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September 2, 2013

Auburn football: Despite three interceptions in opener, Tigers’ secondary far from satisfied

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Football isn’t a game that lends itself to correcting failures overnight.

Auburn's Robenson Therezie (left) celebrated with running back Tre Mason (right) following the Tigers' victory on Saturday. But Auburn's secondary wasn't pleased snagging only three interceptions on Saturday. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Auburn’s Robenson Therezie (left) celebrated with running back Tre Mason (right) following the Tigers’ victory on Saturday. But Auburn’s secondary wasn’t pleased snagging only three interceptions on Saturday. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Normally, it’s a process, taking multiple games — if not a whole season — before one can fairly judge a team’s merit in any single area.

Consider Auburn’s secondary an exception, then.

The Tigers’ defensive backs heard about their paltry 2012 interception total (one) nearly every day of the offseason. That single pickoff came from safety Trent Fisher, who returned it for a touchdown in Auburn’s effortless 51-7 victory against Alabama A&M. The Tigers had only one other interception last season, courtesy of linebacker Daren Bates.

Auburn’s secondary showed how last year was where it should be in its season opener on Saturday: in the past.

Auburn came up with three interceptions against Washington State signal-caller Connor Halliday, eclipsing last year’s total in the span of a single contest.

The sterling performance served dual purposes: It was a weight lifted off the shoulders of the entire unit as much as a needed shot in the arm.

“It was great,” said safety Josh Holsey, who had one of the three thefts. “It makes us feel more comfortable about ourselves and it lets other team know you can’t just come over here and toss the ball around on us.”

The sophomore then explained how the play unfolded from his vantage point.

“I tried to go get it as high as I could,” he said. “I really didn’t think (Halliday) was going to throw it because I was right there. When I saw it, I just ran up and tried to get it at its highest point.”

Holsey’s one interception was doubled by Robenson Therezie, who picked off a pair of passes, both at crucial times for the Tigers. His good work didn’t go unrecognized, as the SEC named him the league’s Defensive Player of the Week on Monday.

And to think he accomplished the feat in his first start as a collegian.

Despite being asked to replace A-Day MVP Justin Garrett at the the Tigers’ hybrid “Star” position, Therezie didn’t blink.

In fact, he said didn’t even think about it.

“Oh, I didn’t feel the pressure at all,” he said. “I knew we had to execute. We have really good backups, and I just wanted to stay in the game. It was my first start, ever, in college football, and I just wanted to stay on the field.”

On his first pilfer and Auburn trailing 7-0, Therezie grabbed a tipped pass at the Tigers’ 48-yard line and returned it to the Cougars’ 28-yard line. Four plays later, Auburn was in the end zone for the first time in 2013.

His second interception was even more critical. With the Cougars just eight yards away from the end zone and down 31-24 with 4:57 to go in the final quarter, Halliday threw a fade route toward the right corner of the end zone. It never made it to his intended receiver, as Therezie jumped up and snatched the ball out of the air, dashing Washington State’s last scoring threat in the process.

Head coach Gus Malzahn was visibly pleased with Therezie, highlighting the Fairburn native’s effort in his postgame press conference.

“He played really good,” Malzahn said. “He played a lot of snaps out there and he was tired but he found a way, especially with that one in the end zone late.”

Once a team tastes success, though, greed tends to set in.

That’s why the Tigers couldn’t care less about the three interceptions they collected.

Instead, disappointment reigned supreme.

“They’re in the frame of mind now they’re not frustrated that they didn’t get any,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “They’re frustrated that they didn’t get more, which is the way you want it.”

September 1, 2013

Auburn notes: Robenson Therezie plays like a ‘star,’ Montravius Adams impressive in debut

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Robenson Therezie was a late entry into Auburn’s lineup on Saturday, being inserted at the team’s hybrid safety/linebacker position known as the “Star.”

Junior Robenson Therezie had the best game of his career on Saturday, intercepting two passes (one seen above) and tallying seven tackles in Auburn's 31-24 victory over Washington State on Saturday night.

Junior Robenson Therezie had the best game of his career on Saturday, intercepting two passes (one seen above) and tallying seven tackles in Auburn’s 31-24 victory over Washington State on Saturday night. (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Therezie then went out and played like one.

He picked off two passes in Auburn’s 31-24 victory on Saturday, becoming the first Tiger since Josh Bynes in 2010 (against Arkansas) to tally two interceptions in a single game. What made the feat even more impressive is that the junior didn’t have an interception to his name prior to kickoff.

And he didn’t just excel in the passing game, also finishing as the Tigers’ second-leading tackler — behind only Jonathon Mincy’s eight takedowns — on Saturday, tallying seven tackles (six solo, one assisted).

Though he was tasked with filling the void left by Justin Garrett — the team’s A-Day MVP — Therezie said he didn’t place any additional expectations on himself to perform.

