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September 3, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

Gus Malzahn kept his comments curt on the matter.

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

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

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

The status of Jeff Whitaker isn’t as murky.

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

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

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

Linebackers’ lack of influence doesn’t faze Malzahn

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

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

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

MORE MALZAHN QUOTES

On the victory over Washington State:

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

On watching the film from the game:

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

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

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

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

On players that impressed him in the season opener:

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

On developing a “go-to” receiver:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

September 1, 2013

THE GRADES ARE IN: Assessing Auburn’s 31-24 victory versus Washington State

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Some good things happened for Auburn on Saturday night.

Some not-so-good instances occurred, too.

Auburn was able to celebrate a victory in its season opener against Washington State on Saturday night. But how did they fare on Ryan Black's report card?

Auburn’s Robenson Therezie (27), Tre Mason (21) and the rest of the Tigers were able to celebrate a victory after a victory in the season opener against Washington State on Saturday night. But how did they fare on Ryan Black’s report card? (ROBIN TRIMARCHI/Ledger-Enquirer)

Irrespective of the final stats or big plays they produced or allowed, the Tigers accomplished their sole objective against Washington State: They won, beating the Cougars 31-24 in the season opener. It was far from easy, though, as the game’s fate hung in the balance deep into the fourth quarter. Auburn was finally able to breath easy when Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday misfired on a fourth-and-five attempt from the Tigers’ 27-yard line with just over two minutes remaining, as his pass wasn’t close to any receiver.

Tre Mason took care of the rest. He picked up a pair of first downs to help the Tigers set up a “victory formation” and give head coach Gus Malzahn a win in his first game on the Plains.

So, in the aftermath of Saturday night, we’ll head to the report card.

This will be done every Sunday following Auburn’s game the previous day. You might not agree with the grades, but the comments section is there for a reason.

Let’s begin.

OFFENSE: B-

For those paying close attention, this is the same grade Nick Marshall gave when asked to take stock of his performance on Saturday. First, the good news: The Tigers did as everyone expected, staying committed to the ground game, totaling 297 rushing yards and two touchdowns. Auburn spread the wealth, as four different players — Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne, Mason and Marshall — touched the ball at least nine times. We all knew how deep the backfield was heading into the game, and Saturday provided on-field proof of those preconceived notions.

Now, the bad news. Those who watched the game saw this coming from a mile away, and that is … (Hold on a second. Marshall just overthrew another receiver before I could finish the last sentence.) Joking aside, Auburn’s signal-caller had a solid game, at least in the realm of his decision-making and not turning the ball over. That being said, Marshall had the potential to put together an even better game through the air if he just reined himself in a bit. He overthrew countless open receivers, including three great opportunities to score on the same drive late in the third quarter. The Tigers eventually ended up punting the ball away.

On Saturday, Marshall’s misfires didn’t sink the Tigers’ hopes at victory.

It might not come back to haunt them next week against Arkansas State, either. But the Tigers can’t afford to be one-dimensional when they get into the heart of their SEC schedule and reasonably expect to win.

DEFENSE: B

Yes, the Tigers allowed 464 yards of total offense. And yes, 344 of those yards came through the air. However, they also intercepted the ball three times — one more than they had all of last season — and gave up only one passing touchdown. The reason for this grade, then, is that even though it took the Cougars 35 completions to rack up those 344 yards, they still averaged nearly a first down per completed pass, at 9.8 yards per catch.

Auburn also gave up far more on the ground than anyone would have expected; Washington State averaged right at 29 rushing yards per game last season, the lowest in Division I. Saturday night, the Cougars had nearly 100 yards more than that, finishing with 120. And after scoring only six rushing touchdowns in 12 games last year, Washington State had two against Auburn, matching the Tigers’ own total.

Finally, if not for true freshman Montravius Adams playing well beyond his years, Auburn’s push up front would have been non-existent. Time and again, Halliday was allowed ample time to look downfield and hit open receivers. If the Tigers’ pass-rush doesn’t improve dramatically in the weeks to come, they likely won’t be able to escape with a victory like they did on Saturday.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A+

There is no need for nitpicking here, especially given everything the Tigers did right. To wit: They scored on a 100-yard kickoff return by Mason. Cody Parkey had five touchbacks, with only one returned kick, which was taken back 30 yards. The senior place kicker also went 3-for-4 on his field goal attempts, only missing from 50 yards out. The Tigers also didn’t have a punt return against them. Needless to say, no unit was more stout than special teams Saturday night.

