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August 31, 2013

Last look: Capsule for Saturday’s game, including key matchups (and edges)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Who: Washington State (3-9 in 2012) at Auburn (3-9 in 2012)

When: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET

Where: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451) | Auburn, Ala.

TV: ESPNU

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-102.9 FM in Columbus; WGZZ-94.3 FM in Auburn/Opelika)

All-time series: Auburn leads 1-0AU logo

Quick game notes: Auburn has never had a problem holding serve at home to begin the season, owning a 34-6 record all-time in opening games at Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers have won six home openers in a row, with the last loss coming at the hands of Georgia Tech in 2005. … Auburn coach Gus Malzahn prefers to lean on his running game, and the stats from his stint at Arkansas State last year back him up: The Red Wolves ran the ball 56.7 percent of the time (540 rushing attempts out of 952 total offensive plays). Washington State coach Mike Leach is at the other end of the spectrum, as no team in Division I put the ball in the air more than the Cougars last season. In 12 games, Washington State attempted 624 passes, averaging out to 52 per game. …  The SEC hasn’t been friendly to the Cougars over the years. Washington State has played against the SEC six times in its history, posting a 1-5 record. The Cougars are 1-4 against Tennessee, and lost to Auburn on the road in the 2006 season opener 40-14, which marked the last time they faced an SEC foe.

KEY MATCHUPS

Washington State receivers vs. Auburn secondary

The Tigers return three starters from last season in corners Jonathon Mincy and Chris Davis alongside free safety Jermaine Whitehead. Strong safety was formerly occupied by Demetruce McNeal, but he’s no longer with the team after being dismissed following an arrest during fall camp. In his place is Josh Holsey, a former corner who moved to safety in the spring and has remained there ever since. They will line up across from a Cougars’ receiving corps that brings back players who accounted for 70 percent of their yardage in 2012. The unit’s top pass-catcher is Brett Bartolone, a sophomore. He’ll be joined by a cadre of other options in Gabe Marks, Kristoff Williams, Dominique Williams and Isiah Myers. The team is also expecting big things from junior college transfer Vince Mayle, a 6-foot-3, 240-pound physical specimen.

EDGE: Even. The Cougars might hold the advantage here when it comes to depth, but there’s only so many receivers they can put on the field at the same time. Assuming the Tigers don’t suffer any injuries in the secondary during the game, they should be fine.Washington-State-University

Washington State offensive line vs. Auburn defensive line

Most games are decided up front and it won’t be any different in tonight’s tilt. It doesn’t matter how many times the Cougars want to throw if quarterback Connor Halliday doesn’t receive enough protection to get the ball out of his hands. That’s where Washington State’s much-maligned line comes in. It allowed more sacks than any team in the country (57) in 12 games last season, but those close to the team — including beat writer Christian Caple — seem to believe they have made great strides during the offseason. The Tigers are missing their top pass-rusher off the edge, as senior Dee Ford is out for an indefinite period of time with a knee injury. That being said, it has opened the door for less-experienced players to get an opportunity, as Auburn’s two first-team ends — LaDarius Owens and Craig Sanders — are both making their first career start on Saturday.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with Ford out, it’s hard to give a nod to the nation’s most woeful offensive line in 2012. Expect the Tigers to be able to get pressure on Halliday with regularity.

Auburn running backs vs. Washington State’s front seven

The Tigers will try to get their ground game established from the outset. But the Cougars aren’t going to make it easy on them, as the strength of their defense lies with the front seven, led by linebacker Darryl Monroe, the team’s second-leading tackler last year. Fellow linebacker Justin Sagote started the last 10 games of last season, collecting 61 takedowns in that span. And along the line, Washington State brings back three players who saw significant action last season in Ioane Gauta, Xavier Cooper and Toni Pole to anchor its base 3-4 scheme. Auburn will try to run it right at them, with the option of handing it off to one of four players out of the backfield: Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber. That’s not even mentioning quarterback Nick Marshall, who is as dangerous with the ball in his hands as any player in the country.

