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September 3, 2013

ODDS AND ENDS: Notes and quotes from Gus Malzahn’s Tuesday press conference

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Defensive end Dee Ford (left knee injury) and “Star” Justin Garrett (left foot sprain), who both sat out against Washington State, were back at practice Monday. Naturally, it led to questions about their availability for this Saturday’s game.

Gus Malzahn kept his comments curt on the matter.

Senior defensive Dee Ford missed Auburn's season opener against Washington State with a left knee injury. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was back at practice Monday, but was unsure whether the senior would be able to play this Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior defensive Dee Ford missed Auburn’s season opener against Washington State with a left knee injury. Head coach Gus Malzahn said he was back at practice Monday, but was unsure whether the senior would be able to play this Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

“We’re hoping,” Auburn’s head coach said.

The status of Jeff Whitaker isn’t as murky.

He’ll be out for an extended period of time after injuring his right knee and undergoing surgery last week. The senior defensive tackle was seen on crutches prior to kickoff last Saturday. At this point, Malzahn said Whitaker is week-to-week.

Contingent upon how much time he misses, Malzahn said pursuing a medical redshirt was a definite possibility.

“Hopefully we can get him back sooner rather than later but if that does happen, we’ll have that conversation,” he said. “We’ve not had that conversation yet. Jeff is a leader on our team, if not the leader, and he’s very important to us as a whole.”

Linebackers’ lack of influence doesn’t faze Malzahn

Auburn’s linebackers had a rough go of it versus Washington State – and that’s putting it lightly. The unit had only five total tackles, with four from Kris Frost and one courtesy of Cassanova McKinzy. Malzahn wasn’t worried, however.

He said it was more a function of the Cougars’ pass-happy offense than anything the linebackers did wrong.

“Sometimes when teams pass the ball as much as they did, it takes the linebackers kind of out of the game,” he said. “I think we’ll learn more as we go, the more we face running teams.”

MORE MALZAHN QUOTES

On the victory over Washington State:

“It was a big win for us. I’m really proud of our guys. They found a way to win. My biggest question was how were we going to deal with adversity, and we had quite a bit of it on both sides of the football, but they overcame it. Also, it gave us a chance to see where we’re at as a team, and that was a big question for me going into this game and our coaches. We’ve got a lot of work to do, and we know that and our players know that. But the good thing is most of the things that we saw are correctable. We’re playing a bunch of young, inexperienced guys, and they’ll have a chance to improve. I’ve been saying our goal is real simple: It’s to improve each practice and each game, and so we’re going to hold true to that, and I believe we definitely can do that.”

On watching the film from the game:

“The thing about an offense is all 11 guys have to be doing their job or it gets pretty ugly. Most of our plays that we didn’t execute, it was one or two guys, but it still makes everything look really bad. I believe we’ll have a chance to get better and improve in that area.

“Defensively, it’s kind of the same thing. One or two mistakes makes you look different, too. But I’m going to tell you this: A lot of that first game was about evaluation for us. We learned a lot about our players. We thought we had ideas about certain things, and some things were exactly what we thought and some things were a little bit different.”

On how much of the Tigers’ offensive playbook was used last Saturday:

“My big thing is you’ve got to be able to adjust in first games, because you think you know how they’re going to play and then you get out there and it’s usually a little bit different. We’re just not to that point where we can have our whole playbook to adjust. We’ll get there. But we’ve got a plan, you take it in and you have tweaks off of it, but each week we’ll add more stuff and get more comfortable.”

On players that impressed him in the season opener:

Montravius (Adams) was one of them, there’s no doubt. Our secondary overall really played well. They played specifically man in the second half against some pretty good receivers, and I thought they did a good job. Trovon Reed probably graded out as high as anybody did. Didn’t have a whole lot of snaps, but he’ll have more. He did a lot of things right.”

On developing a “go-to” receiver:

We still haven’t found him, I’ll tell you that. Hopefully here in the next game or two, everything will come to light. At the same time, a lot of them weren’t given a whole lot of chances, so we need to give them a few more chances. Then I think we’ll figure out who that guy is.”

On his heated exchange with receiver Ricardo Louis on the sideline last week:

“I did? I chewed a lot of people out.”

On Tre Mason’s fumble late in the fourth quarter:

“That was a big turnover. That was a very critical play. As a coach, sometimes you just get a feel and when you’re trying to build a program, there’s certain things that as a coach you just use your instincts and you try to give a guy like that an opportunity. I know a lot about Tre from the fact that I coached him before. He’s a competitor. He was disappointed. I wanted to give him a chance to redeem himself. He did that. I think that’ll help us moving forward.”

