Midpoint of Spring Ball.
Tigers stuttered a bit, yesterday.
War Eagle, everybody! Spring proceeds apace, and Auburn continues to try and improve. Yesterday did mark the first practice that left head coach Gus Malzhan disappointed in the intensity. On the other hand, I’d be sluggish too, if I was inhaling clouds of yellow dust during an intense workout! I do like the “no excuses” attitude expressed by the players interviewed yesterday. We’ll get a good sense of this team’s leadership after Friday’s practice, and another scrimmage Saturday. I think these Tigers will pick it back up!
If the number of injuries is any indication, Auburn has significantly turned up the heat in their practice style. I once applauded former coach Gene Chizik for getting us through camps with minimal losses, compared to the cage-match brutality of the Tuberville practices. Now, I’m not so sure players don’t need significant toughening during these periods. Current likely two-deep guys battling injury and missing time include Angelo Blackson, Keymiya Harrell, JaViere Mitchell, Quan Bray, and Tre Mason.
More on the Tigers, unit by unit, after the jump!
The defensive line has taken a hit with projected starter Angelo Blackson being out. This elevates senior Jeffery Whitaker back in the first unit. Junior college transfer Ben Bradley is probably the top backup right now. Veteran Kenneth Carter has worked both at end and tackle. Frankly, I like the idea of Carter at end. He’s a big 287 pound guy, and there’s sometimes a need for a guy like that. When a team’s determined to run the ball at you, you need a big end on the strong side to keep those linemen honest. It’s a big question right now who’s going to back up starting senior ends Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae. We know both of those guys are good when healthy. However, end is a position where depth is really needed.
Linebacker remains a huge question, and it will remain so for me till I see ‘em play next week. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson alluded this week to last year’s tackling problems, and nowhere was it worse than at linebacker.
“As a coach, you can’t take too much for granted, even on our level. You recruit some of the best players in the country to come to a school like Auburn, and you can’t take for granted that they all know how to tackle exactly right and don’t need work on it,” said Johnson. That’s about as fierce an indictment of the previous coaching staff you’ll ever hear from Ellis Johnson! Here’s hoping he knows how to get ‘em up to speed!
We’re hearing about a starting lineup rotation that includes Jake Holland, Kris Frost, and Cassanova McKinzy. Not content to work a starting unit to death like the previous two coordinators, Johnson has been also working hard with a second unit rotation, including LaDarius Owens, Chris Landrum, and Anthony Swain.
Ellis Johnson’s “star” position has already produced the most consistently praised player of this spring, thus far. Junior Justin Garrett has been singled out for being a leader, showing great tackling ability, and making big hits. Of Garrett, Johnson said, “He is without a doubt the best we’ve got.” Who’ll back Garrett up is the big question. The latest move by the coaching staff was to put Robensen Therezie there, and he’s currently running second team.
I felt like Auburn had a wealth of talent in the secondary last season, and they were largely misused. Rather than pressuring and shutting down SEC receivers, they were having to keep their heads on a swivel, and make most of the tackles on the team. Your top corners thus far seem to be senior Chris Davis and junior Jonathan Mincy, but they are getting strong competition from sophomores Joshua Holsey and Jonathan Jones. Presumably the starting safeties would be junior Jermaine Whitehead and senior Demetruce McNeal, but yesterday junior Trent Fisher took the lion’s share of the first team reps. Fisher’s going to be hard to keep off the field this year.
The most interesting aspect of the special teams thus far is that a number of trick plays were run yesterday in front of the media. Senior holder Ryan White practiced some passes yesterday off fake field goal attempts, as did Cody Parkey. Steven Clark also threw some balls from punt formation. There were also some plays with direct snaps to upbacks, and even a throwback from Parkey to Ryan White. This is intriguing stuff, that could ignite seemingly failed drives. It could also resemble vintage early Tuberville, like those failed fake punts against Florida, which always led to another quick Gator score.
One area where unit consistency is key is on the offensive line. With four guys who started most of last year returning, I think everyone pretty much penciled in Greg Robenson, Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade, and Patrick Miller in as starters, and they haven’t disappointed this spring. Right now it looks like Redshirt freshman Alex Kozan has wrested control of the 5th spot up front, at left guard. I’ve kept an eye out for Kozan, wearing number 63, in various practice videos. This guy gets after it! I don’t see him losing out, unless he gets hurt!
We’re hearing lots of great things about the tight ends and H-backs. It’s perhaps as deep as Auburn has been in this area since the 1993 season. C. J. Uzomah and Ricky Parks have been drawing rave reviews for their catches, and overall performance. Blockers Jay Prosch and Brandon Fulse are paving the way up front. This is quite a bit of versatility here, and it’s going to be really difficult for defensive coordinators to figure out how to deal with these guys.
Nowhere in recent years has Auburn taken more hits than in the receiver corps. It’s being said by a number of players that junior Trovon Reed has been a vocal leader in the clubhouse. But the guy singled out by the coaches here has been junior Jaylon Denson.
Denson’s been an intriguing guy to me the past two seasons. They’d run him out there in games occasionally, generally to block. He’s got decent size, and shows good leverage. When he’d actually get to run a route, he’d show good speed, but our quarterbacks would almost never look his way. Pretty soon, defenses stopped bothering to cover him.
This year, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee has this to say about Denson: “Right now, if you asked who I can count on, I know I can count on him six days in. We are moving him around a little bit. He’s smart enough he can handle it. He’s making plays. He’s not only making plays with the ball, he’s doing what he’s supposed to do when he doesn’t get the ball.”
