Spastic Random Thoughts

By Posted on: April 2nd, 2014 in Featured Article, Football, Memories 14 Comments »
13613346-mmmain - julie bennett

One of the most important plays for Auburn’s 2013 football season came against Texas A&M. (photo:Julie Bennett,al.com)

We (or at least I) interrupt our usual presentation of quality analysis and rapier wit to provide you just what the title says.  We’ve got a lot to cover, so let’s get going (numbered for your commenting convenience):

1.  Can anyone explain to me why ESPN and the media in general have their lips permanently implanted (notwithstanding Item 2 below) on the posterior of the Crimson Tide and Coach Saban?  How does that enhance their bottom line?

2.  We might be seeing a sea change with the above situation, after the obscene gambit that Saban, through his de facto lackey Bertie Boy, tried to pull with the 10-second rule proposal.  A lot of his cred seemed to evaporate with that move, at least amongst the coaching community (and, who knows, the media might just follow).

3.  Another question: Why were all the Tide trolls coming over here sincerely wishing us well in the aTm game?  Bama already beat Johnny Football a few weeks before; it would have behooved them and their obsession against AU for the Aggies to take us to the woodshed.  (Someone told me the answer to this is the aphorism “The enemy of my enemy is my friend.”  However, this analysis works only if UA hates aTm more than AU, and if that is the case, I feel thoroughly insulted to be the object of a lesser hatred.)

4.  Speaking of aTm, I am willing to say that the turning point of the whole season (and not just that particular game) was the moment Sammy Coates shoved that Aggie defender off of him and down to the ground (I still replay that gif file a few times and shout “GET OFF ME!  GET OFF ME!”).  That play showed we were ready to play and beat anyone put in front of us.

5.  Sub-thoughts from the BCS-NCG:

     a.  Florida State was not as good as everyone thought.

     b.  That said, Florida State was really good, and evidently better than us on that day.

     c.  I don’t think that anyone can blame any big play or missed field goal for losing that game, as there were plenty of busted plays and breakouts for both teams.

     d.  Isn’t it interesting that no one told Cody to “drink bleach” for missing a kick whereas Cade wasn’t so lucky?

     e.  I was shocked to see the idiocy of the FSU internet fans during the buildup to the BCS.  I was very upset at losing to “that kind” of a fan-base, until I saw the half of my high school class that went to FSU (expected as I grew up in Jacksonville, FL) were a classy kind of fans.  Then, I felt better that the joy we had in 2010 could be shared.

6.  Leading from Item 5e above, does anyone else wonder how sports rivalries across the board got so ridiculously nasty?  Can we not all agree something went way, way wrong in the last twenty years (in general)?  Can anyone stop it?

7.  As Derrick Roberts pointed out in his great article here Friday, the decision by the NLRB  on Northwestern football players unionization may end college football as we know it.  My own feeling is that if college sports becomes nothing more than a professional league, it will lose what makes people love it–that sense of being represented. College sports works because we alumni, and others with a heartfelt connection, feel like a part of that team in a way that pro sports can’t ever deliver.  I will be sad to see the death of yet another once solid cultural institution in my lifetime.

8.  If my one of my best friends (and FSU fan and current doctoral student there) ever sends me a freaking Seminole shirt, you’ll soon be seeing me here in a very compromising situation (yeah, we had that kind of a bet).

Michael Val

(who is often spastic or random, just usually not at the same time!)

Say Goodbye to College Football As You Know It

By Posted on: March 28th, 2014 in Featured Article, Football 12 Comments »
Photo Courtesy of Nikeblog.com

Photo Courtesy of Nikeblog.com

This year’s crop of players leaving behind college football’s ever-evolving landscape for the NFL does so under as much or more media scrutiny than is reserved for the regular season. A college football career resembles a calculated business decision more and more with each passing day and a growing number of players are looking for ways to cash in. 

