Five Questions for A-Day.

By Posted on: April 17th, 2014 in Football 12 Comments »
Crowd Watching A Day

Will the fans pack the stadium again?
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody! Spring drills draw to a close this week, punctuated by the annual A-Day game at 2:00 PM Central Daylight Time. This year, the A-Day game will be televised live on ESPN. The ticket office at Auburn Arena opens at 8:00 AM, and stadium gates open at noon. The weather should be good for this game, with a high in the mid 70s, partly cloudy skies, and only a tiny chance of rain.

     Every year, I like to single out five areas to watch on A-Day. Most folks will tell you that nothing is learned from spring games, but I believe there are indicators of what’s to come. Dropped balls and missed throws are of concern, regardless of the time of year. It was telling in 2012 that the offense ran most of its plays to the left side, with green blockers on the right. That presaged an offense that only averaged 10 points per game against SEC competition the next fall. What will we learn this spring?

     My first burning question is a tribute to the state of the program. I wonder if the stadium will be filled up again this year. I sat there in amazement last year, as fans just kept streaming in! Here’s hoping for a similar result, this year. Last year, I don’t think officials were ready for a crowd that size. This year, I think they’ll have a better handle on it. If you attended last year and were disappointed by things like concessions running out early, I believe things will be better this year. With the game on ESPN, folks may stay away. My biggest advice would be to get there early. It’s general admission, and good seats go fast. It is no fun trying to climb to the rafters of the place while the game is already in progress.

     Question number 2 is who wins the war of the trenches? The offensive line must replace All-American left tackle Greg Robinson. By recent accounts, Shon Coleman is ahead at that position, while the coaches have been moving the other contenders around. Will this unit pick up where they left off last season, plowing defensive lines into hamburger? The defensive line has been somewhat of a mash unit this spring, although there is still plenty of depth, particularly at the tackle spot. I’m looking forward to seeing the “Rhino Package,” with Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams playing at defensive end. Can Auburn’s o-line move a front that averages 300 pounds per man?

     Question 3 is will the passing game be improved over last season? I’m not looking for the New England Patriot offense, here. I’ll be watching for accurate throws, good route running, and no dropped balls. One indicator that’s mostly held true for years is that if the quarterback can’t accurately throw the quick screens on A-day, the offense is going to really struggle the next fall. We saw bad throws in 2009, but were saved the next fall by Chris Todd, who’d missed spring with an injury. In 2010, Neil Caudle and Barrett Trotter were on fire, and Auburn won it all that fall. Last spring, I was again concerned, but Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson came in for fall camp and took over.

     Question 4 is who will replace Jay Prosch at H-Back? We’ll be watching to see if Auburn’s new crew there will be able to clear the way like Prosch did. This should be easy enough to watch, with most action happening on the perimeter of the line. By most accounts, we’ll see C. J. Uzomah at tight end, and Brandon Fulse at H-back when the real games start next fall.

     Question 5 is will Auburn show improvement at linebacker this spring? Last season, Auburn’s linebackers started very slow, but were flowing better to the ball on running plays by Iron Bowl time. Other than Star Robensen Therezie, the others were a liability in pass coverage. This year, all of the presumed starters are upperclassmen, for the first time in years. Hopefully, they’ll look like it this spring.

Quick-hitters, after the jump!

     Talk of movement on the offensive line earlier this spring has quieted down. Evidently, Chad Slade is back at his normal right guard spot at least some of the time this week, Avery Young is playing both right tackle and right guard, and Patrick Miller comes in at tackle when Young moves inside.

     Your starting secondary for A-Day is shaping up, from boundary to field, with Jonathan Mincy at corner, Derrick Moncrief and Jermaine Whitehead at safeties, and Jonathan Jones at the field corner. Trovon Reed would probably be the first man in, when the Tigers go to a nickel look. Finding a fourth corner will be important. Candidates include Kamryn Melton, T. J. Davis. Newcomers Nick Ruffin and Kalvarez Bessent will arrive this summer.

