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July 30, 2013

4 at 4: Counting down the days until real, live football gets here

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Two days.

Just two more days until Auburn players report. Three days until fall camp opens. And we’re just a month away from the season kicking off, when the Tigers welcome the Washington State Cougars to Jordan-Hare Stadium on Aug. 31. It seems so close — and it is. But the closer it gets, the more anxious I am for it to finally begin. Of course, coaches, players and fans share in the excitement of a coming season every bit as much as media members do.

Ellis Johnson

Ellis Johnson

It reminds me of something defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said when he sat down for an interview with beat writers exactly one week ago today. In fact, it was the very first thing Johnson was asked: “How ready are you to get things started?”

It was a simple question, but the veteran coach gave a wonderfully detailed answer.

“We’ve kept away from them so much during this time of the year, and although they never leave, it’s not like the old reporting dates in the old days where they used to go home for the summer and you couldn’t wait to see them when they got back. At the same time, it’s still a time when you can get your hands back on them and get back on the field and get rolling again. You kind of get in these days right here, I can’t stand them. I either want to go back on vacation or I want to start practice. That in-between time is kind of hard to hold yourself back.”

Believe me, Coach, we all feel the same way.

In the meantime, let’s hit on a few small items in today’s edition of “4 at 4.”

1. A few tweets regarding myriad former members of Auburn’s football program have made the rounds on Twitter in the last 24 hours. The first, as was discussed in this space Monday, was in reference to former Tigers running back Michael Dyer. According to this tweet from Drew Deener, the play-by-play voice of the Louisville Cardinals, Dyer has not yet joined their program, per head coach Charlie Strong.

Speaking of head coaches, former Tigers head man Tommy Tuberville has not returned to Auburn since 2008, if this tweet from CBS Sports national college football reporter Jeremy Fowler is taken as fact.

It would probably be smart for former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler to stay away from Auburn for a few years, too. Take a look at some of the comments he made at the Roanoke Valley Sports Club on Monday night, which were tweeted out by former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter, now covering Virginia Tech football for the Roanoke Times and Virginian-Pilot.

Needless to say, the current offensive coordinator of the Hokies didn’t think very much of the hand he was dealt last season.

Oh, and he thinks Nick Saban is smart. (Then again, what is he supposed to say when he couldn’t put a single point on the board against Alabama’s defense last year?)

Not surprisingly, it didn’t take long for an Auburn player to respond, as backup center Tunde Fariyike did the honors — with an edge.

And how about one more Fariyike tweet to top it off?

2. Gus Malzahn will be making his last stop on the 2013 Tiger Trek this evening. It will be in Montgomery at Riverwalk Stadium starting at 6 p.m. ET. James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser has all the details for those who might be interested.

3. At the risk of possible Johnny Manziel overload, I cannot recommend this article by ESPN The Magazine senior writer Wright Thompson enough. While reading it, I went through every emotion possibly toward “Johnny Football.” Anger. Pity. Fascination. Bewilderment. (One thing I must note about the story: It contains some graphic language and subject matter.)

Frankly, all you really need to know is that Thompson wrote it — for my money, one of the top sports journalists in the country without question. Read it for yourself and see how you feel about Manziel. Maybe it will cement your preconceived notions about him. Or maybe you’ll end up feeling differently about the 20-year-old lightning rod known as much for off-the-field controversies as his incredible on-the-field accomplishments.

4. Just in case you’re in Auburn this weekend, take heart: Parking will be free.

Via the Opelika-Auburn News article: “In conjunction with this weekend’s sales tax holiday weekend and Auburn University’s semester break, the Auburn City Council has suspended parking meter operations in downtown from Aug. 3-20.”

Most importantly, for you fellow football-lovers out there, yes, fall camp will have already started by this weekend.

July 29, 2013

4 at 4: Catching up on the weekend with some links

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Luckily for me, it was a slow news weekend. Why was that good, you ask? Well, when trying to move into a new place, the last thing you want is for a major story to break to prevent being able to get your life unpacked. But I’m ready and rarin’ to go now, and thankfully, things will pick up soon enough, as Auburn players report on Thursday and open fall camp on Friday.graphics4

Until then, we’ll be doing something similar to “7 at 7,” just in a shortened version.

I give you, good readers, “4 at 4.”

1. It appears former Auburn running back Michael Dyer’s landing place has now been uncovered. On Monday afternoon, Jonathan Lintner of The Courier-Journal in Louisville reported that Dyer might be joining the Cardinals, noting that “the school’s registrar’s office has Michael Dyer in its database, but the 2011 BCS MVP not yet admitted/enrolled.” Lintner’s article says the team can’t comment on Dyer’s situation yet, but that he has until Aug. 26 to register for the fall semester.

2. Could Stephen Davis Jr. follow in his father’s footsteps and become a Tiger? It’s definitely a possibility, the linebacker/defensive back out of Dutch Fork High in Irmo, S.C., told AL.com on Friday. Along with Auburn, Davis Jr. holds offers from Georgia, Florida, South Carolina, Clemson, Vanderbilt, Missouri and North Carolina. His father might have to work on him a little more, since the younger Davis noted Georgia, Florida, Vanderbilt and Tennessee are the schools that appeal most to him at the moment, and that he still “has to think” more about Auburn. He’s got a lot of time, though, since he doesn’t graduate until 2016. (The article includes a full video interview where Davis Jr. addresses all of these topics.)

3. Count former Auburn (and current Carolina Panthers) quarterback Cam Newton as a supporter of testing for human growth hormone in the NFL. The league and its players union are trying to iron out an agreement on testing for HGH that is both safe and not overly invasive, since it would likely involve drawing blood from players. It doesn’t bother Newton, since he said it “wasn’t a big deal” and that he’d “be prepared” to do any test the NFL requires.