Departing players like Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel sign endorsement contracts and begin to officially start promoting themselves as a brand, and there may be a shorter wait for others to begin reaping the benefits.  A recent decision that will presumably allow Northwestern University football players to unionize has the potential to unlock a plethora of avenues through which college athletes can pursue compensation.

The 2014 season will see in the introduction of the most radical post-season change to college football since the introduction of the BCS bowl system by way of the College Football Playoff. While it will be limited to four teams competing in two semi-final and then an eventual championship game, the very introduction of a playoff conquers a hurdle long thought to be a far-fetched concept.

In addition to dedicated network media coverage, college athletes are exposed more than ever now through social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. This is one element that has served to blur the line between professional and amateur athletes competing in the same sports because they have come to share equal portions of the public spotlight.  As this trend has become more prevalent so has the contrast between which news regarding professional and amateur athletes is reported.

For example – an NFL lineman may get arrested for a DUI and the story receive an initial surge of coverage before it is ‘yesterday’s news so to speak, but an incident of equal or often times lesser severity will garner a whirlwind of media coverage surrounding the event that lasts for several days or even weeks.

The days of only being able to see Notre Dame play on television seem like ancient relics to a sport that has grown to unbelievable heights. There is no reason to hold out hope for a return to anything resembling college football from over two decades ago, and for some that may be disappointing news. Just make sure you don’t pause too long to reminisce or you may get left behind.

Lifting Off!

By Posted on: March 27th, 2014 in Featured Article, Football 17 Comments »
Spring Week Two Craig

Auburn is loaded with talented receivers this spring.
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody! Week two of spring drills is well underway, with another practice early this morning, and the first scrimmage of the spring is scheduled for Saturday. Positive energy continues to flow from the practice fields, and the Auburn Tigers appear to be making the most of their time this year. Watching various practice videos, the all-business approach by both the coaching staff and the players is evident. This team will make some noise this fall!

     I’ve had fun watching Auburn’s receiving corps, this spring. This is a very different unit from the guys on the field last September. Coach Dameyune Craig deserves a lot of credit for how his men have developed. It’s a lot of fun watching Coach Craig throw that ball at his guys in practice. Almost two decades after Craig was a record-setting quarterback at Auburn, the man can still sling that rock!

     Sammie Coates developed into Auburn’s go-to receiver last season, after some early-season butterfingers. While dropped balls tend to hang in my memory, it’s important to note that Coates really did not drop anything the last 7 games of the season, and made a lot of big plays. He’s catching even better this spring. I think that we’ll see JUCO transfer D’haquille Williams make a big impact this fall, as well. Williams seems to have that knack for positioning himself for the ball, and has great hands.

     Another thing that’s impressive by the receiving corps this spring is that they are a lot crisper on the receiver quick screens, this spring. That play is a staple of the Malzhan offense, and clearly it has been worked on a lot. Last season, we’d see the ball blooped out there late, the receiver would have to go get it, a block might be missed, and the receiver might not get past the line of scrimmage. This spring, the ball comes out there hot, the blocker locks up the corner, and the receiver is going forward in quick succession. That’s really going to help keep defenses honest this fall.

     Another fascinating aspect of the practice videos is watching the pace on the 11 vs. 11 segments. Most of the time, the offense is snapping the ball at ten seconds or less after the whistle from the previous play. Watch the little Youtube clock, and see. I don’t know if SEC officials will let ‘em rip plays off quite that quickly this season, but it’s clear that this offense hopes to go a lot faster.

Unit updates, after the jump!

     We noted before spring drills started that the defensive line was a mix of depth at tackle, and questions at defensive end. As is typical, the first week of spring drills has already claimed two victims at the end position. Returning starter LaDarius Owens is apparently out for the whole spring with an undisclosed injury. The last practice, sophomore Elijah Daniel was limited to the sideline, although Coach Malzhan says that its “nothing serious.” This situation has been alarming enough that tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams have been working at the end positions on the line. The bright spot on that front is that Carl Lawson appears ready to take a major step forward this season. He was an occasional weapon as a true freshman last fall, and looks to become one of those guys every SEC quarterback fears.

