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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 21, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

Who starts at right tackle?

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

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

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

Who is the team’s go-to receiver?

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

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

What happens at defensive end without Dee Ford?

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

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

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

Who holds the edge at middle linebacker?

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

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

That should tell people all they need to know.

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

What’s the deal with the secondary?

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

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

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

April 21, 2013

A-Day follow-up notes: McNeal’s mysterious absence leaves Auburn thin at safety

Auburn A-Day

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Demetruce McNeal has missed the last three practices – including Saturday’s A-Day scrimmage – and remains out indefinitely for undisclosed reasons.

“He’s dealing with some things off the field, and it’s day to day,” head coach Gus Malzahn said Saturday. “That’s really all we know at this time.”

McNeal’s absence combined with Trent Fisher nursing a bad ankle leaves the Tigers painfully thin at safety. Walk-on Blake Poole was called upon to work with the first unit Saturday.

Clearly, Auburn could use the painless return of its leading returning tackler. Whether McNeal is on the roster in 2013 or not, reinforcements in the fall include junior college transfer Brandon King and high-schooler Khari Harding.

Auburn A-Day

Winning them back: Three times in October and November, the turnstiles at Jordan-Hare Stadium were spinning around and around like a broken carousel.

In people flowed by kickoff. Out they fled by halftime.

See, fan support is everything to major-college head coach job security, which is why Gene Chizik’s perch was officially in jeopardy Oct. 6 when the fans decided they’d had enough well before the end of a 24-7 loss to Arkansas, treating a cherished Saturday SEC game like a bad movie.

It was even worse weeks later vs. Texas A&M (63-21) and Georgia (38-0), ushering Chizik out and leading to Malzahn’s return as head coach.

So for Auburn senior associate athletic director for external affairs Scott Carr – a man whose job relies heavily on public perception – and other high-ranking officials to hear the mind-boggling number “83,401” rattle the record books at Saturday’s A-Day was, well, vindicating.

“There’s been so much positive energy built since we hired coach Malzahn and the staff he put together, and the recruiting class we had,” Carr said. “We knew there was a lot of that positive momentum building. To have it culminate with A-Day, this type of crowd shows that the feedback we’ve been hearing from people about their excitement level is accurate.”

Added Malzahn, “We had a tough year last year, but for them to come out and support our team, it’s overwhelming. I know our players had big eyes, and they really appreciate it.”

Clash of titans: After 13 practices of knocking heads against each other, Auburn’s offensive and defensive lines share a common goal.

In defensive tackle Gabe Wright’s own words: total domination.

“It starts up front. There’s no bigger slogan than that,” Wright said. “So if we can get that tenacity back up to par, and learn how to flip that switch, that’s what we’re trying to bring back.”

Shake it off: After quarterback Jonathan Wallace made a bad decision throwing behind Quan Bray and getting intercepted by Ryan Smith, he didn’t sulk. His teammates noticed.

“If you make a bad play, you have to hold your head high on the next play. Jonathan Wallace threw a pick and he was on the sideline getting us ready for the next series,” tight end Brandon Fulse said. “He was telling us not to get down. He told us to be winners and we were winners today. He inspires us.”

Wallace was 18-for-26 with 191 yards and two touchdowns against the two turnovers.

In their ear: Throughout Saturday’s scrimmage, Malzahn stood about 10 yards behind the quarterbacks, so he could get a front-row view of Kiehl Frazier’s and Wallace’s command of the offenses.

They wore orange no-contact jerseys, which might have been different if the health of Frazier and Wallace wasn’t such a precious commodity.

“I wish we could be live, but we only have two scholarship guys going through spring to evaluate them a little bit better,” Malzahn said. “But today gave us some good information, especially with them.”

Malzahn restated every position – from quarterback to kicker – will be won by the best player available, meaning the competition will be infused with Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith for the fall.

20auburn20

Mincy mistake: New rules dictate that players can be ejected for targeting a defenseless receiver above the head.

Because the refereeing crew Saturday is asked to treat A-Day like a real game, first-team cornerback Jonathon Mincy got the boot for pasting Dimitri Reese on a screen pass, causing Reese to stay down for a few minutes before walking off woozy.

“I have to say 15-yard penalties are unacceptable,” Malzahn said. “We have asked our guys to play hard, but I promise you, that will be corrected. That was not good, no doubt.”

Mincy remained on the sideline but did not return to the field.

Hold on: The seven touchdowns were encouraging for a previously stagnant offense, but four turnovers – including three lost fumbles, all unforced errors by offensive players – were troubling.

“Yeah, that’s definitely a concern,” Malzahn said.

