Sunday, August 31, 2008

ULM game afterthoughts

Nobody came away from Auburn's 34-0 win over ULM thinking the quarterback situation is resolved. Here is my game story from last night. We'll get answers in a few hours, but here's the situation:
  • Kodi Burns looked less bad than Chris Todd. He didn't look good as a passer, but his ability to make plays when nobody's open makes him a better option right now -- especially if Auburn is now without three receivers (Montez Billings, Philip Pierre-Louis and James Swinton).
  • Todd looked as bad as he could have looked last night. Not only did he look completely out of sync, he threw one bad interception and ULM defenders dropped at least two more. At no time, during spring and preseason camp, did Todd give any indication he would look that bad in a meaningful game. I'm not ready to write him off yet. I want to see him again because I think Saturday could have been first-game jitters or something else. If that's really his skill level, though, there shouldn't be a QB debate any more -- Burns should start.
  • The Tigers didn't look confident enough to throw the ball downfield. Instead, they settled for short passes that were unsuccessful virtually the entire night.
  • Everyone said the right things during postgame last night, but it can't be good for the QBs or the offense to have Burns and Todd alternating series. Neither got into any kind of a rhythm and the offense showed as much. We'll find out from Franklin in a few hours what his plan is going forward.
  • Tommy Tuberville declared last night that the two QBs would continue to split playing time. Whether that's an even split again probably depends on Burns' health. Burns cut his leg and needed stitches last night after a long third-quarter run. I'll report an update as soon as I have one.

While the QBs were bad, the run game wasn't. RB Ben Tate looks more and more like the best tailback on the team. He was explosive and capable of breaking big plays. Let's see him do that against Mississippi State and LSU this year before we start banging the "Tate over Lester" drum.

The defense was spectacular on Saturday night. Here's my sidebar on the group last night. It was against ULM, yes, but Auburn's defense dominated. The freshmen played well for the most part and Neiko Thorpe led the team with seven tackles. Thorpe also had the hit of the night late in the fourth quarter when he nearly removed a ULM receiver's head.

Overall, it's hard to come away thinking the team that played at Jordan-Hare Stadium last night is a top-10 team despite a 34-0 win. We shouldn't write off a team that wins big, though. Let's give it a week, see how the QBs progress, and make more assessments then.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Random thoughts

Tommy Tuberville learned his lesson last year: The beginning of the season cannot be overlooked.
Last September, the Tigers got off to a disastrous 1-2 start with losses to South Florida and Mississippi State. Yes, both teams turned out to qualify for bowl games, but they were two games a top-15 team should have won -- both at home.
It took a major upset at Florida for Auburn to right its season.
This year, Tuberville has taken a different approach.
On Tuesday, Tuberville explained why he seemed different this year:
"We obviously have had a lot of new things to work on, but the thing we wanted to do going into this first game, into this season, as looking back to last year where we got off to a very poor start, losing two of the first three and both of those being at home," he said. "We felt like we needed to go back and look at the little things that we were doing. And I think a lot of times you look at your inexperienced players and you work with them a lot and you look at some of the possible weaknesses you might have and you don't work enough on your strengths, because they can always get better. And that's really what we've done these last two weeks."

QB situation
While Auburn hasn't publicly named a starting quarterback, I think there's at least a decent chance both Chris Todd and Kodi Burns already know who will start.
As The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's David Ching (who starts as the Athens Banner-Herald's new sports editor this week) pointed out, the two players' body language spoke volumes to reporters on Tuesday. Burns seemed more upbeat and confident while Todd seemed somewhat down. It should, however, be pointed out that Burns is a fairly upbeat person.
Don't be shocked if Burns takes the first snap. Still, Franklin might have said it best on Sunday: The most relevant situation is not which quarterback starts, but rather which one finishes a close game.
Look for coaches to try to make a decision on a regular QB by the Mississippi State game.
For more on the QB situation, read today's Anniston Star.

Gut feeling: RB/KR Tristan Davis (ankle) will not play Saturday. Yes, Tuberville continues to say Davis' health is improving. But teammates and fellow RBs Ben Tate and Brad Lester have both said he doesn't look right this week -- Davis' first week after missing several practices. I don't it's a slap at Louisiana-Monroe if Davis sits out. RB Eric Smith needs to be game-tested if he's going to play a significant role as a true freshman and Auburn coaches all seem excited for potential returnman Philip Pierre-Louis to get as many touches as possible as early as possible. Auburn will not likely need Davis this weekend. Why not hold him out for another week and allow him to get a little healthier?