4. After I linked to an article last week which reported Auburn’s Police Department had an aggressive ticket “quota” system in place, it’s only fair to link to the response to the accusations from the police chief at the time, Tommy Dawson. The City of Auburn also released a statement in regard to Tracy Oppenheimer’s piece for Reason.com.

July 26, 2013

7 at 7: An abundance of links to start your weekend off right

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Whew.

It’s been a busy first few weeks on the job since taking over as the War Eagle Extra’s newest beat writer. While it’s been full-go from the start, I’ll be off the next two days as I finally get moved into my apartment in Auburn. (Living in hotels for a few weeks is fine, but I’m ready for more permanent digs.) But not to worry — being off until Sunday doesn’t mean there won’t be content added to the blog. I’ll have my final two SEC preseason power rankings articles, and keep an eye out for a big feature that will run online Saturday and in the following day’s paper.

But with so many things going on around Auburn and the world of sports, I figured it was time for another edition of “7 at 7.” Yes, even though it’s posting at 8 a.m. ET. (Hey, it’s seven o’clock somewhere.)

Let’s get to it.

Yight end C.J. Uzomah said Tuesday he is ready to become Auburn's "go-to" receiver this fall. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Tight end C.J. Uzomah said Tuesday he is ready to become Auburn’s “go-to” receiver this fall. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

1. In case you missed anything on Thursday, the War Eagle Extra blog was buzzing with a trio of different entries. First, there was a profile of tight end C.J. Uzomah, who said he was up for the challenge of becoming the Tigers’ lead receiver. Readers made for a great live chat on Thursday as well. Along with the requisite questions about the quarterback position and the incoming freshman class, one Auburn backup ended up as the star of the chat — enough so that one person said he should run for president. Check out a replay of the chat if you weren’t able to make it. Finally, the latest edition of my SEC preseason power rankings appeared, covering the two teams who clock in at Nos. 5 and 6.

2. Auburn picked up two transfers on Thursday, according to a pair of other writers on the beat. As first reported by Phillip Marshall of AuburnTigers.com, Tucker Tuberville, the eldest son of former coach Tommy Tuberville, will walk on to the Tigers as a quarterback and be ready for fall camp. Tuberville was a redshirt at Texas Tech last season.

Jay G. Tate had the other scoop of the day. Tate, the publisher of AuburnSports.com, the team’s Rivals.com site, said another former Red Raider will transfer into the Tigers’ program in defensive end Chase Robinson. According to Tate, Robinson is expected to join the team in mid-August after finishing summer classes at Texas Tech, and then suit up for the Tigers in 2014.

3. Well, former Auburn running back Michael Dyer has finally made his decision: He’s going to a Division I school. He just won’t reveal which one — yet. For more details on Dyer’s future, check out this piece from Grantland’s Bryan Curtis. Some good writing and reporting here, folks.

4. By now, I assume most have seen the replay and heard the news about Auburn grad and Atlanta Braves pitcher Tim Hudson. The veteran hurler broke his ankle Wednesday night in New York against the Mets. In a freak accident, Mets left fielder Eric Young Jr. accidentally stepped on Hudson’s ankle as he was trying to beat out a throw to first base. Hudson had to be carted off the field after the play, and not surprisingly, it was later announced that the 38-year-old’s season was over.

But in the aftermath of such a gruesome and saddening injury, it was great to see how well Hudson’s wife, Kim, handled the news. Young was visibly upset after the play, and sent out a tweet following the game wishing Hudson “a speedy recovery.” And as USA Today reports, Kim Hudson responded soon thereafter, noting how much she appreciates how he plays the game “the right way.”

If only we could all respond in such a tactful manner when we have to deal with adverse situations in our lives.

5. There was more good news for another classy individual on Thursday, as it was announced that Georgia offensive lineman Kolton Houston has finally been reinstated by the NCAA. For those not familiar with the story, I’ll let my colleague at The Macon Telegraph, Seth Emerson, fill in the blanks.

“Houston first tested positive for norandrolone, an anabolic steroid, when he enrolled at Georgia in 2010. According to Houston and UGA, he was administered the illegal drug by an “unscrupulous” doctor after shoulder surgery. The residue from the drug stayed in Houston’s system, causing him to continually test above the threshold allowed by the NCAA.”

The Bulldogs continually pushed for his reinstatement since it first took effect after he enrolled at Georgia three years ago, but it had been a long and frustrating process for all involved.

Though he’s a member of one of the Tigers’ rivals, people should be happy for Houston in at least one regard: He just wanted a chance to play. Now he’ll have that opportunity. And it’s hard to beat getting this kind of news on your birthday, isn’t it? Houston turned 22 on Thursday.

6. The folks over at the War Eagle Reader tipped us off to a story quite germane to those around Auburn. According to an article by Reason.com’s Tracy Oppenheimer, the Auburn Police Department instituted an aggressive ticket and arrest quota beginning in 2010 with the arrival of a new police chief. This claim was made by former officer and whistleblower Justin Hanners, who is no longer with the department after he said he refused to comply with the directive.

Regardless of your initial thoughts on the report, I urge you to read the article and watch the embedded video before drawing your own conclusion.

7. People who follow War Eagle Extra on Twitter — and if you’re not doing so already, why not go and do it now at THIS link — might have seen this video already. But few things will prepare you for an Arkansas fan honoring coach Bret Bielema with “I’m a Beliemer” (to the tune of The Monkees “I’m a Believer”) in terribly off-key fashion.

Yes, it’s every bit as terrible as it sounds.

And with that, I’m out.

Have a great weekend, everyone!

July 13, 2013

7 at 7: Looking back on a newsworthy Friday for Tigers, along with assorted other links

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

Hope everyone used Friday to recover from the absurdity that was the “Sharknado” phenomenon on Thursday night.

