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September 3, 2013

Auburn football: With breakout game behind him, Corey Grant hungry for more (w/video)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — It took until the game ended for Corey Grant to finally realize what he had just accomplished on the field last Saturday.

Junior running back Corey Grant scored on a 75-yard touchdown last Saturday against Washington State. He also finished as the Tigers' leading rusher, with 146 yards on just nine carries. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Junior running back Corey Grant scored on a 75-yard touchdown last Saturday against Washington State. He also finished as the Tigers’ leading rusher, with 146 yards on just nine carries. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

He had just finished off a tour de force performance, running for a game-high 146 yards on nine carries against Washington State. It was the type of game Auburn’s junior running back admitted once doubting he could achieve.

Who’s to blame him?

His circuitous, frustrating path to Saturday would do little to boost anyone’s confidence. His Opelika, Ala., upbringing wasn’t able to keep him rooted around Auburn following his prep career, as he committed to arch-rival Alabama in the summer of 2009.

“It was a tough decision,” he said. “I loved (then-Auburn offensive coordinator) Coach (Gus) Malzahn and his offense.”

It was a decision he would come to regret. Yes, part of the reason he committed to the Crimson Tide was because the team promised to take advantage of his skill set, predicated on the blazing speed that made a two-time state champion in the 100-meter dash and a one-time state winner in the 200 meters.

But the other factor had nothing to do with football: He simply wanted to get away from home.

“So I did that,” he said. “Then I realized that it really wasn’t for me.”

He spent one season with Alabama, taking a redshirt in 2010 before transferring to Auburn. Once he joined the Tigers, however, he had to sit out yet another season to satisfy the NCAA’s rules on transfers.

In 2012, he finally saw the field, though it was solely in mop-up duty.

That’s why Saturday meant so much to him.

“Everybody always says hard work pays off,” he said. “I see that it does.”

Grant flashed the speed that made him a high school track star in the second quarter, taking a handoff around the left side and racing untouched for a 75-yard score. Nearly three years had passed since his last touchdown — which, he recalled, came when he was still an Opelika Bulldog — and he was ready to revel in the moment. It was a celebration deferred, as the play was reviewed to make sure he didn’t step out of bounds. Grant didn’t have to worry, as the touchdown stood.

Let the pandemonium begin.

“It was exciting,” he said. “My teammates know what I’ve been through. For me to do that and for us to do that together, it was an exciting moment.”

Left tackle Greg Robinson couldn’t contain his excitement, either.

“Really, when he broke off to the sideline I was cheering him on,” he said. “They all knocked him down in the end zone, but he felt good about it and it’s good for the hard work to pay off.”

Malzahn was also pleased Grant showed his stuff against Washington State. Not that it came as any surprise to him.

“I was here before, and I knew what he could do,” Malzahn said. “But he wasn’t eligible that year. You saw him on the scout team. He’s got a chance to really help us (this season).”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee echoed Malzahn’s thoughts. The coaching staff had seen everything he could during spring practice, which carried over into fall camp. One aspect of Grant’s game revealed itself Saturday that even Lashlee didn’t see coming.

“He (made) some cuts that were impressive that maybe we didn’t know he could do,” Lashlee said. “His speed is definitely a weapon for him. As you were able to see on Saturday, he helps us have a potential one-play drive or a guy who can make those explosive plays and flip the field and help you get chunks (of) yardage.”

Perhaps the most impressive part of Grant’s explosiveness?

He hasn’t lost his lightning quickness despite putting on 30 pounds of muscle since high school.

“I actually feel a little bit faster,” he said, noting the last time he ran the 40 he was unofficially timed at 4.29 seconds. “Working with (strength and conditioning) Coach (Ryan) Russell, he knows what he’s doing and he helps us a lot with our speed – (especially) maintaining your speed as you get bigger.”

The added strength will be an asset when he has to face off against some of formidable defenses the SEC has to offer as the season progresses. He shied away from any talk of being “an SEC-type running back” just yet. It’s only been one game, after all.

Those are the types of designations that only come with time, and only on the basis of multiple games like he put together Saturday.

“Hopefully I can prove that later in the season,” he said.

VIDEO: Coordinators Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson discuss their respective units

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s two coordinators — Rhett Lashlee (offensive) and Ellis Johnson (defensive) — had a lot to say Monday night. So much, in fact, that we had to split each of their press conferences into two videos apiece.

The videos are provided below.