April 20, 2013

Seven different Auburn Tigers score seven touchdowns in 35-14 A-Day spectacle

Auburn A-Day

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – Care to see Gus Malzahn bristle? Call his system a spread offense.

Want to see the head coach glow? Seven touchdowns spread out to seven different players in one half ought to light him up.

It’s only a simulation, but if Auburn’s new-look offense comes anywhere close to replicating A-Day’s effort this fall, the Tigers will enjoy a new day indeed.

Two running backs, two wide receivers, a quarterback, a tight end and a “star” linebacker produced the scoring in Saturday’s enamoring scrimmage, won 35-14 by the “orange” squad made up mostly by the Tigers’ first-team players at Jordan-Hare Stadium, packed by an A-Day record 83,401 fans.

Squeezing in 111 plays, Auburn’s offensive players combined for 548 yards – including 425 yards on 77 snaps in the 24-minute first half, which contained all the scoring. A running clock was employed in the second half.

“It wasn’t just trying to window-dress it as far as making it nice for a spring game,” Malzahn said. “We tried to go fast and use our pace.”

The misconception in some circles is Malzahn-led teams – including three as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-11 – is his lightning-fast tempo is dictated through the air, but he prefers the label “run-first, playaction offense.”

Those words are music to the ears of running backs Tre Mason and Cameron Artis-Payne, who handled all the significant carries out of the backfield as Corey Grant was held out with a high fever.

Mason, Auburn’s leading 2012 rusher, and Artis-Payne, a 2,000-yard juco transfer, combined for 177 yards on 29 carries (none for a loss), which computes to a 6.1 rush average.

Auburn A-DayIn his first public effort at Auburn, Artis-Payne added two catches for 47 yards, including a tackle-breaking 42-yarder down the right sideline.

Along with his 18 rushes for 137 yards and a 27-yard TD, he was the media’s easy pick for Lionel James Offensive MVP – a welcomed treat for the California juco standout’s family, making the 15-hour trip from Pennsylvania to the Plains.

“We feel like as a backfield we can be really explosive,” Artis-Payne said. “Coach Malzahn’s offense produces wherever he goes; I’m just excited to be a part of that.”

Mason wasn’t shabby himself, logging 60 yards on 11 carries and a 4-yard score after missing most of spring with a bad ankle.

“I’ve actually gotten excited. I love seeing them do their thing and ball out,” said Mason, who voiced the 2013 goal of three 1,000-yard rushers along with Artis-Payne and Grant. “We want to do this thing together. We are looking to do something.”

About those quarterbacks: a starter won’t be named until the three incomers have their chance, but junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace were mostly efficient in their most pressurized job interview of the offseason.

Wallace’s day dawned with disaster, when crowd noise crossed up communication between him and second-team center Tunde Fariyike. The shotgun snap zoomed over Wallace’s right shoulder, scooped up by breakout junior Justin Garrett for the game’s opening points.

To his credit, Wallace collected himself – his combined statline read 18-of-26 for 191 yards and two touchdowns, with one bad read on an interception by safety Ryan Smith.

“Of course, the biggest thing (offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee) told us: if you mess up, go to the next play, and we were able to do that,” Wallace said. “That next drive that we had, we scored. It’s just a matter of putting those things behind you and fighting through the adversity.”

Meanwhile, Frazier was more even-keel: the 2012 opening-day starter completed 10-of-16 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown, plus a 7-yard scoring scramble, but lost a fumble on an exchange with walk-on tailback Patrick Lymon.

“I can run around a little bit more,” Frazier said. “Plus we’re going fast paced and that’s something that I grew up in, so I’m definitely feeling comfortable.”

Garrett was named Mark Dorminey Defensive MVP, justifying why he’s been called the “brightest spot” of the spring repeatedly by players and coaches the past three weeks.

“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Garrett, who hadn’t scored a touchdown since high school. “Can’t really explain the emotion that was going on, but I saw the ball on the ground, tried to pick it up and go as fast as possible to the end zone.”

Receivers Trovon Reed and walk-on Dimitri Reese and tight end Brandon Fulse each caught TD passes. Sammie Coates made four catches for 84 yards on the second-team “blue” squad.

Holder Ryan White earned Lewis Colbert Specialty MVP honors, since kicker Cody Parkey was 0-for-2 on field goals and there were no punts or kickoffs. But White did lead both defenses with five solo tackles.

Defensive end Kenneth Carter and linebacker Kris Frost each recovered fumbles, making for four turnovers on the afternoon.

Free safety Demetruce McNeal was still not with the team, attending to off-field issues. Malzahn reiterated his status is day-to-day.

In the game’s most bizarre moment, cornerback Jonathon Mincy was assessed a 15-yard personal foul for laying out Reese, and ejected by the new rule barring defenders from hitting a defenseless receiver above the shoulders.