     Linebacker depth is also a huge question mark this fall. Here in the first week, Anthony Swain and Javiere Mitchell have been sidelined, and they were the two guys penciled in to back up Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Thus far from what we’ve seen, Justin Garrett has done most of his work at the star position. I think it would really help the Auburn defense if both Robenson Therezie and Garrett could alternate, and stay fresh. Therezie played nearly every meaningful snap, last season. With the way the linebacker situation is playing out, we could see a replay of 2009-2010, where Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens had to play nearly every snap. McKinzy and Frost are veteran upperclassmen, and I’m confident they’ll be good next season. I just hope they aren’t going to have to play 80 snaps per game!

     With Josh Holsey still rehabbing a knee, and Chris Davis headed to the NFL, the secondary certainly has questions to answer this spring. One early answer appears to be transfer Derrick Moncrief at safety. Coaches are raving about how rapidly Moncrief is picking up the knowledge to play both safety spots, and he’s an obvious big talent physically. The battle between Jonathan Jones and Trovon Reed for a starting cornerback spot has been interesting, also.

     Notes on special teams include new kickers, and lots of candidates trying out as returners. While I’m going to be nervous next September when some of these guys take the field to kick balls for the very first time at Auburn, I really think we’ll be ok, here. The guys expected to win starting jobs, punter Jimmy Hutchinson and kicker Daniel Carlson are getting competition this spring. Tyler Stovall and Jack Bjork have had good springs punting, and Alex Kviklys and Duncan McKinney are getting in some good kicks also.

     Auburn is trying out as many as eight guys at punt returner. Senior Quan Bray has experience, but has not really broken out as a big time returner in the past. Coaches are looking at Jermaine Whitehead, Ricardo Louis, Gray King, Marcus Davis, Robensen Therezie, Jonathan Mincy and D’haquille Williams fielding the ball. One thing that caught my eye was what Mincy was doing during his turn. He was moving up on the ball, while others stood flat-footed. On some of the big returns last season, Chris Davis was doing that. An ability to bring it in on the fly is a big deal, as it will hold coverage men, who’ll slow up to avoid contact, plus the return man is headed upfield as soon as the ball is in hand. The real question is whether the return man can track both the ball and the defenders. Failure on that leads to turnovers, or the return man being lit up by the coverage. Chris Davis succeeded at having his eyes on both, last season.

     The offensive line continues to be impressive. The starting left tackle spot is a dead heat right now, with both Patrick Miller and Shon Coleman earning praise from the veterans. I think the line will be fine, regardless of who wins that job. During the 11 on 11 drills, it’s amazing to watch these guys get back to the line after the whistle.

     There’s an intense competition to be the main man running the ball, this fall. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both ran for over 600 yards last season, and they are battle-tested. Payne was used as sort of a short-yardage, change of pace guy last season, and Grant was the speed-sweep artist. Both guys are showing this spring that they are a lot more complete than folks think. Add talented redshirt freshman Peyton Barber into the mix, and Auburn should have no dearth of talent to carry the ball next fall.

     I think folks who opined “he’s a DB trying to play quarterback” last fall will be in for a surprise, this year. Marshall really appears to have improved his accuracy this spring, and the timing with his receivers is good. I think some serious work has been done during the winter, and Auburn is going to surprise teams that load the box this fall.

Spring practice continues, leading up to the A-Day game on April 19th. I’ll be very interested to look over whatever stats are made available from this Saturday’s scrimmage. Those are the cauldrons that separate the men from the boys!

Changes Coming to SEC Television

By Posted on: March 24th, 2014 in Football 13 Comments »
NCAA Football: Alabama at Auburn

You like change? Then, this is your year. In addition to the playoff era beginning in college football, the media landscape and how you watch Saturday afternoon football will change dramatically.

