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August 25, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Auburn Football

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

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

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

In his absence, Sanders has stepped to the fore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Davis already in line for playing time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick hits

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

August 21, 2013

Auburn football: Five questions (and five predictions) as Tigers head into regular season

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn wrapped up its fall camp on Tuesday, the first since Gus Malzahn took over as head coach.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn found his starting quarterback during fall camp, but the Tigers still have question marks heading into their season opener Aug 31. (File by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn found his starting quarterback during fall camp, but the Tigers still have question marks heading into their season opener Aug 31. (File by Todd Van Emst)

The Tigers were able to solve what Malzahn considered “the No. 1 priority” heading into the regular season — settling on a quarterback. That four-man race concluded last Saturday, when Nick Marshall was named the starter. But with just 10 days left before Washington State comes into Jordan-Hare Stadium for the season opener, Auburn is still looking for answers at other positions.

Here are five questions (in no particular order) the Tigers will try to figure out prior to squaring off against the Cougars on Aug. 31, with (bold) predictions on what the outcomes will be:

Who starts at right tackle?

For the duration of fall camp, it appeared Avery Young and Patrick Miller were neck-and-neck at the position, as both saw time with the first-team offense. Earlier this week, however, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Miller had “been working there a lot” in recent practices. During the same interview session, Lashlee said Young had moved inside and started taking snaps at both guard spots, though he saw more time on the left side, which has been manned by Alex Kozan.

Malzahn refused to shed any more light on the situation following practice on Tuesday, but expect a decision by the beginning of next week — even if the coaching staff doesn’t make its choice public.

Bold prediction: Miller becomes the right tackle, and Young, who Lashlee said is “talented enough to play all five positions,” steals the left guard spot from Kozan.

Who is the team’s go-to receiver?

One of the biggest unknowns heading into fall camp remains the same at its closure. The Tigers have a lot of options at receiver, but none has stood above the rest. Just see what Lashlee had to say earlier this week. “I’ll be honest right now,” he said. “I don’t know who our leading receiver is going to be.” Lashlee lauded juniors Quan Bray and Jaylon Denson for their consistency, but didn’t rule out tight end C.J. Uzomah possibly developing into the best pass-catcher the Tigers will have this fall.

Bold prediction: Sophomore Ricardo Louis, who was the “most explosive” player in camp according to teammates, establishes himself as the Tigers’ top receiver this season (and beyond).

What happens at defensive end without Dee Ford?

The Tigers certainly would have liked to have some semblance of a rotation in place by now. Injuries have made that difficult. The starter at left end, Ford has already been ruled out for the opener due to a ligament injury in his knee. But he’s far from the only player who dealt with an affliction during camp. Fellow ends Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae have missed time, while Keymiya Harrell has yet to practice after having surgery knee surgery this spring. To combat their lack of healthy bodies, the Tigers also moved LaDarius Owens back to end after he had shifted to linebacker during spring practice.

The absences allowed true freshmen Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel to audition for a possible starting spot, and they have done their part to impress defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, saying the duo already comprises “two of our best pass-rushers.”

Bold prediction: Though Johnson said he would prefer to have his “veterans prepped up to be the starters,” Lawson is on the field at one of the end positions with the first-team defense versus Washington State.

Who holds the edge at middle linebacker?

Kris Frost entered the fall No. 1 on the depth chart, but he didn’t stay there long. Time and again, Johnson said Jake Holland has been the steadier player during practice, and as such, moved him ahead of Frost. Johnson explained the difference between the two on Monday.

“Kris had two or three days where he kind of went backwards, had some missed assignments and some things that were uncharacteristic and shouldn’t have done,” he said. ” … The two legitimate scrimmages that we had, Jake just had more production, had more tackles, more plays, had a pick (and) hasn’t had as many missed tackles.”

That should tell people all they need to know.

Bold prediction: Frost continues to fight the good fight, but Holland is in the starting lineup come game time.

What’s the deal with the secondary?

Much like the defensive line, injuries have taken their toll on the Tigers’ back end. Jonathan Jones will miss the opener (and possibly more) after breaking a bone in his ankle in an off-field mishap. That means the No. 3 corner on the Tigers will come from a trio of first-year players: redshirt freshman T.J. Davis and true freshmen Kamryn Melton and Johnathan Ford, who switched from running back this week.