After getting the training staff’s attention, Reese walked off under his own power. He was the day’s only notable injury.

Auburn has two final spring practices scheduled for next week. The 2013 opener is Aug. 31 against Washington State.

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March 20, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Defensive backs

This is the first of an 8-day series previewing each Auburn position leading into spring football. Tomorrow: linebackers.

Arkansas Auburn Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – A healthy mix of talented veterans and tasty youngsters who got plenty of playing time? Not a bad start for a couple of long-time coaching buddies to work with.

Charlie Harbison has the safeties, which means he’ll guide two entrenched starters in Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead along with role players Ryan Smith and Trent Fisher.

Melvin Smith takes cornerbacks, leading upperclassmen Chris Davis and Jonathan Mincy while hoping to craft sophomores-to-be Joshua Holsey and Jonathan Jones into the next Johnthan Banks-Darius Slay type of pair.

As long as Harbison and Smith can do something about the Tigers’ 101th-ranked pass efficiency defense – not to mention start creating some turnovers – they’ll get along famously with fans.

Here’s a look at Auburn’s secondary, leading into spring football scrimmages:

Who’s been playing: CB Chris Davis (sr.), CB Joshua Holsey (so.), CB Jonathan Jones (so.), FS Demetruce McNeal (sr.), CB Jonathon Mincy (jr.), SS Ryan Smith (sr.), SS Jermaine Whitehead (jr.)

Who’s in waiting: CB T.J. Davis (r-fr.), S Trent Fisher (jr.), S Erique Florence (jr.), DB Jordan Spriggs (jr.), CB Robenson Therezie (jr.), CB Ryan White (sr.)

Who’s out the door: CB T’Sharvan Bell, DB Ikeem Means

Who’s in the door: DB Mackenro Alexander (Immokalee, Fla.), S Khari Harding (Edmond, Okla.), S Brandon King (Alabaster, Ala.), CB Kamryn Melton (Dothan, Ala.)

Who’s coaching ‘em up: Cornerbacks – Melvin Smith, 23rd year (18th in SEC); Safeties – Charlie Harbison, 21st year (11th in SEC)

Who’d they replace, where is he now: Willie Martinez, Tennessee

9.16p mcneal

Thoughts and musings:

- “Clown show.” It was the most entertaining, and perhaps iconic, quote of the year, coming from the mouth of Demetruce McNeal in reference to the Tigers’ 2011 defensive effort at LSU. It turned out characterizing the entire 2012 season – while McNeal was probably Auburn’s most consistent defender (when he wasn’t in the doghouse), he was rarely allowed to speak with the media, for fear of sound bites like that one.

- Jermaine Whitehead was one of just four Tigers (LB Daren Bates, WR Emory Blake and OL Chad Slade) to start all 12 games last fall.

Clemson_Auburn25_9-1-12- Erique Florence and Robenson Therezie have long been rumored to consider transferring from Auburn. Neither have done so – they’re each on the pre-spring roster and participating in winter workouts. Each were four-star recruits who would be ripe to benefit from a change of scenery in terms of the new coaching staff. So they’ll be two prospects to watch in April, especially in the spring game.

- Florence missed two 2012 games for undisclosed personal reasons, and Therezie briefly switched to running back – a move he swore was his decision and was permanent – before returning to corner.

- Chris Davis battled concussions the second half of the season. We’ll be asking him how he’s doing medically, being a hot topic in this era of competitive football.

- Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 system requires a ‘star’ defender, who requires the speed of a safety and the size of a linebacker. Look for incoming junior college recruit Brandon King to compete for that spot immediately.

- Which true freshman could play right away? Head coach Gus Malzahn said he needs a “vicious”-hitting safety, and that’s how, on Signing Day, he described Khari Harding.

Statistically speaking:

65.6 – Auburn opponents’ completion percentage in 2012, the 10th-highest mark in Division I football.

358 – passes attempted by Auburn opponents in 2012 – the 20th-least nationally.

20 – touchdown passes by Auburn opponents in 2012 – tied for 57th-least nationally.

2 – interceptions by Auburn players in 2012, tied with South Florida for the least in the country. One was by linebacker Daren Bates, the other was by occasionally-used safety Trent Fisher.

19 – interceptions by Mississippi State in 2012, led then by Melvin Smith. In the SEC, only Florida had more (20).

3 – sacks by Auburn defensive backs – one each for McNeal, Whitehead and Mincy.

6 – double-digit tackle games by McNeal, leading the Tigers. He did not register any tackles in three games – Clemson, Alabama A&M and Alabama.

90 – tackles by McNeal, just four off of Bates’ team-leading pace.