SLIGHT EDGE: Auburn. Even with the experience the Cougars have returning, it’s not as if their run defense was stingy last season, as they only ranked 64th in the country in that category in 2012, allowing an average of 163.4 yards per game. Given the Tigers bevy of weapons at tailback and the fact they’ll be running behind an offensive line with four starters back, this matchup ends up in Auburn’s favor.

August 23, 2013

Auburn football: Tigers not lacking for options in the backfield

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Tim Horton was sure it would happen eventually.

Junior Corey Grant is just one of the running backs Auburn will be able to hand the ball to this fall, joining returnees Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne as well as true freshman Peyton Barber. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Junior Corey Grant is just one of the running backs Auburn will be able to hand the ball to this fall, joining returnees Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne as well as true freshman Peyton Barber. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

When Auburn’s first-year running backs coach met with reporters during fall camp, he acknowledged the depth at the position was a bit more “than I’ve been used to.” Yes, the same man who coached the likes of Darren McFadden, Felix Jones, Peyton Hillis, Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson at Arkansas said this year’s Tigers were as deep a unit as he’s ever seen. He was confident it wouldn’t stay that way for long.

Depth is always a fleeting matter, especially in the rough-and-tumble SEC.

“One thing about playing running back in this league is (that) you never have enough depth,” he said. “Because about the time you’re feeling pretty good — ‘Hey, we’ve got four or five guys’ — the next thing you know, two of them are gone and you have no depth. You’re trying to move a defensive player over there.”

Ironically, the opposite has occurred.

With returnees Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant along with true freshman Peyton Barber, it wasn’t an issue to move Johnathan Ford to defense to combat the lack of bodies at cornerback.

“He’s a phenomenal running back, but we need help in the secondary,” head coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday. “You’ve got to have depth in the secondary. He played some in high school, and he’s off to a good start.”

Ford’s temporary conversion didn’t affect the coaching staff’s view of the running back position. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee touted the options they have with the trio of Mason, Artis-Payne and Grant.

“We’ve said that since the spring (and) it’s kind of a broken record, but really all three of those guys bring something different to the table for us and I think all three are going to play and probably play a good amount,” he said. “There’s some good versatility there.”

Those three won’t get every carry, however. Barber showed Lashlee enough during fall camp that the true freshman will get his fair share of snaps as well.

“Barber is a guy that, from a physical standpoint, we feel is ready to play,” he said. “It’s just a matter of (him being) a true freshman. But you know, when certain moves happen, that will thrust people up quicker than normal. He’s got to be ready to go. At this point the three older guys are there, but he’s got to be on high alert.”

Whenever he returns to offense, Ford should be able to jump right back into the running back rotation. Lashlee compared him favorably to Grant due to his speed and ability to make plays in space, an important component of the Tigers’ hurry-up, no-huddle system.

“They’re really fast guys,” Lashlee said. “Corey is bigger. He’s a junior and has been in college longer. I think Rudy is one of those guys, when he gains 10, 12 pounds over the next year or two, it will really help him. But he can really run. More than anything, there’s no fear.”

Horton says he has seen more than that from Ford and Barber, though. Their love of the game shines through, he said. From poring over the playbook to putting in extra work at practice, there are certain things that can’t be coached.

That innate inner drive sets the duo apart, and Horton couldn’t be happier.

“I’ve been real pleased with their attitudes and their efforts,” he said. “And if they’ve got a good attitude and they’ve got good effort, then we can work with them from there.”

August 20, 2013

Auburn football: True freshman Johnathan Ford switching from running back to cornerback

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — No one can say Auburn’s offensive players aren’t selfless.

