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August 23, 2013

Auburn football: Tigers not lacking for options in the backfield

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ironically, the opposite has occurred.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 16, 2013

Auburn football: Tre Mason ready to silence doubters en route to setting school rushing record

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Tre Mason doesn’t write his goals down.

Junior running back Tre Mason says he wants to rush for a minimum of 1,500 yards this season. Bo Jackson's school record of 1,765 yards is on his mind, too. (File photo)

Junior running back Tre Mason wants to rush for a minimum of 1,500 yards this season. He said Bo Jackson’s school record of 1,786 yards is on his mind, too. (File photo)

Of course, that’s not a problem when those ambitions are committed to memory. And no one can say he’s not aiming high — the junior wants to rush for a minimum of 1,500 yards this season. Only two players in Auburn history have ever hit that plateau: Bo Jackson ran for a school-record 1,786 yards in 1985, while Rudi Johnson tallied 1,567 in 2000.

Consider Jackson’s number squarely in his sights.

“That’s one of my goals, to break the rushing record here,” he said. “I want to be the first to do that. ”

Tim Horton doesn’t mind that Mason states his objectives so publicly. The Tigers’ running backs coach said he never gives it a second thought.

His focus is more on his players’ gradual progress than their long-term aspirations, anyway.

“We’re more day-to-day. ‘Let’s have a good practice, let’s have a good day and a good meeting this afternoon’ and things of that nature,” he said. “You know, you do want them to have goals. I think goals are important, and hey, let’s shoot for the stars.”

Can Mason reach that record-setting level, though?

“Oh, I think so, and there are so many factors involved with that,” Horton said. “But he’s obviously a very good running back and he’s going to have to be very productive for us to have a good season. I think he’s got a lot of ability.”

One thing Mason will have to prove is that he’s durable enough to reach his target. Not that the Palm Beach, Fla., native isn’t used to being overlooked due to his compact stature.

“People (always) told me I wasn’t big enough, I wasn’t strong enough, I wasn’t fast enough maybe,” he said. “I take all of that as motivation to get bigger, stronger and faster and try to prove everyone wrong.”

As much as he craves becoming the Tigers’ workhorse back, Mason knows he has to work within the parameters of what head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee choose.

“You can’t really go against what a coach is doing,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s his call. When you do get that opportunity you got to show out and do what you’re supposed to do with the ball.”

Mason wasn’t able to do that much earlier this year, as he was sidelined for a majority of spring camp with an ankle injury. That opened the door for Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne, who ended the spring in a three-way logjam at the top of the running back depth chart alongside Mason.

Even though he wasn’t able to contribute much on the field, Artis-Payne said Mason helped him get acclimated to Auburn after transferring from Hancock Community College in California.

“I (learned) some things from Tre as far as how to handle different situations in a game or practice,” he said. “The biggest thing I took away from Tre is preparation. I’ve never played at Division I, so I didn’t know (what to do) in that aspect.”

Ironically, the things he taught Artis-Payne could end up being the reason he fails to reach his lofty intentions this year.

“I think the one thing we do have is that we’ve got more than just one running back,” Horton said. “I feel pretty confident about four or five of these guys, so I’d like to think we could get some carries from everybody.”

Artis-Payne doesn’t think spreading the wealth will slow Mason down, though.

“I think Tre’s going to shock a lot of people,” he said. “You know, me and Tre, we talk a lot, and he’s really determined to show us what he can do, especially on a bigger stage, because I don’t think we’re going to go 3-9 again.”

So go ahead and doubt Mason and his planned assault on the school’s rushing record. While you’re at it, he said, doubt the Tigers, too.

The underdog role is one Mason has gotten used to by now.

“We will shine,” he said. “Coach Malzahn said ‘It’s a new day,’ and it will be a new day August 31. We’ll show it.”

August 10, 2013

Auburn notes: Tim Horton Quote Roundup

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On how the depth chart is shaping up:

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

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

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

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

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

On Barber’s progress:

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

On how Barber and Ford have acclimated to college:

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

April 10, 2013

Quick observations from Auburn practice #8

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

AUBURN, Ala. – The weather was ideal. The intensity was not.

Can’t blame college kids too much for ever being sluggish at 8 a.m. at football practice, especially when Auburn’s been working at breakneck speed for a fortnight. (That’s two weeks, for you non-tennis nerds like me.)

