serve at home to begin the season, owning a 34-6 record all-time in opening games at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers have won six home openers in a row, with the last loss coming at the hands of Georgia Tech in 2005. … Auburn coach Gus Malzahn prefers to lean on his running game, and the stats from his stint at Arkansas State last year back him up: The Red Wolves ran the ball 56.7 percent of the time (540 rushing attempts out of 952 total offensive plays). Washington State coach Mike Leach is at the other end of the spectrum, as no team in Division I put the ball in the air more than the Cougars last season. In 12 games, Washington State attempted 624 passes, averaging out to 52 per game. …  The SEC hasn’t been friendly to the Cougars over the years. Washington State has played against the SEC six times in its history, posting a 1-5 record. The Cougars are 1-4 against Tennessee, and lost to Auburn on the road in the 2006 season opener 40-14, which marked the last time they faced an SEC foe.

KEY MATCHUPS

Washington State receivers vs. Auburn secondary

The Tigers return three starters from last season in corners Jonathon Mincy and Chris Davis alongside free safety Jermaine Whitehead. Strong safety was formerly occupied by Demetruce McNeal, but he’s no longer with the team after being dismissed following an arrest during fall camp. In his place is Josh Holsey, a former corner who moved to safety in the spring and has remained there ever since. They will line up across from a Cougars’ receiving corps that brings back players who accounted for 70 percent of their yardage in 2012. The unit’s top pass-catcher is Brett Bartolone, a sophomore. He’ll be joined by a cadre of other options in Gabe Marks, Kristoff Williams, Dominique Williams and Isiah Myers. The team is also expecting big things from junior college transfer Vince Mayle, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound physical specimen.

EDGE: Even. The Cougars might hold the advantage here when it comes to depth, but there’s only so many receivers they can put on the field at the same time. Assuming the Tigers don’t suffer any injuries in the secondary during the game, they should be fine.Washington-State-University

Washington State offensive line vs. Auburn defensive line

Most games are decided up front and it won’t be any different in tonight’s tilt. It doesn’t matter how many times the Cougars want to throw if quarterback Connor Halliday doesn’t receive enough protection to get the ball out of his hands. That’s where Washington State’s much-maligned line comes in. It allowed more sacks than any team in the country (57) in 12 games last season, but those close to the team — including beat writer Christian Caple — seem to believe they have made great strides during the offseason. The Tigers are missing their top pass-rusher off the edge, as senior Dee Ford is out for an indefinite period of time with a knee injury. That being said, it has opened the door for less-experienced players to get an opportunity, as Auburn’s two first-team ends — LaDarius Owens and Craig Sanders — are both making their first career start on Saturday.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with Ford out, it’s hard to give a nod to the nation’s most woeful offensive line in 2012. Expect the Tigers to be able to get pressure on Halliday with regularity.

Auburn running backs vs. Washington State’s front seven

The Tigers will try to get their ground game established from the outset. But the Cougars aren’t going to make it easy on them, as the strength of their defense lies with the front seven, led by linebacker Darryl Monroe, the team’s second-leading tackler last year. Fellow linebacker Justin Sagote started the last 10 games of last season, collecting 61 takedowns in that span. And along the line, Washington State brings back three players who saw significant action last season in Ioane Gauta, Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole to anchor its base 3-4 scheme. Auburn will try to run it right at them, with the option of handing it off to one of four players out of the backfield: Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber. That’s not even mentioning quarterback Nick Marshall, who is as dangerous with the ball in his hands as any player in the country.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with the experience the Cougars have returning, it’s not as if their run defense was stingy last season, as they only ranked 64th in the country in that category in 2012, allowing an average of 163.4 yards per game. Given the Tigers bevy of weapons at tailback and the fact they’ll be running behind an offensive line with four starters back, this matchup ends up in Auburn’s favor.

August 26, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Young’s talent stands on its own merit.