     There’s reportedly intense competition for the top spots at the receiver positions. Most folks agree that it will be hard to get Sammie Coates, and impressive JUCO transfer D’haquille Williams out of the lineup. Battling for slot receiver spots are Marcus Davis and Melvin Ray. Ricardo Louis has been hampered by injuries this spring. It’s a deep and talented corps, and playing time will be at a premium.

     In the running back competition, as expected, Cameron Artis-Payne is probably leading the pack. But Corey Grant will certainly have his touches. Peyton Barber might be the best pure runner of them all, but he doesn’t know the offense nearly as well as the other two. Playing on the scout team last fall didn’t help, as the scout team is trying to emulate each week’s opponent.

     I plan to attend this year’s A-Day game, and will be trying to get to a good seat when the gates open at noon. I’ll put up an open thread for those watching at home before I hit the road Saturday morning. I’ll note any last minute developments at that time. War Eagle, folks! A-Day is here, and we’ll hear those pads popping once again!

‘The Times They Are A Changing’ – Whether NCAA Likes it or Not

By Posted on: April 16th, 2014 in Baseball, Basketball, Featured Article, Football 2 Comments »
NCAA2.0

When news broke Tuesday of the NCAA’s change in the meal policy for student athletes it hardly registered a blip on the sports media radar screen as a big deal. The governing body’s Legislative Council approved a change that will now allow unlimited meals and snacks to all Division I student-athletes, including walk-ons. That’s big news – not for the immediate impact of the change but as a precursor for things to come.

The NCAA always is a reactionary body and the change is a direct result of what has been blowing in the wind the past year. In general, the Ed O’Bannon law suit and the NLRB’s ruling allowing Northwestern athletes the right to form a union; and more specifically in this case, the comments made last week by  this year’s Final Four MVP Shabazz Napier who said that he often had, “hungry nights when I go to bed and I’m starving.”

On the surface, you would think that the NCAA’s action is a no brainer. Most people probably didn’t even realize that student athletes (all of whom are involved in heavy physical training) were limited to three meals a day with no snacks in between. However, the NCAA if anything is never out in front of a problem. They only react to situations. Such is the m.o. of a bureaucracy.

Shabiz is not the first athlete to complain of not having enough to eat. But make no mistake, this action is of much larger significance than more food for student athletes. This is the NCAA trying to close the barn door after the horse has already escaped. I’m afraid concessions like this may be too little too late.

The NCAA is attempting to say, ‘see there is no need for a union rep because we are responsive to the needs of our student athletes.’ Don’t get me wrong, I fully support providing athletes with all their nutritional needs and other expenses. What I don’t support is the unionization of college athletes.

Like Nero, the NCAA has been fiddling, while a firestorm of discontent has been growing larger around them. It would be easy to point the finger at Mark Emmert and since this has occurred on his watch, he certainly bears some culpability. However, it is far greater problem than one man. Again, it is due to the slow mechanization of a bureaucracy as well as resistance to change.

The larger question here, is what will become of college football as these issues are played out in the courts? I will go on record here and say this is one man that thinks the unionization of scholarship athletes is a bad, bad idea. I know there is an insane amount of money in Division I college football and the ‘full cost’ of the athletes has not been covered. I get that. But college players are either scholarship athletes or they are employees – they can’t be both.

As scholarship athletes they are currently receiving a free college education worth anywhere from $20,000 to $70,000 a year depending on the college. In reality, colleges spend more on athletes when you add in their meals, their free weight training, conditioning, nutritional help, books, free medical, and academic tutoring.

On the other hand as an employee, the athletes would share in the profits, be able to sell their likeness and autographs, and have the right (as in the NFL) to player representation as well as collective bargaining. Anyone ready for the loss of a football season because of a labor dispute between management and players?

Also as an employee the employer would have the right of dismissal. In the business world when an employee is not pleasing their employer they are subject to being fired. Imagine coach ‘A’ doesn’t think that player ‘B’ is working out. He/she has an attitude or maybe seems to be injury prone. As an employer, Coach ‘A’ just fires them. How does that help the student get an education?