I was one of about six people in the country who didn’t catch it — the low-budget film did draw in 1.4 million viewers, after all — but it was impossible to avoid on Twitter. Being a fan of campy flicks, I should have tuned in; however, I got preoccupied working on content for War Eagle Extra, and by the time I noticed it had started, it was too late. I’m not into joining a movie if I can’t see it from the beginning.sharknado

No worries, though. If there’s one thing Syfy knows how to do, it’s run something into the ground. I’ll catch one of the repeats bound to occur in the coming weeks and months.

But enough about “Sharknado.”

You’ll note today’s “7 at 7″ has a different look in that it’s a more “traditional” links article. Little-to-no analysis by me. Just a line or two and a link.

Call it “7 at 7: The Abridged Version.”

(This won’t turn into a habit, as “7 at 7″ will return to its normal length on Sunday.)

1. If you weren’t able to stop by War Eagle Extra on Friday, you missed a busy day. There were two more previews of Auburn’s 2013 opponents (Ole Miss and Western Carolina) as well as coach Gus Malzahn’s induction into the Arkansas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame. Friday night, it was reported that 2013 signee Earnest Robinson, a receiver out of Pinson Valley High School in Alabama, had failed to qualify academically and will not join the Tigers this fall.

2. AL.com’s Brandon Marcello finished his series looking back at Malzahn’s high school coaching career in Arkansas, coinciding with his hall of fame induction on Friday night.

3. Auburn’s secondary intercepted just one pass last season. Phillip Marshall of AuburnTigers.com explains how the Tigers plan to change that this fall.

4. Barrett Sallee, Bleacher Report’s lead SEC football writer, had a pair of Auburn-related posts on Friday, writing why Class of 2014 signal-caller Brandon Harris would be a match made in heaven for the Tigers and why Arkansas should roll the dice with former Tigers running back Michael Dyer (but won’t).

5. Check out this great feature from The Baltimore Sun on one of the best players in baseball this season, the Orioles’ Chris “Crush” Davis.

6. Item No. 6 is once again reserved for a trio of figures who only seem to make headlines for stupid things they say or do: Suspended LSU running back Jeremy Hill, suspended Ole Miss guard Marshall Henderson and former Ohio State president Gordon Gee.

7. Should you ever have to survive a bear attack, check out the handy video below, courtesy of NBC 10 in Providence, R.I. You have to give the reporter, Julie Tremmel, props for the amount of overacting she put into her role. Forget the Emmys. This is Oscars-type stuff.

July 9, 2013

7 at 7: A new beginning at War Eagle Extra (and links)

Hello, I’m Ryan Black.

OK, maybe it doesn’t have the same gravitas as, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” OK, it definitely doesn’t. That being said, I extend my greetings to all readers of War Eagle Extra. I’m glad to be here, and thankful for the opportunity, to — as my predecessor, one Aaron Brenner, put it last year when he started this job — “maintain the solid reputation of Auburn beat writers for the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer.”

He obviously did that, and that’s one of the reasons I’m continuing Brenner’s popular “7 at 7″ format here in my debut post.

Ryan Black

As you may note below in the story highlighting my hire, yes, I graduated from the University of Georgia. Yes, if you “Google search” my name, it will come up with hundreds upon hundreds of stories I wrote about the Bulldogs. But not one of them is “slanted” toward Georgia. I pledge no allegiance to the Bulldogs, the same thing I’d say about the Tigers or any other team I’m assigned to cover. It’s not my job to “cheer” for a team, or be “against” one. I’m a journalist. All I want to see is a good, competitive game, folks. If I’m rooting for anything, it’s for a good story. (And please, pardon that cliché if you like.)

I’m going to report the news, good and bad. I’ll deliver analysis, too. Will we always agree? No. Besides, where is the fun in that? Do you really only talk to people you agree with? I don’t think so. If I ever criticize the Tigers, which — and I’m going out on a limb here — will probably happen at some point, don’t let your immediate reaction be, “There it is. Exactly what I was expecting. What a Georgia homer. He hates Auburn.” Put down your pitchforks. Reporters cover “rival” schools of their own alma maters all the time. It’s the nature of the business.

I don’t profess to be perfect. I’m quite open to criticism. (And quite open to praise, too.) So if you have any questions about the team or other feedback you’d like to send along, please don’t hesitate to contact me. You can tweet to @wareagleextra or shoot me an email at rblack@ledger-enquirer.com.

The season is getting ever closer, and I know you readers are as ready for it as I am.

1. Before delving into other links of more recent vintage, I figured I could share a pair of my older stories, one showing my willingness to criticize Georgia (here) and another being a feature centered around Auburn’s struggles last season, told from the Bulldogs’ perspective (here).

Enjoy.

2. Now, on to the Tigers. Auburn defensive end Dee Ford was named to the Bednarik Award preseason watch list on Monday. The award is given annually to the nation’s top defensive player. Ford, a senior, is the Tigers’ top returnee on the defensive line, as he led the team in sacks last season with six, as well as tallying 34 total tackles and 6.5 tackles for loss.

Along with Ford, 75 other players were named to the watch list, which is presented by the Maxwell Football Club. The semifinalists will be announced Oct. 29, and the three finalists for the award will be released Nov. 19. The winner will be named during the Home Depot College Awards show on Dec. 12.

3. Former Auburn running back Michael Dyer hasn’t given up on playing in Division I’s Football Bowl Subdivision. Far from it. All he’s looking for right now is a chance, according to USA Today. After washing out of both Auburn and Arkansas State due to myriad issues, Dyer is immediately eligible to play this season and would be classified as a junior. He graduated with an associate’s degree from Arkansas Baptist College last month.

To read the whole story on Dyer, check out George Schroeder’s piece on the USA Today website.

