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August 28, 2013

Auburn notes: Gus Malzahn talks about final decision at right tackle, praises Chris Davis’ consistency on punt returns

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — The battle to become the fifth and final member of Auburn’s offensive line ended last week.

Patrick Miller, who started the last nine games of the 2012 season at right tackle, will begin 2013 back at the same spot. He won the spot over Avery Young, who started the first three games at the position last season before injuring his shoulder. (File photo)

Patrick Miller, who started the last nine games of the 2012 season at right tackle, will begin 2013 back at the same spot. He beat out Avery Young in a two-man competition for the position. (File photo)

It wasn’t made public until Wednesday, when the Tigers finally released their two-deep depth chart as they head into Saturday’s season opener. Patrick Miller and Avery Young went back-and-forth with the first-team offense at right tackle for the duration of fall camp, but head coach Gus Malzahn said Miller finally began to separate himself within the past week.

Now, Miller will return to the same spot he manned the final nine games of 2012.

“He had a very good spring and it was an open competition,” Malzahn said following Wednesday’s practice. “We really felt strong that we needed to do that because Shon (Coleman) and Avery both improved. They both had very good fall camps and we wanted to open that thing up.”

While Young didn’t win the starting job, he won’t disappear, either. He started to take reps at guard last week, and both Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have praised his versatility, believing he could play any position on the line if needed.

“We have a lot of confidence in Avery, a whole lot of confidence,” Malzahn said. “He made that battle very interesting. The positive as far as the offensive line goes is we feel that we’ve got quality depth. I would say there is a chance you could see him on the field.”

Another spot still up in the air at the beginning of the week was at defensive end. LaDarius Owens ended up locking that down and will start at right defensive end, with Craig Sanders stepping in for the injured Dee Ford on the left side.

It was a quick transition back to the line for Owens, who moved to linebacker during the spring and stayed there for the majority of fall camp. However, the coaching staff asked him to return to the defensive line and it paid immediate dividends for the junior from Bessemer, Ala.: Saturday will mark the first start of his Auburn career after appearing in 17 games the past two seasons.

The head coach explained the thinking behind converting Owens back into a lineman.

“I believe when we lost Dee, the fact that he had some experience up front and (we) felt like trying to figure out a way to put our best players on the field was part of it,” Malzahn said. “He’s got a very high motor and he rushes the passer adequately.”

Getting pressure on the quarterback is key in any game. But when playing a team as dependent on the passing game as Washington State, Malzahn said it took on added importance.

He also jumped to defend the team’s pass rush despite Ford’s absence. The senior was the Tigers’ only returnee who had more than one sack last season.

“We’ve got confidence in our guys and like I said when I first got here, we didn’t worry about anything in the past,” Malzahn said. “(We) tried to put it behind us and tried to give everybody an equal foot moving forward and we feel like we’ve done that.”

Malzahn said the Tigers’ highly-touted true freshmen defensive line trio — Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel — will also get their chance to play Saturday.

“Those young guys are extremely talented they’ve shown flashes of being very good,” he said. “It’s just a matter of those young guys being consistent and being able to play play-in and play-out.”

Chris Davis to field punts

Perhaps the biggest surprise on the depth chart was Chris Davis capturing the Tigers’ punt return duties. Receivers Quan Bray and Trovon Reed handled every punt for the team in 2012, but Malzahn said the senior cornerback earned the job thanks to his playmaking ability and his sure-handedness with the ball.

“He’s got a lot of confidence,” Malzahn said. “He’s been the most consistent guy catching the football. When he has made some interceptions in the spring and in fall camp he usually does something positive with them. We felt like it was good to give him a chance to show what he could do.”

Another (smaller surprise) was C.J. Uzomah not being listed by himself as the first-team tight end. Instead, just as he did exiting the spring, he shared equal billing with Brandon Fulse.

Malzahn said each candidate had his strengths and their playing time would depend on specific plays and packages.

“C.J. has really gotten better with his blocking and Brandon has gotten better with his receiving,” he said. “I think both of them are very versatile. Like I’ve said before, both of those guys were recruited specifically for our offense.”

Quick hits

Freshman receiver Tony Stevens, who has battled a nagging hamstring injury since fall camp, should be good to go Saturday, according to Malzahn. “(We’re) pretty confident,” he said when asked about the chances of Stevens playing in the season opener. … Malzahn didn’t want to speculate how much playing time Kiehl Frazier would see against the Cougars. The former quarterback enters Saturday as Josh Holsey’s backup at strong safety. “We’ll just see how the game unfolds,” Malzahn said. “Obviously the guys that have experience, we know a little bit more about them. But at the same time, he’s our backup at that position right now.”

August 12, 2013

UPDATED: Gus Malzahn says Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson to split reps ’50-50′ with first-team offense this week

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn’s quarterback race saw a major shakeup on Monday.

Auburn's starting quarterback race has eliminated one candidate, as Kiehl Frazier voluntarily decided to move to safety. Head coach Gus Malzahn said Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall will split snaps with the first-team offense this week. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn’s starting quarterback race has eliminated one candidate, as Kiehl Frazier voluntarily decided to move to safety. Head coach Gus Malzahn said Jeremy Johnson and Nick Marshall will split snaps with the first-team offense this week. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

Head coach Gus Malzahn announced the practice plan for this week is to split the snaps with the first team “50-50″ between the two newcomers — Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson. Malzahn said he and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee met with Marshall, Johnson, Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace on Sunday to discuss how things would look as fall camp progresses.

