Tigers Take to the Air on A-Day!
Nick usually had all day to throw.
(All photos by Acid Reign.)
War Eagle, everybody! On a gray windy day in Auburn, the starting Auburn “Blue” team totally dismantled the “White” backups, 58-3. It was as lopsided as any A-Day I’ve ever witnessed. What was truly impressive was that once again Auburn fans turned out in support of this team. Despite the threat of inclement weather, over 70,000 orange and blue-clad fanatics showed up to support the Tigers!
It was a day for celebration, as awards were handed out, including SEC Championship rings and trophies. Highlights from last season’s miracle run played frequently on the jumbotron. I think everyone’s favorite was the “kick-six” from the end of last year’s Iron Bowl. I’ll bet that got played 20 times or more, and it never failed to generate a roar from the crowd! Beating Bama never gets old!
Offensively, the Blue team pretty much did as it pleased in this game. Nick Marshall came out slinging the ball on the first four plays, and it was clear that the Tigers have been working on the passing game. The Blues threw the ball 37 times, to just 25 rushing attempts. The Blue team generated 657 total yards, and 8 offensive touchdowns. Still, lest anyone forget last season’s rushing juggernaut, there were enough power plays that looked very reminiscent of late last season.
Artis-Payne takes the ball behind some crushing blocks.
The starting “White” defense featured a lot of players who’ve not been on the field much in the past at Auburn. Some of the guys impressed me individually. Linebacker Kenny Flowers showed a nose for the football, and he won Defensive MVP honors. The white bunch was a patchwork unit that was prone to giving up big plays, like a 59-yard coverage-bust TD pass to Quan Bray, and a 54 yard “lost contain” pitch play to Corey Grant.
Contain guy (the defensive end) is on top of the QB. Who’s gonna catch Grant on that pitch?
The white offense didn’t fare so well. Facing Auburn’s remaining healthy starters, the white team managed just 85 total yards, and one field goal. This spring, the defense played a lot more of a single safety over the top, and the second safety being down near the line of scrimmage. New field safety Derrick Moncrief showed particular adeptness at cutting off running plays to the outside, and forcing the runner back into traffic in the middle. Auburn’s healthy top-level defensive linemen dominated the second team offensive line, and disrupted the offense in the backfield.
There weren’t any live special teams returns, but there was more kicking than I expected. Auburn will field a new kicker and punter next fall, redshirt freshmen both, and A-Day was our first look at them. Kicker Daniel Carlson showed a strong leg, and hit a 50 yard field goal during the game. He missed a second one from that distance. Punter Jimmy Hutchinson did well also, with a 40.6 yard average. This was by no means an easy day for kickers. There was a brisk 20 MPH north wind blowing the entire game, with occasional sprinkles of rain.
Unit Reviews, after the jump!
Defensive line: Auburn’s starting unit of Gabe Wright, Ben Bradley, Angelo Blackson and Elijah Daniel was stout. If there was a weakness, it was a lack of an outside speed rush. Constant disruption from the tackles inside made up for that. Among the reserves, Gimel President caught my eye. He won a few one on one battles with tackle Shon Coleman, and forced Marshall to step up in the pocket. I’m not sure why he wasn’t credited in the official stats.
Linebacker: This year’s group seemed much more comfortable than last year’s. Starters Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost hardly played, though. This made room for guys like Kenny Flowers and Cameron Toney to play a lot, with Toney playing on both teams. Toney racked up 9 total tackles. The linebackers benefited from having a safety on one side, and the star on the other helping in run support. Too often last season, a linebacker was responsible for handling half the field on his own. Justin Garrett played a lot of star, and he looked back to last spring’s form.
Cornerbacks: This bunch was surprisingly strong. I know that is going to sound odd on a day when the Blues put up 386 passing yards. Starters Jonathan Mincy and Jonathan Jones gave up nothing. The reserve quarterbacks tried to force it in there anyway, and it was nothing doing. Both starters showed excellent ability to shield the receiver away from the ball. New corner Trovon Reed played extensively, and pretty well. He had a couple of nice pass breakups, and showed the ability to stay with Auburn’s deep and speedy receivers. Kamryn Melton also showed pretty good coverage speed, but less ability to keep the receiver from catching the ball. Melton drew the unfortunate task of trying to cover D’haquille Williams, a lot of the time.
Safeties: With only one safety over top a lot of the time, the Tiger defense was more vulnerable to the deep ball, and was lit up several times. With a lot of SEC starting quarterbacks graduating and moving on this spring, this may be by design. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson may want to make the new quarterbacks in the league prove they can make those throws, while choking the life out of offenses closer to the line of scrimmage. I mentioned above that I was impressed by Derrick Moncrief. That guy comes up in run support very quickly, and makes sure tackles. He also showed coverage skills, when asked, swatting an out-route pass to Stanton Truitt away.