Lashlee, Part I

Lashlee, Part II

Johnson, Part I

Johnson, Part II

Auburn notes: Rhett Lashlee disappointed with offense, Ellis Johnson discusses Justin Garrett’s status

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Rhett Lashlee didn’t offer any false praise Monday night.

Auburn’s offensive coordinator said his unit has a long way to go. About the only positive he could take from Saturday’s season opener was that the Tigers came out on top of a 31-24 decision against Washington State.

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said his unit isn't close to playing to the level the coaching staff expects this fall. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said his unit isn’t close to playing to the level the coaching staff expects this fall. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Other than that, Lashlee said looking at the film was rough.

“I just felt like every time we had a chance to really put some distance between us and them (we didn’t do it), whether it be missing a deep ball or having a touchdown called back for a penalty,” he said. “We could have gone up 11 or 14, but we just sputtered and didn’t take advantage of those moments. That’s not good enough. We have to be in those positions in the future where we’re in a position to kind of separate ourselves. We have to press forward and get some distance between ourselves and the opponent.”

Yes, Lashlee conceded the offense “made enough plays” to seal the victory. Yes, some of the mistakes could be attributed to first-game jitters. That didn’t excuse a late turnover by Tre Mason, however, which gave Washington State one last chance to tie the game following Robenson Therezie’s interception in the end zone on the Cougars’ previous possession.

Those are the types of miscues, Lashlee said, that must be corrected soon.

“We’re not where we want to be yet. There’s no doubt about that,” he said. “We’re making strides.”

To get to where Lashlee and head coach Gus Malzahn want them to be, the Tigers will have to meet the coaching staff’s goal of running at least 80 offensive snaps per game. Saturday, Auburn had just 65. Multiple factors played a hand in that, Lashlee said.

Take the Tigers’ one-play drive in the second quarter, when running back Corey Grant dashed 75 yards for a touchdown. Or take another play earlier in the same period when the offense never had a chance to take a snap, since Mason returned a kickoff 100 yards for a score.

There was another area the Tigers controlled where they simply didn’t produce.

“We’ve got to stay on the field and convert third downs more,” said Lashlee, alluding to Auburn’s 4-for-13 showing. “If you don’t convert third downs, you’re not going to stay on the field and get more plays. If you don’t get those third downs converted, you’re (not) going to get your tempo going.”

Johnson talks about Garrett’s absence

Ellis Johnson was disappointed “Star” Justin Garrett wasn’t able to play Saturday.

But he was far from surprised the junior didn’t suit up.

“His foot has been just sort of a strange thing,” Auburn’s defensive coordinator said. “It’ll feel good one day and all of a sudden he’ll turn on it the wrong way and the strain on it comes back in.”

If it was necessary to play him, Johnson said Garrett would have been on the field. That being said, Johnson acknowledged it meant Garrett likely wouldn’t have been “full-speed” physically or mentally to play at the level expected of him.

That’s why the coaching staff was more than happy to give Garrett more time to heal.

Besides, they had the utmost faith in his backup, Therezie.

“We just felt like Robenson was playing really well,” Johnson said. “The only problem is he probably had to play too many snaps.  He was on every coverage team in special teams, and he played every defensive snap almost to about the end of the fourth quarter. We had to try to get him off the field, give him a blow. That was the only thing.”

As to when Garrett will return?

Johnson had didn’t announce a timetable, deeming the Georgia native’s status as “day-to-day.” Given how well Therezie played Saturday — hauling in two interceptions and tying for the second-most tackles (seven) on the team , which earned him the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Week award on Monday — Johnson was asked whether the two “Stars” could eventually see the field together in the team’s base 4-2-5 formation.

“We’re probably not at a point of figuring something out like that right now,” he said. “We’d just like to get (Garrett) healthy. It’s been frustrating. We talked about the player being one of our most dynamic players in the spring, and there’s no production on the game film, and it’s been going on for two years now. So we’d like to get him healthy, get him on the field and find out if he can play. We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get to it.”

Johnson: Frazier has ‘leveled off’ at safety

Quarterback-turned-safety Kiehl Frazier has earned nothing but high marks since switching to defense during fall camp. Coaches and teammates alike noted how quickly he had picked up the defensive’s schemes and concepts. He had even progressed to the point he was listed on the Tigers’ two-deep depth chart entering last Saturday’s game, pegged as the backup to Josh Holsey at boundary safety.

His growth has finally hit a wall, though, as Johnson said Frazier has “leveled off” in the last week.

