War Eagle, everybody! Another A-Day has come and gone, and we got to see the team work on problem areas. In the offense vs. defense showdown, the defense got the better of it by the score of 63-32. The offensive coaches opted to work on the passing game, and inconsistency doomed most drives. The stat page shows 54 rushes to 40 passes, but 17 of those runs were by the quarterbacks, and most were the result of failed passing downs. The offenses only scored one touchdown on the day, another one of those patented Gus Malzhan deep throws to the slot guy. Phillip Lutzenkirchen made the defense look silly on the play, but the offense was not able to pull that trick again. At least half of the game was reserves working against reserves. I’m not going to comment too much on that phase, because I think it has little bearing on how Auburn might play this fall.
Defensively, I think the biggest thing to take away from this game was improved play in the secondary. It wasn’t perfect, but we had far fewer guys running around wide open than in any previous A-Day. I complained that the safeties weren’t really visible during the game, but rewatching it, they did a lot better job preventing big plays than I had thought. The same could be said of the linebackers, as the starters and key reserves did a good job of chasing plays to the outside. Where Auburn was vulnerable was runs right up the middle. I complained about tackle play during the broadcast, and it was easily the most disappointing aspect of the defense. However, starters Kenneth Carter and Jeffery Whitaker did not play a whole lot of snaps, and usually only on early downs. Carter didn’t do much, but Whitaker did damage the pocket upon occasion. The Tigers moved defensive ends inside for much of the game, and on the reserve team, they even put walk-on linebackers in those slots. So if you’re alarmed about Davis Hooper and Chandler Shakespeare gashing the D up the middle, there was a good reason for it.
Much of the special teams plays weren’t really live, so there’s no conclusions to be reached about coverage, or blocking. I think there were some exciting developments nonetheless. Steven Clark was inconsistent punting, but seemed to get stronger as the day went on. He hammered some wind-aided howitzers as the game wore on, and finished with a 47.2 yard average. Had good height, too. Trovon Reed looks good back there fielding those punts, too. He got away from one punt inside the ten, and tracked down the others pretty well. Quindarius Carr dropped two punts on the ground during his limited appearances. Chandler Brooks handled all of the place kicking, and handled himself well in his first public appearance. He nailed 3 of 5 field goal attempts, and all of his attempts were beyond 40 yards. On kickoffs, Brooks’ 61 yard average isn’t too bad on a windy day.
Easily the most impressive aspect of the A-Day game was the play of the starting offensive line. I know that sounds strange with defensive ends running free a lot, but a review of the game reveals that a lot of the time, that end was left unblocked purposefully, and the quarterback made the wrong read. There was a stretch right before halftime where Dee Ford got loose on Brandon Mosley three times. However, one was a zone read where the QB should have handed it off. The next was a jailbreak screen, where you are supposed to open the gate and invite the ends through. The last, Mosley released to the sideline to block for a screen. All in all, the offensive line had their way. The least impressive aspect was the passing game. Guys often didn’t get separation. When they got separation, the ball didn’t get there. When the ball got there, we saw drops. Granted, not many passes were aimed at ace receiver Emory Blake.
Position by Position Breakdowns, after the jump!
Defensive Line: What stood out to me is how many good defensive ends we have. At first glance, tackle play was alarmingly non-existent. Re-watching the game, I thought Whitaker held his own. At least half to two thirds of the first-team snaps, they were using Nosa Eguae and Craig Sanders at tackle positions. No wonder the interior O-line dominated! Sanders and Eguae are in the 250-260 pound range. Last time our O-line got to feast on tackles that size was against Chattanooga on Homecoming. Dee Ford was the MVP. Often, the line’s plan was to not block him, and run the other way. Ford made that impossible, making a number of plays on the ball carrier in the backfield. Working out of position much of the day on the strong side, Corey Lemonier was solid, too. We got good play on a few end snaps from Sanders. Even Joel Bonomolo and Justin Delaine looked good. I think we’ll need some help at tackle this fall from the freshmen coming in, probably Gabe Wright. At end, we should be able to rotate and bring the heat for 4 quarters.
Linebackers: I wasn’t terribly impressed on first view, but this was a relatively green bunch getting hammered up the middle. On the wide runs, they actually did a pretty good job chasing most plays down and preventing big gainers. In addition, they chased down screens and reverses too. Didn’t bite and get out of position. I thought both Holland and Freeman did a good job getting the fronts aligned, although the offense wasn’t terribly complicated. You didn’t see those unbalanced line plays that Gus relies on during real games. I thought the backers also did a better job of clogging the middle on short passing plays, forcing the QBs to go elsewhere or take sacks. Biggest negative was on a few first team plays early in each half. Auburn ran mostly 3 or 4 receivers sets most of the day. Early, they lined up with Lutzenkirchen on the line, and Chris Humpries at H-Back. The linebackers or nickel backs on that side tended to get bulldozed on those plays, resulting in a big gain or two for Dyer and McCalebb early, and Anthony Morgan in the second half.
Secondary: Much like late last season, Demetruce McNeal flew to the ball. He was able to cover pretty well in spots, too. I didn’t really see much of Neiko Thorpe the first time, but upon further review, he pretty much negated any chance of the the quarterbacks throwing it down the middle. Defensive coordinator Ted Roof seemed to trust his safeties a lot more, this game. He had the corners pressing up closer to the line of scrimmage. Last season, I don’t think he had confidence that Etheridge, Savage and McNeil were going to always be able to close out mistakes on the perimeter. At corner, T’Sharvan Bell did ok, but Quindarius Carr got away from him a couple of times. Bell did a good job of coming up and being physical near the line. Chris Davis got worked on a bit. He lost Phillip Lutzenkirchen in man coverage for the game’s only touchdown. One reserve corner who had a really good day was Jonathan Mincy. He’s a hitter. True Freshman Jonathan Rose dropped a sure interception, but at least he was in the right place! I think we have a chance to be deeper and more physical in the secondary, this season.