4. If you’ve got $10,200 to spend in one lump sum — a luxury I can’t afford, unfortunately — there is one-of-a-kind opportunity awaiting you, Auburn fans. Want to have all 17 letters that once graced the entrance welcoming you to Jordan-Hare Stadium? Well, you’re in luck. The letters are for sale.

Thanks to the folks over at The War Eagle Reader, we know an Ebay seller in Lewisville, Texas is willing to part with the letters for $10,000. (The additional $200 is the cost to ship it to your home.)

The description on the Buy It Now Listing is as follows:

“We are offering something very special for vintage sports collectors and Auburn football fans! In 2011, the entrance to the stadium got a new sign. Through another dealer we were able to purchase the entire sign that was removed! It is big, it is heavy, and it is one of a kind! These have seen Heisman winners and National champions!

“The letters are heavy cast aluminum, 8-12 pounds each and two foot tall! These were on the northeast side of the stadium, or to orient yourself, they overlooked the intersection of Donahue Dr & Heisman Dr. If you go on Google Maps Streetview, you can see these on the stadium! Google: 251 S Donahue Dr, Auburn, AL”

The 17 letters would be quite an addition to any person’s collection.

If nothing else, they would make for a great conversation starter at your next party.

5. Love him or hate him, Paul Finebaum knows how to stir the pot. He did so once more on Monday during a radio interview with ESPN personalities Scott Van Pelt and Ryen Russillo. Widely-regarded as one of the biggest games of the coming season, the Alabama/Texas A&M tilt didn’t get high marks in Finebaum’s book, since he’s predicting a one-sided affair.

“I think Alabama is going to win that game and I think they’ll win it easily, Finebaum said. “That doesn’t make A&M a bad program. I mean they’re in the top five in the country and Manziel is certainly on everyone’s list to repeat, although we both know he won’t.”

“Even though it’s a revenge game for Alabama, I think the pressure’s on A&M. They’re still newbies with all this fame and fortune and I think there’s just going to be too much pressure.”

“This is the biggest game maybe in Texas A&M history and I just don’t think they’re quite there yet in spite of everything they did last year.”

I’m sure those comments will go over just fine in College Station. Don’t be surprised if Texas A&M president R. Bowen Loftin responds to Finebaum in kind. It wouldn’t be the first time “The Prez” gets the better of an exchange with Finebaum, after all.

6. Speaking of the Crimson Tide, there’s a new writer joining the beat in The Anniston Star’s Marquavius Burnett. My colleague tipped me off to the “great reporting” in this article by Mike Reiss of ESPNBoston.com, as New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft broke his silence on Aaron Hernandez.

Regardless of how this case eventually unfolds, it is a tragedy for all involved.

7. And to make sure we end my initial posting on an upbeat note, check out a couple of lighthearted links I came across on Monday.

The first came from a Cleveland Browns fan named Scott Entsminger, who died on July 4 at the age of 55. According to his obituary in The Columbus Dispatch, the accomplished musician and longtime season ticket holder had one last favor to ask of his beloved team: “He respectfully requests six Cleveland Browns pall bearers so the Browns can let him down one last time.”

Zing!

While the last link isn’t a story, it doesn’t need words. Pictures sometimes speak for themselves, right? This photo of Larry Brown while he was coaching at North Carolina in 1975 does just that. Take a second and let it sink in. Or take a look at it, walk outside and come back to it later.

Let us all be grateful that wardrobe is exactly where it should be: in the past.

April 22, 2013

SPLASH ZONE: Jacobs, Chizik ardently defend Auburn from ongoing allegations (w/ video)

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – So much for a culture of silence.

Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs and former head coach Gene Chizik, splintered in working relationship but united as men hell-bent on preserving their reputation, individually unleashed powerful resistances to widely-distributed reports earlier this month by ESPN.com and Roopstigo.com filled with negative accusations and would-be NCAA violations.

An internal investigation lasting nineteen days resulted in a hefty response by Jacobs and his team Monday morning, thoroughly dismantling reports by Roopstigo.com’s Selena Roberts with a nearly 1,000-word letter and official comment on 11 different allegations.

AUBURN FOOTBALLThen Chizik, who since his firing Nov. 25 only had surfaced once publically (as part of ESPNU’s National Signing Day coverage), finally let his voice be heard. And oh, was there fury in that voice – a polar opposite of Chizik’s demeanor throughout the 3-9 season that cost him his job.

“The way I saw it, it’s very frustrating because you know you’re operating this football program exactly the way you need to do it,” Chizik said to local beat reporters in an impassioned 34-minute on-campus interview.

“It’s really hard to operate day-by-day with what I consider to be the most scrutinized, and sometimes villainized, program in the country. I just didn’t see the facts and the data that ever indicated it should have been. I still don’t.”

In the past, Auburn opted for canned statements and rare direct response to constant scrutiny, be it the Cam Newton investigation in 2010, rumors of recruiting transgressions and other reported misdeeds.

In a short video released by Auburn University explaining why speak up now, Jacobs said it best: “I’m tired of it. I’m tired of these attacks on Auburn, and when people attack Auburn, I’m going to fight for Auburn as strongly as I possibly can.

“If we make a mistake, we’re going to admit it. But when people say things that aren’t true, we’re going to set the record straight.”

During an earlier radio appearance on WJOX in Birmingham, Chizik asserted, “we want to make as big a splash as we can with the truth.”

AUBURN FOOTBALLPatient and firm, Jacobs swore he’d get to the bottom of an avalanche of allegations hurled at his football program in “Auburn’s Tainted Title: Victims, Violations and Vendettas for Glory”, posted April 3 on Roberts’ six-month-old web site.

