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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.”

July 17, 2013

SEC Media Days, Day 2: Gus Malzahn address quarterback situation, stresses need for ‘go-to’ receiver

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

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Auburn coach Gus Malzahn addressed various topics regarding the Tigers on Day 2 of SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

@wareagleextra

HOOVER, Ala. Gus Malzahn spent a lot of his time at the podium on Wednesday discussing Auburn’s quarterbacks.

Not that it should come as any surprise given the unsettled nature of the position for the Tigers, as four different players are vying for the open spot. Two are players who started games for Auburn last year in junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace. The other two are new additions to the program in junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson.

Malzahn refused to play favorites, saying the coaching staff enters preseason camp with “an open mind.”

“Any time you’re going to have four guys, that’s definitely a concern,” he said on Day 2 of Southeastern Conference Media Days. “I felt very strong we knew about the two guys in spring, but I wanted to give those two new guys a fair chance. We’ll be doing things a little bit different in fall camp early, and hopefully one of those guys will emerge sooner rather than later.”

Identifying who the starter will be is the team’s “No. 1 priority” heading into the fall, according to Malzahn. The coach also said he plans “to be as honest” as possible with all the quarterbacks to let them know where they stand in the race, whether that means daily, weekly or bi-weekly updates. One thing Malzahn refused to accept was making a rash decision.

“The No. 1 thing we need to do is make sure that we’re right,” he said.

Malzahn: Tigers seeking a lead receiver

Emory Blake was the unquestioned “go-to” option at wideout last season, and the numbers bear it out. Blake account for a staggering 42 percent of the Tigers’ receiving yardage, tallying 789 of the team’s 1,879 yards.

Malzahn said it was imperative Auburn finds someone to fill the void left by Blake.

“We’ve got to have somebody step up and be a go-to guy, somebody that wants the ball on third down, wants the ball when the game is on the line,” he said. “In the spring we tried to put them in as many situations as we can, and at times, all guys responded. But somebody has got to emerge.”

Quick hitters

Malzahn confirmed that Class of 2013 receiver signee Earnest Robinson is planning on enrolling in junior college. Malzahn said the status of another possible junior college enrollee, Jason Smith, “is still up in the air.” …  All returning players should be healthy and ready to start preseason practice Aug. 2, Malzahn said. The only question mark is defensive end Keymiya Harrell. “Harrell is a guy that we’ll see as we go, but things are looking pretty good right now.”