OVERALL: A

There were some tense moments, but those are to be expected. As defensive line coach Rodney Garner would say, football “is a bottom-line business.” The Tigers won Saturday night. Period.

Everything else is meaningless by comparison.

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

Therezie then went out and played like one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

He forgot what number teammate Jake Holland wore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Adams ‘thankful for the opportunity to make an impact’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A first half full of ‘firsts’

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

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

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

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

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

Injury updates

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

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

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

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

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

Quick hits

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

August 11, 2013

Auburn football: Rodney Garner ready for defensive line to stop talking and start producing

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Rodney Garner admits he’s a tough critic.

Auburn’s defensive line coach doesn’t dabble in public relations. You won’t find him striking an optimistic tone if he deems his unit’s performance underwhelming. If his unit plays badly, he’ll say it. Garner believes that’s the only way to be fair to the players he’s tasked with molding into dominant defensive linemen.

Auburn defensive line coach has no interest in sugarcoating anything about his unit's performance, for better or worse. (File photo)

Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner has no interest in sugarcoating anything about his unit’s performance, for better or worse. (File photo)

And after a less-than-stellar performance in the team’s first scrimmage of fall camp last week, Garner said he “went off the deep end.”

“I didn’t get it done,” he said. “My guys have got to play better, perform better. We’ve got to be more physical, got to maintain gap containment, keep the quarterback (in the pocket), seal the edges. This is a bottom line business.”

A zero-sum game, yes. But playing for the Tigers is also an incredible opportunity — something Garner can speak of first hand. He was an All-SEC selection and an All-American honorable mention as a member of Auburn’s offensive line in 1988, a season that saw the Tigers capture the SEC Championship.

That’s why he tells his players they need to treasure the chance they’ve been given.

“They’ve got an awesome, awesome opportunity,” he said. “They’re at a school where the fans love you, and they love you unconditionally. It’s truly a family. When you go 3-9 and you have 84,000 people show up for your spring game, that’s unconditional love.”

The outpouring of support should come with a price, Garner said. They have to reciprocate the affection by producing on the field.

“That’s why the pressure needs to be on us, to make sure we don’t disappoint,” Garner said. “We’ve got to do our part.”

After the Tigers added three highly-prized freshman defensive linemen in Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — with Adams’ signing being universally attributed to the relationship he had developed with Garner when the coach was still at Georgia — to go along with their returnees, the questions started. How good could Auburn’s defensive line be? Garner hates those kinds of queries.

Talk is cheap, as the saying goes.

“There are some talented guys in this group, but we’ve got to raise our level of play,” he said. “We can’t talk about it. We’re going to be judged by what we put out there on the field.”

It’s a matter of commitment, Garner said. If they want to put their best foot forward on Saturdays this fall, his players need to put as much time into studying their playbook and practicing their techniques away from the field as they do when they’re around the coaching staff.

“It’s just like investing in the (stock) market,” he said. “To get a great return, you’ve got to be willing to make the right investment. If you’re investing a lot, you’re probably going to get some more on the back end. If you’re investing very little, you’re going to get very little.”

The biggest perpetrator to lackluster effort on the field and in the film room is none other than recruiting hype. To combat this mind-set, Garner said it requires building players up, breaking them down and then building them back up once more.

“Like I told them, ‘In recruiting, you’re never as good as we say you are, or ever as bad. It’s somewhere in between,'” he said. “And you know, people expect you to show out. ‘Potential’ is the worst adjective that they can use to describe you. At some point, it’s my responsibility to get it out, but you’ve got to be willing to put it out.”

Getting over their own positive press clippings — and knowing it means nothing once they enroll in classes — is the best thing that ever happened to Lawson, Adams and Daniel.

Garner wished a few of his other players would finally come to that realization.

“I’ve got a couple other ones in my room, that for some reason, they didn’t get derecruited, so they aren’t handling the ‘hard coaching’ part,” he said. “It’s a physical, very demanding position. And if you let me intimidate you, then we’ve got problems. If I intimidated him, what’s 89,000 going to do to him? I want to know today. I don’t want to find out on Saturdays.”