Remember, the Tigers canceled Monday’s practice, meaning they had three full days off since Saturday’s heat-soaked scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium. So while the morning temperature was “Baby Bear porridge” perfect – not too hot, not too cool, but just right – the players seemed a tad rusty from the relatively lengthy layoff.

And it didn’t seem like the coaches got on their case … at least not that we saw. This is the third of four mornings in uniform, so we’ll see how the team tempo develops as we draw within single-digit days of the spring game.

Some quick observations from spring practice No. 8:

In high school, this 2-year quarterback (albeit a split starter his senior season) completed 52 percent of his passes (129-250) for 2,074 yards and 24 touchdowns.

Don’t expect Ryan White to compete with Jonathan Wallace or Kiehl Frazier anytime soon for reps. But White is dusting off the ol’ right arm, serving as a fake field goal passer in Wednesday’s drills.

Kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clark also will have to learn how to throw a ball on point in front of 80,000 screaming fans. There are some plays drawn up for them on fake punts and field goals.

Among the plays we saw (no video allowed): White throwing a quick route to Brandon Fulse in the end zone, Parkey passing to White on a rollout, a direct snap to Ricky Parks and run, a direct snap to Cameron Artis-Payne with White faking a shotgun snap, and White lining up in pistol formation before an audible calls for a straight-up Parkey kick.

Scott Fountain appears to be the guy guiding these formations, with assistance from Tim Horton.

Extra points, short kicks and punt lineups could get creative this year, folks.

Tre Mason was in uniform, but didn’t get any work other than stretching that we saw. He seemed to be favoring his left leg, and he hasn’t looked right all spring.

If Artis-Payne and Corey Grant take advantage of the extra reps, it’s not unheard of that Mason could fall behind on the depth chart for 2013 on account of missing spring. Just ask Nosa Eguae last year.

DT Angelo Blackson (injury) and OL Devonte Danzey (unknown) weren’t out there today. WR Quan Bray was practicing, but needed some time with the trainer stretching out his right leg. We’ll have to ask Gus Malzahn for their statuses this morning.

Wallace took the first four throws in team drills we saw. Don’t freak out. Frazier will rotate in. The QBs were working on option pitches to Artis-Payne as well as walk-on QBs Ben Durand and Tate O’Connor.

The starting O-Line remains Greg Robinson, Alex Kozan, Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade, Patrick Miller.

This one’s just for me: I like the ‘sacking dummy’ contraption out there. It’s a tall blue cone with a left arm pumped down and a right arm up throwing the football. The Manzielnequin.

The defense worked on interception drills. As in, how to block for the man after getting a pick.

Twas a much quieter sideline than last weekend with the coaching clinic, but athletic director Jay Jacobs was observing in a bright blue athletic polo.

April 3, 2013

Quick observations from Auburn practice #5 | Check in on Gus Malzahn’s live comments

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. — As we go through each practice, notes will probably get shorter since I don’t want to repeat myself. It also depends on how much “new” material we see. Here’s a few nuggets from this morning, and as usual I’ll live blog Gus Malzahn‘s comments at or after 11 a.m. ET.

The final 5-minute period we saw was more screens, continuing to integrate cadences and blocking schemes. The passes we saw were 7-for-7 (four for Kiehl Frazier, three for Jonathan Wallace), spreading it out to, in order: RB Tre Mason, RB Corey Grant, WR Sammie Coates (twice), RB Cameron Artis-Payne, walk-on RB Patrick Lymon, WR Melvin Ray.

Getting more punt return reps Wednesday were cornerbacks Robenson Therezie and Chris Davis, under the watchful eye of … running backs coach Tim Horton, not special teams coach Scott Fountain. Mason, Grant, Trovon Reed and Quan Bray also were back there, but not Ricardo Louis.

Cody Parkey went 8-for-8 in the fire-drill field-goal session, starting from 20 yards out and steadily moving back as far as 46 yards. Ryan White continues to be his primary holder, and most the usual offensive and defensive starters are lining up to block and rush in the drill.

Scout teamers pulled on green recreational jerseys for some special teams drills.

If you see Gabe Wright, wish him a happy 21st birthday.

March 26, 2013

Positional battles to watch: Running backs

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

Tre Mason flex

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courtesy Allan Hancock College

Courtesy Allan Hancock College

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

Who’s been playing: Tre Mason (jr.)