“We told them all we feel like (Johnson and Marshall) have earned the right to compete for the job and they’re going to get the majority of reps with our ones this week,” Malzahn said. “That’s not to say that Jonathan Wallace will not be our starter come Day 1, but we are going to give those two new guys a real chance to compete for the job and really show what they can do.”

While Wallace may not have been officially eliminated from winning the job, he won’t receive any snaps with the first-team offense this week. It’s also unlikely that he’ll move to another position, even if he ends up as the third quarterback on the depth chart.

“(He’s) a quarterback,” Malzahn said, “and he’s a good one.”

Frazier, on the other hand, voluntarily removed himself from the competition. During his Sunday sit-down with Malzahn and Lashlee, he proposed switching to safety to “help the team,” Malzahn said. Neither the coach nor the offensive coordinator argued against the move.

According to Malzahn, the transition to defense will be a permanent one for the former USA Today National Offensive Player of the Year.

“He’s going to be full-time safety,” Malzahn said. ”He can still do some things on offense, but he’s putting his energy into safety.”

With Wallace relegated to the background and Frazier no longer a factor, Malzahn noted Marshall and Johnson began to distance themselves the moment fall camp began, showing signs of improvement every practice.

“Both of them have extremely live arms,” he said. “They both can run and both of them are athletic. It’s just a matter of how quick they can get acclimated. We’re still looking for a couple of different situations to see how they react and see how their teammates react.”

Johnson’s inexperience hasn’t been a hindrance to him yet, and Malzahn doesn’t see that changing any time soon.

“Whoever gives us the best chance of winning and being successful will be our quarterback,” he said. “Obviously, it’s tough for a true freshman in this league, but if he’s the best and we believe he gives us the best chance of winning, he’ll be our quarterback.”

The reps with the first-team offense will be divided as equally as possible, Malzahn said, with the coaching staff keeping tabs on their decision-making every play.

“We’re trying to put those two guys with our main group as much as we can this week to see how they respond and really, to see how their teammates respond to them,” he said. “See who can move the ball, see who can protect the football and do the things it takes to be successful and to win.”

The Tigers will hold another scrimmage Tuesday, but the quarterbacks won’t be “live,” meaning they are not allowed to be tackled. The lack of contact will have no effect on the evaluation of the signal-callers, Malzahn said.

Despite the streamlining of snaps at the position, Malzahn refused to settle on a date for naming the starter.

“Obviously, we’d like to name something sooner rather than later, but that’s just the plan for this week,” he said. “That’s not to say we’re going to name somebody at the end of this week.”

Notes

Demetruce McNeal practiced on Monday, the first time he has took part in team activities since fall camp began. Malzahn said the senior safety was required to complete two acclimation periods (comprising Monday and Tuesday) before he can don full pads. “He was out there practicing today and looking good,” Malzahn said. … Hybrid safety/linebacker Justin Garrett’s left foot injury continues to improve, and he’s expected to be back at practice soon. “It’s day to day right now,” Malzahn said, “but it’s nothing to get too worked up about.” … Malzahn confirmed that wide receiver Tony Stevens returned to the field on Monday. The true freshman was battling a hamstring injury last week that forced him to miss the Tigers’ scrimmage on Saturday.

August 6, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/6: Tigers don full pads for first time, Demetruce McNeal inactive once again

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to approximately 20 minutes of practice on Tuesday, the first time the team donned full pads during practice. It also marked Day 5 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short viewing window.

This wide-lens photo of strength and condition coach Ryan Russell working the team through stretching drills was about as interesting as it got at Auburn's practice on Tuesday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

This wide-angle photo of strength and condition coach Ryan Russell working the team through stretching drills was about as interesting as it got at Auburn’s practice on Tuesday. (Photo by Todd Van Emst)

  • This was the least-interesting practice reporters have had a chance to see thus far. And that’s being generous. Due to rain, most of the Tigers’ drills were forced to take place inside, and the ones on display likely wouldn’t enrapture the fan base. But we’ll forge on nonetheless.
  • Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson finally lifted the curtain on what’s been ailing Demetruce McNeal on Monday: The senior safety had an infection that required a minor surgery. Johnson figured McNeal would be out for “several more days,” and his prediction was right. Safety No. 16 at least seemed to be moving around well on Tuesday, bobbing his head and twirling a football on his fingertips. He also had some fun with right tackle Avery Young during stretching drills. After Young finished one of his steps, McNeal jogged by and tapped him on the helmet with a football. “You know I got you, dog,” Young told him.
  • The quarterbacks didn’t throw any passes while media members were present. Jonathan Wallace was a holder on field goals, with the rest of the quarterbacks off to the side running with ropes tied to them. Jeremy Johnson paired up with Tucker Tuberville and Kiehl Frazier did the same with Nick Marshall.
  • The first-team offensive line stayed the same, with Greg Robinson at left tackle, Alex Kozan at left guard, Reese Dismukes at center, Chad Slade at right guard and the aforementioned Young at right tackle. There was a change on the second-team line, however, as Will Adams replaced Jordan Diamond at right guard. The rest of Auburn’s second-team offensive line: Shon Coleman at left tackle, Devonte Danzey at left guard, Tunde Fariyike at center and Patrick Miller at right tackle.
  • The only contact that took place during the viewing portion was courtesy of the defensive backs. Coach Melvin Smith had his unit working on jamming drills.
  • The punt returner group was identical to Monday, consisting of wide receivers Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens as well as cornerback Chris Davis. The punt returns were also the only unit adversely affected by practicing indoors, as many of Steven Clark’s kicks reach the roof of the facility. (Unfortunately, I didn’t keep a running tally, though I saw at least five bounce off the ceiling.) Wide receiver Sammie Coates was a new face among the kick returners on Tuesday. He joined a trio of running backs in Tre Mason, Corey Grant, Johnathan Ford, wide receiver Ricardo Louis and cornerback Jonathan Jones.
Read more here: http://www.wareagleextra.com/#storylink=cpy