“Right now, he’s not comfortable where to line up and what to do,” Johnson said. “It’s not  a physical issue. He’s shown in drills and a couple of scrimmages he can tackle when he gets in the right place, but right now it’s not coming too clearly for him. Hopefully, another week of practice that light will turn on and he’ll get better.”

Quick hits

Johnson wasn’t ready to say whether defensive end Dee Ford could be back for Auburn’s SEC opener, which will see them host Mississippi State on Sept. 15. “That’s a medical decision. We’re certainly not good enough to hold anybody that can be a great player on a given day,” he said. “But right now it’s all on rehabilitation and when they’re ready physically.”

August 30, 2013

Auburn football: Two ‘different flavors’ of spread offense to clash when Tigers face Cougars on Saturday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Ellis Johnson has seen nearly every type of offense imaginable in his 30-plus years of coaching.

Auburn quarterback will spearhead Gus Malzahn's run-heavy spread attack when the Tigers host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Auburn quarterback will spearhead Gus Malzahn’s run-heavy spread attack when the Tigers host the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

No system is an island. When coaches see something they like, they borrow the concepts to incorporate it into their own scheme. Because of that, Auburn’s defensive coordinator didn’t have a problem with people who want to label both Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn’s and Washington State head coach Mike Leach’s systems as “spread” attacks despite their differing ideologies.

“The spread to me is three or four wide receivers on the field at one time and tempo,” Johnson said. “There are all different flavors. (Leach) wants to throw the ball more; Gus wants to run the ball more. What we’ve practiced against with our own offense in some respects will prepare us very well for what we’re going to see.”

Johnson said the Tigers will probably end up playing “two or three teams” this season that share some similarities with the Cougars. No team is as heavily reliant on the passing game as the Cougars, though. In 12 games last season, Washington State attempted 624 passes, which translates to exactly 52 per contest.

“There’s no question about it — he loves to throw the football,” Johnson said of Leach. “If you allow him to establish the running back, you’re in for a long day. You can’t just take a pass-defense approach and forget about the run. They have an offensive line that’s greatly improved. They’re good players. I think their running game is going to be more effect this year. It’s something you can’t ignore.”

It won’t be the first time Leach and Johnson have squared off. In 1997, Leach was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky while Johnson served as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. That year, the Wildcats defeated the Crimson Tide 40-34 in overtime, Kentucky’s first victory in the series since 1922.

Over time, Johnson has seen how Leach’s scheme has evolved.

“They ran a lot more two-back (formations) back then,” he said. “Just as wide open, a lot of screens, a lot of scatting the backs, free releasing them. They can line up in two-back or one-back, and by the snap of the ball, it’s almost an empty set. They’re checking out of there.”

On that same token, though, Washington State will have to contend with Auburn’s running game, which boasts a plethora of options in the backfield. Ironically, Leach said he was more worried when the Tigers take to the air given what he’s seen from quarterback Nick Marshall.

“He obviously can (throw the ball vertically),” Leach said. “He did it in JC (junior college) and they were impressed with him there and he’s a real athletic guy. … He’s good and hopefully he doesn’t get it all figured out before we leave town.”

Defensively, the Cougars will run out of multiple fronts and myriad coverages, so much so that Tigers offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee wasn’t sure what to expect Saturday.

“It’s the first game,” he said. “You’re not real sure what the other team is going to do. We’ve got to be ready for whatever they throw at us and anything they could do. With us starting a new quarterback, you’d expect that. With them having (so many starters) back on the same defense with the same coordinator, I think they’d have the full arsenal of tactics that we’ve seen from them in the past.”

And their 3-9 record didn’t belie how competitive the Cougars were last season, Malzahn said. During film study, he saw how Washington State played Oregon, which ended the year ranked No. 2, to a near-draw in the first half before the Ducks pulled away for a 51-26 victory. The Cougars were even closer against Stanford, losing 24-17 to a Cardinals team that finished No. 7 in the final Associated Press poll last year.

“They’re capable, even last year, of playing good football,” Malzahn said. “I think sometimes they got behind and it kind of snowballed on them, but we’re really expecting a much-improved team.”

One thing is certain: Both teams are committed to snapping the ball as quickly as possible. With that in mind, Malzahn wouldn’t rule out possibly slowing things down if needed.

That would be the option of last resort, though.

“It just depends on what gives you the best chance of winning,” he said. “We’ll see how it unfolds.”