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Tommy's press conference

Here's what you need to know:
  • Terrell Zachery will start the season-opener against Louisiana-Monroe. After being listed as a backup throughout the preseason, Zachery has apparently overtaken Robert Dunn as the starting inside receiver. Dunn has not been suspended. He will still return punts, but he is currently listed as the fourth-string "H" (inside receiver) behind Zachery, true freshman Darvin Adams and Mario Fannin. Zachery had a great spring and receivers coach Steve Ensminger said recently that Zachery is the most improved player since January.
  • There's still no official starting QB. There's no timetable for naming a QB. Tommy Tuberville said during his press conference that everyone would likely have to wait until Saturday to know who's starting. It sounds like Tuberville will now accept a two-QB system after saying during SEC Media Days that there would be a "clear-cut" starter. It also sounds like Tuberville wants a starter in place for the third game of the season, which is Auburn's conference opener. That game will be played at Mississippi State.
  • DE Raven Gray will redshirt. He has had significant struggles with his surgically repaired knee and has not looked good during practice. Tuberville said Gabe McKenzie's move to DE made the redshirt possible.
  • WR Montez Billings "probably won't play." - Tuberville
  • Tuberville said the starting punter would be a gametime decision, but Clinton Durst seems to have a good lead. Ryan Shoemaker missed a few practices last week and Durst said he has been working with the first team. Be sure to check tomorrow's story for more information on Durst.
  • True freshman S Christian Thompson is behind Jonathan Vickers on the depth chart. I'm not sure about that, but that's the best thing about Saturday being so close: We'll know soon.
  • Mike Blanc is listed as the starter at nose guard. Tez Doolittle is Blanc's backup. Jake Ricks will back up Sen'Derrick Marks at the other DT spot.
  • Auburn's four starting receivers: James Swinton, Zachery, Tommy Trott and Rod Smith.
  • Neil Caudle is currently the third-team QB, having apparently beaten out true freshman Barrett Trotter.
  • RB Tristan Davis is practicing, but Brad Lester said "He's hurt pretty bad right now. I hope he'll be back soon, but I'm not sure he'll be ready for Saturday." If Davis can't go, freshmen Eric Smith and Philip Pierre-Louis would benefit. Smith would get more snaps at tailback and PPL would return kickoffs with Ben Tate.
  • This isn't breaking news, but Tuberville reiterated that Mario Fannin will play several different positions this year. He's currently listed as the third-string "H," but will also play RB and outside WR. Tuberville said the team might as well put an "ATH" next to his name, which, in recruiting terms, means "athlete."
  • Trott beat out Tim Hawthorne for the starting "Y" position. This isn't a surprise, but Trott had been behind Hawthorne on the depth chart throughout camp.
  • LBs Chris Evans and Merrill Johnson are still listed as co-starters. I don't think this matters because both will see significant playing time.

That's all for now. Be sure to read tomorrow's Anniston Star for more information.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Season preview

With the season drawing ever closer, Auburn is preparing to embark on what it hopes will become an SEC Championship Game run.

The Tigers are ranked 11th in the USA Today poll. Much is expected from a team that will feature a new starting quarterback – not yet named – and two new coordinators.

With several unknowns on the Plains, let’s examine what we do know:

  • The Tigers have two very good options in the run game in Brad Lester and Ben Tate. The duo is already proven, though not in the new system. Lester is the bigger home run threat of the two, even if he didn’t show it last year.

  • There are stars on the Auburn defense. DT Sen’Derrick Marks, DE Antonio Coleman, CB Jerraud Powers and S Zac Etheridge should all rank among the SEC’s best at their position. If LB Tray Blackmon ever finds a way to stay on the field, he could also emerge as one of the conference’s best.

  • The offensive line will at least be decent. All five starting offensive linemen return. G Chaz Ramsey will likely redshirt because of offseason back surgery, but the other four are back. G Tyronne Green should be one of the conference’s best linemen and T Lee Ziemba is a rising star. Last year’s line was young and sometimes needed extra help in pass protection, but now the freshmen from last year, Ziemba and T/C Ryan Pugh, have a year of experience.

  • Solid depth at LB. LBs Chris Evans, Merrill Johnson, Craig Stevens and Blackmon all have significant playing experience. LBs coach James Willis also thinks Courtney Harden adds quality depth and Josh Bynes is a potential star.

  • Special teams should be strong. K Wes Byrum proved to be clutch as a true freshman last year, nailing game-winning field goals against Florida and Arkansas. P Ryan Shoemaker was named preseason first-team all-SEC and he might not start. Clinton Durst appears likely to steal his job.

That’s about it.

There aren’t many more known quantities. There are, however, plenty of questions:

  • Who’s playing quarterback? Will it be Chris Todd or Kodi Burns? Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville repeatedly claimed during the offseason that there would be a “clear-cut starter.” That’s looking less and less likely. Teams can win with two quarterbacks, but what happens when there’s a loss? When Auburn trails by four points in the fourth quarter of a key SEC game, which quarterback will take the field? If that quarterback can’t lead a winning drive, how does that affect chemistry?
    “I think the best person for the offense, that’s who we should play,” Tate said Sunday. “I think everybody can pretty much see who should be the guy out there.”
    That’s a problem. If the players side with one quarterback and the other starts, would it divide the locker room?