Of the rest of the squad, commentary has been mixed. Quan Bray is injured. Sammie Coates is “making plays,” and has a few dropped balls. Sophomores Ricardo Lewis and Melvin Ray look to have potential, but sometimes they don’t line up right. Trovon Reed is currently a starter. Will this be his year to break out?
At running back, it’s pretty much been a two-man show. JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and junior Corey Grant are both running with the ones. Grant was a big mystery last season. He was perhaps the most consistently praised guy on the team last spring, and then wasn’t even used during the season except late in blow-outs against cupcakes. I got a good look at Grant in last year’s A-Day game, as he took most snaps with the starting unit out out there. He was a hard-nosed runner who didn’t go down on first contact. Here’s hoping he’s a major factor this fall.
Cameron Artis-Payne looks like the real deal. He’s wearing number 44 this spring, and he’ll remind you of Ben Tate. Artis-Payne has a great work-ethic, and coaches feel that he’s made a number of good plays this spring. With Tre Mason largely sidelined with a leg injury, it’s good that Grant and Artis-Payne are getting the lion’s share of the work. Mason has already trained in this offense in 2011.
Your leading quarterback descriptor this spring from the coaches is “inconsistent.” We’ve also heard more than one defensive back brag about picks they’ve gotten this spring. While this might be cause for worry, it’s also true that there has been a ton of line-up shuffling, and it’s pretty hard for a quarterback to get into a rhythm with a rotating cast of players around him. And with no contact on the quarterback, one can’t get a sense of how effective quarterback runs might be this fall. Coaches continue to insist that Khiel Frazier and Jonathan Wallace are essentially even, and that no decision will be made this spring as to who is the starter.
We’ve seen guys at quarterback in the Malzhan system come out of nowhere in the fall, and do well. Malzhan won the SEC West in 2006 with Mitch Mustaine and Casey Dick in the gun. Chris Todd didn’t participate in the 2009 spring drills, won the job in the fall, and set Auburn passing records. Cam Newton did do spring drills in 2010, but wasn’t impressive on A-Day. He then had the best quarterback year in Auburn history that fall. However, I see little chance for an incoming freshman or JUCO transfer to pick up this offense’s subtleties in a few weeks of fall camp, and lead Auburn to a title. If we’re starting one of the new guys next fall, we’ll be in trouble on offense once again.
What are Auburn’s real chances next season? Well, here’s an early look at the schedule! We host Washington State in the opener, against a high octane Mike Leach offense. It’s a dangerous opener, but not as dangerous as the past two. Leach had attitude problems on his team last year, and they lost a bunch of games. While he’s likely to fix a lot of that, his hurry-up strategy will be countered by an Ellis Johnson defense used to lining up fast.
Home dates against Arkansas State and Mississippi State should also be wins. Both teams lost a lot of talent to graduation, and Dan Mullen also has to deal with a raided staff.
At LSU is a likely loss. LSU does have rebuilding to do, but they have talent. Also LSU QB Zach Mettenberger should settle down with a year of starting experience under his belt. It’s a tall order to expect a win in Baton Rouge next season.
Ole Miss follows in Jordan Hare, followed by Western Carolina for homecoming. Auburn basically played Ole Miss to a draw for three quarters, then collapsed under the pace in the 4th quarter in 2012. That shouldn’t be an issue, this year, and with a decent offense, Auburn will win both of these at home.
At a likely 5-1 record, Auburn takes their first journey to College Station, Texas, to face the Aggies and Heisman Trophy player Johnny Football. Texas A&M has some holes to fill, but what college team doesn’t? Some have also suggested that Manziel is headed for a sophomore slump, with all of the “wild-child” rumors swirling about him. Rumors or not, the kid can play. I see an Auburn loss here, but not a 63-21 loss.
Florida Atlantic should be another slam-dunk win, then Auburn travels to Fayetteville, likely with a 6-2 record. Brett Bielma will probably build a decent team in Arkansas, but this current bunch will have their hands full dealing with the SEC West hurry-ups. With any sort of offensive life, last year’s Auburn team would have beaten this bunch. I don’t think a road win in 2013 here is out of line.
After Fayetteville, Auburn travels to Knoxville the following week. The Vols hired up and comer Butch Jones to turn their fortunes around, but I think the Big Orange has a long-term building project to do. Tennessee gave up even more points than Auburn did, last season. The Vols gave up 37 or MORE points to every SEC team they played, except lame-duck Kentucky in the final game of the year. This bunch won’t handle Gus Malzhan’s scheme well. Meanwhile, offensive stars Tyler Bray, Justin Hunter and Cordarelle Patterson have all departed for the NFL.
Then at 7-3, Auburn has Georgia and Alabama in Jordan Hare. At this point it’s hard to see an Auburn win in either game, but we should expect at good fight. How good can defensive wizard Ellis Johnson be in a first season? Usually, he’s picking up the pieces in his first couple of gigs at bad programs. He has more talent at Auburn than he’s probably used to. The Malzhan offense will knock out a TD or two against anyone! As we’ve seen.
Realistically, we’re looking at a 7-8 win regular season next fall. The two things that could preclude that are an injury-riddled year, or lack of development at quarterback. My optimistic guess is that we’ll be bowling on New Year’s Day or later. Should a quarterback catch fire, anything’s possible!