7 – tackles for a loss by McNeal, tied with Angelo Blackson leading the team.

37 – career games played for McNeal, who at times clashed with the former coaching staff. If he plays every regular season game plus a bowl game his senior year, McNeal hit the 50-game mark, one more than Daren Bates, John Sullen and Onterio McCalebb totaled.

159 – the number of solo tackles attributed to McNeal, Whitehead, Mincy and Davis, the four frequent secondary starters. That’s exactly one-third the entire team total by just those four defensive backs, which does not include another 89 by other DBs. Four of the team’s top six tacklers were in the secondary.

Good Twitter follows: The football field isn’t the only forum for a friendly rivalry between Josh Holsey and Jonathan Jones. Holsey’s @HeyItsJHolsey (4,431 followers) currently has the best of Jones’ @Jonathan_Jones2 (2,800), and both accounts showcase their owner’s personality: Holsey’s fun-loving and feisty, while Jones is more laid-back, cerebral and even philosophical when the moment strikes.

Say what? “With a 4-2-5, you’re wider. By relocating that third defensive back, it changes the dynamic of the corner … it’s all about leverage. If you’re in a 4-2-5, and you make a living in it, you’re going to play some man coverage. The reason people play the 4-2-5 is because of personnel matchup vs. the offense. The 4-2-5 allows you to cover whatever shows up.” – Melvin Smith, describing the role of cornerbacks in a true 4-2-5 package

Joshua Holsey

March 1, 2013

BACK TO THE FUTURE, Part I: The good, the bad & the ugly from the Clemson game, plus an early preview of Washington State

AUBURN, Ala. – Alrighty. Here we go. A look back at the football game Auburn played six months ago tonight, and how these lessons from the film room apply to next season. We’ll do this each Friday from now until the end of May.

Allow me to reiterate: obviously, last year stunk. I saw it myself. This is a way to utilize what we’ve learned about the returning Tigers and how they’ll fit in with the 2013 team, which is why you won’t read a ton of elaboration on guys who are gone (T’Sharvan Bell, Emory Blake, etc.) It also won’t overrate how particular schemes played out, because, again, those coaches are gone. Out with the old, in with the new, for sure. This is just applying the old players to new schemes.

OK, no more disclaimer. Let’s get started. And don’t forget to read below for a (very) early look at Auburn’s season-opening opponent, Washington State.

Clemson_Auburn2_9-1-12

 NO. 14 CLEMSON 26, AUBURN 19 ~ Sept. 1, 2012, ESPN

Chick-Fil-A Kickoff Classic, Georgia Dome, Atlanta

The preview | The review

The Good

On Clemson’s opening possession | DE Dee Ford destroys two blocks, and races down quarterback Tajh Boyd for the sack. Already an impact player.

On Auburn’s opening possession | for their first snaps in Auburn uniforms, FB Jay Prosch puts a nice lead block on free safety Xavier Brewer, and LT Greg Robinson pancakes defensive end Corey Crawford, springing RB Onterio McCalebb for 5 yards.

For their first boots as juniors | K Cody Parkey knocks a touchback, and P Steven Clark skies one 45 yards producing a fair catch. They’ll do.

For his first carry | RB Tre Mason picks up five yards after contact. Already, he’s showing he’s a tough guy to bring down.

For his first touchdown | QB Kiehl Frazier. Playaction. WR Emory Blake. Boom.

Coaches will later point out RT Avery Young not just once, but twice rerouted defensive tackle Grady Jarrett from touching Frazier, allowing Kiehl time in the pocket to deliver a perfect spiral 57 yards downfield on the money.

Frazier elatedly leaps into Mason’s arms on his way down the field. It was far and away his happiest moment of the season. (Only his 33-yard TD catch and Hail Mary throw against ULM even kind of compare.)

On the final play of the first quarter | LB Daren Bates gets a sack, following up a controversial exchange you’ll read about in a moment. I bet a lot of Auburn fans assessed after the first 15 minutes, “It’s gonna be a good season.”

On its own 1-yard-line | Mason goes 40 yards in two carries, both with Prosch clearing a path. However, Mason then fumbles at midfield, popped loose by defensive tackle Josh Watson when Tre doesn’t protect enough with his left arm.

Late in the first half, 2nd and 10 | With Clemson on Auburn’s 41 threatening to open up its lead, a total team sack snuffs the threat. CB Chris Davis and LB Jake Holland draw O-Line blocks, which allows DT Gabe Wright to apply pressure. When Boyd has to improvise, DE Corey Lemonier has time to wrap him up from behind. The LB-CB blitz blew up Clemson’s home-run play call.

