Spring Drills Begin!
The high speed attack is back at Auburn!
War Eagle, everybody! Football is in the air once again on the Plains! It’s been a long, cold winter in Auburn, and with the warmth of spring returning, we’ll be glad to put the bitter taste of last season away! Well, when it does warm up, anyway. It was still below freezing when the Auburn players reported yesterday, and practice videos reveal lots of well-wrapped, “long-john’d up” players!
The theme of the day was “hurry up.” Coach Malzhan expects things done at breakneck pace. There was even an instance of yelling at equipment managers for not expediting things as expected. Of particular interest was an offensive drill in which the players were expected to line up quickly, snap the ball, run a simulated handoff running play, then repeat. Four plays, then a three second celebration, then hand the ball to the coach and make way for the next group. Anyone who lined up wrong or made a mistake got a short lecture, and the entire group had to do up-downs for less than perfection. All in all, it’s quite a change from the “it’s all good” practice quotes from the last regime.
All eyes are on the quarterback race this spring, and we got an all too brief look at a throwing warmup, and little else in the first paragraph video above. From various practice accounts, accuracy from both Khiel Frazier and Jonathan Wallace was very good on short and medium routes. There were some missed long balls, but that’s going to be true of nearly any college quarterback in practice. It’s key to remember that Frazier looked brilliant last A-Day, and in the heat of battle the next fall, he was pretty wild with the ball. We’ll draw further conclusions this spring only if there is real pressure from the defense on A-Day this year.
Who was catching those passes? Drawing rave reviews the first day was tight end/h-back C. J. Uzomah, who had a knack for breaking on the ball and hauling it in. Uzomah showed brief flashes last fall after taking over for the injured Phillip Lutzenkirchen, but the previous staff never was able to work him in as an integral part of the passing game plan. Another guy drawing receiving praise was senior blocking specialist Jay Prosch. Evidently, he was downfield 30 yards or more catching balls. This sort of thing will be a real headache for SEC coordinators to defend.
Your likely wildcat quarterback this season will be Quan Bray. If you’ll remember from last September, one of the year’s most exciting offensive plays happened when Bray took a sweep handoff, and threw back to Khiel Frazier for a long touchdown against Louisiana Monroe. Bray gives the team a dangerous wildcat runner who can throw, in a pinch. On the other hand, I see the wildcat as a concept that’s been widely used, and is somewhat played out. Defensive coordinators have trained their guys to spot it lining up, and to compensate, usually by crashing extra defenders into the box. The hope for this season’s wildcat is that coupled with the hurry-up philosophy, defenses will be less able to react. The wildcat is most effective when it’s a sudden shift, and there’s no substitution from the sideline. The past four seasons, Auburn has usually not been able to run it without a special package in from the sideline, and the officials are now giving the defense time to substitute and adjust, when that happens. Should be an interesting theme to watch next fall.
Everything is fluid right now concerning who will start at each position, but tantalizing hints came out on defense as to who has the inside track. On the line, as you might expect, experienced senior ends Nosa Eguae and Dee Ford are clear front-runners. Both have a lot of SEC playing time under their belts, and are dangerous when healthy. Tackles at this point seem to be juniors Gabe Wright and Angelo Blackson. All eyes are on junior college transfer Ben Bradley. Guys like this don’t get recruited to sit. And we’re still waiting on senior Jeffery Whitaker to show why he was rated a five-star.
The greatest position of worry this season had to be the linebackers. Running with the ones yesterday seemed to be senior Jake Holland, and sophomore Cassanova McKinzy. While Ellis Johnson seems unconcerned about numbers, it’s telling that both LaDarius Owens and Chris Landrum are practicing with the linebackers. Former linebacker prospect Justin Garrett is reportedly working at the “star” spot as a 5th defensive back. Right now, the only apparent competitor for the star spot is redshirt freshman JaViere Mitchell.
In the secondary, it’s great to see Demetruce McNeal back in the spotlight. He showed all sorts of promise as a true freshman backup in 2010, basically disappeared in 2011, and ran afoul of the previous coaching staff in 2012, despite the fact that it was obvious that he was the best tackler in the secondary last year. Terminology from the new Ellis Johnson defense is going to take some getting used to, but evidently McNeal is the odds on favorite to be the new “boundary safety.” My guess is that this is kind of similar to your traditional “strong safety,” the first guy from the secondary to crash down on the run. The difference here is that the safety comes from the weak/short side, rather than the strong/field side. And correspondingly, the line and linebackers will slant towards the field side to compensate. This will be intriguing to watch.
A team’s pass-defense is only as good as its corners, and senior Chris Davis and junior Jonathan Mincy are running with the ones there. Look for a good sophomore push from Joshua Holsey, who did well last season when thrown into the fire midway through the season. It’s kind of up in the air who’ll start at free safety. Jermaine Whitehead started last season, and he was the athletic converted corner. He’d make dramatic bat-downs, then completely whiff on the next tackle. Then you had the cerebral Trent Fisher, who’d have it all figured out, and couldn’t quite get into position in time. Both of these guys have been touted as leaders in the new strength and conditioning program, so their competition this spring should be interesting to watch.
Finally, the key question for the Tiger offense is, “Who’s going to tote the rock?” The heir apparent is 1000-yard rusher Tre Mason. However, the last coaching staff never saw Mason as the durable type. He often vanished during physical games, getting less than ten carries, despite being CLEARLY Auburn’s biggest chance for a big play. To help out this season, the Tigers have brought in junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne. Payne has been handed number 44, and hopes are that he’ll resemble Ben Tate on the field! He did get chewed out a couple of times on the practice field yesterday, which means the coaches expect big things from him. Also, watch out for junior Corey Grant. He was easily the most-praised offensive player last spring, and never got a chance to play last season. Word is that he excelled during winter workouts, and that he’s running with the ones this spring.
Spring ball is back! And we’re going to bask in it for a few weeks. The sky is the limit, this time of year. If nothing else, I’m highly encouraged by the news that came out yesterday, and I think this team’s well on the way back.