“Oh, I didn’t feel the pressure at all,” he said. “I knew we had to execute. We have really good backups, and I just wanted to stay in the game. It was my first start, ever, in college football, and I just wanted to stay on the field.”

Therezie pilfered his first pass in the opening period off Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday, snagging the ball at the Tigers’ 48-yard line and taking it back to the Cougars’ 28-yard line.

The only thing Therezie didn’t do right when recalling the play?

He forgot what number teammate Jake Holland wore.

“I was trying to get to the flats, but No. 2 didn’t spot (it),” he said, though Holland sports jersey No. 5. “It was fast and I ended up right by him and there was a tip ball and I got to it.”

Auburn didn’t let the turnover go to waste, as it scored a touchdown four plays later.

His second interception was perhaps even more important. With 4:57 remaining, the Cougars were on the Tigers’ 8-yard line, looking to score a touchdown to knot the contest at 31-all. Halliday took the snap and fired the ball toward the right corner of the end zone.

Therezie was there, though, making a leaping grab on a pass intended for receiver Ricky Galvin to thwart Washington State’s last scoring opportunity of the game.

The magnitude of the moment wasn’t lost on the Miami native.

“I had to make a big play there,” he said. “We knew as a defense they were going for the end zone right there and we communicated the right read and I made the play.”

Coming off his best game as a Tiger made Therezie appreciate Saturday even more, especially in the light of his career up to this point, which has seen him shift around from position to position without a real home.

“It was very different. I felt great,” he said. “I felt like I got back to my old self, because I was kind of lost for two years. Now I feel good.”

Adams ‘thankful for the opportunity to make an impact’

Montravius Adams didn’t have an inkling he would be on the field for so many snaps on Saturday.

The true freshman defensive tackle showed out, ending with two tackles (one for loss) and notching the first sack of his career in a pasting of Halliday in the second quarter.

“I’m just thankful for the opportunity to make an impact this first game,” he said.

He introduced himself immediately, as the sack was his first play of the game.

“I didn’t want to let the team down,” he said. “At the snap of the ball, my only focus was to push down the quarterback, and I did.”

In a statement that will likely induce headaches for opposing offensive coordinators later this season, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn believes Adams only scratched the surface of his abilities on Saturday.

“Montravius is a big athlete, but he’ll improve each game,” he said.  “You know freshmen — what usually happens is they’ll improve each game.”

A first half full of ‘firsts’

“First” stood for far more than the opening 30 minutes of play at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday.

It also was a statistical achievement for many of Auburn’s players. Along with Therezie, four other Tigers made their first career start: quarterback Nick Marshall, left guard Alex Kozan and defensive ends Craig Sanders and LaDarius Owens.

Like Therezie, safety Josh Holsey notched his first career interception on Saturday, making a leaping grab of a wayward Halliday pass on the final play of the opening period.

The Tigers’ special teams had its share of firsts as well: Ryan White pulled off a feat that hadn’t occurred for Auburn in seven years in the first quarter, as he scored on a two-point conversion. It was the first time the Tigers had successfully converted a two-point try since doing the same against Alabama in 2006.

Junior Corey Grant scored his first touchdown as a Tiger in emphatic fashion, scampering 75 yards in the second quarter, which gave Auburn a 22-21 lead with 6:18 remaining before halftime.

Injury updates

Malzahn updated the status of both Garrett and defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker in his postgame press conference — to an extent, anyway.

He didn’t get into specifics of either player’s absence, but explained the reasoning that was behind each of them sitting out Saturday.

“You know it’s kind of been one of those things where it was a game-time decision,” Malzahn said of Garrett, who sprained his foot in the Tigers’ second scrimmage of fall camp and was initially expected to play Saturday. “We decided to hold him out, but Therezie came through and played well. ”

While Garrett should be back soon, the same couldn’t be said of Whitaker. The senior from Warner Robins — who was replaced by Gabe Wright in the starting lineup — was seen on crutches prior to kickoff.

“Jeff’s going to be out for a while,” Malzahn said. “He had a procedure done last week and so he wasn’t able to play. … We’ll see when he gets back.”

Quick hits

With the win, Auburn improved to 93-26-2 in season opening games all-time and 96-15-3 in home openers. … The Tigers have now won 78 consecutive games when scoring 30 or more points and 294-4 overall. Auburn’s only loss against a non-SEC foe when scoring 30-plus came in 1979, when it lost to Wake Forest 42-38. …  Washington State scored two rushing touchdowns on Saturday. In 12 games last season, they totaled just six scores on the ground. … Cody Parkey’s 47-yard field goal in the second quarter was a career-long for the senior from Jupiter, Fla. … Auburn’s undefeated 1993 squad was honored in a pregame ceremony as part of its 20-year reunion.