The biggest news in these parts is the launch of the SEC Network. Promising to deliver 24/7 football programming during the season, the new ESPN-sponsored network is set to launch on August 14th. The big question is whether it’ll be available in your area.

Negotiations with cable and satellite providers continue to move slowly. Right now the only providers signed on are Dish Network and AT&T U-Verse. The conference plans to carry three games each weekend, including an early, afternoon and evening contest.

Game coverage kicks off on Thursday, August 28th with Texas A&M vs. South Carolina and Vanderbilt vs. Tennessee. Two days later, the premier of SEC GameDay airs live from Auburn just before kickoff of the Arkansas game.

ESPN’s Joe Tessitore will anchor the new program and will be joined by Tim Tebow. Like the original GameDay program, the show will rotate to different campuses each week.

Recently, Brent Musburger was named lead announcer for the SEC package on the new network. Viewed as a demotion from his duties as lead play-by-play man for ABC’s Saturday night broadcast, Musburger is being replaced by GameDay host Chris Fowler.

Fowler’s contract expired this year and it’s believed that Fox and CBS both were chasing him. His new deal with ESPN likely will keep him around the network for the remainder of his career. It’s reported that his new deals pays $3.5 million annually. He’ll continue his GameDay hosting duties in addition to the new gig.

Now for the bad news: Joining Musburger in the booth will be Jesse Palmer. For me, this will make Saturday afternoons virtually unwatchable on the new SEC Network. I’m not sure what’s worse, hiring Paul Finebaum to simulcast his show live daily or allowing Palmer’s ignorance to roam freely for three hours each Saturday.

Either way, the new network has already made some missteps before flipping the switch to on. Speaking of Finebaum, look for him to have an expanded role on the new Saturday show.

Tebow will be begging the NFL to give him any kind of job after spending a few Saturdays with Finebaum and Palmer. Count me among those who’ll be sticking with the original GameDay show.

The SEC can do better.

Life on the Island

By Posted on: March 21st, 2014 in Featured Article, Football 14 Comments »

Defending the edge against Auburn’s Zone Read play

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe;
every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse,
as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were;
any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions

John Donne can be excused for his opinion, having never witnessed the Auburn zone read play as a defensive end or outside linebacker in the SEC. But if he had, he would know the pang of Tom Hank’s character the the movie Castaway – unable to overcome the fate of being left all alone, virtually helpless as everything he’s been taught about his role in life is taken from him and slowly going crazy watching a ball drift away out of reach.

Defensive ends and linebackers in the Southeastern conference are a unique blend of size, speed, intelligence and tenacity. The emergence of edge speed rushers in both the NFL and NCAA football has led to large, explosive athletes gravitating to the end of the defensive line where their incredible agility, speed and leverage can alter the pace of the game by pressuring the quarterback into ill-timed throws or drive killing sacks. This issue has been illustrated in many commentaries on the sport, most notably by the now celebrated book and movie ‘The Blind Side’ by Michael Lewis. The game of football, Lewis asserts, was forever changed by the vulnerability of the West Coast offense to athletes of Lawrence Taylor’s caliber and their ability to apply pressure on drop back pass-heavy offenses.

But like anything, just because a situation is conventional in the present doesn’t necessarily indicate a permanent aspect of the future. The game of football is one of constant improvement and leverage of opposing tendencies, applications of force, and the opportunistic exploitation of vulnerabilities. One of the most dramatic examples of this is how the Auburn offensive scheme under Rhett Lashlee and Gus Malzahn attacks these skilled defenders on the edge of the line of scrimmage.

The Auburn offense of 2013 used a series of plays that leveraged the expected role of the edge defender against himself, often leaving him alone, untouched, unblocked and completely out of the play at the very point where his athletic ability was supposed to dominate.

At times it was a thing of beauty and magnificence rarely found on the field of play. One moment a talented and graceful athlete was poised to create a negative play, and the next he was alone in a seemingly infinite expanse, mournfully crying out to the vanishing object of his desire.


“Wilsonnnnnnn!”

