BY RYAN BLACK | email@example.com
AUBURN, Ala. — The battle to become the fifth and final member of Auburn’s offensive line ended last week.
It wasn’t made public until Wednesday, when the Tigers finally released their two-deep depth chart as they head into Saturday’s season opener. Patrick Miller and Avery Young went back-and-forth with the first-team offense at right tackle for the duration of fall camp, but head coach Gus Malzahn said Miller finally began to separate himself within the past week.
Now, Miller will return to the same spot he manned the final nine games of 2012.
“He had a very good spring and it was an open competition,” Malzahn said following Wednesday’s practice. “We really felt strong that we needed to do that because Shon (Coleman) and Avery both improved. They both had very good fall camps and we wanted to open that thing up.”
While Young didn’t win the starting job, he won’t disappear, either. He started to take reps at guard last week, and both Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have praised his versatility, believing he could play any position on the line if needed.
“We have a lot of confidence in Avery, a whole lot of confidence,” Malzahn said. “He made that battle very interesting. The positive as far as the offensive line goes is we feel that we’ve got quality depth. I would say there is a chance you could see him on the field.”
Another spot still up in the air at the beginning of the week was at defensive end. LaDarius Owens ended up locking that down and will start at right defensive end, with Craig Sanders stepping in for the injured Dee Ford on the left side.
It was a quick transition back to the line for Owens, who moved to linebacker during the spring and stayed there for the majority of fall camp. However, the coaching staff asked him to return to the defensive line and it paid immediate dividends for the junior from Bessemer, Ala.: Saturday will mark the first start of his Auburn career after appearing in 17 games the past two seasons.
The head coach explained the thinking behind converting Owens back into a lineman.
“I believe when we lost Dee, the fact that he had some experience up front and (we) felt like trying to figure out a way to put our best players on the field was part of it,” Malzahn said. “He’s got a very high motor and he rushes the passer adequately.”
Getting pressure on the quarterback is key in any game. But when playing a team as dependent on the passing game as Washington State, Malzahn said it took on added importance.
He also jumped to defend the team’s pass rush despite Ford’s absence. The senior was the Tigers’ only returnee who had more than one sack last season.
“We’ve got confidence in our guys and like I said when I first got here, we didn’t worry about anything in the past,” Malzahn said. “(We) tried to put it behind us and tried to give everybody an equal foot moving forward and we feel like we’ve done that.”
Malzahn said the Tigers’ highly-touted true freshmen defensive line trio — Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — will also get their chance to play Saturday.
“Those young guys are extremely talented they’ve shown flashes of being very good,” he said. “It’s just a matter of those young guys being consistent and being able to play play-in and play-out.”
Chris Davis to field punts
Perhaps the biggest surprise on the depth chart was Chris Davis capturing the Tigers’ punt return duties. Receivers Quan Bray and Trovon Reed handled every punt for the team in 2012, but Malzahn said the senior cornerback earned the job thanks to his playmaking ability and his sure-handedness with the ball.
“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Malzahn said. “He’s been the most consistent guy catching the football. When he has made some interceptions in the spring and in fall camp he usually does something positive with them. We felt like it was good to give him a chance to show what he could do.”
Another (smaller surprise) was C.J. Uzomah not being listed by himself as the first-team tight end. Instead, just as he did exiting the spring, he shared equal billing with Brandon Fulse.
Malzahn said each candidate had his strengths and their playing time would depend on specific plays and packages.
“C.J. has really gotten better with his blocking and Brandon has gotten better with his receiving,” he said. “I think both of them are very versatile. Like I’ve said before, both of those guys were recruited specifically for our offense.”
Freshman receiver Tony Stevens, who has battled a nagging hamstring injury since fall camp, should be good to go Saturday, according to Malzahn. “(We’re) pretty confident,” he said when asked about the chances of Stevens playing in the season opener. … Malzahn didn’t want to speculate how much playing time Kiehl Frazier would see against the Cougars. The former quarterback enters Saturday as Josh Holsey’s backup at strong safety. “We’ll just see how the game unfolds,” Malzahn said. “Obviously the guys that have experience, we know a little bit more about them. But at the same time, he’s our backup at that position right now.”