True freshman running back Johnathan Ford voluntarily moved to corneback following Jonathan Jones' off-field injury. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

True freshman running back Johnathan Ford voluntarily moved to corneback following Jonathan Jones’ off-field injury. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

For the second time in as many weeks, one of its players will be moving over to work with the Tigers’ defense. Running back Johnathan Ford offered to switch to cornerback, one week after Kiehl Frazier dropped out of the quarterback race to focus on becoming a safety. And echoing Frazier’s actions, Ford wasn’t asked to shift to defense by the coaching staff.

Seeing how thin the Tigers’ cornerback unit became following Jonathan Jones’ recent off-field mishap — which saw him break a bone in his ankle after slipping on wet steps, ruling him out for the season opener against Washington State on Aug. 31 — the true freshman felt his talents could be put to use.

“I know he came to us and said, ‘Coach, I want to help the team win and win now,’” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said following Monday night’s practice. “Right now that’s what is best for our football team. He’s a big-time athlete, so to be able to be young and come in and prove yourself on offense and go right over and us think he’s got a chance to help us on defense, I think says a lot about his character as a person, his toughness and his ability.”

The Big Cove, Ala., native was one of the top running back prospects in the country last year after rushing for 1,669 yards and 27 touchdowns at New Hope High School. He was already making a case for playing time during camp, despite the depth in the backfield thanks to returnees Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant as well as fellow freshman Peyton Barber.

“We love ‘Rudy.’ He’s going to be a really good player,” said Lashlee, invoking one of Ford’s many nicknames. “We feel like his future is very bright. He was slated to play on a lot of teams so we were going to find a way to get him into the mix, but at the end of the day we’ve got to win and do what is best for the team.”

Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson acknowledged Ford won’t be able to transform himself overnight. And he’s fine with that.

He knows a gifted player when he sees one.

“It’s going to take him a little while to learn it,” Johnson said. “He looks really good physically, now. He’s got all the skills.”

Ford has worked alongside redshirt freshman T.J. Davis and another true freshman in Kamryn Melton as the trio attempts to fill in at the No. 3 cornerback spot manned by Jones.

Whenever the sophomore recovers from his ankle injury, Ford will likely return to running back.

Lashlee will welcome him back with open arms.

“It just came down to, at the end of the day, it helps to move Johnathan to defense right now and he’s one of those guys that wants to play and wants to help us win,” he said. “(So) that’s the move we made.”

August 10, 2013

Auburn notes: Tim Horton Quote Roundup

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn assistant coach Tim Horton met with media members on Friday at Jordan-Hare Stadium immediately following the Tigers’ picture day.

The following is a roundup of some of the running back coach’s quotes:

Running backs coach Tim Horton met with reporters on Friday and discussed how the position is coming along since started last week. (File photo)

Running backs coach Tim Horton met with reporters on Friday and discussed how the position is coming along since fall camp began. (File photo)

On his general thoughts of the position since fall camp began:

“We’ve been pleased. There are probably five guys that we’ve narrowed it down to. We’ve got the three that were here in the spring (Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant) and then we’ve got the two freshmen (Johnathan Ford and Peyton Barber), and it’s a good group. It’s a real good group. There are certain skill sets that some have better than others, but we’re just trying to find the skills that fit best in our offense.”

On how this backfield compares to those he’s had at previous coaching stops:

“I feel like we’ve got five, maybe six (players) we can put out there on the field and be competitive and get the job done. And that’s maybe a little bit more depth than I’ve been used to. But at the same time, one thing about playing running back in this league is (that) you never have enough depth, because about the time you’re feeling pretty good — ‘Hey, we’ve got four or five guys’ — the next thing you know, two of them are gone and you have no depth. You’re trying to move a defensive player over there.”

On how the depth chart is shaping up:

“I think we’re starting to figure out and define their roles a little more. I think ideally, in a perfect world, we’d like to have two or three guys that we can hand the ball to and (find) where they fit best in the offense. I think we’re doing that right now. I really have a pretty clear understanding of what it is. Now, we’ll see it against Washington State, I hope, but we’re starting to narrow down who’s going to get the carries and what plays they maybe do better.”