Who’s been waiting: Corey Grant (jr.)

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

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

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

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

Thoughts and musings:

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

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

AUBURN FOOTBALL

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

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

Statistically speaking:

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

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

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

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

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

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

170 – Total carries in eight SEC games.

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

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

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

Georgia vs Auburn

March 12, 2013

How much do Malzahn’s assistants bank? Just a little bit less than their Auburn predecessors, and less than Tennessee & Arkansas staffs

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – As much experience and star power Auburn’s esteemed group of assistant football coaches bring to their new school, it’s still a less pricey bunch than its predecessors and a couple of conference rivals.

Former head coach Gene Chizik ($3.5 million) led a nine-man staff with annual salaries combining for $3.635 million, which translated to the sixth-most expensive coaching crew in America per USA Today’s salary database.

New head coach Gus Malzahn ($2.3 million) has hauled in big names like seasoned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson ($800,000), Auburn lettermen Rodney Garner ($500,000) and Dameyune Craig ($350,000), and former recruiting coordinators Charlie Harbison ($425,000) and Tim Horton ($250,000).

The nine new coordinators and position coaches will make approximately $3.41 million, according to figures obtained through Open Alabama Financial Reports. Adding Malzahn’s deal, the total price of Auburn’s 2013 coaching staff settles in at roughly $5.71 million.

That would mean Malzahn’s assistants bring in $225,000 less per year than the previous staff.

Gus Malzahn 9

Auburn has yet to release official contracts for seven co-coordinators and position coaches, despite the other three SEC institutions with new regimes (Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas) doing so in January.

Tennessee and Arkansas, led respectively by Butch Jones and Bret Bielema, are paying their entire staffs (head and assistants) more than $6 million, while Kentucky’s price tag for Mark Stoops and company is just under $4.7 million.

Rich Bisaccia, who was hired Jan. 3 to coach Auburn running backs and special teams, banked $38,044 for three weeks of work before leaving to coach the Dallas Cowboys’ special teams. The NFL coaching veteran stood to make half a million dollars this year had he stayed.

Bisaccia’s spot was replaced by the promotion of Scott Fountain from support staff to an on-field coaching position, though Fountain does not appear to have received a raise from last year’s $210,000 salary based on the financial report.

29-year-old offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee’s salary is $350,000. The staff is completed by offensive line coach J.B. Grimes ($275,000) and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith ($250,000).

The Tigers’ ten coaches have been in college coaching for a combined 197 years, including 99 in the SEC in some capacity.

Photo by Todd Van Emst

Of course, Auburn University still owes hefty buyouts to Chizik and his assistants after firing them in early December. Via their contracts, any income earned through coaching, broadcasting, publishing media or any other type of football-related endeavors through the expiration of those contracts will be subsidized from Auburn’s financial commitment.

Chizik and ex-assistant head coach Trooper Taylor remain unemployed, though Chizik was part of ESPNU’s National Signing Day coverage as a guest analyst.

The other eight Chizik assistants have found full-time jobs: defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder is coaching New York Jets linebackers, Scot Loeffler (offensive coordinator) and Jeff Grimes (offensive line) are at Virginia Tech, Tommy Thigpen (linebackers) and Willie Martinez (defensive backs) are with Tennessee, Curtis Luper (running backs) is at TCU, Mike Pelton (defensive line) is with Georgia Tech and Jay Boulware (special teams/tight ends) made his way to Oklahoma after initially being hired by Wisconsin.

Some but not all of their new contracts have been released. Based on Open Alabama Financial Reports released for the month of February, those eight coaches figure to subtract upwards of $1.5 million per year from Auburn’s buyout as long as they remain employed.

Chizik’s buyout, which opened at $7.7 million when he was terminated Nov. 25, will be paid in monthly installments through Dec. 31, 2015. The Loeffler, VanGorder and Taylor buyouts last through June 30, 2014, while the other six assistants are off the books on June 30 of this year.

2012? What 2012? New Auburn football coaches choose to work with a clean slate

AUBURN FOOTBALL

By AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – It’s not a popularity contest. It’s not up for the fans, media or alumni to decide. It’s not even really up to Rodney Garner or the other coaches, when it boils down to it.

Auburn’s 2013 football starting lineup could easily look like a shell of its former (2012) self, and it’s all based on what happens in positional competition, starting with spring practices opening two weeks from Wednesday.