For a lesson in perspective, Garner said the Tigers’ defensive line can look to one of his former players, Geno Atkins. The Cincinnati Bengal is now one of the best defensive tackles in the NFL and preparing to sign a long-term contract extension that will make him a wealthy man.

But when he returned to Georgia to work with Garner following his rookie season, his old coach was amazed at Atkins’ lack of pretension.

“I’m like, ‘Geno, you bought a car yet?'” Garner recalled. “He’s like, ‘Naw Coach, I’m going to wait to until I get my income taxes in.’ He’s still driving the same Honda Accord. I’ve got some guys in my room that wouldn’t do that. They like talking about what they’re going to do — they haven’t done anything. Not anything.”

They have their chance to change that this fall, of course. And Garner, no doubt, will be the first one to sing their praises if they do.

He has no problem telling it like it is, after all.

August 8, 2013

Auburn notes: Malzahn pleased with toughness of quarterbacks, disappointed with energy at Thursday morning practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn was not happy Thursday.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn (right) and coordinators Rhett Lashlee (left) and Ellis Johnson (center) broke down film of Wednesday's scrimmage along with the rest of the coaching staff. Malzahn came away impressed with the quarterbacks' resolve under pressure. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn (right) and coordinators Rhett Lashlee (left) and Ellis Johnson (center) broke down film of Wednesday’s scrimmage along with the rest of the coaching staff. Malzahn came away impressed with the quarterbacks’ resolve under pressure. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn’s head coach had just walked in from the team’s morning practice, the first of two sessions scheduled for Thursday. Known for his punctiliousness, there may have been a valid reason Malzahn was running late to his post-practice meeting with reporters.

He was too busy lighting into the Tigers for what he considered a lackluster effort.

“I pulled the team up afterward and just told them that, bottom line, (I) wasn’t happy with the way we responded,” he said. “I didn’t feel like our approach was good and we’re going to have to make sure we are mentally and physically ready to practice each time.”

The morning practice was spent correcting mistakes made in Wednesday’s scrimmage. Malzahn and the rest of the coaching staff broke down film of the scrimmage and passed along their critique along to the players.

“We just felt like it was important that each one of the guys understand the expectations for each position the coach has,” Malzahn said, “and make sure the expectations were clear. ”

Malzahn came away from his film study pleased with the way the quarterbacks handled pressure.

“We had some guys hanging in the pocket. All four of them showed toughness and that’s one of the No. 1 things that you look for in a quarterback,” he said. “Can they hang in the pocket when the pressure is on? And they all took pretty good licks. I think we got some good information.”

Each of the four quarterbacks competing for the job — Kiehl Frazier, Nick Marshall, Jonathan Wallace and Jeremy Johnson — had their share of gaffes, though, as the defense picked off multiple passes.

The signal-callers weren’t necessarily at fault for all of them.

“There was some pressure, there was some routes on some that weren’t right, so it wasn’t all the quarterbacks,” Malzahn said, “but at the same time, the bottom line is the quarterback is the most responsible person for any kind of mishaps. ”

Those miscues helped the evaluation process, since Malzahn said the coaching staff is specifically looking at how each quarterback responds under duress.

“We’re going to try to put those guys in the same situation, not only today, but in our next scrimmage,” he said. “The plan will be after that next scrimmage, hopefully we can start to narrow some things down.”

One aspect that livened up Wednesday’s scrimmage was “going live” with the quarterbacks, which gave defenders free rein to knock them to the ground. With another scrimmage on tap Saturday, Malzahn was asked whether he would institute a similar strategy.

“I don’t know yet,” he said. “I’m still trying to work through that. Me and (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee will decide that sometime tomorrow.”

Freshmen defensive linemen making their mark

Quarterbacks were far from the only players auditioning for playing time during the scrimmage. That’s the the case at nearly every position, after all.

“It’s very good to see how the (newcomers) react and see how much they improve,” Malzahn said. “We have pretty good information on our old guys (after) going through spring, but they’re also getting good reps.”