August 5, 2013

Auburn Practice Report, 8/5: Demetruce McNeal sits out fourth straight practice

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra | Like the blog on Facebook

AUBURN, Ala. — Reporters were permitted to see about 20 minutes of practice on Monday, which marked Day 4 of Auburn’s fall camp. Here are some thoughts and observations from the media’s short viewing window.

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins on of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn gives his players directions before it begins one of its fall practices. (File by Todd Van Emst)

  • Safety Demetruce McNeal continues to be the headliner during the media’s short stay at practice. For the fourth time in as many days of fall camp, the senior did not participate in drills while reporters were in attendance. Including the final five sessions of the spring, it marks the ninth consecutive time the College Park, Ga., native missed an Auburn practice. As he did Saturday, McNeal had a helmet on. However, with the team practicing in “shells” (helmets and pads), the safety was sans shoulder pads. In his post-practice meeting with media member’s on Sunday, Gus Malzahn said McNeal was “getting better.” But apparently not good enough to be cleared to practice just yet.
  • Avery Young was with the first-team offensive line, working at right tackle. Young and Patrick Miller have seemingly been going back-and-forth at the position (in the first-team lineup) during the first few days of fall camp.
  • The defense was working on its “dime” package, which included two of the hybrid safety/linebacker “star” position players on the field at the same time in Justin Garrett and Robenson Therezie. Other members of the first-team defense (in that particular formation) had Dee Ford and Kenneth Carter manning the two ends and Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright inside. The linebackers were Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and the secondary consisted of cornerbacks Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead and Josh Holsey at safety.
  • Malzahn stayed around the quarterbacks for a few minutes, but then drifted over to watch the defense running through its various formations. The quarterbacks once again practiced their footwork today as well as executing proper handoffs. Jonathan Wallace and Nick Marshall worked with Cameron Artis-Payne, Tre Mason and Corey Grant, while Kiehl Frazier and Jeremy Johnson were paired with Johnathan Ford, Peyton Barber and Patrick Lymon.
  • Punt returners were mostly the same as it was during the portions of practice reporters saw Friday and Saturday. Wide receivers Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Marcus Davis were back, as well as cornerback Chris Davis. There was one new member, however, as another receiver — true freshman Tony Stevens — joined the fray. Kick returners mostly stayed to form, too. Mason, Grant, Ford, cornerback Jonathan Jones and wide receiver Ricardo Louis were seen fielding kicks, with one new addition in Therezie.
  • Right guard Chad Slade got an earful from offensive line coach J.B. Grimes during one drill. As the line was practicing its footwork once the ball is snapped, Slade didn’t have his feet in the proper position — and Grimes let him know it. “Check your splits!” said Grimes, before moving the junior’s feet where they needed to be. “I’m trying to help you!”
  • The media once again walked out as the team finished up its stretching drills with strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell. If there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate while Russell leads drills, it’s that he has an incredible amount of energy. It’s no wonder the team has touted his offseason workout program at every opportunity.

July 31, 2013

Auburn football: Five newcomers to watch during fall camp

BY RYAN BLACK | rblack@ledger-enquirer.com

@wareagleextra

AUBURN, Ala. — The football season is tantalizingly close.

Auburn’s players report on Thursday and waste no time getting to work, as fall camp begins on Friday. Things are a bit different than in the past, when nearly all incoming freshman and junior college transfers didn’t arrive until “Report Day.” Now, many of the newcomers have been on campus during the summer; however, the only people who have seen a glimpse of what they may be able to do this fall are their fellow players. So who are some new Tigers to keep an eye on with fall camp just days away?

Nick Marshall is expected to come in and immediately be in the running to become Auburn's starting quarterback this fall.

Nick Marshall is one of four candidates in the running to become Auburn’s starting quarterback this fall.

The Ledger-Enquirer picked five candidates — a few who should already be familiar names to ardent Auburn fans.

Nick Marshall, QB (Garden City Community College, Garden City, Kan.): From the moment he signed with the Tigers, Marshall immediately leapt to the top of the quarterback depth chart in many people’s minds. With the ability to make plays with his feet and blessed with a rocket arm, the Georgia native appears to be the perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle attack. And Marshall will be given every opportunity to prove that during fall camp.

Carl Lawson, DE (Milton High School, Alpharetta, Ga.): One of the most highly-touted prospects in the country (other than another Peach State product in Robert Nkemdiche), Lawson should be able to step in and play immediately. And not just play, but possibly start. The left end position is held down by senior Dee Ford, but right end was still up for grabs at the end of the spring, with Nosa Eguae trying to fend off Kenneth Carter. Expect Lawson to throw in his name in the mix early on and push for a spot in the starting lineup.

