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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 19, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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 15, 2013

Auburn football: Defensive end Dee Ford out with unspecified injury, status for opener unknown

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s pass-rushing was already a concern heading into the 2013 season. Dee Ford’s uncertain status going forward won’t help matters.

Senior defensive Dee Ford will be out for an undetermined amount of time. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn declined to disclose the nature of the injury. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior defensive Dee Ford will be out for an undetermined amount of time. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn declined to disclose the nature of the injury. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Head coach Gus Malzahn confirmed Ford, the Tigers’ starting left defensive end, did not participate in Thursday morning’s practice.

“We feel like it shouldn’t be too long to get him back on the field,” he said.

However, Malzahn seemed to backtrack on the severity of the unspecified injury later. When asked whether the ailment could prevent him from playing in Auburn’s opening game against Washington State on Aug. 31, Malzahn appeared unsure.

“I would definitely hope not,” he said.

Ford’s loss for any period of time would be a big blow to Auburn’s defense. Of the 22 sacks the Tigers tallied last season, Ford accounted for a team-best six of them. No other returnee has more than one.

With Ford out for now, Malzahn said the defensive line’s newcomers have had a chance to make their case for playing time.

“We gave those young guys and new guys probably more opportunities than anybody in the country,” Malzahn said. “We’re gathering a lot of information on all of our guys.”

Malzahn refused to name any lineman who has caught his eye thus far.

“(Defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner has been mixing and matching,” he said. “They’ve all got a chance.”

But veterans such as Craig Sanders, Nosa Eguae and Kenneth Carter will have their fair shot as well.

“We’ve got some seniors that have some experience and that’s always very important,” he said. “We’ve got some guys that I think are versatile, that can move around.”

Even with Ford’s injury and another one that has hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett sidelined, Malzahn has been pleased with the team’s physicality during fall camp.

“We’re a little banged up but not a bad banged up,” he said. “I think we’ve been working very hard on getting our edge back and being physical. That was part of the plan.”

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.

August 3, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/3: Demetruce McNeal back at practice in limited role

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to see roughly 20 minutes of practice on Saturday, which marked Day 2 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short time at practice.

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was hands-on with his unit on Saturday. Here, he watches redshirt freshman Shon Coleman attacks a tackling sled. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was hands-on with his unit on Saturday. Here, he watches redshirt freshman Shon Coleman attacks a tackling sled. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

  • Demetruce McNeal’s lack of participation was the biggest story of Friday’s practice. The senior safety was back on Saturday, but didn’t look much different than he did the previous day. He appeared to be favoring his left leg as he watched teammates run through drills and occasionally glancing down at a piece of paper in his hands. Unlike Friday, he donned a helmet for the first time. Gus Malzahn would only say that McNeal has a “medical issue that he’s working through,” declining to lend any insight as to when the Tigers’ top returning tackler will be cleared to practice without any limitations.
  • Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes had a lot of instruction for his group Saturday. “Get that second step!” he said. “(You’ve got to) get vertical push on that down guy!” The drill involved two linemen lining up with their hand on the ground across from a defender. The goal (obviously) was to get leverage on the player acting as the defensive lineman and move him out of the way. Grimes had them working in alternating groups.
  • Four players who fielded punts on Friday were back at it Saturday: wide receivers Trovon Reed, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis along with cornerback Chris Davis. The only one missing Saturday was running back Jonathan Ford. He was still in a return capacity, however, as he was working with kick returners. The other four kick returners were running backs Corey Grant and Tre Mason, wide receiver Ricardo Louis and defensive back Jonathan Jones.
  • The four quarterbacks jockeying for position at the top of the depth chart tossed the ball back and forth to each other. Newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson paired up together, while Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier did the same. Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Rhett Lashlee gave each of them feedback, while Malzahn watched silently in the background chewing on a wad of bubblegum.
  • To reiterate something repeated by nearly every other media member on Friday: Yes, Johnson is quite tall. He’s every bit of the 6-foot-5 he’s listed at on the team’s official roster.
  • Avery Young, who started three games at right tackle last season as a true freshman, looked fine during every drill he took part in Saturday. The sophomore was sidelined most of last season with a shoulder injury, and surgery on it forced him to miss most of the spring. But through two days of fall camp, it looks like he is fully recovered.
  • Malzahn runs a tight ship in nearly every aspect of his program. One area where he seems to be lenient, however, is a dress code for the coaching staff. Few, if any, matched with each other Saturday. Malzahn had on a long-sleeve orange Auburn shirt and khaki shorts (along with his signature visor), Lashlee wore a short-sleeve orange Auburn T-shirt and blue shorts. The winner of the day was defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who was wearing at least two, possibly three shirts. He had an orange Auburn pullover and another long-sleeve blue shirt underneath. The lesson here: The heat don’t bother Rodney Garner, y’all.