Because the NCAA has not responded appropriately or in a timely manner to student athlete needs and concerns, we are now faced with this quagmire of an uncertain future. The NCAA’s free food rule change is only a band aid to a much larger issue and a harbinger of bigger changes ahead. To quote that great American musician and song writer, Bob Dylan :

“The wheel’s still in spin, and
There’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the winner now will be later to lose
For the times they are a-changin”

Whether the NCAA likes it or not.

Kerryon Johnson, Nation’s No.2 Athlete Commits to Auburn

By Posted on: April 15th, 2014 in Football 1 Comment »
-822b59ea091dab59kerry Johnson

                                                                                                                                  (photo:Bob Gathany, al.com)
One of the top players in the state of Alabama and the nation’s No. 2 athlete, Kerryon Johnson committed to Auburn this afternoon.

The 6-foot, 200-pound 5-star running back rushed for 1,784 yards and 28 touchdowns at Madison Academy. He also had 67 tackles and five interceptions on defense and help lead Madison Academy to back-to-back 3A State Football Championships.

Johnson who finished third in the Mr. Football voting this year was recruited by several of the top programs in the country but made his final decission choosing between Auburn, Alabama, and Florida State.

In making the announcement, Kerryon said that his commitment was firm and that he plans to be at Auburn for next year’s spring practice. He said the family atmosphere was a real selling point for him. “I feel great at Auburn and I wouldn’t expect that to change.”

Video of Kerryon Johnson’s 2013 season highlights:

                            

Bret Bielema is Obsessed With Auburn and Gus Malzahn

By Posted on: April 15th, 2014 in Football 14 Comments »
13705944-standard - Julie Bennett

                                                                                                                                   (photo:Julie Bennett, al.com)
For some strange reason, Arkansas coach, Bret Bielema seems to have a problem with Auburn or is it with Gus Malzahn? Shortly after coming to Fayetteville, he fired off a verbal attack on the Hurry- Up-No-Huddle Offense in the SEC’s spring meeting.

He followed up that barrage in June by submitting a proposal to the NCAA to change the rules to give the defense 15-second substitution periods after each first down – even if the offense didn’t substitute.

When the press asked  Malzahn for his reaction to the proposal the next month at SEC Media Days, Gus said, “To tell you the truth, when I first heard about it, I thought it was a joke.” Later, Bielema fired back in his usual pugnacious way, “I’m not a comedian.” Of course the press fanned the sparks of that “comedian” comment into a fire that engulfed the national media.

During the week before the 2013 Auburn -Arkansas game, Bret made more charges against Auburn when he implied to the press that Auburn was trying to be unethical when he received game tapes that left off a special goal line play of a two point conversion alignment.

His ostensible complaint really was of no significance since the play in question had been used in every Auburn game during the season. It was just another Bielema brouhaha. In fact it was Bielema who actually was guilty of breaking SEC rules in going public with his charges. The league rules say that if coaches question the validity of game film provided by opponents, they must report their issues to the SEC and “must not” share them with the public. But it appears the man who had been on the NCAA rules committee had no problem breaking rules.

Then the biggest controversy was created last month when he and Nick Saban took it upon themselves to get on a plane and fly to Indianapolis to address the NCAA Rules Committee in a clandestine and polemic move to get the NCAA to pass a rule slowing down the HUNH offense.

Now comes this week, when Bret told the media that his team is using the Razorback’s spring practice (again) to prepare for their game next fall with Auburn. Of course as the Hog’s head man, he has every right to use spring practice any way he chooses. But it just goes to further underscore his obsession with Auburn and Gus Malzahn.

While controversy seems to follow him (including publically leveling charges against Ohio State when he was in the Big 10), his obsession with defeating Gus has been taken to another level.

It appears that Bieliema is so intimidated by Malzahn, that defeating Gus is his number one obsession. Webster defines obsession as, “The pursuit of a favorite project or idea relentlessly and unceasingly; to be obsessed with a single person, notion, or scheme.”