Malzahn noted the highly-touted trio of freshmen defensive linemen — Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — have also been showing signs of progress.

“They’re getting a lot of reps,” he said. “I know (defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner is getting a good look at them. Saturday will be big trying to figure out these guys — who can handle it mentally and who can’t.”

McNeal, Grimes on the mend

Demetruce McNeal, who has yet to take part in fall camp following a minor surgery caused by an infection, did not participate Thursday morning. Malzahn didn’t expect him back for Thursday’s afternoon session, though he said the senior safety “possibly” could be suited up for Saturday’s scrimmage.

McNeal has missed 12 straight practices dating back to the spring.

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was also absent Thursday morning. He missed Wednesday’s scrimmage after undergoing an unknown medical procedure earlier in the day.

Malzahn confirmed Grimes would be back with the Tigers for their second practice Thursday.

Quick hits

Malzahn said there were “a couple of guys banged up” coming out of the scrimmage, but nothing serious enough to hold a player out. … Thursday’s second practice will be split into two halves, with one part focused on special teams and the other on the further installation of offensive and defensive schemes. Malzahn said the Tigers will likely practice in “shells” (helmets and pads), but won’t put on full pads.

August 4, 2013

What’s in a (jersey) number? Dee Ford and Trovon Reed know better than most

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — In a way, it could be said Dee Ford is going back to the future.

Senior Dee Ford met with media members after Saturday's practice and explained why he decided to change his jersey number from 95 to 30 for his final season. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Senior Dee Ford explained why he decided to change his jersey number from 95 to 30 for his final season following Saturday’s practice. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

When Auburn’s updated roster was released on Thursday, it noted a change in the starting defensive end’s jersey number, from 95 to 30. It wasn’t a decision Ford made on a whim. No, it was a calculated move, something he had been planning for months.

Being viewed as one of the leaders of the Tigers this season made him think back to his days at St. Clair County High School in Odenville, Ala., when he was held in similar regard among his teammates.

“I was the guy — the guy — to lead the team,” he said. “Whatever I did affected the whole team, negatively or positively. So I was that guy, and I’ve kind of become that guy now.”

Whereas his old number, 95, was seen as more of a “role player,” putting on No. 30 means the Tigers will expect Ford to play at a high level in every drill, practice and game this fall.

“And ‘it’s a new day,'” said Ford, invoking the team’s mantra since Gus Malzahn took over as head coach. “So even though it’s an old number, I feel that psychologically, I’m reminding myself, ‘Hey, you’re a new guy now.’ Everything you do will affect the team, negatively or positively, whether I like it or not.

Ford won’t have the number by himself, though. He’ll be sharing No. 30 with fellow senior Steven Clark,  a two-time Ray Guy Award semifinalist. When informed of Ford’s move, Clark smiled.

“He better make me proud then,” Clark said. “I mean I was wearing it first, right?”

Ford has no intentions of not living up to Clark’s — or more importantly, his own — expectations this season. After collecting a team-high six sacks in 2012, people may think Ford already has a specific number in mind for this season.

And those people would be wrong.

He prefers to perform daily critiques of himself, and let the sack total take care of itself.

“I’m 10 times better than I was last year as a pass-rusher, so that’s all you can do at this point,” he said. “Just keep getting better and better. I’m not putting a number on it. I’m trying to get as many as I can.”

Ford won’t be the only member of the defensive line sporting the same jersey number as a teammate, however. True freshman Montravius Adams arrived on campus with his eyes set on No. 1. The only problem was, receiver Trovon Reed had already staked his claim to the digit.

Adams approached Reed to try to get his elder’s blessing to wear the number. Reed said “everything in me” was telling him to turn the freshman down.

But the first-year defensive tackle eventually won him over with a personal story that resonated with the junior wideout.

“I told him, ‘I ain’t going to be here too much longer,'” Reed said. “He had a great story about how he wanted No.1, so I just had to respect him and tell him it’s cool.”

Reed’s reluctance to share the number is understandable — the No. 1 means everything him. It’s the number his late mother put him in when he first took up the sport, and he’s worn it proudly ever since.

“After my mom died I told my family, ‘No matter where I go if I can’t get No. 1, I’m not going there,'” he said. “(Former Auburn) Coach (Gene) Chizik made that promise to me and he stuck with it.”