On whether he prefers a bellwether back or a varied group:

“I think we’re OK with multiple guys. I don’t necessarily see us having a ’30-carry a game’ guy. I just don’t know. Now it could end up that way. I just don’t see that.”

On whether he has set a cutoff date to name a starter:

“Not really. I think the one thing that is so important is that you’ve always got to be trying to develop those young kids, because you’re just one injury away. So I think it’s really important for our two freshman — Johnathan Ford and Peyton Barber — to get some reps during this time because they’re both good players, and we’re still trying to define what their roles will be on this team and how significant a role (that) will be this year.”

On Barber’s progress:

“Barber’s doing well. He’s a good player. He runs hard, he’s got a certain amount of toughness to him. He’s going to have a good future here. And I think the next 10 days will be important for him. Is he going to get redshirted? Is he one that we’re going to try to get carries to? Just defining what his role will actually be will get determined here in the next two weeks.”

On how Barber and Ford have acclimated to college:

“They’ve really both done well. They’re both good students of the game. They like the game, they like football and they’ve worked at it. So I’ve been real pleased with their attitudes and their efforts. And if they’ve got a good attitude and they’ve got good effort, then we can work with them from there.”

August 5, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/5: Demetruce McNeal sits out fourth straight practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to see about 20 minutes of practice on Monday, which marked Day 4 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short viewing window.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins on of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins one of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

  • Safety Demetruce McNeal continues to be the headliner during the media’s short stay at practice. For the fourth time in as many days of fall camp, the senior did not participate in drills while reporters were in attendance. Including the final five sessions of the spring, it marks the ninth consecutive time the College Park, Ga., native missed an Auburn practice. As he did Saturday, McNeal had a helmet on. However, with the team practicing in “shells” (helmets and pads), the safety was sans shoulder pads. In his post-practice meeting with media member’s on Sunday, Gus Malzahn said McNeal was “getting better.” But apparently not good enough to be cleared to practice just yet.
  • Avery Young was with the first-team offensive line, working at right tackle. Young and Patrick Miller have seemingly been going back-and-forth at the position (in the first-team lineup) during the first few days of fall camp.
  • The defense was working on its “dime” package, which included two of the hybrid safety/linebacker “star” position players on the field at the same time in Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie. Other members of the first-team defense (in that particular formation) had Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter manning the two ends and Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright inside. The linebackers were Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and the secondary consisted of cornerbacks Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead and Josh Holsey at safety.
  • Malzahn stayed around the quarterbacks for a few minutes, but then drifted over to watch the defense running through its various formations. The quarterbacks once again practiced their footwork today as well as executing proper handoffs. Jonathan Wallace and Nick Marshall worked with Cameron Artis-Payne, Tre Mason and Corey Grant, while Kiehl Frazier and Jeremy Johnson were paired with Johnathan Ford, Peyton Barber and Patrick Lymon.
  • Punt returners were mostly the same as it was during the portions of practice reporters saw Friday and Saturday. Wide receivers Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Marcus Davis were back, as well as cornerback Chris Davis. There was one new member, however, as another receiver — true freshman Tony Stevens — joined the fray. Kick returners mostly stayed to form, too. Mason, Grant, Ford, cornerback Jonathan Jones and wide receiver Ricardo Louis were seen fielding kicks, with one new addition in Therezie.
  • Right guard Chad Slade got an earful from offensive line coach J.B. Grimes during one drill. As the line was practicing its footwork once the ball is snapped, Slade didn’t have his feet in the proper position — and Grimes let him know it. “Check your splits!” said Grimes, before moving the junior’s feet where they needed to be. “I’m trying to help you!”
  • The media once again walked out as the team finished up its stretching drills with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell. If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate while Russell leads drills, it’s that he has an incredible amount of energy. It’s no wonder the team has touted his offseason workout program at every opportunity.