Commentary: Don’t get caught up in ‘numbers game’ Saturday

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Forget the numbers.

Look, I know it will be hard. After all, we’ve been bombarded with them non-stop during Auburn’s offseason. It can overwhelm the mind if one stops to think about it; the list is dizzying. The statistics click by at a pace that would please Gus Malzahn.

Ryan Black

Ryan Black

Nick Marshall threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns at Garden City Community College last season.

He ran for 1,095 yards and 19 touchdowns.

The Tigers allowed opponents to rack up 420.5 yards per game on them last year.

Auburn wants to run as many plays as possible this fall — and for comparison’s sake, last season’s leader was Marshall, which had 92.8 offensive snaps per game.

It goes on and on.

But no statistic has been cited more often that the Tigers’ record in 2012: 3-9. A win Saturday against Washington State could go a long way toward finally putting last season to bed. Malzahn isn’t necessarily putting any additional pressure on himself or the team — at least not publicly.

Not that it should come as any surprise. Malzahn isn’t the type for bluster.

Even he had to admit it would be nice to begin his tenure at Auburn with a victory, though.

“It doesn’t matter if it’s the first game or any game,” he said. “I want us to play. I want us to do things right, to be disciplined and protect the football, play hard. It’s no different than any other (game), but I think it’s common sense. We’ve got a team that had great struggles last year, so definitely it’d be great to get off to a good start.”

And if the Tigers are going emerge with a ‘W’ in Game Numero Uno, it will ultimately rest with Malzahn. Two men will have a say in the offense’s play-calling. Not surprisingly, numbers come into play here, too — it’s a matter of simple subtraction.

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee will speak his piece. Malzahn will think about it. And then Malzahn will decide which play to run.

Some Tigers might have to settle for being a little disappointed their number — yes, there’s that word again — isn’t called often. Since Malzahn prefers to lean more toward the run, Auburn’s receivers will have to make the most of their opportunities in the passing game.

Then again, anything beats last season. No player has said it yet, but reading between the lines, it’s easy to deduce: They loathed Scot Loeffler’s pro-style system, which produced a putrid 18.7 points per game.

Yep, more stats.

They’re just impossible to avoid.

Similarly, receiver Quan Bray tiptoed around the elephant in the room regarding Loeffler’s less-than-stellar — to put it nicely — offensive output last year.

No, that’s not Bray’s way.

Like a good company man, he chose to emphasize what he liked about the hurry-up, no-huddle scheme the Tigers will use this fall.

“We have a lot spread guys,” the junior receiver said. “For (Malzahn) to come back, it’s a great thing because we have a lot of speed on the inside and on the outside and we’ve got a lot of playmakers at every position.”

So what kind of — wait for it — numbers will the Tigers tally in the opener?

Bray wasn’t shy about giving his take. Heck, he’s already thrown a number (yes, again) out there for Saturday: He wants to see the Tigers put 70 points on the board.

A lofty goal, if nothing else. A bit misguided, but lofty nonetheless.

Anyone focusing on the Tigers’ point total Saturday is missing the point.

Call it the Reverse Grantland Rice Theory.

When people look back on Saturday’s contest one day, they won’t care how the Tigers played the game.

What will matter is whether the Tigers won or lost.

It’s a harsh truth, but numbers show no favoritism.

Unlike most statistics, it’s an adage worth remembering.

August 28, 2013

Auburn football: Tigers hope to see go-to receiver ‘prove it on Saturdays’ this season

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn didn’t dodge the question.

Auburn’s head coach admitted the team failed to address one of its key priorities during fall camp. Yes, the top objective was accomplished, as the Tigers found their starting quarterback in junior college transfer Nick Marshall. However, Auburn still has no idea who Marshall’s go-to receiver will be heading into Saturday’s season opener against Washington State. Even as Malzahn acknowledged the role was still a question mark, he wasn’t panicking, either.

Quan Bray is one of the many players trying to step up and become Auburn's go-to target in the passing game this fall. (File photo)

Junior Quan Bray is one of the many receivers trying to step up and become Auburn’s go-to target in the passing game this fall. (File photo)

He’s been in a similar situation before, after all.

“In 2009, when we first got here, we were saying the same thing,” he said. “We thought Darvin Adams had a chance to be (the No. 1 receiver), but he showed it on the field. When I say that I’m real curious to see how some of our guys to respond, (that includes) the receivers. We need somebody to step up and be the go-to guy. How you do that is prove it on Saturdays. It’s not just practice. That’ll be definitely something that we’re looking forward to seeing.