The most serious accusation in the Roopstigo.com report alleged academic fraud, when three players said the university changed grades for up to nine players, including star tailback Michael Dyer, to keep them eligible for the 2011 BCS championship game. Defensive end Mike Blanc was quoted as saying “Auburn found a way to make those dudes eligible,” but immediately disputed his involvement in the article following its publication.

According to Jacobs, “Auburn Athletics and Auburn University Internal Auditing have completed independent reviews of the academic allegations. There is no evidence academic fraud occurred.”

Specifically on Dyer, Auburn stated he passed 15 credit hours in the fall of 2010 – the NCAA student-athlete minimum is six – and carried a 2.8 GPA at the end of the semester.

An Auburn spokesperson confirmed the university worked in conjunction with the NCAA on investigating the academic fraud allegations.

Later in his letter, Jacobs acknowledged the Tigers’ brutal athletic year – 0-8 in SEC football, and last place in men’s basketball and baseball division standings.

Jacobs, largely unpopular among fans during the on-field struggles, announced university president Jay Gogue’s plan for a committee to check on all elements of the department, adding “We welcome this review.”

“As part of our efforts to get better, we are also committed to being as transparent as possible with our stakeholders,” Jacobs wrote. “That is why I wanted to let you know that a top-notch team of current and former coaches, athletics administrators, student-athletes and business executives will be coming in to give us a comprehensive evaluation.”

Gogue, according to Jacobs, has tasked the review committee with “a top-to-bottom review” of the same five factors listed as Jacobs’ specific objectives.

Those five areas are, listed in order: academics, finances, fan experience on gameday, competition and management/leadership structure.

Numerous media reports already had poked holes in the Roopstigo report – mostly when several players quoted by Roberts retracted their involvement.

The lone named source who had yet to respond, former receiver Darvin Adams, broke his silence Monday. Via Chizik’s representation, Adams stated: “I never took any improper money from anyone at Auburn – coach or booster. I was never offered any money by anyone to stay at Auburn for my senior year.”

When requested for comment by the Ledger-Enquirer, Roberts made a brief response, saying “I’m working on a story on it. It’s a work-in-progress (and) I will address some of the issues Auburn raised.” adding Auburn’s Monday statement was “self-revealing.”

This week’s edition of ESPN the Magazine has a 9-page story delving into Auburn players’ involvement with synthetic marijuana, otherwise known as “spice.” While the university responded April 4 with facts debunking that narrative, Chizik added a separate viewpoint Monday.

“The notion that 50 percent of our football team was smoking it: let me tell you this. This is not a performance-enhancing drug. It’s a performance-debilitating drug,” Chizik said. “So if half of our football team is on it during our 2010 national championship run, how were we performing at a level that was the best football team in the country? That doesn’t even make sense.”

The university did work with Chizik and his reps over the past 19 days to craft a response.

“Coach Chizik came to Auburn with a strong record of rules compliance and a reputation as a man of the utmost character and integrity,” Jacobs said. “I have enormous respect for Coach Chizik, the way he ran his program throughout his entire tenure at Auburn and also the way he left – with dignity and class.”

Jacobs has released three statements this month on the matter, but has not been made available to answer questions.

Jacobs letter dismantles Roberts report, says committee to review athletic department; Darvin Adams disputes how he was quoted

Auburn Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Patient and firm, Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs swore he’d get to the bottom of an avalanche of allegations hurled at his football program earlier this month by an off-beat reporter using the backstory of a rogue former player.

An internal investigation lasting nineteen days resulted in a hefty response by Jacobs and his team Monday morning, thoroughly dismantling reports by Roopstigo.com’s Selena Roberts with a nearly 1,000-word letter and official comment on 11 different allegations, including would-be NCAA violations.

“As the facts demonstrate, the article is clearly flawed,” Jacobs wrote. “I will continue to fight for Auburn University, and I will continue to defend this great institution against such attacks.

“As Auburn’s Athletics Director, it’s my job – no matter how proud I am of Auburn – to carefully review charges made against our program when warranted.”

Later in his letter, Jacobs also acknowledged the Tigers’ brutal athletic year – 0-8 in SEC football, and last place in men’s basketball and baseball division standings.

Jacobs, largely unpopular among fans during the struggles, announced university president Jay Gogue’s plan for a committee to check on all elements of the department, adding “We welcome this review.”

“As part of our efforts to get better, we are also committed to being as transparent as possible with our stakeholders,” Jacobs wrote. “That is why I wanted to let you know that a top-notch team of current and former coaches, athletics administrators, student-athletes and business executives will be coming in to give us a comprehensive evaluation.”

While numerous media reports had already poked holes in “Auburn’s Tainted Title: Victims, Violations and Vendettas for Glory”, posted April 3 on Roberts’ six-month-old web site, Jacobs’ four-paragraph statement the following day promised a comprehensive inspection.

When requested for comment by the Ledger-Enquirer, Roberts made a brief response to Monday’s release, saying “I’m working on a story on it. It’s a work-in-progress (and) I will address some of the issues Auburn raised.” adding the Monday statement was “self-revealing.”

The most serious accusation in the Roopstigo.com report alleged academic fraud, when three players said the university changed grades for up to nine players, including star tailback Michael Dyer, to keep them eligible for the 2011 BCS championship game. Defensive end Mike Blanc was quoted as saying “Auburn found a way to make those dudes eligible,” but immediately disputed his involvement in the article following its publication.

According to Jacobs, “Auburn Athletics and Auburn University Internal Auditing have completed independent reviews of the academic allegations. There is no evidence academic fraud occurred.”

An Auburn spokesperson confirmed the university worked with the NCAA on investigating the academic fraud allegations.

Specifically on Dyer, Auburn stated he passed 15 credit hours in the fall of 2010 – the NCAA student-athlete minimum is six – and carried a 2.8 GPA at the end of the semester.