  • Secondary depth. Etheridge and Powers started all last year. Starters S Mike McNeil and CB Walt McFadden have zero career starts between the two of them. From there, it only gets worse. Redshirt freshman Mike Slade and true freshman Christian Slater are the first two reserve safeties. Jonathan Vickers, who was given a scholarship just last week, is the only other safety. True freshmen D’Antoine Hood, Neiko Thorpe and Harry Adams are the only reserve cornerbacks. One will play regularly in the nickel formation – at least until CB Ryan Williams escapes Tuberville’s ambiguous “doghouse.”
    One more injury to a starter in the secondary would be devastating and could potentially cripple the unit.

  • Depth at defensive tackle. Everyone knows about Marks, but beyond him await four relative unknowns. Mike Blanc will likely get the first chance to start alongside Marks. Jake Ricks, Tez Doolittle and Zach Clayton also figure to see significant time. Doolittle is an especially good story. The NCAA granted him a sixth year of eligibility after Doolittle tore his Achilles heel last year during preseason camp. At least two of those tackles must produce this year.

Those are some major questions. Every program has questions, but the first two, in particular, are bigger than most.

Auburn has plenty of talent this year. That's why the Tigers were picked to win the SEC West and are virtually unanimous as a top-15 team.

As the season start, they also have plenty of questions to answer before they're considered any type of a championship contender.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Today's scrimmage meaningful to Hood

Note: Luke Brietzke is The Anniston Star’s new Auburn beat reporter. The 2006 Towson (Md.) University graduate covered Auburn for The Florence TimesDaily and The Gadsden Times in 2007.

By Luke Brietzke
Star Sports Writer

AUBURN — D’Antoine Hood doesn’t know what his role will be for Auburn this year.
After tomorrow, the true freshman cornerback probably will know.

For some players, Auburn’s Saturday morning scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium — the second and probably the last of camp — won’t mean much.

For many others, like Hood, the game is an audition for playing time.

“I feel good,” Hood said. “My body feels good right now. I think the biggest part is just coming out there and showing my talent. I just want to show what I can do.”

Hood is one of four possible candidates vying for regular playing time in the nickel defense. Jerraud Powers and Walt McFadden are already entrenched starters. True freshmen Neiko Thorpe and Harry Adams are also battling for the spot.

“Neiko Thorpe and Hood and Harry Adams have done a real good job of trying to pick up as much as they can and tomorrow will be a really big test for them,” Auburn head coach Tommy Tuberville said.

Ryan Williams might also be competing for playing time, but his academic status is currently unclear. During SEC Media Days, Tuberville said Williams was in trouble academically. Though the summer semester ended more than a week ago, Tuberville maintains that not all of the grades are in. Williams has not seen many reps in practice.

It appears that Thorpe currently leads the battle. He often practices with the top nickel group and plays corner for the base second-team defense.

Thorpe knows his performance on Saturday morning could help him solidify his position.

“I’m feeling more confident,” Thorpe said. “I got more reps and learned from what I was doing wrong in the first scrimmage, so I would say I’m a lot more confident going into the second scrimmage. It’s like a test from all the practices and two-a-days to see where I stand.”

Cornerbacks aren’t the only players currently fighting to get on the field this year.

“We want to look at some guys who will be borderline on whether we’re going to play them or put them on the back shelf and work their way up if they’re going to play this year,” Tuberville said. “This is going to be a big day for 16 or 17 guys that we circled on the board.”

Saturday will be crucial for true freshmen Philip Pierre-Louis and Darvin Adams, who both could play receiver and work as return specialists. The scrimmage will feature full-contact special teams work.

Tuberville said Auburn would run more passing plays than usual, but wanted to get a good look at another true freshman, Eric Smith.

So far, Smith has impressed running backs coach Eddie Gran by quickly learning the offense.

“Probably as fast as any freshman I’ve ever had,” Gran said. “He is very mature for being a freshman and I’ve really been excited by how he’s pushed through it and hasn’t missed any reps.”

Smith will get more reps because Tuberville said two of the three tailbacks in front of Smith – Brad Lester and Tristan Davis — will sit out with ankle and foot injuries, respectively.

Position battles will most likely not be settled after Saturday’s scrimmage, which is closed to the media and public.

Kodi Burns and Chris Todd will likely continue to battle for the top quarterback spot into the season. Merrill Johnson and Chris Evans will be interchangeable at weakside linebacker. Clinton Durst and Ryan Shoemaker will probably remain in a stalemate for at least a little while longer.

One spot that might get determined is the third-string quarterback. Neil Caudle and true freshman Barrett Trotter are competing for the job. Tuberville said those two would play the entire second half.