Yes Bielema is obsessed, he has made it abundantly clear that handicapping Malzahn’s offense with a rule change or defeating Auburn has been a top priority since he joined the SEC. He has chosen to measure himself by slowing down or defeating Malzahn, as his yardstick for success.

Some coaches measure themselves a different way. Some want to have a winning record, some want to go to a bowl game, some want to compete for championships and then there are some, like Bielema, who want to outdo one coach. That folks, is an obsession.

A-Day Is a Time for Fun; Nothing More

By Posted on: April 14th, 2014 in Football 4 Comments »
A-Day

Saturday is another one of those milestones. A-Day means we are one step closer to the start of the 2014 college football season. As writer Phillip Marshall noted over the weekend, there are lots of things to do this Saturday, just don’t expect to learn much about the Auburn football team.

“You can tailgate like it was an October Saturday,” writes Marshall. “You can go to the bookstore and buy souvenirs. You can visit the raptor center. You can show your kids where you lived and explain to them that you were a dedicated student who never stayed out later than 9 p.m. You can walk by the new dorms on Donahue Drive and marvel at all the construction that is under way on campus. You can drink lemonade at Toomer’s Drugstore.

“You can do all those things and more. But one thing you can’t do is get any real idea about what is going to happen next season by watching the spring game.”

Amen to that Phillip.

Historically A-Day hasn’t been a place for breakout performances from future stars. Cam Newton barely made an appearance in 2010. Last year gave no indication of what was ahead.

With last year’s seniors gone and this year’s freshmen in the midst of prom season, look for a lot of names on the field that won’t be making cameos this fall.

If you remember to do only one thing, be sure to print out an A-Day roster before walking in the stadium. Forget it, and it’ll feel like you’re sitting at an Arena football game without beer.

The biggest question this week is whether Auburn will top last year’s attendance of 83,000 at Jordan-Hare Stadium. With the game falling on Easter Weekend, it may prove difficult.

If you are planning on attending, there’s lot to do before and after the game. Bo Jackson will be leading his Bo Bikes Bama ride through Auburn starting at 9:30 a.m. and originating from the Jules Collins Smith Museum.

At halftime they’ll honor last year’s SEC Championship Team. Following the game, they’ll be an autograph session on the field that will run for approximately one hour. If you are still looking for more, Auburn baseball is in action at Plainsman Park where they host South Carolina.

Saturday is a day to bring the family and take in Auburn, with less of an emphasis on football. And that’s OK. A-Day at Auburn is always special. Coming off last year’s incredible run, this weekend will be a day to celebrate and look ahead.

It’s one of my favorite days of the year.

See you Saturday.

Putting the Hammer Down!

By Posted on: April 10th, 2014 in Football 9 Comments »
Spring shakeup

There’s a shakeup on the offensive line, this week.
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody. Spring proceeds on. Gone are the frosty mornings, having been replaced by mercurial, stormy weather and torrential rains. The days have gotten longer, and Auburn’s football team is still hard at work preparing for the 2014 season. In these last two weeks of spring drills, here’s what head coach Gus Malzhan had to say: “We’ve got two more weeks and we’ve got to put the hammer down and we’ve got to make sure we get better.”

     The big news this week from spring drills is an apparent shake-up on the offensive line. Sophomore Avery Young has been moved from right tackle to right guard, and junior Patrick Miller has been moved back to his old stomping grounds at right tackle. That leaves senior Chad Slade as the odd man out in the starting lineup. Slade is doing reps at left guard this week, backing up Alex Kozan. Is this a permanent move by the coaches? They have been quoted as saying that the move is strictly to create depth, but I’m not so sure.

     This past Tuesday’s practice footage featured a heavy dose of offensive line work, starting about 1:20 into this video clip. Folks, this is what it’s like to be an offensive lineman in camp. Coach Grimes definitely did not seem happy during this drill. My favorite section is where he tells the linemen (particularly Reese Dismukes) that they can cook their BBQ any way they want to; he’s not going to tell them what to do. Then coach Grimes barked, “But when it comes to this (expletive), we’re going to do it the way I want! You got me on that?” Several do-overs were to follow.