Demetruce McNeal’s decision-making didn’t help matters, whose arrest last Saturday led to his dismissal and weakened an already-lean unit at safety. Originally a cornerback, Josh Holsey has been at the strong (or boundary) safety position since the end of the spring, when McNeal missed the last five practices for undisclosed personal issues. McNeal then sat out the first 10 practices of camp following an infection that required minor surgery, which forced Holsey to remain at safety. Many thought he would finally move back to corner after McNeal regained his health, but the senior was dismissed before the Tigers ever reached that point. If anything were to happen Holsey or fellow safety Jermaine Whitehead, it would be down to Ryan Smith and quarterback-turned-safety Kiehl Frazier.

Bold prediction: The two former offensive players — Ford and Frazier — see more action on defense than they ever would have imagined one month ago.

August 19, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing surprises the 30-plus year coaching veteran anymore.

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

August 15, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would definitely hope not,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 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.”

Nosa Eguae: ‘My condolences go out’ to Polo Manukainiu’s family

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

With Emory Blake now playing for the St. Louis Rams, Nosa Eguae is the only Texas-born player on Auburn’s roster.

He wasn’t too startled when it was brought to his attention Thursday, as Eguae played up his mock disappointment.

Senior defensive end Nosa Eguae sent his condolences to the family of Polo Manukainiu on Thursday. Mainkainiu, a Texas native like Eguae, was killed in a single-car accident in New Mexico on Monday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Senior defensive end Nosa Eguae sent his condolences to the family of Polo Manukainiu on Thursday. Mainkainiu, a Texas native like Eguae, was killed in a single-car accident in New Mexico on Monday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

“One of the freshman (Khari Harding) grew up in Irving, but he moved to Oklahoma,” Eguae said. “So I guess I’m the only one and that’s unfortunate. We need more Texas guys on our roster. I tell Coach (Gus) Malzahn that all the time, but hey, what can you do?”

But Eguae’s demeanor took a turn when Polo Manukainiu’s name was mentioned. Manukainiu, a redshirt freshman defensive end at Texas A&M, was killed in a single-car accident on Monday night in New Mexico, along with two other passengers in the vehicle. Though Eguae played at Summit High School in Mansfield, Texas — about 25 miles away from Manukainiu, who attended Trinity High School in Euless, Texas — the two never faced each other.

They came close on one occasion, though.

“Trinity is a powerhouse,” Eguae said. “We were close to them and were scheduled to play them my junior year in the third round of the playoffs. We were both undefeated teams coming in, but we got upset the week before, so we didn’t play them.”

All Eguae could think about were the people who have been forced to deal with Monday’s tragedy.

“My condolences go out to his family and everybody that has been affected by that situation,” he said. “My prayers definitely go up for him. It’s just a tough situation.”

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

With pass-rushing technique ‘light-years’ better, Nosa Eguae excited for 2013 campaign

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Every offseason, Nosa Eguae goes through a painstaking process of breaking down all aspects of his game.

From there, he sets his schedule accordingly, with the individual attributes he doesn’t deem up to snuff serving as the areas he hits hardest.

Let’s go to the checklist.

Speed? Check.

Nosa Eguae spent time at former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith's pass-rushing camp earlier this year. The methods Eguae took from the camp have made him more confident with his pass-rushing technique heading into the fall.

Nosa Eguae spent time at former Atlanta Falcons defensive end Chuck Smith’s pass-rushing camp earlier this year. The methods Eguae took from the camp have made him more confident with his pass-rushing technique heading into the fall.

Strength? Check.

Run defense? Check.

Pass-rushing? No dice.

That’s not to say Eguae doesn’t still work on getting stronger and faster, or that he eschews putting maximum effort into run support drills. He just knows there are deficiencies in his game that need to be shored up.

Namely, finding his way to the quarterback more often.

“I know I need to improve on my third down defense as far as going out there working moves in pass-rushing,” said the senior defensive end, who has collected 4.5 sacks in his first three seasons at Auburn. “That’s what I’ve been working on. I know I need to go out there and get to the quarterback.”

Enter Chuck Smith.