On Bates’ interception to start the fourth quarter | Wright was the one following the ball outside the trenches. He leaps, keeping his hands up and cutting off Boyd’s passing lane, forcing Boyd to throw behind tight end Sam Cooper, causing the pick.

Mason didn’t take long to show how he’s a hybrid back – he’s sleek yet powerful, he’s got quick burst yet he’s durable. Looked like a college version of Steven Jackson. There’s no reason he shouldn’t be an elite back in this new system going forward.

Clemson_Auburn23_9-1-12The Bad

On Kiehl’s first 3rd-down snap | There he is, watching the rush. Flips wildly to Mason, which he can’t grab, and Auburn goes three-and-out. This became, as they say, a thing.

When Boyd has to come out after losing his helmet | backup quarterback Cole Stoudt comes in on 2nd and 12. Stoudt, no real threat to throw, hands off on a zone draw to tailback Andre Ellington, who breaks FOUR tackles – FS Ryan Smith, Lemonier, Davis and SS Jermaine Whitehead in order – for a 15-yard pickup. Inexcusable.

Auburn DBs backpedal on a couple 3rd-and-longs | allows Clemson receivers to roam. DC Brian VanGorder’s stance was his secondary wasn’t prepared for press coverage.

On 2nd and 12 in the red zone | WR Trovon Reed completely lost track of his feet in the back of the end zone. Frazier’s throw was fine, but Reed didn’t keep his toes in bounds, negating the TD. Auburn would settle for three.

On the offensive line | Robinson did have the pancake on that Blake TD, but he also had a false start and a fatal-timed hold in the red zone.

The Ugly

Can’t believe I forgot about this play in hindsight | Boyd scrambles, DE Nosa Eguae forces a fumble tackling him in traffic, and Wright recovers. The refs initially rule Auburn ball. Somehow, it’s overturned, when it’s judged Boyd’s knee was down first. Upon replay, it looked like Boyd bobbled the football before his knee touched the turf, or at least it was too close to overturn. Even ESPN play-by-play man Brad Nessler seemed to disagree, saying, “Well, there’s our opinion, and then there’s the one that counts.” Then the refs even needed another delay to properly set the sticks. Bad exchange all around which could have allowed Auburn to grab some swagger.

On Ellington’s “flip-and-fly” run for 68 yards |Holland flat-out lost his grip on Ellington. CB Jon Mincy stutter-stepped, expecting Holland to take care of the job himself, and failed to cut off the angle, allowing Ellington to spring free. A huge momentum swing.

On Auburn’s opening possession out of the halftime locker room | there’s 12 men in the huddle once, and a timeout is later called to regroup. Unnecessary miscommunications, which you could certainly attribute to the first game with a new system.

Ugly on Clemson’s part | too many dropped balls. Shot themselves in the foot.

Clemson_Auburn8_9-1-12Notes and tidbits

Kiehl Frazier assessment | at best, he was poised and in control; at worst, he was a little inaccurate in his first spotlight appearance. Plenty of playaction and playfakes were called for him; though he wasn’t quite comfortable running downfield, he did have one nice scramble, sacrificing his body to pick up a first down. Give it a B-plus effort.

CB Ryan White and Ryan Smith opened the season in the starting lineup on defense. No, really. Look it up. Smith was said to be someone who “gets it”, as far as VanGorder’s complex playbook. Smith made a curious decision to leap toward Ellington on a sweep, instead of plugging a gap or wrapping up, and Ellington went for 45 yards. Both Ryans soon lost their starting jobs, even though White led the Tigers with 12 tackles that night.

Kick return coverage starters | Parkey, Davis, Josh Holsey, Jaylon Denson, Craig Sanders, Ikeem Means, T’Sharvan Bell, Anthony Swain, Jon Jones, Jon Evans, Demetruce McNeal. Only Means, Bell and Evans were seniors.

Clemson’s first quarter | 29 plays, 127 yards (4.34 yards/play), 11:43 possession

Auburn’s first quarter | 7 plays, 78 yards (11.14 yards/play), 3:17 possession

However, Auburn led 7-3.

Fourth quarter | Ellington 8 rush, 80 yards; Boyd 6 rush, 49 yards. They rushed for six first downs together (three for Ellington, three for Boyd), including three on third down. Defensive breakdowns, not being able to contain the run (particularly Boyd), stopped Auburn from stealing this game.

THREE STARS

3) Cody Parkey. Four for four on field goals, including a 46-yarder, is what you’re looking for.

2) Daren Bates.  A sack, an interception and sideline-to-sideline coverage even with a stinger. Gutty performance.

1) Jay Prosch. He had one hell of a game, the final time his mother watched him play football. Recovered a Kiehl Frazier fumble in the final minute to keep the game alive, and made Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason look really, really, really good.