The majority of Roberts’ narrative was based on information given by former safety Mike McNeil and his family. McNeil’s attorney said in the story “To show you how innocent he is, Mike is willing to go to trial because he says he didn’t do it.”

However, on April 8, McNeil entered a guilty plea bargain, accepting three years in jail and three years probation for first-degree robbery.

Auburn also provided documentation of phone records rebuking statements by McNeil’s mother, Melodie Campbell, the university cut off communication with the family.

Jacobs fiercely defended Gene Chizik, the head coach he fired Nov. 25 following the school’s worst season in 62 years.

“Coach Chizik came to Auburn with a strong record of rules compliance and a reputation as a man of the utmost character and integrity,” Jacobs said. “I have enormous respect for Coach Chizik, the way he ran his program throughout his entire tenure at Auburn and also the way he left – with dignity and class.”

Chizik made an impassioned appearance on WJOX radio in Birmingham, reiterating many points from an April 4 statement via his agents.

“Simply to the Auburn people, it’s not fair. It’s not right,” Chizik said. “But that’s why I’m here today. I care about my reputation, I care about the integrity of who I am and what I do. I’m 100 percent confident we did it right.”

Numerous players quoted by Roberts backtracked from their involvement, insisting they were misguided as to how their comments would be used.

The lone named source who had yet to respond, former receiver Darvin Adams, broke his silence Monday. Chizik’s representation released the following statement from Adams: “I was never offered any improper money by anyone at Auburn – coach or booster. I never took any improper money from anyone at Auburn – coach or booster. I was never offered any money by anyone to stay at Auburn for my senior year.”

Roberts tweeted Monday midday: “again, auburn never mentions the due process core of the story or answers questions on its role in a felony case.” Chizik’s statement April 4 indicated the university worked cooperatively with Auburn police chief Tommy Dawson, who added to the rebuttals of Roberts’ report.

Jacobs has released three statements this month on the matter, but has not been available to answer questions.

Regarding the athletic department on a broader scale, Gogue, according to Jacobs, has asked the review committee to conduct “a top-to-bottom review” of the same five factors listed as Jacobs’ specific objectives.

Those five areas are, listed in order: academics, finances, fan experience on gameday, competition and management/leadership structure.

April 3, 2013

Report by former SI, New York Times writer alleges Auburn wrongdoings; Thorpe, other ex-Tigers quoted vehemently condemn article

Neiko Thorpe2

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. — A report published Wednesday by Selena Roberts, a former Sports Illustrated and New York Times reporter, took more than 4,000 words to lob exhaustive charges toward the Auburn football program.

Multiple quoted ex-Tigers required much less verbiage to swiftly condemn how their remarks were used contextually in response.

“I can’t,” said former defensive back Neiko Thorpe, asked to make sense of the report as one of six former Tigers quoted. “I’m just trying to clear my name up and let Auburn fans and Auburn nation know the things that were said in that report were not my words.”

The narrative “Auburn’s Tainted Title: Victims, Violations and Vendettas” was posted Wednesday by Roopstigo.com. Roberts, the website’s founder and CEO and an Auburn graduate, is notable for previous SI and NYT work on Alex Rodriguez’s steroid usage and the Duke lacrosse team’s sexual assault scandal of 2006.

Wednesday’s report focuses on former Auburn safety Mike McNeil, who faces robbery charges stemming from a March 2011 arrest, two months after Auburn won the BCS national championship.

McNeil’s family presents its description of the circumstances involving McNeil’s role in the incident, including an account of Auburn University’s and then-head coach Gene Chizik’s handling of the matter.

The report went on to allege academic fraud, pay-for-play incentives and positive drug testing via conversations with players, both named and unnamed.

Former Auburn players Thorpe, Daren Bates, Mike Blanc, Darvin Adams and Antoine Carter are quoted in the story along with McNeil.

Neiko Thorpe

Thorpe, entering his second year with the Kansas City Chiefs and the only active NFL player of the bunch, told the Ledger-Enquirer Wednesday night he spoke with Roberts “a couple weeks ago” and was misled as to the article’s intent.

“She explained to me she was doing a story on Mike McNeil, and basically it was a story trying to be good information about him, just telling what a good person he was,” Thorpe said. “She told me she was just trying to do a good story on Mike – a character story, letting people know what kind of person he was.”

Thorpe – who said he hasn’t kept in touch with McNeil while focusing on his NFL career – denounced Roberts’ use of multiple quotes.

Adams said he was offered an undisclosed amount of “financial incentives,” and McNeil said he was given $500 to “entertain blue-chip (recruit) Dre Kirkpatrick.” (Kirkpatrick signed and play for Alabama.) Thorpe was quoted as saying “A special recruit was treated like a king.”

thorpe_neikoThorpe told the Ledger-Enquirer, “I was talking to her about recruits, and she asked me personally about my recruiting process. I let her know that you can’t just base your recruiting off just a visit – you’ve got to look at other things, such as being around the players, because that’s who you’re going to be around the most, and not just the coaching, because coaches can switch up at any time or any year. So that’s why going through my recruiting process I chose Auburn.”

In the framework of Roberts describing the university’s “underground society beneath the NCAA’s radar”, Thorpe was quoted as saying “Auburn does whatever Auburn wants.”

To that, Thorpe rebuked, “No. I don’t recall saying that. I don’t even know what kind of question would make me say that.”

The opening segment details a timeline presented by McNeil’s mother and grandfather the afternoon of March 11, 2011, when Chizik kicked McNeil and three teammates off the team for robbery charges. A starting safety for the championship squad, McNeil has maintained his innocence throughout, awaiting his trial scheduled to begin Monday — though the Opelika-Auburn News reported Wednesday his attorney, Ben Hand, has filed to withdraw from representation.