     As with any physical spring, injuries have mounted a bit. Auburn has taken some lumps on the defensive line, with LaDarius Owens out for the whole spring, Tyler Nero not practicing since last week, and Keymiya Harrell limited after getting banged up in last Saturday’s scrimmage. Likewise, the linebacker corps has had Anthony Swain and JaViere Mitchell out the whole spring, which has made room for redshirt freshman Cameron Toney to take hold of the top backup spot.

     I’m told that the real difference that will be seen this season on the Auburn defense will be in the secondary. Probably the most impressive guy this spring back there has been Robensen Therezie at the star position. Therezie broke his hand right off the bat, but has been back out there everyday, leading by example. He’s even fielding punts with a cast on that hand. Therezie may have some help this year, off the bench. Junior Justin Garrett is again looking good, and sophomore Mackendro Alexander has made a move the past offseason and this spring.

     Auburn’s safety situation was scary last season, after the dismissal of Demetruce McNeil and the injury to Joshua Holsey at midseason. This year, it’s looking like the Tigers may have a bit more depth to play with. JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief continues to impress, and I’d think he’s a virtual lock to start. Brandon King has been moved full-time to safety, and he’s said to be improving. With Jonathan Ford settled in there as well, and Holsey returning in the fall, Auburn should have some numbers in the playing rotation.

     Safety is a position I’ll be watching on A-Day. I’m hoping to see plays on receivers and balls down the field, and help closing in on runners. Too often the past ten years, Auburn’s safeties have looked more like that uncertain 4-year-old playing in the outfield in his first T-Ball game, particularly down the depth chart.

     The battle to replace Tre Mason at running back continues. By all accounts, seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, along with redshirt freshman Peyton Barber are all getting first-team reps. When asked about the pecking order, Artis-Payne had the quote of the week when he said, “We haven’t gotten any updates so if you find something out, let me know.” Given how well the two seniors played last season when given the chance, I’ll be very surprised if both don’t get a lot of playing time, and play very well.

How Will the SEC Champions Replace Tre Mason?

By Posted on: April 9th, 2014 in Featured Article, Football 6 Comments »
NCAA Football: New Mexico State at Auburn

                                                                                                                           (photo:Julie Bennett, al.com)
The NFL Draft is four weeks away and this year the first running back expected to be taken is Auburn’s Tre Mason. Last year Mason astounded all with his 23 touchdowns and 1,816 yards rushing. Tre was the leading rusher on the No.1 rushing team in the nation. A feat that made him a Heisman finalist.

He leaves behind a  legacy as one of the greatest running backs to ever play at ‘Running Back U.” His early departure for the pro’s leaves some big shoes to fill. However, the good news is – Auburn’s cupboard is full of talent. In fact, Auburn has enough stallions in the stable that promising sophomore Jonathan Ford has been permanently moved to the defense.

Looking over the list, the number one contender has to be senior Cameron Artis-Payne. He started last season sharing the carries with Mason before Tre claimed sole possession of the role. He had  two 100 yard games and finished the year with 610 yards and six touchdowns.

Artis-Payne is feeling very confident this spring. Although he recognizes he’s in a race to be Mason’s successor, he said at the beginning of spring practice that he wasn’t worried about the competition. “I just feel like I’m not going to lose.” He added, “I’m trying to be the first 2,000-yard running back in the SEC.” Got to love that attitude.

Then there is, junior Corey Grant who made a name for himself as the Tigers homerun threat last year – mostly on speed sweeps. Grant had almost a ten yard per carry average, rushing for 647 yards and six touchdowns. Some think the 5’11″, 203lb. back is not big enough to take the pounding in the middle.

However, that was also a concern about Tre Mason early in his career before he put on extra weight. News out of Auburn is that Grant has also added pounds to prove he can be an every down back. Pound for pound, he may be the strongest player on the team; and Corey said going into spring that it’s his goal to prove to the coaches that he can carry the load.