Adams rose from obscurity to become the Tigers’ top option four years ago. Coming off a three-catch season in 2008, the Canton, Miss., native exploded in 2009, setting a single-season school record with 60 receptions (10 for touchdowns) and tallying 997 receiving yards, the third-best mark in Tigers’ history.

Will any receiver on this year’s roster be able to duplicate Adams’ feat?

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee didn’t rule it out, but said it wouldn’t be fair to place that expectation on just one player.

“I hope it’s a couple guys,” he said. “Last year our leading receiver (at Arkansas State) was a redshirt freshman (J.D. McKissic), and he had 103 catches and he didn’t even play the year before. He would probably have been your third or fourth choice going into the season, not that the other guys didn’t play well. It was just the way it all worked out.”

Lashlee went a step further by naming specific players, which Malzahn has been reticent to do this fall. A quartet of names came to Lashlee’s mind: Quan Bray, Jaylon Denson, Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis have been in the Tigers’ system long enough that it’s time for all of them to “grow up” and start producing at a high level.

“I think (wide receivers) Coach (Dameyune) Craig has done a really good job with that whole room of bringing them along,” Lashlee said, “not only making plays and all, but mentally with their confidence.”

Bray took the words to heart, noting it was a “humbling experience” to know how much the coaching staff expects of him.

“I’m just trying to be that guy, I’m just trying to make every play,” he said. “It’s not a lot of pressure. I’m just trying to do what I normally do, what I’ve always been doing. It’s definitely a great experience.”

Bray isn’t the only junior wideout the Tigers are counting on — Denson falls into the same category.

“He did make a few ‘wow’ plays in the spring,” Lashlee said. “We’ve got him in a role now where he’s more of a steady guy. And he’s still making some great catches at times. He’s probably about as versatile a guy as we have, from being a physical wideout to being involved in (both) the run game and in the pass game. I just hope he keeps it up.”

It’s a sophomore who may have the most star potential, though. Louis was touted time and again by teammates during fall camp for his “explosive” plays in the passing game.

The next order of business is making those type of catches on a regular basis.

“He’s one of those guys that can be very special,” Lashlee said. “He’s still young. This is going to be his second true year to be here and to be playing, and he didn’t play a whole lot last year. But he has a lot of ability and there are times he makes some plays and you just go, ‘Wow.’ There’s no doubt we’d like him to do that consistently.”

Bray left no doubt that he hopes to see himself and the rest of the receiving corps reach the end zone with regularity this season.

The Tigers will have to make a handful of those plays right out of the gate, however, if they want to reach Bray’s targeted point total on Saturday.

“Hopefully, it won’t be a shootout,” he said. “On our part it will be a shootout. We’re trying to put up 70.”

August 26, 2013

Auburn football: Coordinators discuss positional rotations prior to depth chart release

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn has yet to release a depth chart heading into its season opener against Washington State on Saturday.

Until that time comes — it is expected to be released at some point Tuesday — which players will fill out the two-deep lineup remains a mystery. One of those positions is safety, where the dismissal of senior safety Demetruce McNeal left a gaping hole.

Senior cornerback Chris Davis (11) was one player Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had no worries about heading into Saturday's season opener versus Washington State. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Senior cornerback Chris Davis (11) was one player Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson had no worries about heading into Saturday’s season opener versus Washington State. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Former cornerback Josh Holsey stepped in at the spot during the spring and stayed there for the duration of fall camp. With McNeal gone and barring any issues arising between now and the opener, Holsey will take the field as the team’s starting boundary safety.

As it stands, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he was comfortable with three safeties as Saturday nears.

“You’ve got Holsey, Ryan Smith and (Jermaine) Whitehead,” Johnson said. “So I think right now, it would have to be some kind of a three-man rotation. Unless one of them got hurt, and then Kiehl Frazier will be ready to go.”

It was the same story at the two linebacker positions, Johnson said, at ease with the trio of Jake Holland, Kris Frost and Anthony Swain.

“I think Jake could move to the Will (line)backer if he had to,” Johnson said of the likely starter at middle linebacker. “Swain’s had a pretty good week of practice. I think first I’d probably put Swain on the field if he played well and did OK. If not, I’d move Jake over there. Frost and Holland are (the) only players at Mike right now.”