Clemson_Auburn3_9-1-12

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GAME 1: Washington State at Auburn, Aug. 31, 2013, Jordan-Hare Stadium

A LOOK AT WASHINGTON STATE

2012 record: 3-9, 1-8 Pac-12

Head coach: Mike Leach, second year (@Coach_Leach)

Returning starters (o/d): Wazzu 19 (10/9)

Base formations: Offense – 4-WR spread | Defense – 3-4

Wazzu-Auburn series: Auburn leads 1-0 (preseason fourth-ranked Tigers won 40-14 in 2006 opener at JHS)

Notes: Auburn is 92-26-2 in season openers, with the Clemson loss breaking a six-game winning streak … Washington State was one of three BCS conference squads in 2012 to rank outside the top 100 both in scoring offense and scoring defense (Kansas, Colorado) … Auburn is 7-3 all-time against the Pac-12, while Wazzu is 1-9 all-time against the SEC … six of Auburn’s last nine season openers have been televised by the ESPN family of networks.

November 19, 2012

Notes: Wallace keeps drawing rave reviews

AUBURN, Ala. — Jonathan Wallace’s production in three starts has been mostly predictable.

The true freshman quarterback was an efficient game manager in blowouts of New Mexico State and Alabama A&M, but overmatched against mighty Georgia.

Regardless, the Central-Phenix City product continues to impress the coaching staff with his poise and precocious learning curve.

“He’s just come light years since he got here, throwing the football,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik raved Sunday. “He’s gotten rid of the ball quicker than I expected him to. He’s made decisions quicker than I expected him to. He’s gotten himself out of harm’s way sometimes because of that.

“He just makes a decision and he goes with it. It’s not always the perfect throw, but he’s made quick decisions and (shown) the element of toughness.”

Whereas older quarterbacks Kiehl Frazier and Clint Moseley struggled with vocal leadership, Wallace has steadily taken on that role in his first month as a starter.

“As a quarterback, you earn trust from the guys in terms of how you play and how you lead and how they see you respond to different circumstances,” Chizik said. “He’s made some nice throws, some touchdown throws and some tough runs, and they’ve seen him take big hits and get back in the huddle when he could have tapped out. I think that’s given him a little bit more of a license, in his mind, to try to be a vocal leader.”

Wallace on the season has completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 649 yards, with four touchdowns against two interceptions. His 9.8 yards per attempt dwarfs the figures of Barrett Trotter, Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier over the past two seasons.

“Playing a game like this, things are a little slower,” Wallace said Saturday after Auburn clobbered Alabama A&M 51-7. “It really helps being able to go through your progressions, I’ll say that.”

But as for big games against the SEC, Wallace picked up some experience in garbage time against Texas A&M’s prevent defense, before going 15-for-22 for 181 yards against Georgia, when the Tigers were blanked offensively.

Alabama’s defense is even stingier than Georgia’s, and it’ll be Wallace’s first road start.

“Ever since I was little, I’ve always dreamed about playing in this game,” Wallace said. “The opportunity is here now.”

“It’s like our national championship”: Alabama, by beating Auburn, would clinch an SEC title game berth, and would look to beat Georgia there in order to likely end up back in the national championship.

As for the Tigers? No destination bowl game awaits. So, this is their bowl game.

“If we win, it would be a patch on the season,” sophomore offensive lineman Chad Slade said. “I know we had a bad year, but if we take our will, do what we have to do, go up to Alabama and win, it’d be a great win.

“That’s the most important game we have to worry about. It’s like our national championship.”

Ashton moves on: Senior middle linebacker Ashton Richardson was understandably disappointed not to be awarded the Rhodes Scholarship over the weekend.

“He’s grateful for all the help Auburn University afforded him in pursuing this opportunity,” Richardson’s mother, Trina, said by phone Sunday. She and Ashton’s father, Al, accompanied him to the interview in Birmingham.

“He puts a lot of pressure on himself to represent his university well. But it was a learning experience, and he’s taking it one day at a time as he moves on from it.”

An animal sciences major, Richardson earns his undergraduate degree Dec. 8. Since he won’t be attending Oxford in the United Kingdom for the next two years, he’s already begun the process of applying to American medical schools.

Trina Richardson said Auburn was an option to continue his studies. Ashton Richardson rejoined the Tigers Sunday to prepare for Alabama.

In the doghouse: Auburn’s leading tackler entering Saturday was free safety Demetruce McNeal.

Now it’s linebacker Daren Bates, mainly because McNeal only played sparingly Saturday. He did not start for the third time this year, watching Trent Fisher and Ryan Smith take the lion’s share of the reps.