Eguae and other members of the Tigers’ defensive line spent time with the former Atlanta Falcons defensive end in May. Smith tallied 58.5 sacks in nine seasons in the NFL from 1992-2000, posting double-digit sack totals in three different seasons. With his playing career behind him, Smith hosts an annual camp in Atlanta for college and pro players, placing an emphasis on improving every part of a camper’s pass-rushing technique.

After working with Smith for a week, Eguae believes his technique is “light-years” ahead of what it was at the end of last season.

“He’s a pass-rush whiz as far as pass rush is concerned,” Eguae said of Smith. “He definitely dissects it from the get-off to the attacking the tackle, working your hands. He gets into it all. He’s intense. Anybody that is passionate about a craft that you’re passionate about, you definitely can talk to for hours.”

The terms “vision,” “get off,” “hands” and “hips,” among others, were seared into Eguae’s brain after his time around Smith. But that’s a good thing, since he and his teammates who attended the camp have taken that knowledge into this summer’s “captain’s practices,” replicating the same drills Smith put them through.

“‘Live life like it’s third-and-8,'” Eguae said, quoting one of Smith’s favorite sayings. “It’s definitely something you remember and you think of when you’re on the field.”

The same could be said of last season.

The bitter memories of a 3-9 record have stuck with the Mansfield, Texas, native since the clock struck zero in Auburn’s season finale against Alabama. Thinking about it “hurts,” Eguae said. He knows the Tigers can’t go back and change what happened, but it can be used as motivation.

And while last year’s dreadful showing drives the team, Eguae made one think clear: It’s not an all-consuming thought.

“We definitely don’t let it dictate our everyday workout or anything we do,” he said. “That’s something that happened, it’s in the past, but we go forward remembering it. We’re looking forward to 2013. This is my last year, this is a lot of guys’ last year. ‘It’s a new day,’ like Coach (Gus) Malzahn says every day. We’re looking forward to it, we put in the work and we can’t wait to see the results.”

Eguae was similarly delighted to ponder how good the defensive line can become, not only this fall, but in the years to come, as the Tigers boast a blend of experience and highly-touted incoming talent. In seniors like himself, Dee Ford, Kenneth Carter and Jeff Whitaker, Auburn isn’t lacking for leadership. And then there are the newcomers people can’t stop talking about in Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams.

The key, Eguae said, is to avoid complacency.

“I know guys have goals, I have my goals, Dee Ford has his goals, Ken Carter has (his) goals. All those guys have their goals,” Eguae said. “Carl Lawson, everybody is going to have their goals. For us to get to where we want to be, we’ve got to push each other.”

Eguae wouldn’t offer any predictions as to where he felt the Tigers’ line ranked relative to others in the SEC. That will be answered soon enough. Besides, look at how often preseason predictions are wrong, he said, pointing to the SEC media members abysmal mark correcting picking the conference champion, which stands at 4-17 in the last 21 years. So no, there will be no prognostications coming from Eguae.

Let’s just say if he and his teammates on the line play up to their potential this fall, he believes they’ll stack up quite favorably among the best units in the league.

“We’ve played for years together and I feel like, as a collective group, we feel like it’s our team to go out there and be a force in the SEC,” Eguae said. “We’ve put in the work and we’re looking forward to seeing everything come together and make a great year, not just for me, but the whole Auburn family.”

July 15, 2013

7 at 7: Seven questions about the Tigers this fall

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

Yes, there is still one major event to get through — this week’s SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala. — before Auburn players report back to campus and preseason camp gets underway. Until that happens, however, here are seven questions (and answers) about the Tigers in the style of the War Eagle Extra’s “7 at 7″ format, as the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31 gets closer by the day.

1. Who will start at quarterback?

Ah yes, the topic du jour surrounding the Tigers heading into the season. There are four candidates vying for the position, with two having an opportunity to stake their claim to the job in the spring (junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace) and two arriving this fall (junior college transfer Nick Marshall and true freshman Jeremy Johnson). Frazier and Wallace were unable to create any separation amongst themselves, exiting the spring as co-No. 1s on the depth chart. They both hold an advantage over the newcomers in the regard that they at least know some of the playbook already, but will that be enough to stave off either Marshall or Johnson?

Largely due to being the best runner of the quarterback quartet, many believe Marshall is the front-runner to capture the job. That, of course, is nothing more than pure speculation at this point. Besides, the quarterback battle will be settled where it should be — on the field — and only when the coaches believe they know which signal-caller gives them the best chance to win in 2013.