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

August 21, 2013

Auburn football: Five questions (and five predictions) as Tigers head into regular season

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn wrapped up its fall camp on Tuesday, the first since Gus Malzahn took over as head coach.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn found his starting quarterback during fall camp, but the Tigers still have question marks heading into their season opener Aug 31. (File by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn found his starting quarterback during fall camp, but the Tigers still have question marks heading into their season opener Aug 31. (File by Todd Van Emst)

The Tigers were able to solve what Malzahn considered “the No. 1 priority” heading into the regular season — settling on a quarterback. That four-man race concluded last Saturday, when Nick Marshall was named the starter. But with just 10 days left before Washington State comes into Jordan-Hare Stadium for the season opener, Auburn is still looking for answers at other positions.

Here are five questions (in no particular order) the Tigers will try to figure out prior to squaring off against the Cougars on Aug. 31, with (bold) predictions on what the outcomes will be:

Who starts at right tackle?

For the duration of fall camp, it appeared Avery Young and Patrick Miller were neck-and-neck at the position, as both saw time with the first-team offense. Earlier this week, however, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Miller had “been working there a lot” in recent practices. During the same interview session, Lashlee said Young had moved inside and started taking snaps at both guard spots, though he saw more time on the left side, which has been manned by Alex Kozan.

Malzahn refused to shed any more light on the situation following practice on Tuesday, but expect a decision by the beginning of next week — even if the coaching staff doesn’t make its choice public.

Bold prediction: Miller becomes the right tackle, and Young, who Lashlee said is “talented enough to play all five positions,” steals the left guard spot from Kozan.

Who is the team’s go-to receiver?

One of the biggest unknowns heading into fall camp remains the same at its closure. The Tigers have a lot of options at receiver, but none has stood above the rest. Just see what Lashlee had to say earlier this week. “I’ll be honest right now,” he said. “I don’t know who our leading receiver is going to be.” Lashlee lauded juniors Quan Bray and Jaylon Denson for their consistency, but didn’t rule out tight end C.J. Uzomah possibly developing into the best pass-catcher the Tigers will have this fall.

Bold prediction: Sophomore Ricardo Louis, who was the “most explosive” player in camp according to teammates, establishes himself as the Tigers’ top receiver this season (and beyond).

What happens at defensive end without Dee Ford?

The Tigers certainly would have liked to have some semblance of a rotation in place by now. Injuries have made that difficult. The starter at left end, Ford has already been ruled out for the opener due to a ligament injury in his knee. But he’s far from the only player who dealt with an affliction during camp. Fellow ends Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae have missed time, while Keymiya Harrell has yet to practice after having surgery knee surgery this spring. To combat their lack of healthy bodies, the Tigers also moved LaDarius Owens back to end after he had shifted to linebacker during spring practice.

The absences allowed true freshmen Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel to audition for a possible starting spot, and they have done their part to impress defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, saying the duo already comprises “two of our best pass-rushers.”

Bold prediction: Though Johnson said he would prefer to have his “veterans prepped up to be the starters,” Lawson is on the field at one of the end positions with the first-team defense versus Washington State.

Who holds the edge at middle linebacker?

Kris Frost entered the fall No. 1 on the depth chart, but he didn’t stay there long. Time and again, Johnson said Jake Holland has been the steadier player during practice, and as such, moved him ahead of Frost. Johnson explained the difference between the two on Monday.

“Kris had two or three days where he kind of went backwards, had some missed assignments and some things that were uncharacteristic and shouldn’t have done,” he said. ” … The two legitimate scrimmages that we had, Jake just had more production, had more tackles, more plays, had a pick (and) hasn’t had as many missed tackles.”

That should tell people all they need to know.

Bold prediction: Frost continues to fight the good fight, but Holland is in the starting lineup come game time.

What’s the deal with the secondary?

Much like the defensive line, injuries have taken their toll on the Tigers’ back end. Jonathan Jones will miss the opener (and possibly more) after breaking a bone in his ankle in an off-field mishap. That means the No. 3 corner on the Tigers will come from a trio of first-year players: redshirt freshman T.J. Davis and true freshmen Kamryn Melton and Johnathan Ford, who switched from running back this week.