“He’s just got to go out there and continue to compete in practice,” Chizik said. “It’ll be a deal where we look at everything during the week and we make a decision later.”

It’s personal: For the second time this season, sophomore safety Erique Florence did not dress Saturday, spending time away from the team to address personal issues.

Chizik wasn’t sure whether Florence, a former blue-chip recruit who has appeared in six games this year, would travel to Alabama.

September 8, 2012

Video: Previewing Auburn-Mississippi State

STARKVILLE, Miss. – The space under my bed, I guess you could call it storage. Honestly, it’s more like ‘extraneous crap I never use.’

For three years-plus working in Iowa, an over-the-shoulder bag rotted in the nether regions of Davenport. It was a giveaway from a Big Ten Network event at the 2008 conference basketball tournament. Just didn’t have a need for it.

Then, I took this job in Auburn, and my new superiors outfitted me with an iPad, intending as a complementary piece to my laptop. But I quickly found it was cumbersome to load two mobile computing devices in one laptop bag.

Presto! Perfect solution. I summon you, Big Ten Network over-the-shoulder giveaway. It fits the iPad perfectly. I’ll be bringing two bags with me into every press box this season.

The point of this anecdote is this: a specific part’s value could be higher in certain systems over others.

Now, I’m not calling any Auburn backups ‘extraneous crap’. At all. They’re actually being used as part of numerous rotations. But you get my gist.

It just seems like Brian VanGorder has his system with players he didn’t recruit himself, and he’s going to figure out which players suit that system in the opening few weeks of the season. Not necessarily the best players, but the right ones.

Expect more subbing at defensive tackle, to hash out which guys can plug the gaps and let Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier run wild on the edge (I like Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson in that area, long-term). Expect some tinkering at safety, because Jermaine Whitehead and Ryan Smith were properly called out this week and there are capable fill-ins (Demetruce McNeal? Erique Florence? Robensen Therezie? Trent Fisher?) waiting to take those spots. Expect the coaches to find some way, anyway, to get Kris Frost on the field at linebacker.

Expect change. By the time October rolls around, we’ll likely know who’s busting out in the rotation and who’s going back under the bed.

-AB

September 4, 2012

Scouting Mississippi State

Who: RV/RV Auburn (0-1) at RV/RV Mississippi State (1-0)

When: Saturday, noon ET

Where: Davis Wade Stadium (55,082) | Starkville, Miss.

TV: ESPN (Dave Pasch, Brian Griese, Jenn Brown)

Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network (WVRK-FM 102.9 in Columbus)

Line: Mississippi State by -3

What to know about the Bulldogs: They very much have had their shots against Auburn the past two years (the eventual 2010 national champs won 17-14 in Starkville, and the Tigers won last year’s shootout by a touchdown) … they have not gotten their SEC slates started the right way, losing every conference opener since 1999. Auburn will be just the Bulldogs’ fourth unranked foe in the last 13 openers … MSU’s defense could be considered bend-but-don’t-break (kind of like Auburn), in that it ranked nationally in the top 16 in scoring defense last year (19.7 ppg) but outside the top 50 in turnovers forced and first downs allowed.

Previous meeting: Auburn 41, No. 16 Mississippi State 34 … Sept. 10, 2011 in Auburn: Tigers safety Ryan Smith stopped QB Chris Relf at the goal line, stuffing MSU’s bid to extend the highest-scoring SEC game of Auburn’s 2011 campaign. Michael Dyer ran for 150 yards and Emory Blake caught seven balls for 108 yards, each finding the end zone along with tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen and safety Demetruce McNeal on a pick-six.

All-time series: Auburn leads 60-23-2, including a 12-4-1 advantage in Starkville. Auburn has won four straight and nine of ten in the series going back to 2001. This is the ninth consecutive year Auburn has opened SEC action against Mississippi State.

Which Tiger is licking his chops: Senior receiver Emory Blake, whose career-high 109 yards against Clemson Saturday was his fifth effort over the century mark.

Who’s keeping the Auburn coaches up at night: Senior cornerback Johnthan Banks, who Blake has called “the best defender in pass coverage in the SEC. He’s just so long. He’s taller than I am, and he’s just a fast, tall corner. That’s not what you want to go up against.” What a matchup to watch Saturday.

Extra point: MSU was the subject of a recruiting scandal late in the preseason, when wide receivers coach Angelo Mirando abruptly resigned two weeks before the Jackson State opener and the university distanced itself from a booster who broke NCAA compliance rules regarding contact with recruits.

September 2, 2012

The Morning After: So what did we learn?

ATLANTA – We can only glean so much out of hearing secondhand from players and coaches on how practice is going.