On the possibility of running the Wildcat with Cameron Artis-Payne:

“He’s a big, strong back. He can find ways to get yards, maybe when everything’s not perfect. The Wildcat’s pretty unique because you put a guy back there and there’s a good chance you’re going to run it and he’s got some playmaking ability.”

Auburn notes: Rhett Lashlee disappointed with offense, Ellis Johnson discusses Justin Garrett’s status

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Rhett Lashlee didn’t offer any false praise Monday night.

Auburn’s offensive coordinator said his unit has a long way to go. About the only positive he could take from Saturday’s season opener was that the Tigers came out on top of a 31-24 decision against Washington State.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said his unit isn't close to playing to the level the coaching staff expects this fall. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said his unit isn’t close to playing to the level the coaching staff expects this fall. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Other than that, Lashlee said looking at the film was rough.

“I just felt like every time we had a chance to really put some distance between us and them (we didn’t do it), whether it be missing a deep ball or having a touchdown called back for a penalty,” he said. “We could have gone up 11 or 14, but we just sputtered and didn’t take advantage of those moments. That’s not good enough. We have to be in those positions in the future where we’re in a position to kind of separate ourselves. We have to press forward and get some distance between ourselves and the opponent.”

Yes, Lashlee conceded the offense “made enough plays” to seal the victory. Yes, some of the mistakes could be attributed to first-game jitters. That didn’t excuse a late turnover by Tre Mason, however, which gave Washington State one last chance to tie the game following Robenson Therezie’s interception in the end zone on the Cougars’ previous possession.

Those are the types of miscues, Lashlee said, that must be corrected soon.

“We’re not where we want to be yet. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We’re making strides.”

To get to where Lashlee and head coach Gus Malzahn want them to be, the Tigers will have to meet the coaching staff’s goal of running at least 80 offensive snaps per game. Saturday, Auburn had just 65. Multiple factors played a hand in that, Lashlee said.

Take the Tigers’ one-play drive in the second quarter, when running back Corey Grant dashed 75 yards for a touchdown. Or take another play earlier in the same period when the offense never had a chance to take a snap, since Mason returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score.

There was another area the Tigers controlled where they simply didn’t produce.

“We’ve got to stay on the field and convert third downs more,” said Lashlee, alluding to Auburn’s 4-for-13 showing. “If you don’t convert third downs, you’re not going to stay on the field and get more plays. If you don’t get those third downs converted, you’re (not) going to get your tempo going.”

Johnson talks about Garrett’s absence

Ellis Johnson was disappointed “Star” Justin Garrett wasn’t able to play Saturday.

But he was far from surprised the junior didn’t suit up.

“His foot has been just sort of a strange thing,” Auburn’s defensive coordinator said. “It’ll feel good one day and all of a sudden he’ll turn on it the wrong way and the strain on it comes back in.”

If it was necessary to play him, Johnson said Garrett would have been on the field. That being said, Johnson acknowledged it meant Garrett likely wouldn’t have been “full-speed” physically or mentally to play at the level expected of him.

That’s why the coaching staff was more than happy to give Garrett more time to heal.

Besides, they had the utmost faith in his backup, Therezie.

“We just felt like Robenson was playing really well,” Johnson said. “The only problem is he probably had to play too many snaps.  He was on every coverage team in special teams, and he played every defensive snap almost to about the end of the fourth quarter. We had to try to get him off the field, give him a blow. That was the only thing.”

As to when Garrett will return?

Johnson had didn’t announce a timetable, deeming the Georgia native’s status as “day-to-day.” Given how well Therezie played Saturday — hauling in two interceptions and tying for the second-most tackles (seven) on the team , which earned him the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week award on Monday — Johnson was asked whether the two “Stars” could eventually see the field together in the team’s base 4-2-5 formation.

“We’re probably not at a point of figuring something out like that right now,” he said. “We’d just like to get (Garrett) healthy. It’s been frustrating. We talked about the player being one of our most dynamic players in the spring, and there’s no production on the game film, and it’s been going on for two years now. So we’d like to get him healthy, get him on the field and find out if he can play. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Johnson: Frazier has ‘leveled off’ at safety

Quarterback-turned-safety Kiehl Frazier has earned nothing but high marks since switching to defense during fall camp. Coaches and teammates alike noted how quickly he had picked up the defensive’s schemes and concepts. He had even progressed to the point he was listed on the Tigers’ two-deep depth chart entering last Saturday’s game, pegged as the backup to Josh Holsey at boundary safety.