Demetruce McNeal’s decision-making didn’t help matters, whose arrest last Saturday led to his dismissal and weakened an already-lean unit at safety. Originally a cornerback, Josh Holsey has been at the strong (or boundary) safety position since the end of the spring, when McNeal missed the last five practices for undisclosed personal issues. McNeal then sat out the first 10 practices of camp following an infection that required minor surgery, which forced Holsey to remain at safety. Many thought he would finally move back to corner after McNeal regained his health, but the senior was dismissed before the Tigers ever reached that point. If anything were to happen Holsey or fellow safety Jermaine Whitehead, it would be down to Ryan Smith and quarterback-turned-safety Kiehl Frazier.

Bold prediction: The two former offensive players — Ford and Frazier — see more action on defense than they ever would have imagined one month ago.

August 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

VIDEO: Safety Jermaine Whitehead excited enough for season he would ‘play in the parking lot’ if need be

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Junior Jermaine Whitehead spoke with media members for more than 10 minutes with following Auburn’s practice on Wednesday. For the sake of time, we edited his highly-entertaining interview down to eight minutes. Don’t worry, though — Whitehead’s best quotes remain intact.

August 7, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Whitehead agreed.

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

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes absent

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

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

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

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

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

Indoor scrimmage doesn’t hinder Tigers

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

Mother Nature had other ideas.

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

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

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

Whitehead proved to be the embodiment of that sentiment.

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

Quick hits

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

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Picking off a pass was just icing on the cake.

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

Seventy yards was good.

It just wasn’t good enough.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 5, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/5: Demetruce McNeal sits out fourth straight practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to see about 20 minutes of practice on Monday, which marked Day 4 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short viewing window.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins on of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins one of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

  • Safety Demetruce McNeal continues to be the headliner during the media’s short stay at practice. For the fourth time in as many days of fall camp, the senior did not participate in drills while reporters were in attendance. Including the final five sessions of the spring, it marks the ninth consecutive time the College Park, Ga., native missed an Auburn practice. As he did Saturday, McNeal had a helmet on. However, with the team practicing in “shells” (helmets and pads), the safety was sans shoulder pads. In his post-practice meeting with media member’s on Sunday, Gus Malzahn said McNeal was “getting better.” But apparently not good enough to be cleared to practice just yet.
  • Avery Young was with the first-team offensive line, working at right tackle. Young and Patrick Miller have seemingly been going back-and-forth at the position (in the first-team lineup) during the first few days of fall camp.
  • The defense was working on its “dime” package, which included two of the hybrid safety/linebacker “star” position players on the field at the same time in Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie. Other members of the first-team defense (in that particular formation) had Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter manning the two ends and Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright inside. The linebackers were Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and the secondary consisted of cornerbacks Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead and Josh Holsey at safety.
  • Malzahn stayed around the quarterbacks for a few minutes, but then drifted over to watch the defense running through its various formations. The quarterbacks once again practiced their footwork today as well as executing proper handoffs. Jonathan Wallace and Nick Marshall worked with Cameron Artis-Payne, Tre Mason and Corey Grant, while Kiehl Frazier and Jeremy Johnson were paired with Johnathan Ford, Peyton Barber and Patrick Lymon.
  • Punt returners were mostly the same as it was during the portions of practice reporters saw Friday and Saturday. Wide receivers Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Marcus Davis were back, as well as cornerback Chris Davis. There was one new member, however, as another receiver — true freshman Tony Stevens — joined the fray. Kick returners mostly stayed to form, too. Mason, Grant, Ford, cornerback Jonathan Jones and wide receiver Ricardo Louis were seen fielding kicks, with one new addition in Therezie.
  • Right guard Chad Slade got an earful from offensive line coach J.B. Grimes during one drill. As the line was practicing its footwork once the ball is snapped, Slade didn’t have his feet in the proper position — and Grimes let him know it. “Check your splits!” said Grimes, before moving the junior’s feet where they needed to be. “I’m trying to help you!”
  • The media once again walked out as the team finished up its stretching drills with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell. If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate while Russell leads drills, it’s that he has an incredible amount of energy. It’s no wonder the team has touted his offseason workout program at every opportunity.

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.

July 13, 2013

Auburn Season Preview: Scouting Florida Atlantic

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

With the 2013 season drawing closer by the minute, it’s never too early to begin taking a look at Auburn’s opponents in the coming campaign. On Day 4, we continue with the Florida Atlantic Owls. The Tigers will host the newly-minted Conference USA representative in Game No. 8 this season.