Montravius Adams, DT (Dooly County High School, Vienna, Ga.): Auburn came out of nowhere to get Adams’ signature, though most would say it’s due to the relationship the defensive tackle had already developed with defensive line coach Rodney Garner. Whatever the reason, it will pay dividends for the Tigers this fall and beyond. Even though he’s joining one of the deepest units on the team at the tackle position, don’t be surprised if Adams garners significant playing time in 2013.

Elijah Daniel, DE (Avon High School, Avon, Ind.): While not talked about as much as Lawson — possibly because he’s from more of a hoops hotbed in Indiana than a football-crazy Southeastern state — Daniel shouldn’t be counted out during fall camp, either. He could easily be a part of the fight for the right defensive end position, and even if he doesn’t capture a starting job, he’ll likely figure prominently in the rotation this season whenever the first-teamers need a breather.

Tony Stevens, WR (Evans High School, Orlando, Fla.): Among the incoming receivers, none have turned more heads than Stevens. Tight end C.J. Uzomah couldn’t say enough good things about the Florida native after seeing what he could do during this summer’s player-led “captain’s practices.” Given the uncertain status of two of his fellow 2013 pass-catcher signees — Earnest Robinson is taking the junior college route after not qualifying academically and Jason Smith may do the same — Stevens may be able to take advantage of their absence if he continues to impress during fall camp.

April 26, 2013

WHAT DID WE LEARN? Auburn running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and H-backs

Auburn Spring Football

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – This is the first of a three-part series through Monday, revisiting the past month in Auburn spring football and taking stock of valuable developments.

Adopting the style of WarEagleExtra.com’s popular “7 at 7” features, let’s go through seven bullet points of what you need to know about the Tigers’ running backs, wide receivers, tight ends and H-Backs.

We learned, in general, that “starter” is a technical title and little more in this offense. Tre Mason should be the No. 1 guy, but Cameron Artis-Payne will get serious carries, and maybe Corey Grant too. Brandon Fulse has been the preferred first-team tight end, but it’s impossible to believe CJ Uzomah won’t be heavily involved in the passing game, and Jay Prosch must be used as a utility blocker. Receivers? Jaylon Denson and Trovon Reed seem to have the edge as starters, with Quan Bray right there with them. But the coaches love Ricardo Louis, and Sammie Coates should get his shot as well.

Whew. That’s eleven names for five spots.

****

We learned if you dare traipse in his way, Cameron Artis-Payne will seek you out and run you over. The video of CAP destroying T.J. Davis in a high-tempo spring scrimmage speaks volumes.

****

Brandon Fulse, Trovon ReedWe learned Rhett Lashlee has a long memory. “I keep using the analogy of the first year we were here we had a guy who only had three catches in his career and had 60 in our first year,” the 29-year-old offensive coordinator said Friday, for about the third time this spring. Check out this chart:

2008: WR Darvin Adams 3 rec, 18 yards; WR Terrell Zachery 2 rec, 24 yards; RB Mario Fannin 20 rec, 223 yards, 2 TD; RB Eric Smith, 2 rec, 3 yards

2009: Adams 60 rec, 997 yards, 10 TD; Zachery 26 rec, 477 yards, 5 TD; Fannin 42 rec, 413 yards, 3 TD; Smith 17 rec, 219 yards, TD

Of course, 2009 was the first year of the Gus Malzahn-guided offense, first year of Gene Chizik as head coach, first year of Trooper Taylor as wide receivers coach and first year of young Lashlee – just 26 at the time – serving as offensive graduate assistant.

By the way, Adams and Zachery weren’t one-year wonders; they combined for 96 grabs and nearly 1,600 yards in the 2010 championship season. It’s not just about this year, it’s laying groundwork for the future.

Why is all this relevant?

2012: WR Quan Bray 14 rec, 94 yards; WR Trovon Reed 9 rec, 122 yards, TD; TE CJ Uzomah 7 rec, 136 yards, TD; RB Tre Mason 7 rec, 86 yards; WR Sammie Coates 6 rec, 114 yards, 2 TD; WR Ricardo Louis 3 rec, 36 yards; WR Jaylon Denson 1 rec, 12 yards (!!!!), TE Brandon Fulse 1 rec, 8 yards.

Team stats – 2008: 184 rec, 1985 yards, 7 pass TD … 2012: 147 rec, 1879 yards, 8 pass TD.

Team stats – 2009: 218 rec, 2857 yards, 25 pass TD … 2013: Stay tuned.

****

We learned we might not have our finger on how Uzomah and Prosch will be utilized. Those were two of the three green-jersey guys from Day 1 due to their strength and conditioning prowess (along with defensive tackle Gabe Wright), but they were often running with the second unit in media windows (and sometimes not at all.) We never heard specifically of injury issues, but Uzomah had just one catch for 20 yards on A-Day – for the blue squad – and Prosch registered no stats, albeit as the starting first-team H-Back.

17Auburn3

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We learned Corey Grant is quietly humble, but won’t shy away from the challenge of Tre Mason; a guy who last fall didn’t actually say “Gimme the ball” but basically, yeah, said “No, seriously, gimme the ball.”

“It is important – knowing he has that mentality, you’ve got to come with that mentality also to fight for position, fight for reps, fight for carries,” Grant said. “Overall, it will help the team if you have that mentality.”

****

We learned Brandon Fulse should be taken seriously as a starting skill player. Because when coaches returning to their old school and re-teaching their unique system say things like “that’s what we recruited so-and-so for,” it’s significant.