His growth has finally hit a wall, though, as Johnson said Frazier has “leveled off” in the last week.

“Right now, he’s not comfortable where to line up and what to do,” Johnson said. “It’s not  a physical issue. He’s shown in drills and a couple of scrimmages he can tackle when he gets in the right place, but right now it’s not coming too clearly for him. Hopefully, another week of practice that light will turn on and he’ll get better.”

Quick hits

Johnson wasn’t ready to say whether defensive end Dee Ford could be back for Auburn’s SEC opener, which will see them host Mississippi State on Sept. 15. “That’s a medical decision. We’re certainly not good enough to hold anybody that can be a great player on a given day,” he said. “But right now it’s all on rehabilitation and when they’re ready physically.”

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

Auburn football: Last-minute notes prior to kickoff

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — You’ve heard just about everything there is to know about Auburn’s season opener.

The Tigers will try to run the ball a lot. Their opponent, the Washington State Cougars, will take to the air early and often.

Now, the only thing left is kickoff.

Here are a few last-minute notes before the Tigers’ finally begin their 2013 season:

  • A few changes to the starting lineup for the Tigers: Robenson Therezie will start in place of Justin Garrett at the hybrid safety/linebacker “Star” position. Another change on defense has Columbus native Gabe Wright replacing Jeffrey Whitaker at tackle.
  • Washington State had some lineup alterations, too: Marcus Mason will start at running  ahead of Teondray Caldwell, while Cyrus Coen will start at “Sam” linebacker. Also, safety Isaac Dotson will don jersey No. 36 instead of No. 31 which was originally listed on the Cougars’ roster.
  • The temperature was 86 degrees one hour prior to kickoff, with hazy skies and little-to-no wind.
  • Finally, for those bird-watching: Nova will fly from the flag pole in the northeast corner of the stadium at the 16:00 mark on the game clock.

And be sure to check out my first on-camera appearance of the season. Apologies in advance for any awkward pauses. I’m still working myself into midseason form.

August 25, 2013

Auburn notes: With Dee Ford out, Craig Sanders ‘excited’ to make first career start

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Auburn Football

Senior Craig Sanders (13) is set to make the first career on Saturday in Auburn’s season opener against Washington State. Sanders has appeared in 37 games in the past three seasons. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

AUBURN, Ala.Craig Sanders has appeared in 37 games at Auburn in the last three seasons.

Not a single one of those appearances included a start. That is set to change Saturday. After Dee Ford injured a ligament in his knee during the second scrimmage of fall camp, the Tigers’ starting left defensive end position was vacated for an undetermined period of time, though defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said the senior will certainly miss the season opener.

In his absence, Sanders has stepped to the fore.

“I’m excited about it because this is my first start ever in my college career,” he said following Sunday’s practice. “I want Dee back as fast as he can get back because we want that rotation. Whether it’s him starting or me starting, we want to rotate in with both of us working because we need that rotation and depth.”

Johnson said Sanders has most the most of the work he’s had with the first-team defense since Ford went down.

“Craig’s been really consistent assignment-wise,” he said. “Not many missed assignments. He’s done some pretty good things in pass rush. There’s no question I think all the additional repetitions have helped him fundamentally, but he’s done pretty well.”

It will be difficult to replace Ford’s production, however. He was the team’s top returning pass-rusher, totaling 6.5 sacks last season. Sanders said he will do his best to try to fill the void, hoping the gains he made during the offseason will carry over to this fall.

“My thing was using my hands when I was pass rushing,” he said. “With (defensive line) ‘Coach G’ (Rodney Garner) and Coach Brandon Wheeling, they have been helping me one-on-one with flipping my hips and using my hands off the ball. Since the spring actually it has improved greatly. I’m very satisfied with how it’s improved.”

He’s not the only defensive end who has made improvements. Johnson said he’s also seen growth from the Tigers’ other pass-rushers, most notably the true freshman duo of Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson.

“Elijah and Carl have some pass-rush ability that some of the other guys don’t have,” he said. “They’ve gotten a lot of work. They’re making some mistakes, some mental errors, but they’re going to have to play. And I think all this extra work has really helped them.”

