AUBURN — Receivers coach Greg Knox said he thinks Auburn’s success in the long passing game last week against Ole Miss has helped increase confidence.
Quarterback Kodi Burns connected on three deep passes — two to Chris Slaughter and one to Montez Billings. That’s an element that had previously been missing from Auburn’s offense.
“Being able to throw the ball as much as we did Saturday and to make some big plays down the field lit a spark under the offense,” Knox said. “We come out at halftime and are able to complete the deep ball to Chris, and then were able to continue to drive and score.
“That was a momentum thing for us. I think just to complete and throw passes down the field with some consistency is what we’re striving for.”
Slaughter enjoyed the best day any Auburn receiver has had this season. He caught eight passes for 131 yards. Seven of those receptions came in the second half.
Knox said Slaughter’s breakout performance proved any receiver could break out on a given day.
“He’s been working hard,” Knox said. “That could happen for any one of them at any point in time. It was just the luck of the draw that day. It was his day. Balls came his way and he made his plays. That’s kind of what we expect him to do.
“This week it could be any one of them. But last week it was him, and I’m sure he’s been working this week like it’s going to be him again, so hopefully it will be.”
• INJURY REPORT: Coach Tommy Tuberville said “a few” players would be unable to play Saturday against UT Martin.
Several players have missed significant practice time this week.
Knox said receiver Rod Smith (hip pointer) would be a game-time decision. Slaughter would start in his place and James Swinton would back him up.
Offensive lineman Byron Isom (concussion) has been cleared to play, but is currently backing up Mike Berry at right guard.
Defensive tackles coach Don Dunn said Zack Clayton and Mike Blanc will likely start Saturday in place of Sen’Derrick Marks and Tez Doolittle. Marks suffered injuries to both ankles. Doolittle is nursing a groin injury.
Dunn said he hopes they can play, but isn’t counting on them starting.
Blanc will play in a cast, but will not require a club.
Defensive ends Antonio Coleman (ankle) and Michael Goggans (ankle), linebacker Josh Bynes (deep thigh bruise) and cornerback Neiko Thorpe (high-ankle sprain) are all questionable.
Cornerback Jerraud Powers (hamstring) has been ruled out for this week.
• FULL-TIME JOB: Tuberville said Tristan Davis is no longer a primary tailback.
Instead, Davis will work mostly at fullback when Auburn goes to two-back sets.
Davis has now played tailback, fullback and safety in addition to special teams during his Auburn career.
“We will play him in the one-back position in our spread,” Tuberville said. “When we’re in our two-back, he’s more of a fullback guy. He’s a little bit bigger, a little bit more physical. He’s done a pretty good job.”
Davis might still be an option at tailback in the spread formations, but he seems to be the fifth option.
Ben Tate and Brad Lester are considered co-starters and Mario Fannin is the third back to enter games. True freshman Eric Smith also gets opportunities before Davis.
• SPECIAL TEAMS: Tuberville said Thursday morning he hopes kicker Wes Byrum has finally turned a corner.
Byrum has struggled this season, making just 8 of 14 field goals. He has also missed an extra point.
Tuberville reopened the kicking competition last week, but the Tigers didn’t try any field goals. Now it seems that Byrum has reclaimed his job.
“We’ve got to get him out there on the field some to see if he’s improved, but I think his technique is much improved,” Tuberville said.
Tuberville also praised punter Ryan Shoemaker for his improvement. Tuberville said Shoemaker and starting punter Clinton Durst are close together.
Auburn might allow each to punt at times this week against UT Martin.
• WEAK RETURNS: Auburn started the season with one of the nation’s best punt return games.
However, during the past six games, it’s been rare for the Tigers to even return a punt.
“A lot of it has to do with the punters’ hang time,” Tuberville said. “We’re seeing a lot of people that run the spread formation that the coverage is outstanding. You give up a little bit of protection and people try to block them on you. But it’s just hard to get a return on those type of teams.”
Since the Mississippi State game, Auburn’s opponents have punted 37 times. The Tigers have returned just five of those punts, for 26 yards.
Part of the problem is that punt returner Robert Dunn has missed parts of several games with an ankle injury. Dunn’s backup, Jerraud Powers, also suffered an injury.
That has left Chris Slaughter with the duties, though he now shares them with Dunn, who has since returned.
Tuberville said he was upset with Slaughter last week when Slaughter decided against fielding a low line-drive punt against Ole Miss.
The ball bounced another 20-plus yards, erasing what would have been good field position.
— Luke Brietzke