“That’s what we recruited Brandon Fulse for: for that position standing up, doing a lot of dirty work, a very physical blocker,” Malzahn said Tuesday. “The very first year, we lost Eric Smith, and so he had to do a lot of the H-Back stuff that Eric Smith did. He’s finally coming into his own at the position we recruited him for.”

****

We learned Marcus Davis, Earnest Robinson, Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker should be ready to compete from the time they get here. Because those five returning wide receivers hardly distinguished themselves. There are playing reps to be had.

March 18, 2013

OLD SCHOOL: Rebuilding Auburn WRs, former Tigers QB Dameyune Craig preaches consistency on and off the football field

AUBURN FOOTBALL

BY AARON BRENNER | abrenner@ledger-enquirer.com

@WarEagleExtra

AUBURN, Ala. – One day, Dameyune Craig forced himself out of bed to run a few miles as a morning wake-up call. The first time, the second and third and fourth and fifth, they were challenging.

“When I first started off, I had to be consistent,” Craig said. “Now I’m used to it.”

Distance running is a skill and hobby of Craig’s, but it’s not his full-time craft. His is coaching, educating, and mentoring the wide receivers at his alma mater Auburn, a crew of highly-touted young products who largely underachieved in 2012.

Chat live with WarEagleExtra.com’s Aaron Brenner, Thursday 3 p.m. ET

Craig also has four incoming freshmen he convinced to follow him to the Plains – it took two tries, but head coach Gus Malzahn pried Craig away from Florida State to become the Tigers’ co-offensive coordinator.

Consistency, willpower, accountability … these aren’t tangible skills taught and learned in a few practice sessions. Craig refuses to preach the same values day after day – he insists on making it a mindset, swearing to be great no matter what.

“It starts off the field: every day when you wake up, what’s the first thing you do? Brush your teeth, wash your face, comb your hair,” Craig said. “If you do it every day, you’ll become consistent. We want to become consistent doing the small things. If you do the little things right, you go to class every day, it becomes a habit.

“We don’t talk about being consistent; we just make it happen.”

Craig’s former program is a model of consistency – Florida State has the nation’s longest active streak of consecutive winning seasons (35), bowl appearances (31) and bowl victories (5), capped by its 31-10 Orange Bowl domination over Northern Illinois the night of New Year’s Day.

Dameyune CraigTwo days later, Craig, 38, was wooed to Auburn, where he was a two-year starting quarterback in 1996-97. He still remembers idolizing Bo Jackson, Tracy Rocker, Reggie Slack and Stan White among others, primarily for their work ethic.

“I’m from the old school,” Craig said. “They were hard-nosed guys. They were talented, but they worked hard. My first day of practice here, I would see guys running 100-yard sprints after they got the ball. I was like, ‘wow, I’ve got to pick it up.’ So I understood from day one what it took to be an Auburn Tiger.”

That unwavering commitment to greatness may have, well, wavered in previous years, allowing the unthinkable to unfold – embarrassing losses to Arkansas, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama by a combined 167 points.

The new staff, adamantly, isn’t concerned with recent history. Ancient history, however, helped mold Dameyune Craig, who won the Independence and Peach Bowls his junior and senior year, as well as the 1997 SEC Western Division crown.

“I think what we always hung our hat on here: we outworked everybody,” Craig said. “We felt like going into the game, that week, nobody had worked harder than us in the offseason, and during the week, and we felt good about the game. That’s what we’ve got to get back.

“So I’ve got to work these guys as hard as I can so when they step on that field, they feel like they’ve prepared because you’ve outworked everybody you’re going to face.”

One step in the process is complete: landing signed letters of intent from four-star receiver Tony Stevens from Orlando, his high school teammate Dominic Walker, fellow Floridian Marcus Davis and in-state product Earnest Robinson. Another commit from Alabama, Jason Smith, could eventually play receiver, though he’ll start his career working at quarterback.

It’s the Tigers’ greatest position of need; no returning receiver had more than 14 catches in 2012.

“We met the demands,” Craig said. “We got the guy who attacks you deep, we got the guy that stretches you horizontally and we got the guy who makes you miss and stretches the field vertically. Everything we wanted, we hit on all of (it.)”

When Craig joined new head coach Jimbo Fisher’s staff in December 2009, the Seminoles had just sent Bobby Bowden into retirement with a 7-6 season. The program was still on sound footing, but far away from its heyday in the 1990s with 14 consecutive double-digit win seasons.

“It was a shock to me when I stepped on that campus and saw the talent level that was there, what we had to work with and where we had to go,” Craig said. “But we turned it around really, really quick – because we were able to go out to get some great football players that bought into the system, trusted the coaches.”

Fisher, of course, was Auburn’s quarterbacks coach from 1993-98 under Terry Bowden. The coaching tree has branched its way back to Auburn, and Craig is fixated on restoring Auburn to its customary levels of success.

“My coaching style and expectations won’t change for these guys,” Craig said. “I am who I am. It’s ingrained in me. We gotta make them do it, or we gotta find somebody that can. Those are the only two options.”

February 7, 2013

THREE-HEADED MONSTER: Auburn hauls in Adams, Daniel, Lawson to beef up D-Line

AUBURN FOOTBALL

AUBURN, Ala. — The moment Montravius Adams clutched a bear paw around an orange-brimmed Auburn University ball cap and placed it over his dreads, the dozens of officials anxiously watching in the War Eagle Conference room did their part to wake the neighbors.