According to Roberts, coaches told Auburn players they could lose their scholarship if they contacted any of the accused players. Thorpe was quoted as saying, “Mike was like a brother. I wanted to talk to my brother. I’m sure with all that was going on, he felt betrayed.”

Thorpe said he was napping when Roberts’ report came out, and after an evening workout was stunned to be made aware of how his interview was used.

“She just took what I said, I guess, and tried to … make it to a story she wanted,” Thorpe said, “because it wasn’t even the story she told me what she was reporting about. It was kind of crazy when I had a chance to read it and see what she put wasn’t true.”

Thorpe was named Auburn’s “Defensive Most Valuable Player” in 2011. He was bestowed that same year with the Shug Jordan Award, which reads, “Down through the years, outstanding Auburn football players have become outstanding citizens. Knowing this truth, and having a deep abiding faith in these men, I am proud to honor Auburn University’s outstanding senior football player with this award.”

Asked if he had any reason to scath his alma mater, Thorpe insisted, “I don’t. That’s why I’m trying to clear my name up because I had a great time at Auburn my four years, and I have memories I’ll never forget.”

Gene ChizikAn Auburn spokesperson stated to the Ledger-Enquirer on behalf of the athletic department, “We will not have a comment regarding the claims in the story.”

Chizik, Auburn University and Auburn police all declined to comment.

Former defensive coordinator Will Muschamp (now Florida’s head coach) is reported to have offered McNeil $400 cash after a 2007 practice. A Florida spokesperson Wednesday evening reiterated the university’s denial of Muschamp’s alleged payment from the article.

Bates, who graduates this year, had only one quote in the report, regarding McNeil: “He was the best teammate you could imagine. He took me under his wing. He would draw up defenses. And we’d watch film. He was a mentor to everyone.”

Bates initially responded to a Twitter follower’s question about Roberts, “I don’t even know who that is.” An hour later, Bates tweeted, “The one thing that is quoted by me is what I said, no more no less..END OF STORY”

Roberts made other allegations leading up to the 2010 season, including:

• Three players were told before the BCS championship victory over Oregon that up to nine teammates would be ruled academically ineligible, including star running back Michael Dyer, before unnamed school counselors fixed transcripts to keep them on the field. Said Blanc, “We thought we would be without Mike Dyer because he said he was one of them, but Auburn found a way to make those dudes eligible.”

• Several players indicated Chizik asked them to cut their dreadlocks in fear of being targeted by police.

• A trailer home on Wire Road was a frequent source of synthetic marijuana distributed to players, the scene of the crime scene involving McNeil, Antonio Goodwin (since found guilty and jailed 15 years), Dakota Mosley and Shaun Kitchens. The article stated “more than 40 players tested positive for recreational drugs after the national championship.”

A couple hours after the article’s release, Blanc tweeted, “Man this article is outrageous and isn’t true. The media will do anything for a juicy story smh #sad”

This is not Roberts’ first story regarding Auburn football. In January 2005 — shortly following Auburn’s undefeated season led by then-coach Tommy Tuberville — she penned a New York Times article reporting team chaplain Chette Williams (still working for the Auburn support staff) was paid by boosters in addition to the Fellowship of Christian Athletes.

The entire report can be found here.

March 29, 2013

Trovon Reed: “Time is flying. I can’t just keep sitting back.” Veteran receiver vows to fill a critical leadership role (with Reed video)

Arkansas Auburn Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Heads were spinning on the first day of Auburn’s new football era, the structured chaos a stark contrast from last year’s moderate pace wowing many youngsters.

Not Trovon Reed. The only offensive skill player still around who was on the roster during that magical Cam Newton-led 2010 national championship season, Reed’s perfectly accustomed to Gus Malzahn’s frenetic style.

“I was like a little kid on the playground the first day of school,” Reed said following Wednesday’s inaugural spring practice. “Everybody was flying around, enjoying this fast-paced offense.

“We’ve been sitting on it for a long, long time. No football, all working out. Just thinking about 3-9.”

It’s not all fun and games for the 6-foot, 190-pound redshirt junior, whose fellow five-star Scout.com recruits from that ballyhooed class of 2010 – defensive end Corey Lemonier and running back Michael Dyer – have moved on. Since taking a medical redshirt the title year, Reed’s caught 30 balls for 286 yards and just one touchdown in his full two seasons – underachieving figures by any standard.

“Time is flying. I can’t just keep sitting back. I have to start attacking,” Reed said. “I’ve got to start doing all the right things, on and off the field – gotta start making plays. I just want to win, whether I perform well or don’t perform well.”

Last year’s demons haunt Reed. A native of Thibodaux, La., nestled on the Gulf Coast and not too far south of Baton Rouge, Reed went home to Louisiana during winter break with no bowl game to prepare for.

Reed had to hear it from his LSU-supporting friends who since Auburn’s championship victory have watched the ‘other’ Tigers go 23-4 – including a 2012 BCS title game loss to Alabama, and coming within one play of knocking off the defending champion Crimson Tide in the 2012 regular season.

Meanwhile, Auburn’s gone 11-14 in that span, sunk by last year’s nightmare.

“I’m taking it more serious. 3-9, that’s embarrassing,” Reed said. “That’s all I kept hearing: ‘You went all the way to Auburn to do that? You could’ve stayed here and helped us, blah blah blah, we would’ve had you that one play, could’ve got us to the national championship.’

“Little things like that get under my skin. It just made me work even harder. I’ve got to show them picking Auburn wasn’t a mistake.”

The current coaching staff – Malzahn, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig – are definitively more familiar with Reed’s potential than perhaps that of younger prospects.

“I think it’s time,” Malzahn said. “I think he’d say the same thing, that it’s time for him. The good thing about Trovon is he understands our system. He’s been in it, so this is a year that will be very critical for him. I’ve got very high expectations for him.”

