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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 10, 2013

Auburn notes: Aerial attack leads the way as offense ‘wins’ second scrimmage (w/Quan Bray video)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s coaching staff feels comfortable at several positions.

Sophomore wide receiver was the star of Auburn's scrimmage on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. (File photo)

Sophomore wide receiver Ricardo Louis was the star of Auburn’s scrimmage on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. (File photo)

That’s why head coach Gus Malzahn said “a couple” starters were held out of the team’s scrimmage on Saturday, giving he and his assistants a chance to further evaluate other players.

“If we had the proper information and we were trying to worry about the guy behind them, there were certain players that we did hold out,” he said.

One of those players was junior cornerback Jonathon Mincy, who only played on special teams. That meant he got to watch everything else that took place during the scrimmage.

And he was disappointed with the play of his fellow defenders.

“I felt like the offense came out and executed more plays,” he said. “The defense gave us a lot of explosive plays. That’s something we’re going to get corrected in the film room.”

Asked to name even one positive he saw from the defense, Mincy couldn’t bring himself to do it.

“I wouldn’t say any big plays stuck out,” he said, “because there were so many explosive plays from our offense.”

No one stood out more than Ricardo Louis. The sophomore wide receiver was the star of the scrimmage, hauling in at least one touchdown catch, possibly two. Mincy and receiver Quan Bray couldn’t agree on a set number.

The fact remains that he made multiple catches for big yardage, which Bray said the Miami native has done since fall camp began.

“Today was really a breakout just to show everyone he can do it,” he said. “We definitely know because he’s a baller, and I can’t wait to see him break out this year.”

While he was pleased to see the offense starting to pick things up, Mincy didn’t like that his defensive teammates allowed it to occur. Even though he wasn’t on the field for it, the competitive fire runs deep.

He wants other defensive backs to feel that same way.

“We have to make sure that everybody has that mind-set that ‘Nobody gets beat deep. Ever,’” He said. That’s something we’re going to get corrected from last year. That’s something the defense has to take pride in.”

There was one bright spot for the defense, as it picked off one pass that Bray said wasn’t helped by a bobbled snap.

“Those things come in a game,” he said. “You’ve just got to overcome adversity.”

The defense can relate.

Mincy said the defense — and the secondary, specifically — will need to get over its lackluster showing Saturday. Those kinds of breakdowns can’t happen if they’re going to make a turnaround this fall.

Their biggest ally now is time.

“This is the first time coming out here with the heat bumping on us like this,” he said. “You’ve got to have mental toughness. That’s something we’ve got to face. We’ve got to keep going out there and chopping down wood.”

Quick hits
Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett reportedly walked off the field with a boot on his left foot. Malzahn refused to confirm that any injuries occurred aside from the typical nicks one would expect. “Each scrimmage is going to be physical,” he said. “I’m sure there are some bumps and bruises.” … Auburn had another practice scheduled for Saturday afternoon, which Malzahn said would be spent working on “special situations and special teams.” …  … Following Sunday’s practice, the Tigers will hold their annual “Fan Day” at 3:30 p.m. CT at Auburn Arena.

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.

While Demetruce McNeal waits to practice, other members of secondary seize opportunity

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — It’s been a while since Demetruce McNeal has been able to practice with his teammates.

Entering the fourth day of Auburn’s fall camp on Monday, the senior safety has missed eight straight practices. He missed the final five practices of the spring due to an undisclosed personal issue, and did not participate in the first three days of fall camp, battling what head coach Gus Malzahn said was “a medical issue.”

Sophomore Josh Holsey has practiced at both corner and safety while Demetruce McNeal has missed Auburn's last eight practices. He's also been teaching the newcomers in the Tigers' secondary. (File photo)

Sophomore Josh Holsey has practiced at both corner and safety while Demetruce McNeal has missed Auburn’s last eight practices. He’s also been teaching the newcomers in the Tigers’ secondary. (File photo)

McNeal’s absence has been noticeable. He is the most experienced member of the Tigers’ secondary, after all, starting 20 games over the past two seasons. But while he’s been out, it’s provided an opportunity for other players to get a look at safety.

And in the case of Josh Holsey, it just means more snaps at the boundary safety position. He entered the fall at the top of the depth chart along with McNeal, even though the sophomore started six games at corner last season. He could move back there, or he could stick at safety.

Holsey doesn’t care as long as he’s on the field.

“I know corner like the back of my hand, so I know if I have to go back, I know I can do it,” he said. “If they need me to play safety, that’s what I’d do. That’s what I’ve been studying every day now. Safety is getting just as easy as corner was.”

Holsey said he has practiced exclusively at safety thus far, but believes he’ll probably start going back and forth between safety and corner when McNeal returns.

Holsey is doing his best to bring some of the newcomers in the secondary up to speed, too. Among that group are a pair of freshmen in Kamryn Melton and Khari Harding, as well as Brandon King, who transferred from Highland Community College.

“They’re learning. They don’t really know as much right now but I’m teaching them,” Holsey said. “I know I’m learning as well, but I know a little more than what they do. They’re asking me questions and I’m telling them whenever they need help to come ask me.”