When guys like 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason aren’t guaranteed playing time – running backs coach Tim Horton’s assessment when assistant coaches discussed the team Feb. 21 – that sets the tone for a rebuilding Auburn program.

Garner obviously has a rapport with the incoming freshmen – Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson, to name three defensive linemen – and knows a few of the returning players from his recruitment attempts to Georgia.

“But they’re all starting at first base with me,” Garner said. “Obviously, it’s wide open, because I haven’t coached any of them. So it’s going to be based on how they perform in workouts, how they progress in spring practice. I have no preconceived ideals about any of them. I’m going to evaluate everybody on their body of work that they do under my watch.”

Special teams coordinator and tight ends coach Scott Fountain, who returns more continuity at those positions than most of his colleagues, is more apt to utilizing 2012 game tape.

Fountain was on Auburn’s support staff last fall, so he’s already familiar with tight ends C.J. Uzomah and Brandon Fulse, kicker Cody Parkey, punter Steven Clark and the return and coverage squads.

“I’m going to go back and reevaluate those guys, see what they did last year, maybe even what they did the year before,” Fountain said. “But I’m not going to put a ton of stock into, ‘well, he had a bad year so he’s not any good.’ It’s more evaluating play on his effort every day in practice.”

Both the offensive and defensive playbooks will look completely different than last year’s systems, a big reason why head coach Gus Malzahn chose not to start spring practices until March 27.

“There has to be trust and respect that what you’re telling them is the right thing,” wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said. “We’re building that as a staff, and the kids are responding well to that.”

One of the biggest detractors to reviewing game tape of his players under another coach’s tutelage, Melvin Smith is presently concerned with getting to know his cornerbacks on a personal level.

“I’ve got to focus on trying to get my guys to have a relationship with me,” Smith said, “where they can come and tell me, Coach, you know, my dad is in prison and I’ve got that on my mind. How can you help me get that off my mind so I can focus?

“I don’t think I can develop that relationship overnight, and I don’t think I can develop that relationship chewing ‘em out when they did it right, or praising them when they did it wrong. I’ve got to teach them what I want, and grade them on what I taught them. I’m not going to grade them on what somebody else taught them.”

Offensive line coach J.B. Grimes plans to integrate game tape for Malzahn-led teams – i.e. Auburn from 2009-11 and Arkansas State from 2012. But Grimes isn’t completely burning the film from Auburn in 2012.

“I’ll watch it because I’m evaluating athleticism, and how they play in game situations,” Grimes said. “But as far as what they did offensively and what we’re going to do offensively, it’s not the same. So you can’t teach off of it at all.”

February 21, 2013

Rodney Garner, Auburn assistants refuse to let the past dictate the Tigers’ future

Rodney GarnerAUBURN, Ala. – Rodney Garner, during his first official sit-down alongside eight of his fellow new sheriffs in town, hunkered down in the Rane Room, decorated with Auburn trophies and historical treasures.

A former Auburn player and coach, and coming home after the past 15 years at rival Georgia, Garner sat with his back turned to the 2011 BCS Championship Trophy.

With respect to those champions, that crystal football means zilch now to his players, in the wake of Auburn’s 3-9 calamitous season.

“We’re not going on what they did here in the past. Unless we’re going to (talk about) the national championship season, the past wasn’t very good,” Garner said. “So let’s move past that. We’re going to deal with right now in the present, and going forward.”

Garner would tap his fist on the table for emphasis, every time he illustrated how it’s gonna work going into spring scrimmages, the 2013 football season and beyond.

Auburn’s assistant head coach, defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator declined to speculate what went so wrong last year or any other season, in the realm of many rumors about former coach Gene Chizik losing touch with the Tigers on and off the field.

All Garner knows is it won’t happen again. Not on his watch.

“It’s been (about discipline and accountability) from the first day we got here,” Garner said. “It’s going to continue that way. It ain’t gonna change. I’m not flexible. I’m not negotiable.”

Head coach Gus Malzahn’s “It’s a New Day” terminology has quickly rolled over to his assistants.

“I mean, that’s kind of been Gus’ M.O. from the get-go. It really is,” tight ends and special teams coach Scott Fountain said. “It’s his philosophy, it’s the way he wants to do things. I think our kids are really buying into it.”