In 2008, defensive end Ed Stinson (#49) was a 4-star prospect for Alabama. After redshirting during the 2009 season, he played in nine games as a Freshman in 2010, earning two starts, and played as a starter in each game over the next three years, including two BCS championship games. In 2013 he was a dominant part of the Alabama defense line, and will likely be a solid mid second round draft prospect for the NFL in April. In all respects, he was the prototypical size (6’3″, 293 lbs), speed and dynamic one would expect from an Alabama Defensive End of the Nick Saban era.

But on the opening drive of the second half of the 2013 Iron Bowl, he might as well have been on a desert island in the middle of the Pacific for all he was able to accomplish in stopping the Auburn drive. 

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After two plays to the far side, Auburn snaps the ball on the third play of the drive. Ed Stinson has a clear lane to the ‘mesh point’, or the hand off decision point of the zone read between Nick Marshall and Tre Mason. If you notice, Ed is not blocked at all, he is up from his stance and advancing with a clear path to the ball.

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One second later, Ed is yards behind the play, caught up in the wash of the line and well out of position to make a stop. Result: 10 yards and a first down for Auburn

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Fourth play of the drive, Ed is in the same position, facing the mesh point of the zone read again, untouched by any Auburn player. Only this time, Marshall keeps the ball and rolls right, and Ed pursues, intent on a sure tackle for a loss.

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But Nick Marshall quickly unloads on a designed sideline pass to Quan Bray, who gains 9 yards on the play, leaving Stinson grasping at air, unable to touch Nick Marshall for fear of drawing a penalty. Result: 9 yard gain.

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After two plays to the opposite side, where his counter part on the the right side does no better in stopping the ball carrier, giving up a total of 16 yards, Ed again finds himself unblocked with the ball coming his way on yet another zone read. This time Nick Marshall hands the ball off to Mason, who rumbles for six yards to the far side, leaving Ed futilely alone in the backfield.

Auburn now has a first down in the Alabama red zone, after marching 54 yards to the Alabama 15 yard line.

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On the eighth play of the drive, Ed Stinson finally makes his lone contact with the ball carrier. On yet another zone read, he is again unblocked and facing the mesh point between Nick Marshall and Tre Mason. Nick keeps it and attempts another out pass to Quan Bray. But this time, the coverage is too close and Nick pulls in the pass as Ed closes with him behind the line of scrimmage.

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But Nick accelerates and almost breaks that desperation tackle, and ends up with a solid two yard gain on the play.

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On what will be the last play of the drive, Ed faces a blocker for only the second time in the entire series as Nick Marshall hits C.J. Uzomah on the wheel route for a game tying touchdown.

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In nine straight plays of a game tying series, a starting defensive end was only blocked by an opposing player two times. In the seven remaining plays of the drive he was left untouched and alone on an island in the eye of the Zone Read whirlwind. Despite having the ball handed off directly in front of him less than two yards away on seven of those plays, he ended the drive with one desperation tackle after surrendering almost three yards, despite having his hands on the ball carrier two yards behind the line of scrimmage.

Keep in mind, this was not some random Freshman brought off the bench to substitute in a critical series. This was a four year All-SEC starting defensive end, a veteran of two BCS championship teams having his best year to date and establishing himself as a top tier prospect for the upcoming NFL draft. And yet he was as ineffective as Gilligan in getting himself off the island and helping his team on that series.

Such is the beauty and power of the zone read in the hands of a skilled quarterback. It can leave one of the best defensive players in the country flailing impotently in the wind, helplessly watching the ball recede into nothingness as his hopes and dreams come to naught. A conventional Caliban at the mercy of mystical conjuring by a gifted Prospero.

“I am subject to a tyrant, a sorcerer, that by his cunning hath cheated me of the island.” Caliban, The Tempest



You and all the rest of the SEC defensive ends, Caliban. You and all the rest.

Spring Drills Begin!

By Posted on: March 20th, 2014 in Basketball, Football 12 Comments »
Spring Drills Begin

We have to earn it.
(Photo by Acid Reign.)