Junior cornerback Jonathon Mincy has seen the same things as Holsey, impressed how quickly the young players are catching on.

“That’s something that is going to be key to this defense,” he said. “Just having everybody able to bring something to the table and having a lot of hands on deck.”

Holsey has taken a specific interest mentoring King. He sits beside the junior college transfer each day in the safeties’ meeting room, pointing out the pre-snap checks they’re making as well as answering any other questions on King’s mind.

Mincy couldn’t say enough about Holsey’s leadership shining through and setting an example for the rest of the players in the secondary.

“He’s communicating out there and that’s a guy I know that is going to bring it all on the line when it comes game time,” Mincy said. “(He’s) just somebody who always has outstanding work ethic.”

Holsey isn’t one who likes to talk about himself. Heck, he sheepishly admitted he came up with an interception during Saturday’s practice, a sore topic among members of the secondary after it tallied only one pickoff last year. But Mincy couldn’t even recall which quarterback he pilfered.

“It came off a tipped ball, so I was fortunate to get a good one,” he said. “I’m sure we’ll probably get some more to try and catch them slipping.”

Whenever McNeal returns, he’ll join a secondary out to prove last season’s showing was a fluke. Mincy doesn’t even care if the Tigers interception numbers don’t dramatically increase.

He just doesn’t want to see the ball landing in a receiver’s hands.

“Just as long as nobody is catching the ball on us, that’s something we can make an adjustment on and that’s something we can take in positive,” he said. “And (hopefully) keep it going the rest of camp.”

August 1, 2013

Auburn football: Jersey changes among veterans, freshman and JUCO transfers receive numbers

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Since my previous story touched extensively on Dee Ford’s decision to change his number — from No. 95 to No. 30 — why not take a look at some of the other numeric alterations on Auburn’s roster?

As reported in an earlier article this summer, defensive back Jonathon Mincy is changing from 21 to 6, while receiver Ricardo Louis is going from 6 to 5. Finally, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy is switching from from 30 to 8.

The Tigers’ incoming freshman class and junior college transfers also received their numbers on Thursday, as players officially reported for fall camp.

Here’s the list of Auburn’s newest additions, along with their respective jersey numbers:

  • Montravius Adams, DT (No. 1)
  • Dominic Walker, WR (No. 3)
  • Jeremy Johnson, QB (No. 6)
  • Tony Stevens, WR (No. 8)
  • Nick Marshall, QB (No. 14)***
  • Mackenro Alexander, DB (No. 21)
  • Khari Harding, DB (No. 22)
  • Johnathan Ford, RB (No. 23)
  • Peyton Barber, RB (No. 25)
  • Brandon King, DB (No. 29)***
  • Kenny Flowers, LB (No. 33)***
  • Kamryn Melton, DB (No. 37)
  • Daniel Carlson, K (No. 38)
  • Cameron Toney, LB (No. 47)
  • Carl Lawson, DE (No. 55)
  • Deon Mix, OL (No. 75)
  • Marcus Davis, WR (No. 80)
  • Elijah Daniel, DE (No. 97)

***Denotes junior college tranfer

Note: Punter Jimmy Hutchinson was the lone freshman on scholarship who has yet to be awarded a number.

Jonathon Mincy ready to change things around this fall

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala.Jonathon Mincy plans on this fall being a season of change.

LSU 12 Auburn 10 Mincy Shepard

After a disappointing 2012 season both team-wise and individually, junior cornerback Jonathon Mincy is ready to make amends this fall.

It should go without saying what he wants altered most — an improvement upon Auburn’s 3-9 (0-8 SEC) record in 2012. But there’s another number that was every bit as disappointing to the Tigers’ cornerback: one. That single digit stands for the number of interceptions tallied by Auburn’s secondary last season.

And it’s a stat that has driven Mincy and the rest of Auburn’s defensive backs every day of the offseason, especially during the ball drills brought in by cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith.

“That’s something that we work every single day — ball drills,” Mincy said on Friday. “That’s something that we’re going to take pride in as a defensive back. Me, Chris (Davis) and Ryan White, that’s something that we stress to the whole group. We definitely can’t wait to go out there and make plays and definitely get some interceptions and change it around.”

Mincy has already had to make a slight adaptation since the spring.

After donning jersey No. 6 in his first two years as a Tiger, he started wearing No. 21 during spring practice. It was the same number he wore in high school. When he arrived in Auburn, however, it was already accounted for. Then, after taking it on this spring, Mincy found out he and running back Tre Mason would “be on a lot of special teams together.” Since Mason also sported No. 21, push came to shove.

So, back to square one: No. 6.

Though it was a small concession, it’s all a part of Mincy’s refusal to be content with any aspect of his game.

“I definitely have to step up, play a more leadership role for this defense and that’s something that motivates me,” he said. “Personally, I don’t really feel I (had) a great season last year. Definitely not having interceptions and just being that ball hawk on the defense, that’s something that I’m hoping to change this year.”

Individually, the Decatur, Ga., native said he had a few goals he wanted to reach, listing stats like collecting 60-plus tackles and at least four interceptions this season.