April 15, 2013

Long on speed and patience, Auburn RB Corey Grant making most of a major opportunity

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – When the offensive line plowed over primary tacklers, and the wide receivers sealed off the corners, Corey Grant’s only job was to use his track-star speed to score a couple of live scrimmage touchdowns.

No need to wait. For once in his college career, patience wasn’t necessary.

“It has helped getting more reps, because you see more things happening,” Grant said. “I think it’s an opportunity for me to get into the groove of the offense.”

Cameron Artis-Payne has 3,412 rushing yards in college, including the 2,000-yard milestone his sophomore year at Allan Hancock Community College.

Tre Mason has 1,163 rushing yards in college, including the 1,000-yard milestone his sophomore year at Auburn, when he accounted for nearly a third of the team’s total offense.

Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford were each in the vicinity of 1,700 rushing yards their senior years in high school, and will look to contribute immediately upon reaching campus this summer.

Grant has a whopping 29 yards the past three years. He redshirted at Alabama in 2010, shifted to Auburn for the 2011 season and sat out due to NCAA transfer rules, and settled for nine carries in 2012 buried on the depth chart behind Mason, Onterio McCalebb and Mike Blakely.

Grant, a local favorite from nearby Opelika High School, wasn’t even awarded an Auburn scholarship until August 16 preceding last season.

None of this fazes Grant, a junior-to-be who scored the first touchdown of Auburn’s spring drills in March, busted out for two long TD runs in Saturday’s scrimmage and appears like a bona fide contender for significant carries this fall, the way he’s carrying himself whether he’s surrounded by linebackers or reporters.

“I’m more focused, I think. Trying not to let any opportunity slip by,” Grant said. “Every opportunity I can get, I try to take that chance and run with it.”

Running, Grant can do. He won the Alabama Class 6A 100-meter dash his last two years of high school, and was rumored to run a sub-4.3 second 40-yard-dash at Alabama.

“He’s always been good. He’s fast; he’s explosive,” junior wide receiver Sammie Coates said. “We expect that out of Corey.”

Pure speed isn’t the only reason Grant has the coaching staff’s attention.

“He’s a very hard worker. He does a lot of dirty work and he made a couple of good runs,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “He had some success, which was good to see.”

Grant’s been a roster afterthought before – as a four-star recruit with the Crimson Tide, he had little choice but to toil on the 2010 scout team, behind reigning Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, future 2011 Heisman finalist Trent Richardson and likely first-round NFL draft selection Eddie Lacy.

Grant is very confident he’s finally in a Malzahn-paced offense that suits him, since it’s the system used by Opelika High School.

“I think so: using my speed, it helps me get outside or hit creases harder and faster,” Grant said “Overall, this is a better offense for me.”

An ankle sprain for Mason has allowed Artis-Payne and Grant to show their stuff to offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee and running backs coach Tim Horton, neither of whom have any preconceived notions about the presumed pecking order.

“We’ve told our guys from Day One: No jobs are set,” Lashlee said. “Really, each day, your job is up for grabs. We’re still giving guys equal reps. Each day is an evaluation.”

Mason is constantly in Grant’s ear, giving him pointers when he gets a breather in favor of Artis-Payne.

“You’ve got to earn your respect from your coaches, your teammates,” Grant said. “When fall comes around, we know such-and-such guy, he can get the job done.”

Artis-Payne hasn’t met with reporters yet – none of the three early-enrolled junior college transfers have – but Grant reports he’s a grinder on the field and a goofball off it.

“When we get to football, he’s serious and he puts on his work-hard face. But outside of football, he’s a funny guy, great guy.”

The Tigers won’t pressure Mason to return for A-Day or any of the other four remaining practices.

“We want to get guys back 100 percent,” Lashlee said. “It’s really been good for Cameron and Corey and some of those guys to get more reps, and to see how they handle it when the load increases.”