Finally, some visual evidence for the media and fans to actually evaluate the 2012 Auburn football team and its forecast.

Overall, after watching Auburn lose an opportunity-rich 26-19 game to Clemson Saturday night, my thinking is this: the potential is there for Auburn to be a pretty good football team with a better season than last. The question is, how quickly the Tigers fulfill that potential? Will it be in the next week before SEC play, or not until after taking lumps against Mississippi State, LSU and Arkansas?

I have some quick-hit conclusions, based on a mere 60 minutes of action. They’re listed here in order of relevance to Auburn’s ultimate success.

- Kiehl Frazier might have sounded confident to his teammates and positive afterwards. He’ll just need some time to show it.

The leash is still on, folks. A lot of talk surrounded Auburn’s ability to get in the red zone and subsequent inefficiency to get any further … well, go back to the second quarter, when Clemson led 13-7 and Frazier drove Auburn 60 yards down to the Clemson 15. On 3rd-and-12, Auburn called a timeout (this was just after the Trovon Reed catch out of bounds), reasonably to draw up one decent shot at the end zone. The play call? A clearly designed checkdown in the flat to Onterio McCalebb, who’s much better in space at midfield than in the red zone, and a loss of five yards. Settled for a Parkey field goal. That’s not lack of execution; that’s taking a young guy out of a spot to make a play. The full playbook’s not quite open 100 percent. Yet.

Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen thought Frazier made some good throws. True. A couple of bombs to Lutz and Emory Blake kept the game close, since those two plays essentially produced 10 first-half points. But other than that, Frazier was off-target and a little wobbly on his delivery, and with that, you get 11-of-27 for 194 yards. Nice yards-per-completion, but not much else.

And we’ll have to wait for Frazier to put the “dual” in “dual threat”. He rushed nine times, and was sacked for double the lost yardage as he gained, finishing with minus-9 yards.

Cheer up, fans of Frazier. Consider that in Tajh Boyd’s first two games of extended action (concluding the 2010 season as a freshman), he was 23-for-41 for 185 yards, and rushed 11 times for minus-17 yards. Both losses. So it takes time.

- It was a semi-awkwardly posed question, which Gene Chizik fouled off: “Coach, did you think Clemson was capable of rolling up 528 yards on your defense?” “Well, I didn’t really think about how many yards they would get or we would give up.”

No, teams aren’t putting numerical figures on these kinds of things, just like Clemson wasn’t interested in how many points it gave up to West Virginia in the bowl game. But just as Dabo Swinney couldn’t avoid the embarrassment of yielding 70 points to the Mountaineers, Chizik can’t dodge the fact that allowing 528 yards – even in a dome, even with a new secondary and defensive coordinator, even with one linebacker still getting his sea legs back from injury and another taking a first-quarter stinger to the left shoulder – is 528 yards regardless.

Tajh Boyd is going to make a lot of ACC defenses look amateurish this fall. Andre Ellington (although 231 yards is disappointing even if it’s Adrian Peterson) has wheels and used his veteran guile to stay on his feet for that 68-yard scamper. DeAndre Hopkins was basically Sammy Hopkins Lite, and for all we know he’s the real deal.

But … but … 528 yards. Back to the drawing board, Coach VanGorder. Other than the defensive line getting great pass penetration, everything else – run gaps, 3rd-down inefficiency, and oh, that arm tackling – needs work, and fast.

- Dee Ford will be a household name by the end of September.

- Two of the four leading tacklers for Auburn: Ryan Smith and Jermaine Whitehead. Starting safeties. 23 tackles between them. Ryan White and T’Sharvan Bell also had seven each at cornerback. Gotta keep the runners in the front seven there, defense.

- Daren Bates is a tough man. I counted three times he came out nursing his left shoulder, which he said afterwards was just a stinger. Still got 11 tackles and the pick. He should be healthy going forward, but while his missile-like launches make for some big hits and nice plays, he’s got to wrap up so as not to miss more tackles. Who knows if the shoulder impacted that.

- Tre Mason might not have a game like that every week, but he sure added an excellent complementary piece to Onterio McCalebb. Gene Chizik said afterward nobody felt worse about the drive-killing fumble than Mason himself. But for an opening statement, Mason sure kept Mike Blakely (1 carry, 2 yards) on the bench best he could.

- Cody Parkey … ya done good. 4×4 FG and touchbacks galore. Keep it up. But he understands this is it for the domes. Say hello to wind again next week. Steven Clark also punted well. Special teams will be solid.

That’s all I got for now. I’m in New York the next two days, but copy will still be filed by me and others here on WarEagleExtra.com. I’ll be back Tuesday. Enjoy your Labor Day weekend.

-AB