Who: Florida Atlantic

When: Saturday, Oct. 26

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

All-time series: Auburn leads 1-0Florida_Atlantic_Owls01

When last they met: Florida Atlantic had nothing to be ashamed of the last time it left Jordan-Hare Stadium just two years ago. Yes, Auburn won 30-14, but the Owls made the defending national champion work for it — for at least one half, anyway. The Owls intercepted Tigers quarterback Barrett Trotter on the first play of the contest, converting the turnover into a field goal to take a 3-0 lead at the 11:36 mark of the opening period. Auburn scored 10 straight points, but Florida Atlantic was able to get one more field goal on the board to trail only 10-6 heading into the locker room. Tigers defensive back Jermaine Whitehead effectively sealed the victory for the home team when he stepped in front of a pass from Owls quarterback Graham Wilbert and returned it 25 yards for a touchdown to push their lead to 17-6 with 13:32 to go in the third quarter. The Tigers put 13 more unanswered points on the board in that quarter to take a 30-6 advantage into the final stanza. The Owls scored a touchdown in the fourth quarter, but the game was long decided by then. Though the Tigers came away with the ‘W,’ their offense struggled throughout, gaining just 315 yards, eight more than the Owls (307), a squad that came into the contest averaging just 92.5 yards per game offensively.

The coach: Carl Pelini (3-9 last season in first year at Florida Atlantic)

2012 record: 3-9, 2-6 Sun Belt Conference

Total offense: 350.67 ypg (98th in Division I, 9th in Sun Belt)

Scoring offense: 20.50 ppg (105th, 9th)

Total defense: 406.08 ypg (70th, 4th)

Scoring defense: 30.83 ppg (84th, 8th)

2012 Year-in-Review: After starting out 1-6, which included losses to both Georgia and Alabama, the Owls showed signs of improvement once conference play began. Florida Atlantic was able to beat both Troy and Western Kentucky in the season’s second half to carry some positive vibes heading into Pelini’s second year on the job. But on the downside, the Owls can throw away any information they compiled about their Sun Belt Conference rivals, as they switched their conference affiliation during the offseason. Florida Atlantic will begin competing in Conference USA this fall. The move is a double-edged sword for the team, though. Financially, it’s a fantastic decision, since more money will begin flowing into FAU’s athletic department. But from a competitive standpoint, this hurts FAU, at least initially. The C-USA will be much tougher top-to-bottom than the Sun Belt was, so don’t expect the Owls to be in the mix for a bowl for at least one more season, maybe two.

Biggest area of concern: No one has any idea who will be in the lineup at the most important position on the field: quarterback. Wilbert, a two-year starter, left a three-way quarterback battle in his wake. The three candidates — Stephen Curtis, Jaquez Johnson and Melvin German III — are equally green. Only Curtis has thrown a pass in a game before, appearing in five games last season in mop-up duty. In his 10 attempts, he completed four passes for 37 yards. Curtis’ scant experience didn’t give him a leg up on the other two, however, as Pelini said German III was the favorite to win the job following the team’s spring game. Pelini’s proclamation came with a caveat, though, as he insisted the starter would not be named until the fall.

Key returning player/unit: Whoever ends up winning the quarterback job can be thankful he’ll have a pair of weapons to throw to in senior tight end Nexon Dorvilus and junior wideout William Dukes. Dorvilus, a Miami native, led the team in receiving touchdowns last season with five. He caught 30 passes last season for 301 yards, and had multiple receptions in nine of the Owls’ 12 games last season en route to being a second-team All-Sun Belt Conference selection. Dukes was even better, posting team-highs in receptions (63) and receiving yardage (979), while also being named to the all-conference second team. He recorded five or more receptions in all but one game, setting a season and career-high with nine, which he did twice, against Western Kentucky and Louisiana-Lafeyette, respectively. With this receiving duo at their disposal, and another year of seasoning to get comfortable with Pelini’s spread attack, the Owls should be able to improve upon their mediocre showing in 2012.

Extra point: Since capturing bowl victories in consecutive years (2007 and 2008), the Owls have not been back to the postseason. In the past four bowl-less seasons, FAU has posted a 13-35 overall record.

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