March 26, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Running backs

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

Tre Mason flex

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy Allan Hancock College

Courtesy Allan Hancock College

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

Who’s been playing: Tre Mason (jr.)

Who’s been waiting: Corey Grant (jr.)

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

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

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

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

Thoughts and musings:

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

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

AUBURN FOOTBALL

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

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

Statistically speaking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

170 – Total carries in eight SEC games.

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

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

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

Georgia vs Auburn

February 13, 2013

Pre-spring Q&A: Malzahn mystique, the QB duel are big storylines going into late March

Photo by John Reed

During the season, I conducted Q&As with beat writers with Auburn opponents to take their temperature going into each Saturday’s matchup.

Here in February, The Saturday Edge (@SaturdayEdge), a sports blog encompassing college football around the country turned the mike around. It’s still a long wait of six weeks before Gus Malzahn blows the whistle on his first practice, but here’s what we’re looking at going into spring ball.

The Saturday Edge: 2012 review – How’d Auburn do last year vs. how you thought they’d do? Was Chizik the main reason for Auburn’s disappointing season last year?

Brenner: There’s no way anybody thought whatever … that … was in 2012 could possibly happen on the Plains. The program’s first 0-8 SEC season ever. And that ignominious record doesn’t tell the whole story; Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama were playing the backups by the third quarter in utter destructions of the Tigers. Just three wins – one over an FCS foe, one over a 1-11 WAC team, and one that would’ve been a loss to Louisiana-Monroe if its kicker was halfway capable. Without question, the worst season since a winless 1950 campaign.

Gene Chizik had to go, regardless of what happened in 2010. The program was in dire need of a new direction – we’ll get to that in a minute – and while there were many culprits for last fall’s disaster (poor gameplanning, underachieving stars, a slew of strange injuries, etc.), the responsibility sure landed at the feet of a man who hoisted the BCS crystal ball just two years prior.

The Saturday Edge: What are Auburn’s main strengths heading into spring practice?

Brenner: We can start with Tre Mason, who rushed for his 1,000th yard on the final merciful snap of Auburn’s 2012 season. Let’s just say Adrian Peterson isn’t the only tailback who faces nine-man fronts play after play after play. A junior-to-be, Mason will have some help, too, in the form of highly-touted junior college back Cameron Artis-Payne and a couple of top incoming freshmen Peyton Barber and Johnathan Ford. The offensive line and secondary are young, but those positions bear some experience thanks to some growing pains.

Defensive end Dee Ford, if healthy, gives Auburn a bona fide quarterback disrupter. Punter Steven Clark and kicker Cody Parkey will be seniors, and they’re both rock-solid. Finally, this is a top-notch coaching staff Gus Malzahn crafted, and the assistants should be counted upon to whip this squad into shape in no time.

Jonathan Wallace

The Saturday Edge: What are Auburn’s main weaknesses?

Brenner: We’ve all heard it said: when you have two quarterbacks, you have none. How about five? Auburn will let Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace duke it out at quarterback in the spring, before three freshmen join the fray this summer. There’s no clear-cut Cam on this squad, so that’s Gus Malzahn’s top task. Calling wide receiver a black hole in 2012 is an insult to black holes – the Tigers must develop some trusted talent there.

The front seven will look much better in the fall than the spring – because recruiting prizes Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel are still wrapping up high school. Just because the new coaches have impressive credentials doesn’t guarantee their schemes will work immediately – the veteran players are now learning their third playbook in as many years.

The Saturday Edge: Your thoughts on the coaching change?

Brenner: Even before the hire was made, you could find a decent amount of Auburn fans who credited the mastermind of Gus Malzahn (Auburn’s offensive coordinator from 2009-11) more so than Gene Chizik’s genius for the 2010 national championship. We’ve all seen the seismic shift in college football (and now NFL) offensive philosophies – faster is better. Chip Kelly perfected it, Kevin Sumlin erupted with it, and now it’s Malzahn’s turn to prove to the nation he can manage an entire football program while terrorizing defenses with his hybrid, hurry-up-no-huddle attack.