     War Eagle, everybody! It was an incredible day in Auburn Tuesday, as Auburn University announced the hiring of Bruce Pearl as the new men’s basketball head coach, and a wild all-day celebration followed. Lost in the euphoria and welcoming of Pearl was the beginning of spring football drills. Head coach Gus Malzhan had the right message with the above quote. The Tiger football team must earn it. Starting now, the SEC Tittle and improbable comeback of 2013 means little. A new slate of games awaits, and it’s a very tough schedule this fall.

     At the crack of dawn Tuesday, Auburn began a new grueling regimen. What was evident quickly on a day in shorts is that the off-season hasn’t been wasted. The team looks bigger and faster, and a quick look at reported weights on the roster bears that out. There are guys out there like Shon Coleman and Shane Callahan who’ve added more than 10 pounds of muscle. Likewise, a few guys who were overweight last season have trimmed down. Of particular note is that starting Star position senior Robensen Therezie has put on 8 pounds. In a defense without a true strong-side linebacker, the star has to sometimes make that tough tackle. At 212 pounds, Therezie should be even better this spring.

Position by position breakdown, after the jump!

     Auburn defensive line was the strength of the defense last season, and it returns a good number of players this season, although finding a few more ends is crucial this spring. Missing from yesterday’s practice was senior starter LaDarius Owens. Don’t know if that was a class conflict, or something more serious. Carl Lawson was running first team, in Dee Ford’s former spot.

     Auburn appears set in stone as to the starting linebackers, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. Building quality depth behind them will be a priority. There are plans to play junior Justin Garrett, who missed last season with injuries at both linebacker and star. Yesterday, he was working at linebacker.

     On the back end, Auburn will be missing starting safety Joshua Holsey, who’s recovering from a knee injury last season. While Holsey won’t be cleared till fall, he was taking part in non-contact drills, which was a good thing to see. While Auburn begins spring with 19 defensive backs on the official roster, a notable one who is not there is Trent Fisher, who has been a valuable special teams guy the past 3 seasons. Jermaine Whitehead and Jonathan Mincy likely have starting spots locked down, but Auburn will look at a lot of new faces this spring. At least on the first day, the most impressive-looking of the bunch was JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief. At 6′ 2” and 218, he gives Auburn more size than we’re used to seeing at safety. Trovon Reed worked at corner for the first time, and looked like a natural. He has switched to number 25.

     On the offensive line, Patrick Miller appears to be getting first crack at replacing Greg Robinson at left tackle. Miller took first-team reps on that side, with Avery Young on the right side. Coaches have said that they’ll look at Miller, Shon Coleman and Robert Leff as possible replacements.

     Most years, I worry about Auburn’s numbers at tight end and h-back. This year, things look as good as ever. C. J. Uzomah has added another 6 pounds, and looks the part of a tight end at 264 pounds. He and fellow senior Brandon Fulse should give Auburn the best pair of blocking tight ends in the SEC this fall, and we also know Uzomah has a knack for making the tough touchdown catch in traffic. Ricky Parks has returned to the team at H-back, and looks to again be in the playing rotation like he was last spring. Gage Batten returns after backing up Jay Prosch last season to compete for a starting job.

     Even with Trovon Reed moving to cornerback, Auburn returns a deep and talented receiving corps this spring. In drills yesterday, newcomer D’haquille Williams looked impressive. He’s got size, moves, speed and hands, and might be a threat to take a starting job. Another guy who’s evidently taken a jump forward is Tony Stevens, who played sparingly last season. Stevens is Auburn’s tallest wide receiver at 6′ 4”, and he’s added about 8 pounds of muscle. Auburn has really increased the size of its receiver corps in recent years. Auburn can rotate through Coates, Williams, Stevens, Ricardo Louis, and Jaylon Denson and not have a guy shorter than 6′ 2”. Add in slot guys Quan Bray and Marcus Davis, and it’s a deep and talented group. On the injury front, Jaylon Denson was at practice, but did not do any drills.