2. What’s the status of the backfield?

Tre Mason Auburn A-Day

Tre Mason headlines a deep stable of Auburn running backs headed into the fall. Photo by Todd Van Emst

When it comes to the running back position, the Tigers should be able to rest easy, with Tre Mason coming off a 1,000-yard season and both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant having great springs. Still, it was a huge surprise when head coach Gus Malzahn revealed his two-deep post-spring depth chart and Mason was not listed as the unquestioned starter. Instead, Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant all had “OR” separating their names, being listed that way on both the first-team and second-team offense.

Then again, there are worse problems to have than worrying about how to divvy up carries between multiple talented ball carriers.

3. Who will assume the role of lead receiver?

It’s possible that the Tigers may be one of those teams without a go-to option at wideout. That’s not to say one won’t develop eventually. Between Jaylon Denson, Trovon Reed, Quan Bray, Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis, Auburn has a nice pool of hopefuls to choose from. One thing is certain: The receiving corps isn’t lacking for heirs to the throne Emory Blake vacated. (And to show just how reliant the Tigers were on Blake last season, his 789 receiving yards accounted for a whopping 42 percent of Auburn’s 1,879 receiving yards.)

4. Who replaces Philip Lutzenkirchen at tight end?

No single player will be asked to replicate the production of Lutzenkirchen. Instead, it will be a shared assignment between C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse. The two complement each other well, as Uzomah is more noted for his pass-catching ability while Fulse is known as a hard-nosed blocker. But both have made it a point to shore up their perceived weaknesses, with Uzomah working on his blocking and Fulse practicing his route running. Jay Prosch (normally a fullback) may also see time at tight end as a utility blocker, and expect fellow H-back Ricky Parks to get a few reps at the position, too.

5. Can the secondary make some much-needed strides?

It’s still a shocking number any time you see it: one. That’s the number of interceptions Auburn’s secondary came away with in 2012. But there is reason to believe the secondary will be vastly improved when it steps back on the field this season. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are firmly entrenched with the first-team defense at the two corner positions, and there are a handful of players — notably Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Jones, Robenson Therezie and Ryan White — behind them to lend depth to the unit.

Questions still remain at safety, though, as Holsey was moved from cornerback to boundary (also known as strong) safety in the last week of the spring after Demetruce McNeal missed the final five practices due to an undisclosed off-the-field matter. Free safety, or “field safety,” as it is referred to in coach speak, should be capably manned by junior Jermaine Whitehead.

6. What player is primed for a breakout season on offense or defense?

If you haven’t prepared yourself for it, here’s an advance warning: Justin Garrett, who shined in the hybrid safety/linebacker position created by defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson specifically for his 4-2-5 scheme, will have plenty of terrible headlines centered around his spot’s name — “Star.” As corny as it sounds, the junior is truly a “star” in the making. He drew rave reviews for his progress during the spring, and Johnson has put him in a position where his hard-hitting talents can be put to best use. Expect a few highlight-worthy hits from Garrett to make the rounds this fall.

7. Which true freshmen — if any — will push for major playing time?

It’s a toss-up between two stud defensive line prospects, with Montravius Adams at tackle and Carl Lawson at end. The pair of Peach State products were two of the top players in the country at their respective positions, and their talent may be too great to keep them from playing significant roles from Day 1. If forced to choose one as the “most likely to steal a starting job,” I’ll go with Lawson barely. It’s mainly a function of the depth chart: While the Tigers can mix-and-match between Gabe Wright, Angelo Blackson, Jeffrey Whitaker and Ben Bradley inside with relatively little drop-off, the same can’t be said at end.

Dee Ford has the left side starting spot locked down, but right end is still up for grabs. Nosa Eguae began the spring as the starter at right end, but when he wasn’t developing fast enough for the coaching staff’s liking, tackle Kenneth Carter was moved outside in the hopes that it would push Eguae to step it up.

With that in mind, don’t be surprised if Lawson comes in and nails down a spot in the starting lineup opposite Ford by the end of preseason camp.

April 29, 2013

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn defensive line, linebackers & defensive backs spring rundown

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the third and final piece of a three-part series, revisiting the past month in Auburn spring football and taking stock of valuable developments.

