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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.

August 20, 2013

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

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knows a gifted player when he sees one.

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

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

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

Lashlee will welcome him back with open arms.

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