Reed’s not shy about his inner sensitivity – “When we’re not doing too good, I hear it. I don’t show it, but I hear it.” – nor about his desire to take over the ‘Lord of the Wides’ role vacated by past role models Darvin Adams, Terrell Zachery and Emory Blake.

“I sat in the back seat for a long time, and now I’m that older guy in the room,” Reed said. “Now I have to lead. All I’ve been around is winning, so last year, like, really got under my skin. Now I’ve got to lead our room back to that path they led.”

March 26, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Running backs

This is the seventh of an 8-day series previewing each Auburn position leading into spring football. Tomorrow: wide receivers/tight ends/H-backs.

Tre Mason flex

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Against the SEC, Auburn’s ground game was horrendous. Against anybody else, it was heroic.

Other than possibly quarterback Jonathan Wallace, nobody’s performance was more night-and-day against conference and non-conference foes than Tre Mason, Onterio McCalebb and the men responsible for clearing their paths.

Leave it at this: strictly against non-conference opponents, Auburn ranking ninth in the country in rushing offense (and first among SEC teams) with 271.8 yards per game. But once in conference? That rating falls, plummets, crashes to 118th out of 124 FBS squads at a paltry 86.75 yards.

To be clear, it’s not like the Tigers’ non-SEC opponents were completely incompetent: Louisiana-Monroe and Clemson were each in the 50th percentile or better as far as stopping the run game.

It was just one of those things. Mason was somewhat effective against SEC defenses, but a consistent attack never surfaced, a major factor in Auburn’s first winless SEC campaign since 1980.

The threat of McCalebb’s pure speed is gone, and promising youngster Mike Blakely transferred out of the program, but Mason won’t necessarily become a workhorse. The 1,000-yard rusher in 2012 will be platooned with 2,000-yard junior college rusher Cameron Artis-Payne, who brings a more physical inside game to the table.

And don’t forget about the pair of incoming high schoolers, especially four-star Johnathan Ford and his home-run hitting ability.

Auburn can and will run the football. Nine 1,000-yard rushers in Gus Malzahn’s seven years at the collegiate level promise that. But it’s a matter of doing it against Alabama and Arkansas, not Alabama A&M and Arkansas State.

Part I: Defensive backs
Part II: Linebackers
Part III: Defensive line
Part IV: Special teams
Part V: Quarterbacks
Part VI: Offensive line

Courtesy Allan Hancock College

Courtesy Allan Hancock College

Here’s a look at Auburn’s running backs, leading into spring football practices:

Who’s been playing: Tre Mason (jr.)

Who’s been waiting: Corey Grant (jr.)

Who’s out the door: Mike Blakely, Onterio McCalebb

Who’s in the door: Cameron Artis-Payne (Harrisburg, Pa.), Peyton Barber (Alpharetta, Ga.), Johnathan Ford (New Hope, Ala.)

Who’s coaching ‘em up: Tim Horton, 24th year (7th in SEC)

Who’d he replace, where is he now: Curtis Luper, TCU

Thoughts and musings:

Mason is supremely confident without being cocky, a kid who wouldn’t complain if the gameplan called for 25 carries a game. He’s the ideal hybrid back for this offense; he’s got the power to shake off tackle, the shiftiness to make people miss, and the speed to gash defenses for long gains.

Yet new RBs coach Tim Horton wouldn’t guarantee anything to Mason, who would seem to be the safest bet of anybody on offense or defense to retain his starting job. Maybe it’s coachspeak; or maybe it’s because Horton’s seen enough out of Artis-Payne to know he’s going to force his way into a featured role. With the benefit of spring to learn his role, Artis-Payne has a great chance to gobble double-digit carries a game this fall. Reporters haven’t had a chance to meet him yet, but seeing as Artis-Payne’s listed Auburn major is philosophy, he could be an interesting talker.

AUBURN FOOTBALL

Corey Grant waits his turn. A former Alabama player who came back closer to his home of Opelika, Grant will likely retain his responsibility as a prime scout-team back. Of course, as physical as this sport is, Grant should be ready at all times; prospectively, he does bump one spot from No. 4 to No. 3 on the depth chart.

Peyton Barber, the last back not discussed yet, was injured his junior year of high school, but bounced back for a strong senior campaign. That was the explanation for his 3-star recruiting rating. We’ll see if that was deserved, or if Barber truly flew under the radar.

Statistically speaking:

2.59 – Yards per carry for Auburn in 2012 SEC games, the fifth-worst mark in Division I.

6.39 – Yards per carry for Auburn in 2012 non-conference game, the third-best mark in Division I. Again, it’s not like the Tigers played a bunch of high school opponents outside the SEC. Those splits are absolutely unreal.

289.9 – Rush yards per game by Auburn in 2010. Some guy named Cam had something to do with that, as did Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb.

1002 – Total yards for Mason in 2012, one of 61 FBS runners to hit four digits.

36 – Combined lost yardage on negative plays for Mason, on 171 carries.

69 – Combined lost yardage on negative plays for McCalebb, on 94 carries.

170 – Total carries in eight SEC games.

1 – Rush for longer than 26 yards against SEC opponents (Mason, at Vanderbilt).

Good Twitter follows: Tre Mason @TreMason21 (8,737 followers) interacts with followers who shout him out, particularly pumping up as a possible Heisman contender. Cameron Artis-Payne @ThaRealKillaCam (2,335) already has his Auburn spirit in full swing. Also look for Corey Grant @CoreyGranttt (3,326) and Johnathan Ford @rudythebeast5 (2,493)

Say what? “I think you look at the NFL and the SEC – very rarely are you going to see a team with one guy that’s getting 35 carries. That just puts too many hits on that body.” – Horton

Georgia vs Auburn