But any individual accomplishments or strides made by the defense will likely be for naught if the Tigers’ offense doesn’t do the same. Head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have repeatedly expressed the need for one receiver to develop into the team’s “go-to” option. Practicing against them every day, Mincy can speak to the receiving corps’ progress better than most.

And Mincy can recall few, if any, drops during most practices and drills, “a good sign,” as he was quick to note.

“That’s something offensive-wise that we have to take pride in because we got to catch balls,” he said. “Point blank, period.”

But what of the Tigers’ most-discussed battle offensively, that of the team’s starting quarterback? Like any other interested observer, Mincy can’t wait to see who wins the job.

He just hopes it happens as soon as possible.

“It’s something that’s competitive and that’s something that we need at every position,” he said. “That’s something that we’re looking forward to. (A) lot of great young boys just came in and we’re just looking to see how they can play.”

Of course, being ready to play could be applied to any player on the team. In the meantime, Mincy has gotten a head start on the season, already breaking down film of Auburn’s first three opponents in Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State, respectively. With that trio of foes likely to put the ball in the air often, Mincy knows there will be plenty of opportunities for the Tigers’ secondary to snag interceptions and leave last season’s dismal showing far behind.

Until the Tigers tee it up against the Cougars at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Aug. 31, all Mincy and his teammates can do is push themselves when fall camp begins Aug. 2, as anticipation for the new season builds by the day.

“(We) really just want to get better at all times in all phases and really start camp at a high level,” he said. “We definitely have high expectations on every aspect of the ball.”

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 30, 2013

SEC Notes: Slive no-comments Auburn allegation reports, demands better basketball

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

ncf_a_slive_b1_600BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Athletic director Jay Jacobs and former head coach Gene Chizik were clearly indignant, debunking reports of Auburn committing NCAA violations and otherwise wrongdoings by ESPN and Roopstigo.com.

While fans both for and against Auburn weighed in, active coaches (like Gus Malzahn) and players weren’t touching the subject.

SEC commissioner Mike Slive, predictably, was in the latter camp when asked about it Monday at an Associated Press Sports Editors conference.

“I never comment on that kind of thing. I mean, I just don’t comment on those things,” Slive said.

Asked if he thought Jacobs acted in the appropriate manner, Slive still didn’t bite.

“I read Jay’s defense,” Slive said. “It’s just something I don’t deal with publicly.”

Oops, hoops: Nobody’s questioning the SEC’s prowess on a football field, yet the nation mocks that same conference come men’s basketball season.

The SEC earned just three NCAA Tournament bids this spring, and it could have been two if not for Ole Miss’ stunning run to the league tournament championship. The Rebels joined regular season champ Florida and league newcomer Missouri, while defending NCAA champion Kentucky lost in the first round of the NIT.

Yes, it is a concern, and yes, it is something that the league office is thinking about and should be thinking about,” Slive said. “No school’s an island when it comes to scheduling basketball, and we’re going to take a very hard look at the importance of who our people play in non-conference.”

Slive proudly reminded the crowd of the SEC’s three recent national championships – Florida went back-to-back in 2006-07.

“The answer is we’ve had a lot of success, and last year was not indicative of who we are in basketball,” Slive said. “We’re a lot more than that.”

Cracking down: It was a bizarre, can-that-actually-happen moment, when Auburn sophomore defensive back Jonathon Mincy was thrown out of the spring game for targeting a defenseless receiver above the head.

Yes, the spring game. The one that doesn’t count.

But that’s what the NCAA wants to enforce early and often, as player safety concerns are heightened with the horrors of additional research.

The new rule, passed in March, permits referees to authorize immediate ejections, rather than deferring to league review of questionable hits over the weekend – which in the past were punishable by one-game suspensions for the following game.

“One of the premises was how do you impact behavior immediately, rather than waiting and getting into a lot of dialogue about the nuance of the (action),” Slive said. “The idea here is if a player knows that he’s going to be ejected from the game – and he is gone – that is, I think in the final analysis, the most effective way to modify behavior. Waiting until Sunday or Monday does not (do that.)”

Kickoffs could be an endangered staple of football. Time will tell.

“What’s important here is we continue to use the rules for the benefit of the health and safety of our student-athletes,” Slive said. “We’ll keep looking at the data and keep talking about it. This was a giant step forward, making it clear that if you target somebody, you’re going to be ejected right then and there. Hopefully that will change behavior.”

Worldwide leader: No, Slive doesn’t think ESPN has become too powerful in the college sports landscape.

“I can’t control what other people think,” Slive said. “Through ESPN, we have a lot of distribution. We’re very excited about the future, and we’re going to be in a position where we can even enhance the exposure to not just the so-called football and basketball sports, but other sports of ours.

“I can’t speak for others, but I can tell you we have enjoy the relationship we have with ESPN, and with CBS.”

Although its purpose has not formally been announced, Thursday’s press conference in Atlanta – rescheduled from April 16 due to the Boston Marathon bombings – is expected to declare the creation of an SEC Network in partnership with ESPN.

April 29, 2013

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

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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Photo by Todd Van Emst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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AUBURN FOOTBALL

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

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

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

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We learned safety might be a problem position in 2013.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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