Johnson reiterated that view when asked whether weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy would stay on the field in Auburn’s dime package and shift to the middle, where he played last season.

“Cass hasn’t worked any at that,” he said. “It’s just too much for him to learn right now. When we go to dime, whatever Mike linebacker is on the field stays out there. They’re not asked to do anything outside the box. There’s really nothing they physically can’t handle, but we’ll usually leave that mike linebacker on the field. It’s about the fewest number of guys going on and off the field.”

The three-man approach didn’t stop with linebackers and safeties, though. Johnson said it also extended to cornerback, where the Tigers are content with Chris Davis, Jonathon Mincy and Ryan White. Auburn is still trying to find a replacement for Jonathan Jones, who broke a bone in his ankle in an off-field accident near the end of fall camp. No timetable has been announced for his return.

The three players vying for time in Jones’ absence all lack experience, comprised of a redshirt freshman (T.J. Davis) and a pair of true freshmen (Kamryn Melton and Johnathan Ford).

Ford in particular has continued to impress Johnson since moving from running back to cornerback following Jones’ injury.

“Johnathan’s still learning. He’s not ready yet, but he physically is the most impressive of the bunch,” Johnson said. “You never know how much improvement they can make when we restrict the game plan and cut it down for them mentally. Sometimes that hesitation and confusion can lead to playing poorly fundamentally. If we clean that up, I think he is really going to be a good player there.”

Unlike the defense, the offense has few positions still undecided.

One is at right tackle, where Patrick Miller and Avery Young split reps throughout fall camp. Young, however, started to switch between tackle and guard as fall camp came to a close. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee couldn’t find enough good things to say about the sophomore, who sat out spring practice while rehabbing from shoulder surgery.

Though the average person may not know finer points of what it takes to be an offensive lineman, Lashlee believed Young would be easy to spot even to the untrained eye.

Young’s talent stands on its own merit.

“He’s an athletic guy,” Lashlee said. “At guard he can really pull. At tackle he’s very athletic, really good in the run game. Shoot, he hasn’t done it yet, but he would probably be a really good center. He’s just a real versatile guy.”

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.”

Auburn football: Backup Jonathan Wallace willing to do ‘anything’ to help Tigers reach goals (w/video)

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Being prepared to go in at a moment’s notice won’t be a difficult task for Jonathan Wallace this fall.

Jonathan Wallace didn't win Auburn's starting quarterback job, but that's not stopping him from being ready to step on the field at a moment's notice. (File photo)

Jonathan Wallace (front) didn’t win Auburn’s starting quarterback job, but that’s not stopping him from being ready to step on the field at a moment’s notice. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee (back) is confident the Tigers won’t miss a beat if Wallace takes over. (File photo)

After all, Wallace said he is used to it by now, calling upon the experience he got with Auburn last year. No, Wallace might not have been “one play away” from going in at quarterback — it was more like two plays, he said — since he was behind both Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley.

However, the sophomore said, it has helped him feel comfortable with his current role, serving as Nick Marshall’s backup entering Saturday’s season opener against Washington State.

“I know what I need to do, and I believe the coaches feel the same way,” he said following Sunday’s practice. “That’s why I’m in the position I am now.”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee made good on Wallace’s words, saying the coaching staff has “got all the confidence in the world” in the Phenix City, Ala., native.

“Jonathan has been great,” Lashlee said. “He comes to work every day. If we hadn’t made a decision, you probably wouldn’t know anything was different, other than maybe the reps have changed for him. … If he’s put in there, he’s going to know what to do, he’s going to be prepared and he’s going to do a good job.”

Though three players fought to the end for the right to take over the highly-visible position, Wallace said it was far from nerve-wracking.

In fact, he rather enjoyed it.

“It was a lot of fun and a lot of great competition,” Wallace said. “Nick and Jeremy (Johnson) are both very, very, very good. It really helped us push each other through camp. We just really battled it out, so it was fun.”

While he was obviously disappointed to lose out to Marshall, he understood the decision. He knows the coaching staff is doing what it believes gives the Tigers the best chance to win each week. To help them reach that goal, Wallace said the team needed to support Marshall unequivocally.

And to their credit, he said, they are doing just that.

“There is a lot of pressure if you allow that pressure to affect you,” Wallace said of being Auburn’s starting signal-caller. “I think Nick is handling it very well right now. The team is behind him, that’s the biggest thing.”