Adopting the style of WarEagleExtra.com’s popular “7 at 7” features, let’s go through seven bullet points of what you need to know about the Tigers’ defensive line, linebackers and defensive backs.

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Photo by Todd Van Emst

We learned the most promising defender Auburn has to offer isn’t, in fact, a lineman, linebacker, cornerback or safety.

But he is a star in the making. A shooting star. A star on the rise. And other groan-worthy puns you’re bound to hear over and over connected to junior hybrid Justin Garrett.

“Justin Garrett’s been the best player we’ve had on defense, if you just measure all 12 full-speed practices we’ve had at this point,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “He’s probably made as many impact plays and has played as well as any player on that side of the ball. So that was a very pleasant accomplishment.”

He’s fast enough to play safety and large enough to play linebacker, but mainly, Garrett’s hard-hitting presence is why his expectations have soared.

“I’ll tell you what, he has had an outstanding spring,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “Coach Johnson, I believe, has him in the right position, letting him play.”

Unless Garrett’s humble to a fault in his first month in the spotlight – entirely possible – he’s not even sure he’s close to fulfilling his potential.

“I feel like overall (my spring) was OK. I’ve just got to get back and watch film on my own and see what I can do better,” Garrett said after A-Day. “Technique and fundamentals, I feel like I can improve a lot.”

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We learned Malzahn is hands-off with the defense. Johnson has the keys, Charlie Harbison’s riding shotgun, and Rodney Garner and Melvin Smith are back-seat drivers … but the vehicle is titled in Malzahn’s name. If that makes sense.

Let me put it this way: Malzahn fielded ten questions after the A-Day scrimmage pertaining specifically to the offense. He took three on the defense.

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We learned playing against the hurry-up, no-huddle offense for three and a half weeks will work to naturally benefit Auburn’s defense.

“It’s real. At the beginning of the spring it was tough but we figured we would eventually get used to it,” senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said. “It’s hard to get used to that pace but you just come out there every day and you get better. You have to focus on the technique and the little things.

“We came out and continued to work, and we’re starting to get used to that pace for sure.”

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AUBURN FOOTBALL

We learned cornerback should not be a problem position in 2013.

Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy are entrenched with the first unit – Johnson specifically mentioned them as starters – but there’s plenty of depth behind them in Joshua Holsey, Jonathan Jones, Ryan White and Robenson Therezie.

“I think our corners have tackled extremely well,” Johnson said. “This offense forces your perimeter players to make a lot of open-field tackles, and our corners have been outstanding.”

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We learned safety might be a problem position in 2013.

Because of Demetruce McNeal’s absence the final five practices including A-Day (though a recent tweet indicated he might be good to go) and Erique Florence leaving the program, Harbison had to squeeze water from a rock. Jermaine Whitehead better stay healthy and maintain his progress. Because other than him, it’s Ryan Smith, former walk-on Trent Fisher with a sore ankle, Holsey moving over from corner, and walk-ons.

Brandon King will have his chance from day one. So will Khari Harding and maybe Mackenro Alexander. That position’s a little frightening right now.

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We learned the first four on the field at defensive line were ahead of the rest of their backups in the middle of spring. Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter on the ends, and Jeffrey Whitaker and Gabe Wright at tackle seemed to be the top group, though Angelo Blackson had a nagging shoulder.

Eguae should get reps, Keymiya Harrell’s leg will heal and Carl Lawson arrives this summer, so the DE depth should improve. Speaking of incoming freshmen, it’s been said all along: Montravius Adams probably makes the rotation from day one. But Garner’s goal of five game-ready tackles and five game-ready ends by Labor Day seems a bit ambitious at the moment.

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We learned we’re going to find out real quick what Jake Holland’s made of.

Johnson praised Holland early and often for his maturity, trusting him to learn both mike and will linebacker positions. But when Holland had to miss numerous practices for a mandatory course in his major, the senior fell behind on the depth chart, giving Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy every opportunity to take the job away.

Holland has played in 31 games, starting 16. He hasn’t always been the most popular player on the team to fans or message board lurkers. As a rare senior on this team, Holland’s senior leadership could hold the same value as T’Sharvan Bell last year, and that’s nothing to be taken for granted.