Malzahn is an absolute machine with his work habits – he will outwork just about anybody else on the recruiting trail, in the film room and everywhere else. Malzahn cleaned house upon his arrival, making it clear this is his program and the past is the past. Throw in the addition of seasoned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, and an army of position coaches with recruiting coordinator experience, and Auburn has most certainly won the offseason. Soon enough, we’ll see if Auburn can win the regular season.

February 7, 2013

“Comfortable is the key word” in Adams’ surprise decision to follow Garner to Auburn

Montravius Adams

By Jonathan Heeter, Macon Telegraph

VIENNA, Ga. — Recruiting often comes down to the relationship between prospect and recruiter.

When Montravius Adams announced his college choice on ESPNU on Wednesday morning, the 6-foot-3, 300-pound defensive tackle did so with the connection with one coach on his mind.

Adams picked Auburn because of the bond he forged with new Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who formerly served as the recruiting coordinator at Georgia. Had Garner stayed at Georgia, Adams might have kept on the red sweater he wore to his National Signing Day ceremony at the Dooly County gym. Instead, he popped on an Auburn hat and took off the pullover to reveal a T-shirt airbrushed with Auburn and Tigers around a photo of him wearing an Auburn No. 1 jersey while doing the “Superman” celebration of former Tigers quarterback Cam Newton.

“You want to go to a place where you are comfortable,” said Adams, who picked the Tigers over Alabama, Clemson, Florida and Georgia. “I have a good relationship with Coach Garner, and that was a big part of it.”

Adams had all but scratched Auburn off his list a few weeks ago, and a battle between Clemson and Georgia appeared to be shaping up. But Garner’s departure from Georgia to return to his alma mater shook up Adams’ recruitment.

Adams largely has avoided the attention-grabbing stunts many of the elite prospects display lead up to signing day — he doesn’t even have a Twitter account — so his turn to Auburn stayed pretty quiet.

Auburn landed Adams’ final official visit, and Garner pounded the pavement in Vienna last week to further lock up their relationship. Adams, who is listed as one of the top 30 prospects in America by all four major recruiting services, met with Garner for a short time Jan. 31 in between the assistant coach’s trips across town to woo Adams’ family members.

Adams said he loved the weekend trip and had a good idea he was headed to Auburn, but he made his final decision Monday.

“Comfortable is the key word,” Dooly County head coach Jimmy Hughes said. “He likes Coach Garner. He feels comfortable with him, and he felt comfortable with Auburn.”

A video posted to YouTube by the Auburn athletics department shows the coaching staff celebrating loudly after Adams made his commitment on television. Every coach in the room high-fived Garner, who could be heard saying, “Gimmie some, gimmie some,” on the video.

Adams was just a piece of Auburn’s signing day haul. Milton defensive end Carl Lawson, who is considered one of the top 25 recruits in the nation, re-affirmed his commitment during the weekend, and the Tigers added a pair of top running backs — Johnathan Ford and Peyton Barber. Rivals eighth-ranked defensive end, Elijah Daniel from Avon, Ind., switched from Mississippi to Auburn on Wednesday.

Montravius Adams

THREE-HEADED MONSTER: Auburn hauls in Adams, Daniel, Lawson to beef up D-Line

AUBURN FOOTBALL

AUBURN, Ala. — The moment Montravius Adams clutched a bear paw around an orange-brimmed Auburn University ball cap and placed it over his dreads, the dozens of officials anxiously watching in the War Eagle Conference room did their part to wake the neighbors.

Hoots and hollers, high-fives and hysterics, fist bumps all around.

“Give me some more of that,” an ear-to-ear grinning Gus Malzahn implored to right-hand-man Rodney Garner, a man who earned his paycheck (and then some) Wednesday morning. “God, that’s big.”