August 2, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/2: Demetruce McNeal sits out first day of fall camp

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to view a little more than 15 minutes of practice on Friday, which marked the first day of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short time at practice.

Tyler Nero runs through drills with the rest of the defensive linemen on the first day of Auburn's fall camp on Friday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Tyler Nero runs through drills with the rest of the defensive linemen on the first day of Auburn’s fall camp on Friday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

  • The biggest news from the practice centered on a player who didn’t participate. The Tigers’ top returning tackler, safety Demetruce McNeal, did not take part in any portion of today’s practice. He was off to the side for all defensive back drills, as well as when the entire team gathered together to begin stretching and running with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell.
  • There were five players back fielding punts: wide receivers Trovon Reed, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis; cornerback Chris Davis and running back Johnathan Ford.
  • Defensive line coach Rodney Garner ran his unit through a drill where each player was forced to stay low in an attempt to get off the ball with better positioning. They did this by practicing under a trampoline-like mechanism that forced them to stay low, lest they come up too quickly and hit the top of the bar. “Explode, roll your hips and meet the contact!” Garner told his players. When Kenneth Carter didn’t get back to the line quick enough, his coach tersely reminded him he had to pick up the pace. (There’s no doubt head coach Gus Malzahn would be proud to hear one of his coaches on defense keeping his unit to the same up-tempo standard as the offense.)
  • Speaking of Malzahn, he refrained from hands-on coaching as far as this reporter could see. Instead, he was content to stay in the background chewing bubblegum.
  • The position under the most scrutiny entering fall camp did little to mesmerize spectators on Friday. Quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier, Jonathan Wallace, Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson were all present and accounted for. (Yes, walk-on Tucker Tuberville also took part, but obviously he’s not a legitimate candidate to win the starting job.) Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who doubles as the quarterback coach, mainly had his signal-callers working on footwork. They dropped back, planted their feet, threw off their back foot, worked on handoffs, etc. Again, far from captivating stuff.
  • Wide receivers and defensive backs lined up against each other, too. This had more to do with “installation” than it had to do with specific plays, however. Cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith took special care to make sure each of his players lined up correctly, noting the exact distance they needed to be apart from each other at the line of scrimmage.
  • The viewing portion ended as the stretching and conditioning drills began. Russell, full of energy and yelling out every instruction, let the players know that “Every step needs to be a stretch!”

August 1, 2013

Auburn football: New jersey numbers and new dorm dominate conversation as players report

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Fall camp is just one day away.

But on Thursday, which was set aside for Auburn’s players to officially report for the preseason, football seemed to be the last thing on the Tigers’ minds. Instead, the most popular topics of discussion revolved around jersey numbers and housing accommodations.

Here's something that won't be seen this fall: Defensive end Dee Ford wearing No. 95. On the team's updated roster released Thursday, Ford will don No. 30.

Here’s something that won’t be seen this fall: Defensive end Dee Ford wearing No. 95. On the team’s updated roster released Thursday, Ford will don No. 30.

Take Dee Ford, for instance.

Auburn’s top pass-rusher and a preseason All-SEC second-team selection at defensive end will no longer don No. 95. The senior will take on No. 30 this fall, which he’ll share with punter Steven Clark.

“He better make me proud then,” Clark joked on Thursday when told of Ford’s move. “I mean, I was wearing it first, right?”

Besides, Clark was more disappointed that he was losing someone who could have been a fantastic “gunner” when he goes to punt.

“It kind of upsets me I’m not going to have him on my punt team,” he said. “Can’t have two numbers on the same side of the ball. That would have been nice to have a guy running down there. Probably would get me a few more fair catches.”

Fellow defensive lineman Kenneth Carter wasn’t aware of Ford’s decision, either.

Not that he was surprised by it.

“It’s not weird,” he said. “It’s just Dee.”

Nosa Eguae, Ford’s counterpart at right defensive end, was similarly mystified by the number change. Like Clark, he wasn’t a fan, citing the synergy of them wearing back-to-back numbers in the 90s, with 94 and 95, respectively.

“Yeah, it’s going to be a little different,” he said. “I liked the 9-4, 9-5 tandem going on, but I guess he’s trying to get like a linebacker and show off his speed with a little smaller jersey.”

Ford is far from the lowest number among defensive linemen, though. That honor goes to true freshman Montravius Adams, who will wear No. 1.

No, that is not a misprint.

“That’s going to be the biggest ‘(No.) 1′ in the nation,” Eguae said. “Six-five, 300 pounds. But that’s going to be nice. These guys, they’re trying to up it up a little bit. We’ve got a No. 1, and I know a bunch of guys are trying to get into single-digit numbers. I wore it in high school, but I’m going to stick with the 94.”

Eguae also stuck to his guns with his living arrangements. With the South Donahue Residence Hall opening on Wednesday, some upperclassmen actually moved back on campus. Ford was one of those who took the plunge, and he tried to convince Eguae to do the same.