Hoots and hollers, high-fives and hysterics, fist bumps all around.

“Give me some more of that,” an ear-to-ear grinning Gus Malzahn implored to right-hand-man Rodney Garner, a man who earned his paycheck (and then some) Wednesday morning. “God, that’s big.”

That was the goal: get bigger on defense. Stronger. Meaner.

Mission accomplished on national signing day, when Auburn settled in at around the back end of the top ten on most recruiting services’ class of 2013 team rankings by welcoming in 20 signees Wednesday (joining three early enrollees from January.)

That’s an impressive feat, considering Malzahn, Garner and their new colleagues had barely two months to convince blue-chip prospects to come play for a 3-9 squad and a new staff.

“I tell you what, it was a great feeling when he put on that Auburn hat,” Malzahn said. “That was a special feeling. Coach Garner’s had a relationship with him a long time. They’re extremely close.

“Everybody in the country was wanting him. But when he got home to Auburn — he loved Auburn before. When he came back on, he said, ‘I still feel the same way.’ So that was a very exciting moment this morning.”

Adams was the pleasant surprise of the morning, a five-star defensive tackle from Dooly County, Ga., who just as easily could have picked home-state Georgia, first love Clemson, or defending champion and Auburn nemesis Alabama.

“I love the coaches there, I love the players there, and it’s just the place that I think I want to be,” Adams said after announcing his decision on ESPNU’s daylong coverage.

There was more welcome news at the crack of dawn, when four-star defensive end Elijah Daniel’s name was on the first signed national letter of intent to emerge from the fax machine. Daniel had been committed to Ole Miss since Jan. 20, and was previously a Clemson pledge as well.

“It was a real tough decision. It was, like, late last night I was deciding,” Daniel said. “(I loved) their track record, Coach Garner’s track record, the players they’re welcoming in, and Auburn’s good people.”

AUBURN FOOTBALLThrow in Auburn holding serve by retaining summer verbal Carl Lawson — considered the nation’s top prospect not named Robert Nkemdiche — and Garner just landed three fresh-faced toys to play with next fall in the form of two 250-pound pass-rushers and a 310-pound run-stuffer.

“Coach Garner’s a great coach, and he’s going to have three guys that have a chance to help us immediately,” Malzahn said. “I know Coach Garner’s extremely excited.”

No, there’s no Dee Liner — he’s off to Alabama, just like Reuben Foster — but this is one heck of a D-Line.

“Y’all know in this league, you win on the offensive and defensive lines, and the defensive line was a focus,” Malzahn said. “The three guys we have, we feel like are three of the best in the entire country.”

Daniel was one of six total Auburn signees who were flipped from other schools. Running back Peyton Barber (Ole Miss), offensive lineman Deon Mix (Mississippi State), receiver Tony Stevens (Florida State, Texas A&M), receiver Dominic Walker (Nebraska) and safety Khari Harding (Arkansas) all were pledged elsewhere before ending up officially agreeing to play on the Plains.

Out of nine verbal commits who had stayed true to the program since before Gene Chizik’s firing Nov. 25 — a group that contains Lawson — eight stayed true to their word, including in-state quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith, receiver Earnest Robinson, linebacker Cameron Toney and cornerback Kamryn Melton.

The only last-minute defector was defensive end Tashawn Bower, who ended up at LSU. But given the embarrassment of riches now at that position, it barely even mattered.

“We’ve got to have pass rushers. We’ve got to put pressure on the quarterback without blitzing,” said Malzahn, identifying one of many 2012 bugaboos. “I feel like the defensive ends can do that.”

Of course, recruiting rankings are only as good as the hard work the incoming freshmen put into their college careers. But Malzahn mandated he filled all the Tigers’ needs — especially along the defensive line.

“They wouldn’t have signed Adams without Garner. Wouldn’t have happened,” said AuburnSports.com managing editor Justin Hokanson, a Rivals recruiting analyst. “I think Adams had a great relationship with the other staff, and they had a really good shot of getting him, but when that staff left, I gave them basically no shot, even going into his visit.”

“But Garner came through huge.”

AUBURN FOOTBALL

February 6, 2013

The Class of 2013: Auburn signees list, with stories, Twitter handles and game tape … plus what Gus Malzahn said about each player

AUBURN FOOTBALL

GUS MALZAHN Opening Statement, Feb. 6:

“It’s been a great day. I’m very excited about this class. We’ve signed 23 so far in this class. Really feel like we accomplished that. Really like to compliment our staff; they did a wonderful job on a short period of time. A new staff coming in – we had a lot of obstacles as far as trying to develop relationships and a lot of different things. Anytime you come in and you don’t retain anybody from the previous staff and you have a lot of commitments, there’s a lot of things that go with that and I’m extremely excited and pleased with our staff.”

AUBURN CLASS OF 2013 SIGNEES (all star ratings via Fox Sports/Scout.com)

Early Enrollees

4* RB Cameron Artis-Payne (Harrisburg, Pa.) | Allan Hancock CC | 5-11, 215
The No. 1 juco back in the country, per 247Sports, rushed for 2,048 yards and 25 TDs in 10 games last fall. Ideal Tre Mason complement
Story: Tigers ink top JUCO RB Cameron Artis-Payne
Twitter: @ThaRealKillaCam
Malzahn says: “A big, physical runner. Really think he’s going to provide some very good depth, and I think he’ll be a very good player for us.”