Reed isn’t the only one with No. 1 across his chest and on his back anymore.

And he’s fine with that.

“I can’t even be mad,” he said, before noting how the number looks stretched across Adams’ 6-foot-5, 300-pound frame. “When I see it on him it just looks like a little strip of tape.”

While Reed has made his peace with sharing the number, he rested easy knowing at least one part of his on-field identity was safe from Adams’ reach.

They won’t be confused for each other on punt return duties any time soon.

“He’s too big for that,” Reed said. “He’ll be sacking quarterbacks.”

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 31, 2013

Auburn football: Five newcomers to watch during fall camp

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — The football season is tantalizingly close.

Auburn’s players report on Thursday and waste no time getting to work, as fall camp begins on Friday. Things are a bit different than in the past, when nearly all incoming freshman and junior college transfers didn’t arrive until “Report Day.” Now, many of the newcomers have been on campus during the summer; however, the only people who have seen a glimpse of what they may be able to do this fall are their fellow players. So who are some new Tigers to keep an eye on with fall camp just days away?

Nick Marshall is expected to come in and immediately be in the running to become Auburn's starting quarterback this fall.

Nick Marshall is one of four candidates in the running to become Auburn’s starting quarterback this fall.

The Ledger-Enquirer picked five candidates — a few who should already be familiar names to ardent Auburn fans.

Nick Marshall, QB (Garden City Community College, Garden City, Kan.): From the moment he signed with the Tigers, Marshall immediately leapt to the top of the quarterback depth chart in many people’s minds. With the ability to make plays with his feet and blessed with a rocket arm, the Georgia native appears to be the perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle attack. And Marshall will be given every opportunity to prove that during fall camp.

Carl Lawson, DE (Milton High School, Alpharetta, Ga.): One of the most highly-touted prospects in the country (other than another Peach State product in Robert Nkemdiche), Lawson should be able to step in and play immediately. And not just play, but possibly start. The left end position is held down by senior Dee Ford, but right end was still up for grabs at the end of the spring, with Nosa Eguae trying to fend off Kenneth Carter. Expect Lawson to throw in his name in the mix early on and push for a spot in the starting lineup.

Montravius Adams, DT (Dooly County High School, Vienna, Ga.): Auburn came out of nowhere to get Adams’ signature, though most would say it’s due to the relationship the defensive tackle had already developed with defensive line coach Rodney Garner. Whatever the reason, it will pay dividends for the Tigers this fall and beyond. Even though he’s joining one of the deepest units on the team at the tackle position, don’t be surprised if Adams garners significant playing time in 2013.

Elijah Daniel, DE (Avon High School, Avon, Ind.): While not talked about as much as Lawson — possibly because he’s from more of a hoops hotbed in Indiana than a football-crazy Southeastern state — Daniel shouldn’t be counted out during fall camp, either. He could easily be a part of the fight for the right defensive end position, and even if he doesn’t capture a starting job, he’ll likely figure prominently in the rotation this season whenever the first-teamers need a breather.

Tony Stevens, WR (Evans High School, Orlando, Fla.): Among the incoming receivers, none have turned more heads than Stevens. Tight end C.J. Uzomah couldn’t say enough good things about the Florida native after seeing what he could do during this summer’s player-led “captain’s practices.” Given the uncertain status of two of his fellow 2013 pass-catcher signees — Earnest Robinson is taking the junior college route after not qualifying academically and Jason Smith may do the same — Stevens may be able to take advantage of their absence if he continues to impress during fall camp.

July 27, 2013

‘Eager to learn’ freshman defensive line trio don’t disappoint in summer workouts

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Not all players are built the same.

Carl Lawson

Carl Lawson

Take the much talked-about freshmen defensive line trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel. All three arrived on campus physically fit far beyond their years.

It didn’t take their new teammates long to notice, either.

“Those guys came in with college bodies,” senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “We’re all looking forward to it. They’re all eager to learn. Me and Carl (Lawson), we sat down for 30 minutes just going over the playbook the other day.”

Eguae left little doubt that he believed all would be able to step in and help the Tigers from Day 1.