Wallace also said he’ll do whatever else the Tigers ask him to do. That includes being a holder with the field goal and extra-point units, which he began to do during fall camp. It wasn’t difficult for him to acclimate to it, recalling his prep career.

“I did it in high school a lot my senior year, so it’s not new to me,” he said. “I’m used to it. Anything that I can do help this team, I’m willing to do it.”

His readiness to take on any responsibility is why he said he “never” considered transferring.

For emphasis, he repeated “never” three times.

“I’m an Auburn man,” he said.

August 24, 2013

Auburn football: With ‘the past’ behind him, Nick Marshall looks to turn around Tigers’ fortunes

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala.Nick Marshall’s feats with his feet are well-documented.

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. All Auburn's starting quarterback cares about is this season and getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Nick Marshall had little interest in discussing his career at Georgia or comparisons to former Heisman Trophy winners Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. Marshall’s sole focus is getting the Tigers back on the right track. (Todd Van Emst/Auburn University)

Sure, many quarterbacks can extend plays and make something out of nothing thanks to fancy footwork. But few have shown the ability to excel at Marshall’s level. Take a look at the 1,095 yards he ran for last year in junior college. Also take note of the 19 touchdowns he accounted for on the ground, the second-most of any player in the National Junior College Athletic Association in 2012.

Or one could just check out his 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash.

Elusive as he may be, there are two storylines Auburn’s new signal-caller won’t be able to outrun this fall.

The first is the way his career at Georgia ended.

The other narrative, which will have far longer shelf life, is tracking his trajectory against the backdrop of a pair of SEC quarterbacks blessed with similar skill sets.

Richt: ‘I hope Nick has success’

Even though he was a record-setting quarterback at Wilcox County High School in Rochelle, Ga., that meant nothing to the Bulldogs, already set at the position with Aaron Murray. A member of Georgia’s heralded “Dream Team” class in 2011, Marshall shifted to cornerback upon arrival, playing in 13 games that fall. His tenure with the Bulldogs came to an unceremonious end, being dismissed along with fellow cornerback Chris Sanders and wide receiver Sanford Seay for a violation of team rules in February 2012. The three were reportedly involved in stealing money from a teammate’s dorm room.

No charges were ever filed in the case, however.

Following the dismissal, Marshall hit the reset button. He enrolled at Garden City Community College in Kansas and returned to quarterback. After one stellar season at the junior college level — along with his aforementioned rushing totals, he also threw for 3,142 yards and 18 touchdowns — he became part of the Tigers’ 2013 recruiting haul in February. Now, he’s entering the season as Auburn’s starter after coming out on top of the team’s four-man quarterback battle during fall camp.

He’ll make his debut Saturday in Auburn’s season opener, taking on Washington State in Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Marshall hasn’t — or won’t — allow himself to reflect on his journey to this point, especially when the topic of the Bulldogs is broached.

“I don’t too much worry about that,” he said. “I’m an Auburn player now, so that’s in the past. I’m just going to move forward.”

Georgia never looked back, either. The Bulldogs have won back-to-back SEC Eastern Division titles, and are favored to make it three straight this season. His team’s lofty goals didn’t prevent Georgia head coach Mark Richt from being happy for Marshall when he heard Auburn’s quarterback search had come to a close.

“I like Nick,” he said. “I hope Nick has success other than our game.”

If he was still with the Bulldogs, Richt believes they would have already taken advantage of Marshall’s talents, building specific packages for him to shine offensively.

“We were thinking that we would somewhere along the line in his career,” he said, “but we never got to it.”

Marshall joined LSU’s Zach Mettenberger in a strange club: Both former Georgia players begin this fall as the starting quarterback at another SEC school. It’s a startling statistic; given other teams’ success with his former players, Richt was asked whether he would consider adding any ex-SEC castoffs in the future.

Depending on the circumstances involved, he wouldn’t rule it out.

“You just have to know all the facts and decide if this person would be in the best interest of Georgia and (if) the person, whatever they did, learned from it,” he said. “It would be a possibility.”

Marshall deflects comparisons with other QBs

The script nearly writes itself.

A highly-touted recruit runs into off-the-field trouble at an SEC school, transfers to a junior college — lighting up the circuit along the way — and then finds redemption as Auburn’s starting quarterback.

Obviously, this arc describes Marshall’s path to Auburn. It also is strikingly similar to Cam Newton, almost to the letter.