With an overstocked blend of returning starters, lettermen and incoming freshmen looking to compete for playing time, all starting positions are vacant. The slate is clean.

“I think the worst thing you can do is watch guys that somebody else coached and grade them,” cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith said. “I don’t see how that benefits you. I think the only person you can really trust is your assessment, and the people that you’re around. If I want to judge them, I don’t need to look at last year, the year before or the year before that. I don’t have time to look at that. I’ve got to focus on trying to get my guys to have a relationship with me.”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee expressed anticipation for working this spring with the two returning quarterbacks – junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace.

Meanwhile, running backs coach Tim Horton would guarantee no star treatment to 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason, with junior college standout Cameron Artis-Payne enrolled for spring courses.

“We’ve had two days of ‘mat’ drills, and there’s a little learning curve,” Horton said. “Just by having (Artis-Payne) here in the offseason program, and then starting next week to learn the offense – this is a big spring for him. With a new coach and a new staff, it doesn’t matter who’s played in the past. He’ll have an opportunity to earn a spot.”

Several coaches had hoarse voices, admitting they had spent much of Thursday morning with initial winter workouts, interacting with their players in a physical setting for the first time.

“You have to challenge the kids. We even challenge each other in the classroom, making sure we’re going to class every day. So far, nobody has missed a single class,” wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said. “It’s making sure we’re doing the right things off the field, and that will carry over.”

Garner admitted as an alum, “it was hurtful” watching Auburn’s program sink to the status of laughingstock, not to mention a winless SEC campaign. But the past is the past – fairly irrelevant to Garner and the eager coaching staff.

“You’ve got to hold them to a championship standard, and that’s what we’re asking them to do,” Garner said. “We want guys to buy in to Coach Malzahn’s vision, and his dream. Everybody has to be willing to sacrifice something to be a champion.”

January 25, 2013

Scott Fountain promoted to TEs, special teams coach; Bisaccia officially departs Auburn

ScottFountainAUBURN, Ala. — Next man in.

With Rich Bisaccia likely on his way to the Dallas Cowboys’ staff just 22 days after being brought to Auburn, head coach Gus Malzahn made some minor adjustments to ensure his staff will remain a completed entity while National Signing Day draws closer.

Auburn announced Friday Tim Horton will shift over to handle the running backs, after initially being tabbed to coach tight ends. Scott Fountain, who had been Auburn player personnel director since February 2009, becomes the Tigers’ tight ends and special teams coach.

Bisaccia was hired Jan. 3 as assistant head coach, as well as guiding the running backs and special teams units, after 11 years consecutively spent in the NFL ranks. Although Auburn did not specify Bisaccia’s destination, ESPNDallas.com and the Dallas Morning News reported Wednesday night Bisaccia was close to becoming the Cowboys’ special teams coordinator.

“Rich had an offer that he felt he could not turn down,” Malzahn said in a release, “and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Horton spent the previous six seasons coaching running backs at Arkansas, including current NFL players Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, and 12 years overall teaching in the backfield, making this a natural transition for him.

“I’m excited that Tim will be coaching our running backs,” Malzahn said. “He has a tremendous track record coaching some great backs and I’m extremely confident that will continue here at Auburn.”

Fountain was brought to Auburn early in the Gene Chizik era, but remained on support staff after the regime change. On his official Auburn bio, he “was responsible for all aspects of recruiting and assists with day-to-day football operations, with emphasis on administrative assistance to Auburn head coach Gene Chizik. Helped Auburn sign three Top 10 recruiting classes, including the No. 1 recruiting class in the nation in 2011 according to Scout.com.”

Fountain, a native of East Brewton, Ala., was Chizik’s tight ends coach and recruiting coordinator at Iowa State from 2007-08. He previously coached positions at Georgia Southern, Middle Tennessee State and Central Florida. He graduated from Samford in 1988 and earned a Master’s degree from Florida State in 1998, and has high school coaching experience in the state of Alabama.

“Scott is someone I tried to hire as an assistant coach a year ago at Arkansas State,” Malzahn said. “He is a great coach with a tremendous work ethic, and his strong ties in the state of Alabama will be an asset to our program.”

Aside from the official release, Malzahn tweeted: “Excited about Scott being on field now. Great coach, great recruiter, strong ties in AL. Won’t miss a beat! #wareagle