Until Ford returns, however, the Tigers will mix-and-match at the two defensive end spots. Sanders said he and LaDarius Owens — who just shifted back to the defensive line after moving to linebacker this spring — have seen the majority of the reps at left end. Seniors Nosa Eguae and Ken Carter will be part of the rotation as well, along with the aforementioned freshman pair of Lawson and Daniel.

Regardless of what happens Saturday, Sanders said he just wants to be able to revel in the moment when his name is announced as part of the starting lineup.

“I’m going to be pumped,” he said. “I’ll be able to jump 10 feet in the air. It will be awesome. I’m ready. I’m really ready.”

Marcus Davis already in line for playing time

When offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee was asked which true freshman would “definitely play” Saturday, only one name came to mind: Marcus Davis. The receiver kept “showing up” in practices every time Lashlee turned around.

Eventually, it became too much for the coach to ignore.

“He’s kind of put himself in the mix for some playing time,” Lashlee said. “There’s some of those guys that are on playing time on teams as well, but he’s the one that keeps standing out the most, probably.”

What has Davis done to catch the eye of the coaching staff? Cliche as it sounds, “all the little things,” Lashlee said.

Davis’ background as a quarterback hasn’t hurt, either, as Lashlee believes that has helped for a quick transition from high school to college.

“He came in you could tell he wasn’t in the moment of, ‘Hey, I’m in college and these guys are bigger and faster,’” Lashlee said. He’s been steady. I’m not going to say he’s made a lot of ‘wow’ plays, although he’s made a few. He’s just been steady and he’s worked hard, he’s listened and he’s tried to do everything the coaches say.”

Fellow receiver Quan Bray praised the Delray Beach, Fla., native as well.

“I’ve seen him come in with (the right) mentality,” Bray said. “He’s young but he’s definitely ready to play because he’s a baller. Coach (Gus) Malzahn said it — he’s a natural all the time.”

Quick hits

Johnson said hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett has “looked pretty good” since he returned to practice. The junior sprained his foot during fall camp, which forced him to miss 12 straight practices. “He’s looked like the old Justin,” Johnson said. “If you need to know how he feels, you’d have to ask him. But he’s made some plays.” … Lashlee said Avery Young has continued to move back and forth between tackle and guard on the offensive line. “He was tackle early, then it was guard and lately he’s been doing some of both,” Lashlee said. “We’ve had him at tackle probably the last week or so.”

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 20, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn looks back at first fall camp as Tigers coach, feels team covered ‘all of our situations’

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s practice on Tuesday had a game-week feel to it.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn recapped his first fall camp at Auburn following the team's 21st and final practice on Tuesday. (File photo)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn recapped his first fall camp at Auburn following the team’s 21st and final practice on Tuesday. (File photo)

Following the Tigers’ 21st and final session of fall camp, head coach Gus Malzahn said his team is already “full force” into planning for the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31. But first, he recapped his first fall camp at the helm of Auburn’s program.

“When I look back on the whole camp, I felt we did improve,” Malzahn said. “I felt like we were able to cover all of our situations. I felt like we were able to put our guys into situations to evaluate.”

The Tigers’ offense also ended camp on a high note, with Malzahn noting the unit had its “best rhythm that we’ve had” since he took over as coach.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “It looked like we knew what we were doing today, and the timing was very good.”

When Auburn returns to practice on Thursday, it will start getting into a weekly regular season routine. And Malzahn couldn’t be more thankful to have more time to continue working with his team, especially since Nick Marshall is still becoming comfortable with the first-team offense.

“I think that’s very good with a starting quarterback who didn’t go through spring,” he said. “We need the extra time.”

Though Washington State went 3-9 last year, it beat arch-rival Washington in the season finale. In an early look at the Cougars, Malzahn came away impressed with what he saw on film.

“They have the majority of their guys coming back,” he said. “We’re expecting it will be a good team coming in here, and we’ll have to play well.”

However, making any comparisons between the two up-tempo offenses would be a mistake, Malzahn said, since he prefers to lean on a strong running game, while Washington State head coach Mike Leach passes at nearly every opportunity.

With that in mind, Auburn’s defensive line is already licking its chops.

“I think pretty much everyone knows that sacks equal moneymakers,” junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright said. “But definitely this whole technique, this whole change of defense and starting off (getting up the field) vertically, that’s going to set everything up. If it’s a run play, we’ve got stick it. If it’s a pass play, we’ve got to work off the pass-rush. I definitely can’t wait to get out there.”

Though the Cougars are so thin on the offensive line they could start as many four current or former walk-ons, Angelo Blackson isn’t underestimating his opponent.