Like Marshall, Newton is a native of the Peach State. Regarded as one of the top players in the Class of 2007 out of Westlake High School in Atlanta, Newton ended up committing to Florida. Things never got off the ground for him in Gainesville, Fla., though. He spent two seasons with the Gators, departing in 2008 after being suspended by then-head coach Urban Meyer. The suspension stemmed from an arrest, as Newton was accused of stealing another student’s laptop. The charges were eventually dropped after he completed a pretrial diversion program for first-time offenders. Newton pushed on and finished out the fall semester of 2008 before leaving Florida in what he said was a search for more playing time.

And he found exactly what he was looking for at Blinn College in Texas.

Newton led the Buccaneers to a national championship in 2009 and pledged to Auburn soon after. In another piece of symmetry with Marshall, Newton came out on top of his own four-way quarterback competition at Auburn in the spring of 2010.

Everyone knows how Newton’s story goes from there.

In one of the most remarkable seasons in recent memory, Newton took the college football world by storm. With uncanny athleticism for a player his size and a knack for rising to the occasion when he was needed most, Newton led the Tigers to a 14-0 record and their first national title since 1957. His gaudy individual numbers — 2,854 passing yards and 30 touchdowns and another 1,473 yards and 20 touchdowns on the ground — also landed Newton the Heisman.

Not surprisingly, when his name was mentioned during Marshall’s first meeting with reporters, Auburn’s newest quarterback immediately shut down anyone seeking to draw parallels.

“I really can’t compare myself to him,” Marshall said. “I’ll just be myself.”

What sets the two apart is sheer size. Newton has four inches (6-foot-5 to 6-foot-1) and 35 pounds (245 to 210) on Marshall. That’s why Matt Miller, Marshall’s offensive coordinator at Garden City, invoked the name of another winner of the bronze trophy whose stature is more reminiscent of his former protege: Johnny Manziel.

Once more, Marshall rejected any notion of being compared to another player.

“Again, I don’t worry about what everybody else does,” he said. “I just worry about me and worry about my team.”

While he wouldn’t acknowledge coming in with a chip on his shoulder, Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn picked up on it the moment he began recruiting Marshall.

“He definitely had something to prove,” Malzahn said. “He’s had that attitude since he’s been here. He’s really studied hard. He’s worked hard. He’s been in that playbook. He’s showed (offensive coordinator) Coach (Rhett) Lashlee that it’s very important to him. He showed his teammates, too. And that’s the most important thing. He’s got a lot of respect from his teammates, and they’ve got a lot of confidence in him.”

Yes, he knows he won over the Tigers with his play on the field. But Marshall said that wouldn’t have come without watching extra hours of film by himself.

Everyone around the program knows the expectations already being placed upon Marshall are sky-high. That’s why the Tigers are going to give him every opportunity to succeed this fall.

“We’ve got a good line, we’ve got some good backs, we’ve got some wideouts that are going to have to step up and make plays for him, and that’s the key,” Lashlee said. “Don’t feel like you have to do too much. Play within the system, and over time the system will grow as you feel better with it.”

In Lashlee’s estimation, the most memorable play Marshall has made thus far is an example of the patience he hopes to see from the quarterback once the regular season begins. In one of the Tigers’ scrimmages during camp, the offense faced a third-and-14. Lining up in a four-wide receiver set, Marshall’s protection broke down. Instead of tucking the ball and running at the first sign of distress, however, Marshall stood tall and dumped it off to his safety valve on the play, Corey Grant. The running back took care of the rest, picking up 16 yards to keep the drive alive.

Lashlee, a former quarterback, couldn’t have been more pleased if he had run the play himself.

“We convert a third-and-14 just because he does his job and doesn’t try to do more than he has to do,” he said. “And to me, that showed great maturity and that, ‘Hey, he’s buying in. He’s trying to play within the system and do what we asked him to do.’”

That doesn’t mean Marshall will always decide to stay in the pocket. Far from it. He just knows his limitations.

Playing one year in the SEC — even if it was on defense — taught him to pick his spots.

“In this league, you can’t take too many hits at quarterback,” Marshall said. “I’ll use it to my advantage to get out of bounds or just get down.”

Undoubtedly, the questions about his one-year stay at Georgia and Newton will surface in myriad forms for the duration of the season. Whether Marshall will ever respond at length is up to him. People shouldn’t hold their breath on either count.

All Marshall cares to talk about is getting Auburn back on the right track.

“I know the team is behind me and I’m behind them 100 percent,” he said. “We’re going to go out there and win games.”