Sunday, August 16, 2009

Midterm report

Fall camp has now gone for two weeks. Classes begin tomorrow. It’s time to get excited. Football season is almost here.

Through two-a-days, most of my attention has been focused on the quarterback competition. Now that Chris Todd has been anointed The Man, I can turn my attention elsewhere.

With two-a-days now in the rearview, this seems like a good time to evaluate where Auburn’s program is as it inches toward the season opener.

Here is a fall camp midterm state of the union:


That Gus Malzahn settled on his starter just nine days into camp is a best-case scenario for the Tigers. Todd’s arm is clearly much stronger than it was at this time last year. He has experience and Malzahn brags about Todd’s ability to make the proper reads and deliver the ball on time.

With Kodi Burns moving to receiver and no plan to let Neil Caudle play himself into the backup plan, it seems Malzahn and Auburn coach Gene Chizik know what they want. Their hope seems to be for true freshman Tyrik Rollison to be the backup. Even if he doesn’t ultimately win the backup job, I think he would get a start in the event that Todd misses a week.

Malzahn and Chizik have mostly good things to say about Rollison, but the freshman seems to have been humbled by his first two weeks. He talked about the difficulty of reading collegiate defenses. He admits it’s difficult to become the vocal leader necessary for Malzahn’s offense.

Yet there’s Rollison, getting every opportunity to win the position. That, to me, shows the coaches ultimately think of Caudle as a third-string quarterback and nothing more. We’ll see how it plays out, but I would be surprised if Rollison isn’t the backup.

Run game

Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes didn’t try to hide his excitement after Saturday’s scrimmage. He thinks his first-team offensive line is coming together two weeks into fall and thinks it has a chance to stack up among the league’s best. Left tackle Lee Ziemba has gotten rave reviews after a disastrous sophomore season. The other bookend, Andrew McCain, has impressed while he prepares for his first starting season.

The media didn’t see or get statistics from the scrimmage, but the offense scored three touchdowns on five drives despite attempting approximately 10 passes. That means the Tigers are moving the ball effectively and efficiently on the ground.

Ben Tate is the workhorse in the backfield. He will get the bulk of the carries. Running backs coach Curtis Luper forecasted a 1,000-yard season in Tate’s future. He has led the team in rushing each of the past two seasons and is poised to do so again.

Mario Fannin will line up in the backfield at H-back and will probably get a healthy dose of carries. He will certainly be a valuable outlet in the passing game as well, capable of catching passes and breaking tackles after the catch.

Onterio McCalebb and Eric Smith provide different skill sets when spelling Tate. McCalebb is a lightning-fast home run threat, capable of scoring from any spot on the field. He might not be as polished in aspects like pass protection, but he is explosive enough that coaches must get him the ball.

Smith is more of a load. He takes on contact and excels most when he runs North and South. Smith has admitted ball security has been an issue. That seems to be his Achilles heel.

The real concern in the run game is what happens if an offensive lineman gets injured? Several reserves are missing time right now with various injuries, leaving just Jared Cooper and true freshman John Sullen in practice as of just a few days ago. Grimes said nobody has emerged from the reserves. He’s not sure what he would do in case of injury.


Someone will have a breakout year because, well, someone has to catch passes.

Tim Hawthorne is still out with a leg injury and Montez Billings’ status is unclear, though Chizik adamantly said he would play this year. That leaves Auburn in a position where its entire receiving corps has a grand total of 15 career catches for 124 yards and one touchdown.

It also leaves tight ends Tommy Trott and Gabe McKenzie with far more experience than any of the wide-outs. Those two can be good safety valves. Neither has proven capable of stretching the field and Trott has struggled with drops occasionally.

Terrell Zachery and Darvin Adams are the only two players Trooper Taylor said he's ready to play as of last Tuesday. Billings would be in that mix as well if his unspecified academic issue has been cleared by Week 1.

Taylor said it would be difficult to redshirt his four true freshmen. So get ready to see a lot of DeAngelo “Voodoo” Benton, Emory Blake, Travante Stallworth and Anthony Gulley.

Taylor likes Burns’ potential at receiver, but it seems more likely that Burns’ biggest role would be in the Wildcat formation.

Quindarius Carr and Derek Winter seem to have significant work left if they hope to join the receiver rotation.

Defensive line

This seems to be the biggest question in terms of where players stand. We know Antonio Coleman will start at defensive end. Everything else… it’s too early to tell.

That’s fine with line coach Tracy Rocker. He wanted to push his players with competition and he wants to have good depth on the line. With numbers low, depth must come from versatility. Thus, Zach Clayton and Michael Goggans – both of whom have worked at tackle and end – have increased their value.

The staring tackle spots seem to be a three-man race between Jake Ricks, Mike Blanc and JUCO transfer Nick Fairley. Ricks said he and Fairley spent a good portion of the week working with the first-team defense. Blanc has battled through injuries but is still in practice.

Don’t be surprised if Clayton and Goggans, who of the team’s best pass rushers, line up inside on pass downs the way Sen’Derrick Marks did for Will Muschamp.

Coleman will certainly start at one end. The other starting spot likely comes down to Goggans and Hot Carter. True freshman Nosa Eguae will likely be in the rotation.

I’m not sure where Cameron Henderson and Derrick Lykes stand right now. I’ve heard very little about them, which probably doesn’t bode well.


Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes will start if they can physically walk on to the field.

Book it.

Those two have plenty of experience. Ted Roof makes it a clean three-for-three in coordinators that have loved Stevens. He flies under the radar, but Roof says he does all the little things correctly and has a great football IQ.

Roof is happy with Bynes’ progress as well. He wants his middle linebacker to be more physical. It seems like it would be difficult for a player to simply play more physically than the way he naturally plays, but that’s exactly what Roof is asking of the junior.

Eltoro Freeman injured his right hand earlier in the week. Chizik is pleased with Freeman’s progress, but the probable starter at weak-side linebacker sat out during the scrimmage.

The Bull needs to have a big, productive season for Auburn’s defense to maintain the level to which it has grown accustomed. He is undersized, but teammates say he’s fast, aggressive and physical. Sound like anybody you know? Say, a certain former middle linebacker currently playing in Canada? From that regard, it doesn’t seem promising that Freeman injured himself in the first scrimmage.

That’s especially bad news considering the Tigers’ depth situation. They have seven scholarship linebackers. One, Adam Herring, didn’t practice in the spring and hasn’t practiced at all this fall. Two of them, