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August 25, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

Auburn Football

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

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

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

In his absence, Sanders has stepped to the fore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Marcus Davis already in line for playing time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quick hits

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

August 15, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

“I would definitely hope not,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 11, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk is cheap, as the saying goes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 8, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Freshmen defensive linemen making their mark

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

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

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

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

McNeal, Grimes on the mend

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

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

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

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

Quick hits

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

August 3, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/3: Demetruce McNeal back at practice in limited role

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to see roughly 20 minutes of practice on Saturday, which marked Day 2 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short time at practice.

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was hands-on with his unit on Saturday. Here, he watches redshirt freshman Shon Coleman attacks a tackling sled. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes was hands-on with his unit on Saturday. Here, he watches redshirt freshman Shon Coleman attacks a tackling sled. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

  • Demetruce McNeal’s lack of participation was the biggest story of Friday’s practice. The senior safety was back on Saturday, but didn’t look much different than he did the previous day. He appeared to be favoring his left leg as he watched teammates run through drills and occasionally glancing down at a piece of paper in his hands. Unlike Friday, he donned a helmet for the first time. Gus Malzahn would only say that McNeal has a “medical issue that he’s working through,” declining to lend any insight as to when the Tigers’ top returning tackler will be cleared to practice without any limitations.
  • Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes had a lot of instruction for his group Saturday. “Get that second step!” he said. “(You’ve got to) get vertical push on that down guy!” The drill involved two linemen lining up with their hand on the ground across from a defender. The goal (obviously) was to get leverage on the player acting as the defensive lineman and move him out of the way. Grimes had them working in alternating groups.
  • Four players who fielded punts on Friday were back at it Saturday: wide receivers Trovon Reed, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis along with cornerback Chris Davis. The only one missing Saturday was running back Jonathan Ford. He was still in a return capacity, however, as he was working with kick returners. The other four kick returners were running backs Corey Grant and Tre Mason, wide receiver Ricardo Louis and defensive back Jonathan Jones.
  • The four quarterbacks jockeying for position at the top of the depth chart tossed the ball back and forth to each other. Newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson paired up together, while Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier did the same. Offensive coordinator and quarterback coach Rhett Lashlee gave each of them feedback, while Malzahn watched silently in the background chewing on a wad of bubblegum.
  • To reiterate something repeated by nearly every other media member on Friday: Yes, Johnson is quite tall. He’s every bit of the 6-foot-5 he’s listed at on the team’s official roster.
  • Avery Young, who started three games at right tackle last season as a true freshman, looked fine during every drill he took part in Saturday. The sophomore was sidelined most of last season with a shoulder injury, and surgery on it forced him to miss most of the spring. But through two days of fall camp, it looks like he is fully recovered.
  • Malzahn runs a tight ship in nearly every aspect of his program. One area where he seems to be lenient, however, is a dress code for the coaching staff. Few, if any, matched with each other Saturday. Malzahn had on a long-sleeve orange Auburn shirt and khaki shorts (along with his signature visor), Lashlee wore a short-sleeve orange Auburn T-shirt and blue shorts. The winner of the day was defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who was wearing at least two, possibly three shirts. He had an orange Auburn pullover and another long-sleeve blue shirt underneath. The lesson here: The heat don’t bother Rodney Garner, y’all.

August 2, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/2: Demetruce McNeal sits out first day of fall camp

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to view a little more than 15 minutes of practice on Friday, which marked the first day of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short time at practice.

Tyler Nero runs through drills with the rest of the defensive linemen on the first day of Auburn's fall camp on Friday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Tyler Nero runs through drills with the rest of the defensive linemen on the first day of Auburn’s fall camp on Friday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

  • The biggest news from the practice centered on a player who didn’t participate. The Tigers’ top returning tackler, safety Demetruce McNeal, did not take part in any portion of today’s practice. He was off to the side for all defensive back drills, as well as when the entire team gathered together to begin stretching and running with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell.
  • There were five players back fielding punts: wide receivers Trovon Reed, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis; cornerback Chris Davis and running back Johnathan Ford.
  • Defensive line coach Rodney Garner ran his unit through a drill where each player was forced to stay low in an attempt to get off the ball with better positioning. They did this by practicing under a trampoline-like mechanism that forced them to stay low, lest they come up too quickly and hit the top of the bar. “Explode, roll your hips and meet the contact!” Garner told his players. When Kenneth Carter didn’t get back to the line quick enough, his coach tersely reminded him he had to pick up the pace. (There’s no doubt head coach Gus Malzahn would be proud to hear one of his coaches on defense keeping his unit to the same up-tempo standard as the offense.)
  • Speaking of Malzahn, he refrained from hands-on coaching as far as this reporter could see. Instead, he was content to stay in the background chewing bubblegum.
  • The position under the most scrutiny entering fall camp did little to mesmerize spectators on Friday. Quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier, Jonathan Wallace, Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson were all present and accounted for. (Yes, walk-on Tucker Tuberville also took part, but obviously he’s not a legitimate candidate to win the starting job.) Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who doubles as the quarterback coach, mainly had his signal-callers working on footwork. They dropped back, planted their feet, threw off their back foot, worked on handoffs, etc. Again, far from captivating stuff.
  • Wide receivers and defensive backs lined up against each other, too. This had more to do with “installation” than it had to do with specific plays, however. Cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith took special care to make sure each of his players lined up correctly, noting the exact distance they needed to be apart from each other at the line of scrimmage.
  • The viewing portion ended as the stretching and conditioning drills began. Russell, full of energy and yelling out every instruction, let the players know that “Every step needs to be a stretch!”

July 23, 2013

SEC Preseason Power Rankings: Day 3

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextraSEC_new_logo

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

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

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

10. MISSISSIPPI STATE

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

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

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

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

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

9. AUBURN

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

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

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

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

We good?

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

May 8, 2013

Wright-Garner relationship goes back to high school, when Carver alum considered Georgia

Gabe Wright

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – The numbers 3 and 4 changed the course of Gabe Wright’s college football career.

Because Auburn reversed those numbers – in your traditional 4-3 base defense – Wright chose the Tigers. As a Carver (Ga.) standout in the trenches, Wright didn’t feel he was specifically built to handle nose tackle duties in his home state Georgia’s 3-4 modern scheme.

Halfway through his stay in the Loveliest Village, Wright didn’t mind pondering (only for a brief few seconds) what could have been. His sophomore year of high school, he very nearly committed to Georgia to play for defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who’d been whipping the Bulldogs in shape for over a decade.

Life has a way of sorting itself out.

“Coach Garner let us know there was no place he would have left Georgia for, except Auburn. He’s an Auburn man,” Wright said. “We’ve got one of the best coaches in college football.”

Wright’s proud to say he’s only played for an “Auburn man” – Garner’s predecessor of two years, Mike Pelton, was also a former Tigers defensive lineman.

There was a fine relationship between Garner and Wright during the recruiting process; no surprise, considering Garner’s made a living off of mining the best pass-rushing, run-stuffing talent the state of Georgia has to offer.

But now the prospect-recruiter connection has, three years later, evolved to player-coach, and there’s a fine line between the two.

Rodney Garner

“The guy that recruits you and the guy that coaches is a little bit different guy. And that’s the way it’s got to be,” said Garner, who officially returned to Auburn on Dec. 21 after spending 15 years with Georgia. “(They) probably didn’t know how to take me at first, but you spend a little quality time with them.”

That quality time is spent on practice fields, hearing Garner’s constant barking ring through their ears, which Wright and his mates did for 15 practices this spring. A different view than when Garner’s in living rooms, convincing recruits and their loved ones to play for him.

“Yeah, I’m demanding, but I love them, and I care about them, and I want them to know that,” Garner said. “But at the same time, loving them, to me, is not letting them get away with stuff. Loving them is holding them accountable, being demanding. It’s just like raising a child. You love your child, you discipline them.”

Wright remembering feeling close to Garner and his wife, Kim, who have five daughters but no sons of their own.

“Coach Garner, him and his wife have always been good to me and my family,” Wright said. “He was always polite, up-front. The thing I liked about him the most, it wasn’t always happy-happy. He told me the real side of recruiting.”

Of course, once Garner takes his whistle and Wright dons his pads, it’s even more of the tough love.

“He’s probably the most intense guy … high-level, energy guy. It fits this team well,” Wright said. “I think this team needs that, this team likes that. I want a guy to be on me all the time.”

As far as Wright’s place on the defensive line, he’s currently listed along with Jeffrey Whitaker as the first-unit tackles. Angelo Blackson and Ben Bradley expect to play plenty, and then there’s blue-chip commit Montravius Adams arriving this summer.

“Gabe would probably say this all the time: I’ve got to change his mindset,” Garner said. “You know, mentally he’s a white-collar guy, but playing defensive tackle in the SEC, you’ve got to be a blue-collar guy. So it’s a little bit nastier than it can be at end. He wants to be out there with the white collar on the end, but that’s not where he is, and that’s not what he does.”

May 6, 2013

Garner still keeps up with old Georgia mates, but focused in on restoring Auburn football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

COLUMBUS, Ga. – Rodney Garner’s not about to wipe away 15 years of memories at Georgia. But he always was an Auburn man, and once again he’s got the appropriate windbreaker to prove it.

The featured speaker for the Columbus Phenix City Auburn Club’s spring meeting Monday night, Garner took time out from his never-ending duties as Auburn recruiting coordinator to visit the Green Island Country Club – settled close to the Georgia-Alabama border, and thus the SEC West-SEC East boundary.

Before he shook hands, shared smiles and delivered his remarks to a few hundred guests over dinner, the Tigers’ new defensive line coach and associate head coach reflected on why he made his move to his alma mater – less than a month after Auburn completed a 3-9 season.

“Me as an Auburn man, I didn’t like what they experienced last year, because whether you’re actually going through it or not, if you’re an Auburn person, you do experience it,” Garner said. “Even though I was at a rival school, it still hurt me to watch my school have the struggles that it did last year.”

Make no mistake: Garner’s still got Georgia on his mind. He’s got to, after a continuous stint since 1999 in Athens – an eternity in coaching circles to spend in one place.

Leading up to the NFL Draft April 25-27, Garner spoke to former Bulldogs Alec Ogletree (a first-round pick to the Rams), John Jenkins (third, Saints), Abry Jones and Kwame Geathers. On the recruiting trail last week, Garner caught up with Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend, who’s not considered the enemy.

“I really care about those guys and care about the coaches,” Garner said. “You develop relationships. I was there 15 years, which is a long time.”

Whereas many coaches bounce around from job to job a few years at a time, and can zone in on the present day, Garner’s fine with reflecting on where he spent the last nearly third of his life.

“It’s a good place, a special place. Definitely, I enjoyed my time there, left on really good terms,” Garner said. “It’s no animosity or anguish against them. I’ll definitely pull for them, except when we have to play them. It’s a bunch of good guys on that staff, a bunch of good guys on that team.”

In a separate line of questioning, Garner was quick to point out he’s got a bunch of good guys in his current position group. The rigors of spring football behind them, the Tigers are hoping to make swift and sweeping improvements from 2012.

“By no stretch of the imagination did we feel like we’ve arrived. But I really felt like our kids bought into what we were trying to do, what we were trying to teach,” Garner said. “I think they’ve bought into the culture.”

Senior pass-rusher Dee Ford and other defensive linemen are using their precious few days off to visit Chuck Smith, who played defensive end for the Falcons in the 1990s and is now a personal trainer based in Atlanta.

That’s the Garner-Georgia connection at work; an Athens native, Smith trained Bulldogs under Garner’s watch. Now Auburn players capture the offseason edge.

“The perception is they underperformed, for whatever reason. That’s why change came,” Garner said. “I think they are prideful young men, and I think they want to reach their expectations. I think they have high expectations of themselves.”

Junior defensive tackle Gabe Wright produced a light-hearted moment leading up to spring practices, when he joked Auburn’s got no nice coaches. Garner doesn’t take that personally – not with his no-nonsense style going from one SEC outpost to another.

“It’s not a nice league. I mean, it’s not. That’s why they chose to come to it. It’s a demanding league. I know these guys don’t like what they experienced last year,” Garner said. “So we’re going to do everything in our power to change that. The only way I know how to do it is through hard work, not taking shortcuts, being disciplined, being fundamental, and being tough.”

April 29, 2013

Final four questions answered from spring | Grading each position, guessing 7-5 season

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. — Back on Feb. 13 – I know, that seems eons ago to me too – I was the Auburn beat writer rep answering a few questions entering spring football for The Saturday Edge, a web site dishing out info on the SEC and college football.

In the same style as before, here’s a wrap-up Q&A before we enter the dog days of summer. Answers are my own. I was particularly intrigued to answer the third of these four questions.

Gus Malzahn

What was the biggest takeaway this past month? Were any of the pre-spring question marks successfully addressed?

Easily, the storyline was howfreakingfastAuburnwillmoveonoffense. The players’ heads were spinning after just one practice, and I’m not sure they ever got completely used to their old offensive coordinator slash new head coach’s tempo, which clearly trickled down to all the new assistants who obliged to Gus Malzahn’s orders.

Name a few unknown players who could have breakout seasons.

Justin Garrett is known to beat writers and diehard, attentive fans who read the coverage. To the rest of the SEC and nation at the moment, he’s just a guy with two first names. That’ll change as soon as he produces his first impact game with double-digit tackles or two forced turnovers. He’s loving that “star” hybrid spot in Ellis Johnson’s defense. Also file away names like tailback Cameron Artis-Payne, receiver Jaylon Denson and defensive end Kenneth Carter.

Grade each position group & special teams (ex. QB – B, RB – B+, etc) …… time permitting, if the grade is exceptionally high or low, can you expand on why you believe this to be so?

QBs: C. Nobody separated himself. Troubling news.

RBs: A-. Tre Mason wants three 1,000-yard rushers. Might not be so outlandish.

WRs: B-. Decent options. Not great right now. Check back in August.

OL: B+. Starting five seems in place, but they’ll have their hands full with SEC Ds.

DL: B. Rodney Garner has to be salivating over the incoming freshmen.

LB: C+. Some uncertainty here, even though the potential is fairly respectable.

DB: A. Corners have been great, Garrett’s locked in at star. Just need a free safety.

ST: B-. Punter and kicker are solid seniors, but return game lacks playmakers.

Are there any “surprises” we can expect from this team (is there a reason that makes you think this team is better or not as good as the pundits/public think they are)?

I’d say the consensus is Auburn’s looking at a 7-5 regular season, and maybe a Gator or Music City Bowl appearance. Which would pretty much match Gene Chizik’s first year in 2009 coming off a bowl-less season. Gus Malzahn’s system has the capability to fire off an upset at LSU or in Jordan-Hare Stadium vs. Georgia. Conversely, the young Tigers, still licking wounds from 3-9, are just as susceptible at home to Mississippi State or Ole Miss the first five weeks of the season.

Generally, this fan base would settle for a bowl game. Considering the steady yet unspectacular progress, the schedule appears too daunting to expect a 10-win renaissance … but as J.P. said in Angels in the Outfield: “hey, it could happen.”