That was the goal: get bigger on defense. Stronger. Meaner.

Mission accomplished on national signing day, when Auburn settled in at around the back end of the top ten on most recruiting services’ class of 2013 team rankings by welcoming in 20 signees Wednesday (joining three early enrollees from January.)

That’s an impressive feat, considering Malzahn, Garner and their new colleagues had barely two months to convince blue-chip prospects to come play for a 3-9 squad and a new staff.

“I tell you what, it was a great feeling when he put on that Auburn hat,” Malzahn said. “That was a special feeling. Coach Garner’s had a relationship with him a long time. They’re extremely close.

“Everybody in the country was wanting him. But when he got home to Auburn — he loved Auburn before. When he came back on, he said, ‘I still feel the same way.’ So that was a very exciting moment this morning.”

Adams was the pleasant surprise of the morning, a five-star defensive tackle from Dooly County, Ga., who just as easily could have picked home-state Georgia, first love Clemson, or defending champion and Auburn nemesis Alabama.

“I love the coaches there, I love the players there, and it’s just the place that I think I want to be,” Adams said after announcing his decision on ESPNU’s daylong coverage.

There was more welcome news at the crack of dawn, when four-star defensive end Elijah Daniel’s name was on the first signed national letter of intent to emerge from the fax machine. Daniel had been committed to Ole Miss since Jan. 20, and was previously a Clemson pledge as well.

“It was a real tough decision. It was, like, late last night I was deciding,” Daniel said. “(I loved) their track record, Coach Garner’s track record, the players they’re welcoming in, and Auburn’s good people.”

AUBURN FOOTBALLThrow in Auburn holding serve by retaining summer verbal Carl Lawson — considered the nation’s top prospect not named Robert Nkemdiche — and Garner just landed three fresh-faced toys to play with next fall in the form of two 250-pound pass-rushers and a 310-pound run-stuffer.

“Coach Garner’s a great coach, and he’s going to have three guys that have a chance to help us immediately,” Malzahn said. “I know Coach Garner’s extremely excited.”

No, there’s no Dee Liner — he’s off to Alabama, just like Reuben Foster — but this is one heck of a D-Line.

“Y’all know in this league, you win on the offensive and defensive lines, and the defensive line was a focus,” Malzahn said. “The three guys we have, we feel like are three of the best in the entire country.”

Daniel was one of six total Auburn signees who were flipped from other schools. Running back Peyton Barber (Ole Miss), offensive lineman Deon Mix (Mississippi State), receiver Tony Stevens (Florida State, Texas A&M), receiver Dominic Walker (Nebraska) and safety Khari Harding (Arkansas) all were pledged elsewhere before ending up officially agreeing to play on the Plains.

Out of nine verbal commits who had stayed true to the program since before Gene Chizik’s firing Nov. 25 — a group that contains Lawson — eight stayed true to their word, including in-state quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith, receiver Earnest Robinson, linebacker Cameron Toney and cornerback Kamryn Melton.

The only last-minute defector was defensive end Tashawn Bower, who ended up at LSU. But given the embarrassment of riches now at that position, it barely even mattered.

“We’ve got to have pass rushers. We’ve got to put pressure on the quarterback without blitzing,” said Malzahn, identifying one of many 2012 bugaboos. “I feel like the defensive ends can do that.”

Of course, recruiting rankings are only as good as the hard work the incoming freshmen put into their college careers. But Malzahn mandated he filled all the Tigers’ needs — especially along the defensive line.

“They wouldn’t have signed Adams without Garner. Wouldn’t have happened,” said AuburnSports.com managing editor Justin Hokanson, a Rivals recruiting analyst. “I think Adams had a great relationship with the other staff, and they had a really good shot of getting him, but when that staff left, I gave them basically no shot, even going into his visit.”

“But Garner came through huge.”

AUBURN FOOTBALL