“We’re not going to look down upon nobody,” the junior defensive tackle said. “Those guys are coming in here wanting to beat us with nothing to lose, so we’re going to prepare for them like we prepare for everybody else.”

That’s where it helps to have quarterback Tucker Tuberville, whose knowledge of Leach’s system — with many elements remaining in place after his father Tommy Tuberville replaced Leach as Texas Tech’s coach — will be a boost when he’s running the scout team offense.

“He gets the ball out of his hands quick,” Malzahn said, “and that’s good.”

The divergent offensive schemes of the two teams stretched to their base defenses as well, since Malzahn could find few, if any, similarities.

“They are unique,” he said. “They do a little bit of everything. You’ve got to be prepared for the different fronts. They bring a lot of pressures.”

Those are the kinds of things Cassanova McKinzy hopes to see his unit apply when they get the chance to mix it up with the Cougars. The sophomore linebacker believes the defense isn’t that far away as long as it stays healthy, since he’s seen his teammates “progressing” every practice.

“We’ve all got to stay consistent and do a lot of working out on our own,” he said. “Overall, I think we’re doing better. Now it’s got to carry over to the game field.”

Notes

Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett, who is dealing with a foot sprain, did not practice Tuesday. “I hope he’s close,” Malzahn said. “We’re hoping we’re getting him back by next week.” … Malzahn was terse when asked if he had ever shared information with Leach. “No, I haven’t,” he said. … Marshall’s newfound leadership has continued to please Malzahn, as Tuesday marked the third day he repped with the first-team offense as the unquestioned starter at quarterback. “Since we’ve named him the starter he’s been a lot more urgent,” Malzahn said. “He’s taken more of a lead, and the offensive guys are listening to him. That’s very important.”

VIDEO: Ellis Johnson has seen improvement ‘with past four practices’ after spate of injuries disrupt cohesiveness

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

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AUBURN, Ala. — Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson discussed his unit’s injury woes at length in his post-practice interview with reporters Monday night. He also talked about the rotation at defensive end as well as the “sad” way he felt former safety Demetruce McNeal’s career at Auburn ended.

August 19, 2013

Auburn football: Injuries to keep Dee Ford and Jonathan Jones out of season opener

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

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AUBURN, Ala. — Injuries have wreaked havoc on Auburn’s defense during fall camp.

Now, those wounds will sideline two of the unit’s key pieces for the season opener against Washington State. Ellis Johnson confirmed that both starting left defensive end Dee Ford and cornerback Jonathan Jones won’t play when the Tigers take the field Aug. 31.

Senior defensive Dee Ford will miss the season opener against Washington State after suffering an injury in the Tigers' second scrimmage of the fall. Defensive coordinator (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior defensive Dee Ford will miss the season opener against Washington State after suffering an injury in the Tigers’ second scrimmage of the fall. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said the injury dealt with one of the ligaments in Ford’s knee. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

“I don’t know (exactly) how long Dee is out, but he’s certainly out for an extended time,” the defensive coordinator said following the team’s practice on Monday. “Jonathan Jones had an accident off the playing field. That was a heartbreaker because he was doing such a good job and was going to see a lot of playing time. That was a critical loss to us.”

Ford was injured during Auburn’s second scrimmage of the spring, Johnson recalled.

“First series, freak thing,” he said. “Someone’s leg swung around and hit him in the side. Not real, real bad. No surgery required.”

When asked to specify what knee ligament Ford hurt, Johnson wasn’t sure.

“It’s one of those CLs,” he said. “ACL? One of those CLs.”

Jones’ affliction, however, had nothing to do with football. Johnson said the sophomore corner slipped on some “wet steps” and broke a bone in his ankle. It required surgery, but the coordinator wasn’t aware how it went.

“Have not gotten a report,” he said. “(Head) Coach (Gus Malzahn) may have, but I have not.”

With Jones out for an unknown period of time, running back Johnathan Ford volunteered to move to corner. Johnson said the true freshman will practice with the defense “full-time” for the foreseeable future.

But Ford and Jones are far from the only defenders dealing with injuries.

Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett hasn’t practiced in the last week after suffering what Johnson termed a “foot sprain.” Unlike Jones and Ford, there are no worries about him sitting out against the Cougars.

“We’re going to err on the side of caution,” Johnson said. “We’re going to make sure he gets a full week of practice. He could have come back a day or two ago, but it’s still a little tender. Missing a few days right now, for his sake, is the best thing. For our football team, it probably puts us into a herky-jerky process. We want to make sure when he does come back that he’s full speed and there’s no threat of recurrence on that thing.”