No dice.

But that doesn’t mean Eguae isn’t impressed with the new dorm.

Far from it.

“That dorm is awesome. I was there yesterday,” he said. “It’s the ‘Taj Mahal,’ honestly. It’s the nicest dorm I’ve ever seen and I know it’s going to be the nicest dorm in the country. The guys love it. It’s going to build that family atmosphere since everyone is staying there. Even the guys that are off-campus, everybody is going to be over there. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Carter will be able to speak from firsthand experience, as he is another one of the upperclassmen who decided to ditch off-campus living to settle into the plush new residence hall.

“It’s unbelievable,” he said. “It’s like a mini-apartment. Just being with your teammates, we’re bonding really well.”

Carter, who will be rooming with another senior defensive lineman in Craig Sanders, said it wasn’t tough for him to move back on-campus. Obviously, having granite countertops sinks and furnished flat-screen televisions doesn’t hurt. But Carter said he did it for more than the nice amenities it provides.

He wants to try to recreate the close-knit environment he enjoyed during his first year as a Tiger.

“I kinda wanted to be closer to the team, just experience it like it was my freshman year, the jelling from us having fun together,” he said. “The way we bond together, just playing a game at night and just talking, being around each other. It makes that bond very strong.”

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.

May 2, 2013

7 at 7: Depth chart players on the radar

Quan Bray

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – So now that Auburn’s made their post-spring depth chart as official as official gets – other than Joshua Holsey as the No. 1 boundary safety, nothing else is particularly shocking – we wait to see what it all means.

In the meantime, let’s run through seven guys you should take note of based on head coach Gus Malzahn’s assessments.

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#5 Quan Bray, jr., first-team WR. Redemption year for Bray, who fumbled a costly LSU punt and then was suspended for a game for an off-field arrest. But Bray’s back in a familiar role by Malzahn’s standards, which means this could be a major bounceback year.

Gus says: “Quan is one of those real versatile guys. To take you back a couple years ago, he was actually playing the tailback positions. He’s got some running back skills. You’ll see us try to get the ball to him in space and let him do his thing as far as that goes.”

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Auburn Football#92 Kenneth Carter, sr., first-team DE. Four defensive ends, four seniors. That’s the only position teeming with experience in the college years department, and Carter will be one to watch who didn’t have particularly great success as a defensive tackle.

Gus says: “A guy that’s played inside in the past. Coach (Rodney) Garner moved him outside. Very physical guy. He improved his pass rushing as the spring went on.”

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#72 Shon Coleman, fr., second-team LT. That’s right. Freshman. The NCAA granted the leukemia conqueror a sixth year of eligibility, so if Coleman’s ascension continues and his resolve remains, he’ll be one of the feel-good stories in college football sometime between now and 2016.

Gus says: “We were very curious how Shon Coleman would come on. He got better and better. You can see his body is starting to react in a very positive way. We’re very proud of Shon and his progression.”

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Jaylon Denson, Jonathan Jones#21 Jonathan Jones, so., second-team CB. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy aren’t giving up their jobs anytime soon, but Jones is, put simply, a player. He’ll keep improving and learning at corner, while contributing on special teams.

Gus says: “He’s not a very big guy, but he really laid some big hits. You saw him in the spring game. Made an outstanding hit.”

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#10 LaDarius Owens, jr., second-team WLB. Like Carter, it didn’t work out at his position. So we’ll see if he someday makes an impact at one of those two linebacker spots; at the very least, Owens gave Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy a breather every now and then in practice when Jake Holland was in class or JaViere Mitchell was working his way back from a concussion. (Note that Owens is on the two-deep, and not Harris Gaston.)

Gus says: “You’re talking about a guy that’s played defensive end the last couple of years and is moving back to the back end. He’s a guy that really gave great effort and coach (Ellis Johnson) was high on him. So he’ll be in the mix at those linebacker positions also.”

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Photo by Todd Van Emst

#35 Jay Prosch, sr., first-team H-back. Y’all love him. So do the coaches. As I noted Wednesday, he’s the only senior on the entire offensive two-deep, unbelievable as that sounds.

Gus says: “He was one of the highlights of the whole spring. Talk about a hard-nosed guy: that’s a dirty-work type position for us. It takes a smart guy.”

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#9 Jermaine Whitehead, jr., first-team FS. Safety, like linebacker, is a thin position, so Whitehead’s dependability was crucial this spring.

Gus says: “Jermaine Whitehead was probably the safety that had just an excellent spring. Coach (Charlie Harbison) was very high on him, and (he) really did a solid job.”

April 29, 2013

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

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

Gus Malzahn

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

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

Name a few unknown players who could have breakout seasons.

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

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

QBs: C. Nobody separated himself. Troubling news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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