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3* OG Devonte Danzey (Tampa, Fla.) | Hutchinson CC (Kan.) | 6-3, 303
The No. 1 juco guard in the country, per 247Sports, could compete right away for one open spot along the Tigers’ line
Story: Tigers unwrap another junior college present; Devonte Danzey, the nation’s top available OG
Malzahn says: “We needed some help at center and at guard, and I feel like he’ll have a chance to help us immediately.”

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4* DT Ben Bradley (Norcross, Ga.) | Hutchinson CC (Kan.) | 6-3, 310
Followed Danzey to the Plains, where both are already enrolled and prepping for spring practice
Brief: Defensive tackle Ben Bradley gives Auburn a third juco prospect
Twitter: @IamAmbition98
Malzahn says: “We needed depth up front, and this guy is very athletic and very strong.”

Wednesday signees, listed in chronological order of received national letter of intent

4* DE Elijah Daniel (Avon, Ind.) | Avon HS | 6-4, 250
Flipped from Ole Miss to Auburn, the Tigers’ first fax Wednesday
Story: Elijah Daniel, Tony Stevens first to fax signed letters to Auburn
Twitter: @ElijahDaniel6
Malzahn says: “He was our first commit of the day. Pass rushing was one of our big needs and this guy can really do it. Had a relationship with Rodney Garner that goes way back. He signed this morning and we’re tickled to death to have him.”

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4* WR Tony Stevens (Orlando, Fla.) | Evans HS | 6-4, 184
Receptions by Auburn receivers taller than 6-2 in 2012; one, by 6-3 Jaylon Denson. Previously a Florida State and Texas A&M verbal
Story: Auburn snatches two verbal commits from SEC rivals, loses RB
Twitter: @TS8_NewEra
Malzahn says: “He’s a big, tall wide receiver. He’s got tremendous skills, he’s s kick returner. Dameyune Craig did a wonderful job with him – had a previous relationship, and he has a chance to be an impact player.”

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3* WR Dominic Walker (Orlando, Fla.) | Evans HS | 6-2, 194
Flipping Stevens paved the way to pair him with Walker, giving the Tigers’ pass-catchers some much-needed depth
Story: Auburn beefs up WR depth, flipping its second Orlando Evans prospect
Twitter: @DW_SHOWTIME4
Malzahn says: “(Tony’s) teammate. 6-2, 195, a big, physical, fast guy that really feel like he’ll have a chance to be that special type player and once again Dameyune recruited him also.”

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3* WR Marcus Davis (Delray Beach, Fla.) | American Heritage HS | 5-10, 175
Once upon a time, Emory Blake was an underrated slot receiver prospect. Davis looks to pave the same path
Story: 3-star Marcus Davis on board
Twitter: @Marcus_davis1
Malzahn says: “He is a quarterback from Delray Beach, Florida and he is going to play like a slot receiver for us. We’ve had a lot of success with former quarterbacks. He has running back skills and he’s a really good kid, smart kid. We’re excited about him.”

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3* CB Kamryn Melton (Dothan, Ala.) | Dothan HS | 5-10, 170
A similar mold as Auburn rookie Jonathan Jones, perhaps a special teams contributor right away
Story: Auburn adds fifth commitment for the 2013 recruiting class
Twitter: @_NoFlyZoneMelt
Malzahn says: “I want to say this about all of the guys that hung in there with us, specifically the defensive guys, because we didn’t have great relationships. We knew a lot of the offensive guys because I was here before and some of our staff, but really appreciate Kamryn, he’s got a wonderful family and really think he’ll be a very good player for us.”

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3* RB Peyton Barber (Alpharetta, Ga.) | Milton HS | 5-10, 210
Flipped to Auburn from Ole Miss during the Super Bowl, making two poaches from the Rebels today
Story: Super seal: RB Peyton Barber to Auburn
Malzahn says: “He’s a guy that we started recruiting when we first got here. He was committed to another school, he got hurt his junior year and this past year has a phenomenal year and I really feel like if he hasn’t got hurt his junior year he’d be one of those top-type guys. He is a very strong, fast individual. We’re very excited about Peyton.”

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3* QB Nick Marshall (Pineview, Ga.) | Garden City CC (Kan.) | 6-2, 210
A major point of intrigue going into the spring. He swears the coaches have promised him a shot in the starting quarterback derby
Story: “The best athlete I’ve ever seen”: ex-Georgia CB Nick Marshall plans to sign as Auburn QB
Twitter: @NicMarshall7
Malzahn says: “He is one of three quarterbacks that we took. We felt like that was definitely a need as far as depth was concerned. He’s a great athlete. He’s one of those impact players, throws the ball extremely well, has a very strong arm, feel like he can come in here and give us a chance right of the bat.”

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5* DE Carl Lawson (Alpharetta, Ga.) | Milton HS | 6-3, 251
ESPN tabs him the No. 2 overall prospect in the country. Auburn kept him on board over Clemson and Tennessee
Story: Carl Lawson tweet: “I am an Auburn Tiger”
Twitter: @CarlCarltp (protected account)
Malzahn says: “I really felt like he’s one of the keys to this class. H hung in there with us. When a lot of guys went South, or went other ways, opened stuff up, he hung in there with us and he provided the stability I really feel like on the defensive side specifically, to have the class that we did. He’s a phenomenal player, a phenomenal person. He’s an Auburn person, he loves Auburn and his family loves Auburn.”