“Definitely, they do,” he said. “But you’ve got to go out there and you’ve got to do it with the pads on. We all know that and they know that. We’re all looking forward to getting those pads on, getting with (defensive line) Coach (Rodney) Garner, getting into the grind of two-a-days and making plays.”

Then again, that doesn’t make the trio any different than the rest of Auburn’s 2013 recruiting class. Head coach Gus Malzahn said the expectation is that all first-year players — be they true freshmen or junior college transfers — will be given the chance to get on the field right away.

“That’s just where we’re at as a team,” he said. “We’re going to go into this thing and try to give them as many opportunities early in fall camp so we can evaluate them and try to make quick decisions. That’s the tough thing as a coach — you’ve got to make decisions fairly quick about moving forward, especially with young guys. But they’re all going to have an opportunity to help.”

The difficult equilibrium the coaching staff has to maintain is between pushing them to contribute instantly and expecting too much, too soon.

After 30-plus years in coaching, Tigers defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has confronted this issue on countless occasions.

“They’re very capable talent-wise, and we do have some areas where we think their ability is going to be key — third down, edge pass rush,” he said. ” … Still, until you get them on the field and start working with them in the big picture, you just never know.”

While Lawson, Adams and Daniel have yet to don pads, they have impressed their teammates all summer during “captain’s practices.” Perhaps the most readily-apparent trait they’ve brought is an endless supply of energy.

That exuberance can get a bit out of control at times, though.

“I have to remind some of them, ‘Listen, this is no pads,'” senior defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker said. “And they’ll look at me like, ‘No problem, no problem.’ And then they go out there and try to bullrush. And I’m like, ‘Oh, no, no. We’re just walking through the steps. We’re going to be all right.'”

Reese Dismukes echoed Whitaker, noting how much enthusiasm the three have displayed during the player-led summer practices. But he wasn’t willing to go too far in his praise, pointing out that doing it in the summer is fine. What really counts is doing the same in front of the coaches during fall camp, and eventually, during the season itself.

“I mean, they all look good,” the junior center said. (But) you never know what the guy’s going to do until you put pads on, and you get out there and it’s 110 degrees and everything’s flying at you. You never know how anyone’s going to respond to that.”

Aside from their natural talent, Dismukes said the group has one other factor in its favor which others may not take into account.

“I think it’s better that they’re on the D-line,” he said. “They have more of a chance to step in and provide. I’m not real familiar with their scheme or anything, but I know that it’s not as intense as learning the whole offensive playbook. But I think they’ll all have a chance to succeed.”

An attribute all three have been blessed with is a quick first step, with members of both the offensive and defensive lines continually praising how well they “get off” the ball. It doesn’t hurt that they join an already-stacked unit to lean on for advice.

Left defensive end Dee Ford is one of the top players in the SEC at his position, joined by Eguae on the right side. Then there’s Whitaker, Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson at tackle, not to mention Kenneth Carter, who saw time at end during spring practice after spending his first three years at tackle. Needless to say, the Tigers have no shortage of talented defensive linemen — and that’s before throwing Lawson, Adams and Daniel into the mix.

Whitaker, for one, couldn’t contain his excitement. The defensive line is a sight to behold.

He hopes to be able to say the same this fall and in the years to come.

“When we were out there the other day during warmups, it was like a whole team of D-linemen,” he said. “It just makes you feel better about the young group. The future looks good.”

July 23, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 3

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextraSEC_new_logo

We’ve now hit Day 3 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which will end Saturday as the two teams at the top of the league entering the fall are unveiled. Until then, we’ll count down the teams, two at a time, from worst to first. The format will involve a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.

With four teams down, we’ve reached the top 10. How will the rankings shake out from here?

Let’s continue answering those questions now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …

10. MISSISSIPPI STATE

Dan Mullen didn’t exude excitement at his SEC Media Days’ appearance this year, a trait which normally has been a staple of his personality. Then again, coming off a 1-5 finish to the 2012 season, maybe there was a reason for his subdued manner? As far as this fall is concerned, the Bulldogs are at a bit of a crossroads. After dominating arch-rival Ole Miss in Mullen’s first three years on the job, Mississippi State is now the team in the Magnolia State which has to drum up enthusiasm, which the Rebels did by the bushel in last year’s turnaround campaign and subsequent star-studded 2013 recruiting class.