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 22, 2013

Auburn notes: Kiehl Frazier ‘in the mix’ for playing time in season opener, Justin Garrett returns to practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Kiehl Frazier appears to be a quick learner.

Kiehl Frazier has made enough strides at safety that both head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he's 'in the mix' for playing time in the season opener. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Kiehl Frazier has made enough strides at safety that both head coach Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he’s ‘in the mix’ for playing time in the season opener. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Though the former quarterback has been at safety only 10 days, there are signs he is already making a push to break into Auburn’s two-deep depth chart at the position. Following the Tigers’ practice on Thursday, head coach Gus Malzahn said Frazier is “in the mix” for playing time.

“I think everyday he feels more comfortable,” Malzahn said. “It’s like anything else. The more that you do, the better you get at it. He’s a competitor, he’s a smart football player, he understands offensive concepts and there’s a good chance he’ll be out on the field.”

Ellis Johnson was even more effusive in his praise of Frazier on Monday. The defensive coordinator said it was a seamless transition for the former quarterback, who picked up the scheme and immediately started “making some checks those young JUCO guys and freshmen guys weren’t making for two weeks.” That’s why he’s confident Frazier will be just fine.

All the junior needs is more time.

“Fundamentals and technique and pulling the trigger, seeing and reacting to things right now, he’s sort of in slow motion but it’s coming along for him,” Johnson said. “Once he gets comfortable back there, I think he’ll play quite a bit for us.”

Whether he gets on the field before Ryan Smith is still a question mark. A career backup, Smith has made only three starts in his career, including two last year — the season opener against Clemson and the season finale versus Alabama. Despite his scarcity of starts, Johnson said the senior is “more game-ready” than Frazier at the moment.

“Ryan probably would start on our dime package at one of the deep safeties when we move (Josh) Holsey up to dime,” Johnson said. “(He) has had a good two, three practices (and) been working a lot of that package the last three days. He really has done a good job.”

The Tigers likely won’t make a decision on Frazier’s playing time until just before the season opener.

“I think he’s learned everything we do but right now (but) he just doesn’t have that quick twitch and that reaction,” Johnson said. “I think a lot of (his vision) and knowledge. He knows the assignments. He knows the adjustments. But as far as keys and reaction and all that, some of it’s still just a blur to him right now.”

Notes

As has been the case since the beginning of fall camp, the starting right tackle position is undecided, Malzahn said. The two-man competition between Avery Young and Patrick Miller continues. “The good thing is we have more depth at tackle than we’ve ever had since I’ve been here,” Malzahn said. … Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett returned to practice Thursday, according to Malzahn. The junior missed the last 12 practices of fall camp due to a foot sprain suffered in the Tigers’ second scrimmage.

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 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.”

July 24, 2013

Demetruce McNeal ‘penciled in’ at top of boundary safety depth chart once more

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

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Despite not being listed on the post-spring two-deep depth chart, Demetruce McNeal (12) will begin fall camp as the starter at safety, according to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.

AUBURN, Ala. — Fall camp has yet to begin, but one change has already been made to Auburn’s depth chart.

On Tuesday, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Demetruce McNeal is “penciled in or slashed” alongside Josh Holsey as the starter at boundary safety heading into fall camp. McNeal finished second on the team in tackles last season, with his 90 trailing only Daren Bates’ 94. He set a career-high for tackles in a single game when he tallied 18 against Mississippi State last year, the most for a Tiger since linebacker Dontarrious Thomas had 19 against Syracuse in 2001. McNeal also added seven tackles for loss and a sack in 2012.

Despite his numbers and his experience (20 starts over the last two seasons), McNeal was not listed on Auburn’s two-deep post-spring depth chart after missing the final five practices of the spring for undisclosed reasons. But to Johnson’s knowledge, those issues are now resolved and McNeal is ready to jump back into the fold.

“He’s had a good summer injury-wise and attitude and work habits,” Johnson said. ” … Struggled a little bit with one course, but he’s getting it done. We’re very optimistic that he’s ready to return and be right on target.”

And Johnson’s expectations for McNeal are high. When asked how high, he caught himself. Johnson hoped — no, expected — the senior from College Park, Ga., to come back as a “starting SEC safety,” one who was named to preseason all-conference teams by both Athlon Sports and Phil Steele. Add in Jermaine Whitehead at the other safety position, and the Tigers’ have a wealth of experience at two starting spots on the back of their defense.

“You’re talking about two guys that have started a lot of ballgames here,” Johnson said. “They’ve got some seasoning to them and we need it — badly. We’ll double-teach Holsey (at cornerback and safety). We’d much rather see Demetruce come back and be ready to go.”

McNeal’s return couldn’t have come at a better time, since Johnson said depth at safety was one of his biggest worries headed into fall camp.