Punting: Last season, I wondered if Steven Clark could hit a punt 40 yards. This spring, he showed that leg that resulted in him being highly recruited. Of course, the rush wasn’t live, but it was good to see Clark boom it. I was pleased at most of his punts beyond the first two or three.
Punt Returns: I realize that it wasn’t a big deal here when returns were not live. Still, it bothers me to see guys drop these on the ground, especially after the past two seasons’ disasters here. Carr dropped two in this one. We haven’t seen what he’s done in practice, of course. But all signs we’ve seen to this point indicate that we should move on at this position. Trovon Reed looked capable and confident back there.
Kickoffs and Kick Returns: These weren’t live, and Onterio McCalebb looked like he had a ton of room each time. He fields ‘em cleanly, which is good. Chandler Brooks averaged the 9 yard line, with one wind-aided touchback. The worst were a pair to the 14 yard line against the wind. That’s not bad at all.
Placekicking: Chandler Brooks doinked his first kick off the right upright. I didn’t realize it at first, but it still went through for the extra point. With the wind, he hit his first three field goal attempts, from 43,41 and 48 yards. Against the wind, he missed from 44 and 47 yards. I think we’ve found a reliable backup kicker!
Offensive Line: The starters were pretty dominant, especially inside. A. J. Green was particularly good at left tackle, and John Sullen was a bulldozer inside. The second three inside are almost as good as the starters. Where we drop off quickly is at tackle beyond the starters. Even with some mixing and matching, this group looked pretty cohesive.
Inside Receivers: Phillip Lutzenkirchen looked like an NFL player out there, blocking well, and always open. I thought Trovon Reed looked speedy out there from the slot, too. Aside from Lutz, I didn’t think they blocked too well.
Outside Receivers: Whenever they wanted to, they could throw underneath to Emory Blake. The two guys who played the most with the ones were DeAngelo Benton and Quindarius Carr. Benton showed good speed getting open on deep go/corner routes, but did not display good hands. There were some broken, wrong routes, too. Quindarius Carr was muscled away from the ball on a couple of occasions. He did get open some, too. Did not seem to have chemistry with the quarterbacks, though. His routes looked rounded off. Carr’s a better blocker than a year ago. We need one of these guys to be able to step up when SEC defenses double Emory Blake.
Lead Blockers: We didn’t run too many plays with H-back and tight end blockers, but when the starters did, it was pretty impressive. Senior H-Back Chris Humphries may not be the most talented guy out there, but he’s a headhunter. He and Lutz will make a good power combo on the off-tackle play. LaDarius Phillips worked exclusively with the backups. When he gets a hat on a defender, it’s over. However, a lot of the time he was unable to get to anyone to block them. Phillips’ best moment was when he caught a short pass in the flat, hurdled Jonathan Mincy, and rumbled forward for 19 yards. The twos had a really tough time slowing that freight train down!
Running Backs: Projected major players Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb made early exits with only 3 carries each. With lead blockers, they each had one carry for big yardage. With 4 wide receivers out there, the shotgun handoffs to them went nowhere. Believed to be sidelined with a knee injury, Anthony Morgan made a first half appearance with the twos and showed great speed. Auburn started the second half with Morgan working with the ones. Again with Lutzenkirchen and Humphries blocking, Morgan did some damage to the starting defense. He’s going to be a good player. Getting the lion’s share of the carries this A-Day were walk-ons Chandler Shakespeare and Davis Hooper, and they did it against the twos.
Quarterbacks: I think the coaches wanted to take a good look at Clint Moseley, as he got a lot more snaps than Barrett Trotter. Trotter looked more accurate and crisp, although the stats do not show that. Trotter was plagued by receivers dropping balls. Moseley spent about half his time working with the twos. In the run game, Moseley kept on the zone read, right into an unblocked defensive end a couple of times. I’ve heard it opined by those who’ve attended practices that Moseley has had a lot more work this spring than Trotter, and may have had arm fatigue issues in this game. Had Trotter not played the second half, I’d be convinced that he should start, after he looked flawless in the first half. In the second half, he missed a couple of wide open receivers, and dropped a snap on the ground. I think the first half of the season, against salty MSU, Clemson and South Carolina defenses, we can expect either quarterback to have some rookie struggles.
I think easily the biggest disappointment for me in this A-Day game was the dropped balls. Defensive tackle play was a close second. I think the biggest surprise was how well A. J. Green played, taking over Lee Ziemba’s spot. He showed great balance and power, and the ends didn’t have much luck trying to get around him. I also liked the strong kicking legs of Brooks and Clark. Both players surprised me. Another pleasant surprise was Tiger coverage and pursuit in the flats. We’ve got a chance to be a really good defense if we can keep teams from getting ten yards every time they want to, out there.
Offensively, I think we must get a lot better with the timing and the catching of passes, or we’re going to be sitting home during the holidays next winter. If we can get more of a push at defensive tackle, I think this defense has a chance to be the best unit Ted Roof has put together at Auburn. Best news out of A-Day is that I don’t think we got anyone seriously hurt. I think Darren Bates got his bell rung trying to tackle Lutzenkirchen, and that was the worst of it.
This summer’s workouts are going to be really important. We need to improve, and we need to have the talented freshman class come in and help us like last year’s did. A pessimist could watch A-Day and predict that we’ll finish 4-8 next fall. I choose to believe that we worked on things we don’t do well, and that the 2011 Tigers will roar out of the gate and surprise a lot of folks.