The Bulldogs have both their starting quarterback (Tyler Russell) and running back (LaDarius Perkins) back on offense, along with four returnees upfront. The biggest worry for Mississippi State is finding someone to catch the ball, as its top three receivers from last year are long gone.

It’s the same story on defense, where Mississippi State has six starters returning, led by linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive end Denico Autry, though the unit was a middle-of-the-road squad in the SEC last year, ranking eighth in both total defense (387.38 yards per game) and scoring defense (23.31 points per game). There are also holes in the secondary, where three starters from last year have moved on.

If the Bulldogs don’t find some receivers for Russell and the defensive secondary isn’t plugged quickly, it might add up to a long season in Starkville.Mississippi_State_Bulldogs

  • Best-case scenario: The Bulldogs get a good start right out of the gates, as they defeat Oklahoma State in Houston to open the season. Mississippi State follows it up with three more wins (Alcorn State, Auburn and Troy) before suffering its first loss of the season, courtesy of LSU, 21-17. The Bulldogs get back to their winning ways in the next two games, dropping Bowling Green and Kentucky at home. But much like last year, when the schedule toughens, it doesn’t bode well for the Bulldogs. Three straight losses (South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama) leaves Mississippi State at 6-4 with two games to play. But Mississippi State shakes off any lingering effects those losses might have had to pick up back-to-back victories over Arkansas and arch-rival Ole Miss. The latter was especially sweet as it avenged last season’s defeat, which marked the first time the Rebels felled the Bulldogs during Mullen’s tenure. With eight wins, Mississippi State returns to the Gator Bowl for the second year in a row and third time in four years. The Bulldogs opponent? Another “state” team, in the Spartans of Michigan State. The Bulldogs make up for a lethargic showing in the 2013 Gator Bowl, when they lost to Northwestern 34-20, by beating the Spartans 37-17. With nine wins, Mullen gets his groove back — and it’s evident at the 2014 Media Days, as he drops the word “excited” on 20 different occasions during his time at the podium. And even better for the Bulldogs, that “school up north,” as Mullen always refers to the Rebels in public, is crushed under the weight of immense expectations. Ole Miss goes 5-7, with its loss in the Egg Bowl preventing the Rebels from achieving bowl eligibility.
  • Worst-case scenario: The secondary is singed in the season opener, as Oklahoma State passes early and often in a 59-14 demolition. Though the Bulldogs get a breather in Week 2 with Alcorn State, an Auburn team playing with confidence beats them in the SEC opener. Troy then adds to the misery in Game 4, as the always-pesky Sun Belt Conference foe outlasts Mississippi State 45-42 in a double-overtime thriller. Drained from that loss, it doesn’t get any better when the Bulldogs head to Death Valley to face LSU. The Tigers wipe them away 31-20 to drop the Bulldogs to 1-4. Mississippi State rallies with consecutive victories over Bowling Green and Kentucky, but then a brutal three-game stretch sets in: South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama. The Bulldogs lose all three, giving them seven losses to eliminate them from bowl contention with two games left to play. Mississippi State pulls itself off the canvas to beat Arkansas on the road, but it goes on to lose the only game that really counts with a bowl no longer a possibility: Ole Miss wins going away in the Egg Bowl, 41-21, as Mississippi State ends the year at 4-8. It marks the worst season for the Bulldogs since they posted the same record in 2008. With that kind of record, Mullen’s spirits fall even further. His usual bright demeanor is replaced with a more somber look, leading local beat writers to start jokingly referring to him as “Sullen Mullen.” And to top it off, the Rebels go 11-2, doing what the Bulldogs couldn’t in their season opener: beat the Cowboys, which the Rebels do in a 38-27 Cotton Bowl victory.

9. AUBURN

I don’t think I need to do too much rehashing of things on this particular team for regular readers of the blog. With that being said, let’s give the up-tempo version of things (with as many short, concise sentences as possible) up to this point, which Gus Malzahn would no doubt appreciate.

(And Bret Bielema would no doubt hate, since he would say he prefers long, flowery prose, and that he only reads “normal American literature.”)