“When (McNeal) was gone, it was obviously pretty thin back there. We’ve got to develop some depth back there,” Johnson said. “It comes down to him coming back and having a good reentry. The kid you’ve got to look at most quickly is (Brandon) King.  … We’ve heard great things, but he didn’t get spring practice. That’ll be a focal point in the secondary.”

King played at Highland Community College in Highland, Kan., last season, collecting 118 tackles. He is originally from Alabaster, Ala., where he starred at Thompson High School.

Johnson said he will start the JUCO transfer at boundary safety, but given his size, King could eventually be in the mix at the hybrid “star” spot manned by Justin Garrett.

“He’s good enough to move up to the star (position), big enough — he’s about 210 right now — but our depth issues, on paper, are at deep safeties,” Johnson said. “So we’ve got him at boundary safety.”

November 11, 2012

Auburn notes: Chizik believes he can rebuild his team

AUBURN, Ala. — There’s little left for coach Gene Chizik to say in the wake of yet another disheartening loss for Auburn, less than two years removed from reaching the pinnacle of college football.

“I’m just very disappointed we are where we’re at,” Chizik said Sunday afternoon following the Tigers’ 38-0 loss to No. 5 Georgia at Jordan-Hare Stadium. “I could belabor the point much more than that, but I think that word is sufficient.”

It was the most lopsided margin in the 116-game history of the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry. It was also Auburn’s fifth SEC loss of 17 points or more this year, and ninth in the past two seasons since winning the BCS National Championship.

As rumors and reports circulate regarding his job security, Chizik was asked, again, if it’s difficult not to think about his future with the program.

“No, it’s not. Because this isn’t about me,” Chizik said. “Really and truly, I really want to talk about our next football game (Saturday vs. Alabama A&M, a 7-3 FCS squad) and our seniors that it’s their last time.”

Auburn concludes its regular season Nov. 24 in the Iron Bowl at Alabama, just knocked off its No. 1 perch by Texas A&M Saturday. Auburn needs a triumph to avoid its first winless SEC campaign in 32 years and second since 1950.

“It’s embarrassing for the Auburn people, especially in these types of rivalries,” junior defensive end Dee Ford. “It’s hard, but we have to own it.”

Junior defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker gave his coach a vote of confidence Saturday night.

“Can’t say nothing bad about coach Chizik,” he said. “We’re playing hard for each other. Coaches and players.

“The main thing for me that I understand as a young man, is that life is tough,” Whitaker continued. “Walking out here with cancer, that’s tough. Walking out here when a loved one dies, that’s tough. This football deal, of course we take pride in it, but we’re going to rebound from this.”

Asked Sunday if he feels he’s the man to lead this rebuilding project, Chizik said simply, “That’s very accurate.”

Wallace to start again

Chizik confirmed freshman Jonathan Wallace will play quarterback Saturday, making his third career start.

“It’s the equivalent of a rookie starting in the NFL, somewhat,” Chizik said. “He’s in a tough situation. He played against a very effective defense, a very good, very aggressive defense.”

The Central-Phenix City product has completed 31-of-48 passes for 478 yards with three touchdowns against two interceptions.

“Just got to make plays, keeping the guys motivated on our sideline,” Wallace said postgame Saturday. “I’m still not doing things like I want to, but I’m progressing … slowly.”

Practice doesn’t make perfect

Chizik regularly opens his sitdowns with reporters by discussing the just-completed practice, and rarely deters from lauding a good session.

Chizik was requested to detail the difference between good energy and good physical progress in practice.

“When we’re out at practice, and the passion and the energy and them being focused is one thing. The execution of what we do is different,” Chizik said. “There’s been times at practice where the execution has not been up to the level … it needs to be able to compete with the people we’re playing with consistently.

“At practice, when I say we’ve had good practices, I’m looking for everybody to come out there and focus and be into it and practice with energy. But there are times in practice when we don’t execute well. There’s no question.”

Injuries pile up

Junior cornerback Chris Davis (cornerback) was not medically cleared to return until Friday, and junior linebacker Jake Holland (ankle) did not go through a full practice during the week. Both dressed against Georgia, but were only available in case of emergency and did not see action.

Freshman cornerback Josh Holsey suffered a quad injury and freshman receiver Ricardo Louis sustained an undisclosed injury against the Bulldogs. In a mid-week practice, junior defensive end Craig Sanders twisted his ankle during a kickoff return drill, what Chizik deemed a “freak Wednesday night deal.”

The injuries continue to pile up for the Tigers. Offensive guard and outside linebacker are the only individual positions which have not had a man dinged up since the season opener Sept. 1.

“It has been a little bit unique, especially the timing of some of them,” Chizik said. “They all weren’t necessarily game-related. You had guys that were a little bit banged up, but they were trying to push through. That has happened with us several different times.”