Punting: Jimmy Hutchinson had 5 punts for a 40.6 yard average. What’s not shown in the stat book is that all 5 of those punts were in the first half, for the White team, kicking against that 20 MPH wind. I watched a lot of the punting in pre-game warmups, and basically the coaches made ‘em all kick against the wind the whole time. There were impressive punts by Tyler Stovall and Jack Bjork during warmups. In fact, I think Bjork consistently had the best distance.
Returns: These weren’t live or pressured, so I mainly watched for who was out there fielding. Robensen Therezie dropped one punt, but it was a ball that the wind had pushed sideways, Therezie was running full speed to try to get to it, and he was out there with a cast on his broken hand.
Placekicking: Daniel Carlson has a very strong leg, and I expect we’ll see lots of touchbacks once again this fall. Carlson was 2 out of 3 on field goal attempts, with the miss coming from 51 yards. He hit a 50-yarder earlier. Carlson also did miss 1 extra point. Again, these were difficult conditions, with the wind, damp balls, and a new holder back there. Jonathan Wallace looks like he’ll be the holder this year. That gives Auburn some intriguing options on extra points, with Wallace able to both run and throw it!
Offensive line: On the starting unit, Reese Dismukes sat the game out, and JUCO transfer Xavier Dampeer started. Dampeer did an excellent job on a damp, windy day. I don’t remember a bad snap the whole game, and everyone of them was a shotgun snap. Avery Young got the start at right tackle. This unit pass protected pretty well, giving up no sacks, and looked just like last year’s road-grading unit on the ground game. The team has some work to do on depth, though. The second unit had problems with Auburn’s starters on the D-line.
Tight Ends/H-Backs: C. J. Uzomah was head and shoulders above everyone else, consistently taking on his guy and locking him out of the play blocking. Uzomah also made a tough catch over the middle in traffic. Brandon Fulse got the start at H-Back, and kind of had an off-game, for him. It’s a bit different engaging defenders from the backfield, and he’s still adjusting. It’s important to remember that Jay Prosch looked similar early, last season. It’s really a difficult, thankless position to play. I thought that Gage Batten had good day at times, too.
Receivers: These guys got a chance to shine, in a pass-heavy scrimmage. Sammie Coates made a one-handed circus grab in traffic, and he’s really come along as a blocker. D’haquille Williams made quite an impact on a touchdown reception late in the first quarter. He was locked up in the endzone with defender Kamryn Melton, who had good position. Marshall floated it to Williams’ outside shoulder, and Williams executed an in-air spin to secure the ball and get both feet down in bounds. Williams has great hands. But just as importantly, he’s aware of what’s going on with his quarterback. When the quarterback is getting pressure, Williams comes back toward the QB, and finds a visible spot to wait for the ball. Just when we thought he was going to be marginalized, Quan Bray had a sensational game, running good routes and making big plays. Melvin Ray was another guy who caught my eye, with an ability to get separation and catch the ball.
Running backs: For those wondering how Auburn might replace Tre Mason, A-Day gave a pretty emphatic answer. Both Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant were outstanding. They didn’t get many carries, but they did damage when they did get the ball. The two combined for 17 carries, 225 yards and a couple of touchdowns. For those keeping track, that’s a ridiculous 13.2 yards per carry. I felt badly for redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. He toiled in obscurity all last fall on the scout team, then busted his tail throughout spring this year. On his first carry, he ripped off a 13 yard run against the starting defense, then sprained his ankle and missed the rest of the game. I know he had to have been upset!
Quarterback: I think a lot of people were wondering if starter Nick Marshall’s accuracy would show improvement. After he completed several out of bounds early, the answer was starting to look like “not really.” As the first quarter went on, Marshall found his groove, accounted for the wind and dampness, and started hitting his man. He showed willingness to check down and move the chains, and the ability to avoid pressure and keep his eyes downfield. While I’d have liked to have seen a better completion rate than 59 percent, one really can’t argue with 10.72 yards per pass. That’s better than any starting quarterback in the SEC posted over the course of the season last year. Zack Mettenberger was tops in the league at 10.4. Jeremy Johnson did not have as good a day. He faced constant pressure, his receivers were blanketed, and conditions were tough. I think the coaches have worked him a lot on the zone-read, and perhaps not as much in the passing game.
My major conclusion after watching A-Day is that teams are going to have a tough time stopping the Auburn Tigers. The defense will be improved, and more aggressive up front, I think. Auburn will have to get better, because this coming fall schedule gets a lot tougher than last season, ending with road trips to Athens and Tuscaloosa. Buckle up those chin straps, folks!
A big thanks goes out to AubTigerman, and his friends and family for attending this game with me, and putting up with my chatter. As usual in Auburn, I enjoyed myself, made new friends, and loved celebrating our SEC Champion Auburn Tigers! War Eagle, and have a happy Easter holiday!
Tigers are taking off!