     One of the bigger questions on most folks’ minds is who will replace Heisman Finalist Tre Mason? Taking first team reps was Cameron Artis-Payne, with Corey Grant on the second unit. Auburn only has 7 running backs listed on the roster, but more big-name talent will arrive in the fall. For spring, I think the big names will be Artis-Payne, Grant and redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. On A-Day, I’d look for CAP and Grant to be sat down early, and the majority of carries given to the younger guys. That’s the way it usually is. I’ll be looking to see if junior transfer Lawyer Tillman gets a few carries. Yes, we have a Lawyer Tillman on the roster again! He’s the son of former Tiger wide receiver who scored the winning touchdown in the 1986 Iron Bowl.

     At quarterback, Gus Malzhan has his first returning starting quarterback since Mitch Mustaine in 2005. Nick Marshall will go through his first spring at Auburn, and I think everyone is looking forward to seeing what he can do with a greater command of the offense. As Jay Coulter wrote yesterday, I think the offense will run much faster this season. Rounding out the spring depth chart are sophomore Jeremy Johnson, junior Jonathan Wallace, junior Ben Durand, and sophomore Tucker Tuberville.

     The Tigers return to the practice field this morning, and will have a full-pads practice Saturday.

Malzahn: Time to Speed Things Up

By Posted on: March 19th, 2014 in Featured Article, Football 5 Comments »
Photo by Julie Bennett/al.com

Photo by Julie Bennett/al.com

Can it possibly be the start of spring practice? With the announcement yesterday morning of the hiring of Bruce Pearl as Auburn Head Basketball Coach, it didn’t seem much like opening day of football practice. Besides I still haven’t gotten Rod Bramblett’s voice out of my head and we’re about to start over again. But Auburn did hold its first practice of spring Tuesday.

And things are a little different this go around. For starters, ESPN brought live reports throughout the morning from Auburn. And this year its Gus Malzahn’s guys who’ll get the coveted Saturday afternoon ESPN slot for its A-Day Game – not Alabama.

But don’t expect Malzahn to sit around with Bruce Springsteen playing in the background while he reflects on the glory days.

“We’ve been really up front with our guys. We’re definitely proud of how far they came. That’s in the past. It’s a complete, new season. This is a new team,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got to earn it. All we’re talking about is earning the right to try to get back to a game like that (the national championship).”

In Monday’s pre-spring press conference, Malzahn seemed to poke his finger back into Nick Saban’s eye.

“We think we can be quite a bit faster,” Malzahn said.

Of course, he was referring to his HUNH offense that’s become the kryptonite to Saban’s future in Tuscaloosa. On a day when Malzahn was talking about moving faster, Saban continued to whine, this time to David Pollack of ESPN.

Again, Saban continued to use safety as his excuse for reducing the HUNH offense. He never commented on the dangers of his team facing the likes of Chattanooga, a team Alabama outweighed by more than 40 pounds across the offensive line. If he really cared, seems like that would be a good jumping off point.

If last season was like driving in the left-hand lane, this year should resemble the Autobahn. With eight starters back from last year’s record-breaking offense, including quarterback Nick Marshall, look for Auburn to significantly increase its play count.

Marshall is the first returning quarterback in Malzahn’s nine years as a college coach. Yes, it’s a scary thought.

While Auburn has been the face of the HUNH in the national media, surprisingly, there were five other teams in the SEC last season that ran as many or more plays from scrimmage each game, led by Ole Miss who averaged six more plays per contest than Auburn at 79.8 per game.

In fact, Auburn ranked only 61st nationally in that category last year. Malzahn is out to change that this year. You look at these stats and realize why Saban is so spooked.

And to think, he brought Lane Kiffin in to keep up. Spring has never felt so good.