Third on most people’s list is Peyton Barber. The 5’11″, 230lb. Redshirt Freshman may be the surprise of the group. Peyton has a legitimate shot at being number one. He has the build to run it through the tackles and he has the added benefit of having played scout team running back last year. That experience gives him a year of playing against college level talent. Running backs coach, Tim Horton believes Barber has the power and the moves to be a top college back. Reports out of Auburn say he has wowed both the coaches and teammates in spring practice.

Add to this list 5-star running back Racean ‘Roc’ Thomas who will be enrolling this summer and you can easily see the coaches have several strong options to fill the vacuum left by Mason. Although Thomas hasn’t played against college level talent, the 5’11″, 200 lb.back finished his high school career at Oxford High with 6,169 yards, 82 touchdowns, and was named ‘Mr. Alabama Football.’

There is little doubt that the next Auburn running back will be a 1,000 yard rusher. To start with Malzahn has said the 2014 offense will include more of a passing game which should keep the defensive back field from playing close, giving the running backs more room to gain yardage.

Moreover, in eight years as a college offensive coordinator or head coach, Gus Malzahn has had nine players produce eleven 1,000 yard seasons. That fact coupled with a more open passing attack assures that whoever wins the job … Will pick up where Tre Mason left off.

Who do you think will replace Tre Mason as Auburn's No.1 running back?

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A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words: Gene Chizik’s Daughter Goes to the Prom

By Posted on: April 7th, 2014 in Football 9 Comments »
Chizik Daughter

The picture says it all.

In fact, it may be the greatest father-daughter photo ever taken. Gene Chizik’s daughter went to the prom this weekend. Apparently, Gene wasn’t overly thrilled with her choice. Maybe it’s the long hair. Maybe it’s the thought of this boy taking his baby anywhere.

If you’re the father of a teenage girl, you understand the facial expression. Look up the term “father’s angst” and you’ll see that photo.

The boy’s mother took the picture and Tweeted it later that evening with the caption, “You think my son will come home from the prom alive?”

It looks like Chiz is flexing those guns. Maybe he wore the shirt on purpose, to send a subtle message. Pure gold…

saban sacrificeSpeaking of pictures, what would we do without Bammer Nation? This picture has been making the rounds of social media. I’m not really sure what the father is doing with his child. Offering her up for sacrifice? Asking Nick Saban to bless and protect her?

In the words of Verne Lundquist, “Oh my goodness.”

It has gone from bad to worse for the fledgling SEC Network. We just thought adding Paul Finebaum and Jesse Palmer to the network was bad. It was announced last week that former Alabama quarterback Greg McElroy will join Joe Tessitore and Tim Tebow on the channel’s version of College GameDay this fall.

Who are the morons hiring the talent?

McElroy may be the biggest twit to ever play college football. His face immediately pisses off half the people who see it. Now we are being subjected to this each Saturday? I think I’ll stick with Fowler, Corso and Herbstreit.

They’ve also hired two more analysts, both from LSU. Former Tiger defensive linemen Booger McFarland and Marcus Spears will provide commentary on game day. I can’t hear it now, “Let’s send things back to Booger in the booth.”

Can I get another, “Oh my goodness?”

One of the big story lines of spring practice so far has been the play of backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson. While the upcoming season will be firmly in the hands of Nick Marshall, those looking to the future can breathe easier.

More than one insider has said that Johnson has closed the gap considerably. Known for his pocket passing, Gus Malzahn has the sophomore working on his running skills when in the zone read.

“I’m getting better every day,” says Johnson. “I watch film. I do better. I’m practicing on carrying out my fake. “It wasn’t anything I ever did. It’s just the simple fact with my footwork and how to do it and the right read.”

“He’s way faster than you would think, he’s way smarter with the zone read because he knows how to get to the edge,” safety Jermaine Whitehead said. “He uses his body, his length, to his advantage. He steps around a lot of guys; I’ve seen him make some steps around our D-ends that were pretty spectacular.”