The defensive line has been hit hard as well. Keymiya Harrell hasn’t practiced this fall, still recovering from a knee surgery performed this spring. Defensive end Kenneth Carter returned to the field after suffering a concussion, while fellow defensive end Nosa Eguae also practiced Monday after being sidelined for a short period of time.

Johnson admitted the absence of so many integral players has hampered the unit’s ability to establish cohesiveness. Last week, Johnson said the defense “stall out and hit neutral” due to the rash of injuries.

“So it is what it is. It’s real, and it’s something that’s going to affect our ability of how well we play,” he said. “But somebody is going to have to step up. Somebody else is going to get a chance, and they’re going to have to answer the bell.”

Besides, the “injury bug” is going to happen at some point every season, Johnson said.

The more important thing is figuring out a way to overcome it.

“You never know what’s going to happen,” he said. “You can’t try to sit there and say it doesn’t matter. But you can’t try to sit there and say it’s not going to give us an opportunity because you’ve got to work through it. Everybody has this happen and football players have to step up when they get the opportunity.”

Johnson rested easy, knowing that as bad as it seems for the Tigers’ defense right now, it’s not something insurmountable.

Nothing surprises the 30-plus year coaching veteran anymore.

“I’ve been in situations where it’s extremely worse and I’ve been in situations where we just had a horseshoe and never lost a guy,” he said. “(I’ve) been in one season where we played with the same 11 defensive starters in every game but two. It’s just one of those things.”

August 16, 2013

Auburn football odds and ends: Gus Malzahn hopes to have starting QB in place by Monday, Jonathan Wallace progressing at holder

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

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AUBURN, Ala. — If everything goes according to plan, Auburn will know who its starting quarterback is by Monday.

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn hopes to have a starting quarterback in place by Monday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn hopes to have a starting quarterback in place by Monday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

And if the Tigers come to a conclusion before then, obviously, that would be even better, head coach Gus Malzahn said.

“It could be (Friday), Saturday or Sunday,” Malzahn said Thursday. “Any time before next Monday would be really good for us, but like I’ve said before, we’re not sure.”

Auburn has had 16 practices since fall camp began, holding its final two-a-day practice Thursday. The Tigers will then have their fourth scrimmage on Saturday; assuming they make a decision at quarterback after the scrimmage, that would give the new signal-caller roughly 10 practices to work exclusively with the first-team offense.

“You want as much (practice) as possible,” Malzahn said. “Ideally, it would have been a week ago, and you get three weeks, but the earlier the better.”

Quarterback isn’t the only position still unsettled with the Aug. 31 opener against Washington State drawing ever closer. That’s why Malzahn hopes to solve those battles following Saturday’s scrimmage as well.

“Well, we’ve got a lot of stuff figured out, but there’s still a few we’re trying to answer,” he said. “Obviously, that’ll be two weeks from the first game, so you’d like to have pieces of the puzzle in place.”

Special teams update: Wallace at holder, four players working at punt return

Regardless of how Jonathan Wallace finishes in the starting quarterback competition, he still might see playing time at other spots on the field.

Kicker Cody Parkey lauded the progress the sophomore has made since he began holding kicks during fall camp.

“I’m teaching him as much as I can,” Parkey said. “He’s got potential and that’s the most important thing. Ryan (White) has been doing it for three years for me. To have a solid guy behind him and watching him like Jonathan Wallace  who is willing to learn  is good. I would say he’s doing well.”

Though Wallace is White’s backup at holder, he provides another dimension by either running or passing if there is a trick play or a botched snap.

“I think that’s our theory behind it, in case something like that does happen,” Parkey said. “We want someone that can make a play instead of taking a loss on the play.”

In other special teams news, Malzahn provided a brief update on the Tigers’ punt returners.

“We’ve got three or four guys working back there,” he said. “Quan Bray, Chris Davis, Marcus Davis. Obviously, we know what Trovon (Reed) can do, so we’re giving those guys all opportunities, and there’s been a few live situations that we’ve been able to evaluate those guys.  I think they’ll be ready.”

Quick hits

Safety Demetruce McNeal practiced Thursday morning and “looked 100 percent,” Malzahn said. Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett attended practice but didn’t participate. … Three walk-ons were awarded scholarships Wednesday night: wide receiver Dimitri Reese, defensive back Blake Poole and running back Chandler Shakespeare.