Writing On Wall For NCAA Amateur Status

By Posted on: March 18th, 2014 in Basketball, Featured Article, Football 15 Comments »
emmert

Yesterday, a lawsuit was filed in US federal court in yet another attempt to tear down the amateur distinction of big time college athletes at big time college institutions in an ultimate attempt to get fair compensation for student athletes in the respective multi-billion dollar industries in which they toil. This new suit, against the NCAA and the five largest conferences, challenges the lawfulness of the “wage” assigned to football and basketball players to being capped at the value of an academic scholarship, presumably under existing anti-trust legislation. With recent suits also pursuing the NCAA on similar grounds, could it finally be 3rd and 25 for college football? Watch for the pooch kick here soon.

While no reasonable person can defend hundreds of millions in value added to major programs’ bottom lines by a countless parade of high-profile athletes with little more than tuition and board as the carrot, no sane college football fan can discount the negative effect of direct money payments to players on the integrity of the sport. While this type of compensation and resulting corruption have gone on ever since we’ve had the game of football, the modern age brings the spotlight full on the big money sport it truly is. With major programs generating billions in revenue, the lavish amounts of money heaped on from ticket sales, television, and merchandising is too much to ignore anymore.

It’s un-American to think that  players’ images on TV and in video games can earn these types of dollars cumulatively but can provide no more than books, lodging,  and two semesters a year for the individual himself. It’s also unreasonable to think that the schools themselves, who have been building their brands for in excess of one hundred years in most cases, have no intrinsic value other than a revolving cast of semi-employees who filter in and out of their ranks every year. Why must it always be 3rd and long?

How did football and basketball end up like this, with the colleges serving as de facto farm systems for the sports, unlike baseball, which does provide a real alternative for those who wish to become semi-pro and those who want to remain amateurs until they get their education? We’ve so bastardized the systems and they’ve grown unchecked for so long that it may well now be impossible to separate those two distinctions again.

One must know that direct payments in the open to amateur athletes will only drive the illicit payments further underground and to ridiculous amounts. The NCAA investigative arm would never be so busy as it would be once direct compensation was approved for athletes. The corrupting influence of money over and under the table would kill the sport entirely as the integrity of the sport, schools, and individual players will be under constant scrutiny. Larger schools could always pay more than the smaller ones–the same with conferences. Recruiting would literally morph into a draft.

No one wants to think about the alternative of the pros establishing legitimate farm systems for football and basketball. Even if the NFL and NBA could, the lure of college athletics would still be strong. What 18-year old kid would want to play in front of nobody for $50,000 a year if he could instead strut his stuff in front of  a home crowd of 90,000 and a national TV audience? It would be a much harder decision than you think. You can’t break the stranglehold of decades of national prominence and tradition overnight–for any price. I’d like to think we’d still root for our schools even if we only fielded intramural level teams, but college fans are a lot more sophisticated than they were even two decades ago. Everything in the sport is evolving.

I think it’s inevitable. Athletes are soon going to get a better compensation package than they’ve been getting. So many lawsuits, so much money, and so many good arguments about the fairness of it all are swaying the sentiment. The only details are in what form the compensation will be. Here’s some of the things I think I know what it CANNOT be:

  • An inducement for a player to be recruited by a particular school
  • Anything based on wellness or non-injury
  • Differences in conferences
  • Media attraction, TV appearances, individual awards, or star power

I think a good starting point for compensation would be in a deferred fund for players of a division–FBS, FCS, etc– after their eligibility was exhausted. Call it the ultimate collective bargaining agreement. They all earn as a collective body and share in the rewards after their college careers have ended. Having the compensation deferred would help protect their amateur status, if not in word, then in perception. A share of all revenue they help earn would go into the pot, to be drawn on eventually for such issues as medical treatment, continuing education, and perhaps a pension.

No one should pretend to have all the answers on such a large, complicated, comprehensive issue as justly compensating college athletes a fair wage for the revenue they help generate, but we should try to get ahead of it very soon and do it voluntarily–instead of having it ordered as a judgement in a huge lawsuit.

How would you help solve it?