Anyway, on to the “Auburn 2012 recap, The Up-Tempo Version” …

The Tigers go 3-9. Gene Chizik is fired. Malzahn is brought back to recapture glory. Team motto of “It’s A New Day” (or “A New Day” or “New Day,” depending on your preference) is coined. Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson fill the two coordinator spots. Rodney Garner returns to Auburn to coach the defensive line after 15 years at Georgia. Tigers sign two stud defensive linemen prospects in Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Nick Marshall joins the quarterback fray as a junior college transfer. Malzahn and Bielema square off at SEC Media Days over danger (or lack thereof) posed by hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. Fall camp set to open Aug. 2.AU logo

We good?

  • Best-case scenario: It really does look like “a new day,” as the Tigers match their victory total from 2012 in the first three games of 2013, beating Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State to jump out to a 3-0 start. No, they don’t complete the “state” quartet, as they lose to LSU in Week 4, but that does little to stunt the team’s momentum. Auburn gives Texas A&M all it can handle at Kyle Field before Johnny Manziel comes up with a pair of electrifying touchdown runs in the fourth quarter, finally putting the Tigers away 42-31. But the Tigers brush off the defeat to go on a four-game win streak, which includes a 45-17 shellacking of Arkansas and Bielema in Fayetteville, Ark., and is highlighted by a 27-24 victory against Georgia which knocks the Bulldogs out of the national title race. The game’s hero is none other than Marshall, the former-Bulldog-turned-Tiger who puts on a decent Cam Newton impersonation, gashing the Bulldogs for three touchdowns (two passing) and 395 total yards of offense, with 297 yards through the air. He also comes up with a whirling, game-winning 6-yard touchdown run with two minutes to play to snap a two-year drought for the Tigers in “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry.” Auburn can’t put together two upsets in a row, falling to Alabama in a hard-fought 30-24 defeat. But nine wins with a bowl to go isn’t too shabby. The Tigers head to Atlanta, where they face the Miami Hurricanes in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In one of the best games of the year — on the final day of 2013, no lessthe Tigers are able to squeeze past the Hurricanes in overtime, 38-35. Malzahn’s 10 wins in his debut season is the best first-year showing for an Auburn coach since Terry Bowden’s NCAA-sanctioned team went 11-0 in 1993. The good news keeps coming in when the Tigers ink a top-five recruiting class for 2014. And to make things even better, Arkansas and “normal American football” don’t mesh well in Year 1, as the Razorbacks struggle to a 3-9 finish. Oh, and Alabama’s “three-peat” aspirations are extinguished in the most painful of ways. The Crimson Tide lose to the Ohio State Buckeyes 31-28 in the BCS National Championship Game, as former Florida coach Urban Meyer ends the SEC’s vise grip on hoisting the crystal football (also known as the AFCA National Championship Trophy) at seven years.
  • Worst-case scenario: “A new day” ends up looking a lot like the old one. Or in this case, 2013 looks a lot like 2012. The season starts off well enough, with the Tigers picking up consecutive wins to begin 2-0. But Washington State and Arkansas State don’t do enough to prepare Auburn for SEC play, as the Tigers lose their first three league games (Mississippi State, LSU and Ole Miss). Hapless Western Carolina provides a way for the Tigers to get back on the right track — for one week, at least. Texas A&M rolls over Auburn for the second straight season in a 52-10 thrashing in College Station, Texas. Auburn rebounds to beat Florida Atlantic one week later, but then the Tigers head on the road to face the Razorbacks. In a game pitting the two SEC Media Day coaching combatants, Arkansas comes out on top, winning 23-17 on a last-minute rushing touchdown, giving Bielema a 1-0 lead in the “Normal American football vs. Hurry-up, no-huddle scheme” series. The Tigers are able to fend off Tennessee to avoid going winless in the SEC for the second straight year, but end the season with back-to-back losses to Georgia and Alabama to finish 5-7. To make matters worse, Arkansas is SEC’s surprise team, making it to a bowl in Bielema’s initial go-round in the league, which he makes sure to point out at the 2014 Media Days, asking, “So how about that up-tempo stuff, huh? Give me ‘normal American football’ any day of the week.” Oh, and Alabama becomes the first team in the modern era of college football to win three straight championships, making for another miserable offseason on the Plains.