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3* S Khari Harding (Edmond, Okla.) | Santa Fe HS | 6-1, 205
After committing to Arkansas, changed his mind following an official visit. DC Ellis Johnson needs more safety options
Story: Auburn snatches two verbal commits from SEC rivals, loses RB
Twitter: @5numerocinco5
Malzahn says: “A safety from Oklahoma. One of the bigger hitting safeties I’ve seen come out of high school. He’s vicious guy, we need some depth at safety. He’ll have a chance to come in and contribute early.”

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4* QB Jeremy Johnson (Montgomery, Ala.) | Carver HS | 6-5, 215
The centerpiece of this class; maybe not the highest-rated, but the most valuable player recruiter and face of the future
Story: Four-star quarterback Jeremy Johnson commits to Auburn for the 2013 class
Twitter: @MRSUPER6A
Malzahn says: “I’m going to say the same thing about Jeremy as I did Carl. He was kind of one of the centerpieces offensively. Me and coach Lashlee already had a relationship with him but you really hung in there with us. He helped us recruit and really provided a lot of stability on the offensive side. Once again, he loves Auburn.”

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4* WR Earnest Robinson (Pinson, Ala.) | Pinson Valley HS | 6-2, 200
Fielded offers from Alabama, LSU, Oregon, Florida State. Dameyune Craig was likely instrumental in keeping E-Rob’s word
Story: Four-star receiver Earnest Robinson commits to Auburn for the 2013 class
Malzahn says: “He’s been committed to us a long time. I actually recruited him when he was a sophomore and have a great relationship with him. Think the world of Earnest; he hung in there with us too during the change.”

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3* LB Kenny Flowers (Lilburn, Ga.) | Hutchinson CC (Kan.) | 6-2, 228
Count ‘em, the third Hutchinson alum and fifth overall commit from a Kansas junior college. Must tackle well to play
Story: Six-pack of jucos committed to Tigers
Malzahn says: “We felt like we needed some depth at linebacker that could come in immediately and help. This guy is a very physical, hard-nosed type player and coach Johnson did a great job recruiting him.”

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3* LB Cameron Toney (Huntsville, Ala.) | Huntsville HS | 6-2, 225
Former DC Brian VanGorder always wanted a bigger, stronger defense. Toney will help that cause
Story: Huntsville linebacker Cameron Toney commits to Auburn on A-Day
Twitter: @CToney47
Malzahn says: “He was committed before, very good kid, he hung in there with us, and I think he’ll have a chance to be a really good player.”

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4* QB Jason Smith (Mobile, Ala.) | McGill Toolen HS | 6-1, 180
A standout quarterback in high school, but proved he’s got the hands of a receiver at the AL-MS All-Star Classic in December
Story: Quarterback, 4-star athlete Jason Smith commits to Auburn
Twitter: @JasonQB_7
Malzahn says: “He’s electric. MVP of the Alabama-Mississippi All-Star Game. He’s got phenomenal skills. He can do a lot of different things. We’re very excited about Jason.”

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4* OL Deon Mix (Batesville, Miss.) | South Panola HS | 6-4, 315
HS coach says his best football is yet to come; the only high school offensive lineman in this class so far
Malzahn says: “An offensive lineman we really just started recruiting seriously about a week ago. Coach Melvin Smith had a great relationship with him. He was the only offensive lineman we took today other than junior college. He is a big, road-grating type of offensive lineman that coach Grimes likes to have.”

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3* S Mackenro Alexander (Immokalee, Fla.) | Immokalee HS | 6-0, 195
Auburn couldn’t quite land the two-man brother package of Mackenro and 5-star Mackensie, who’s off to Clemson
Malzahn says: “A DB from Florida. This is a kid we feel like has very big upside. He is a tough, smart kid that can run. He’s a very good tackler we think he will definitely provide us some help in the secondary.”

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3* S Brandon King (Alabaster, Ala.) | Highland CC (Kan.) | 6-2, 215
If he can prove a sticky tackler, King will make it difficult for coaches to keep him on the sideline
Twitter: @_KING205
Malzahn says: “We felt like we needed some depth at safety, some guys that can come in immediately and play. He’s a very hard-nosed, physical type of player, so we’re excited about him.”

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5* DT Montravius Adams (Vienna, Ga.) | Dooly County HS | 6-4, 310
The surprise coup of the class, pairs with Lawson to make a beastly defensive front of the future
Story: Adams down to final four
Malzahn says: “I think this is going to be is my eighth year to coach college – I don’t know if I’ve seen a bigger, athletic guy than him. I really feel like the sky’s the limit with him. Coach Rodney Garner had a great relationship with him, that really helped get him here. He’s a very good person with a great family.”

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3* K Daniel Carlson (Colorado Springs, Colo.) | Classical Academy | 6-5, 195
ESPN’s top-ranked kicker in the class, should take over for Cody Parkey in 2014
Story: Tigers land second top-flight kicker for the 2013 class in Daniel Carlson
Malzahn says: “He hung in there with us through two special teams coaches. Really appreciate him doing that. He’s got a very big leg, and he’ll be a very good kicker for us.”

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4* RB Johnathan Ford (New Hope, Ala.) | New Hope HS | 5-11, 190
All of a sudden, Auburn is positively LOADED at running back
Twitter: @rudythebeast5
Malzahn says: “Very good running back. He’s got a lot of different skills. He’s not only a good runner, but he can catch the ball out of the backfield, and he loves Auburn. His family loves Auburn, so we’re very excited to have him.”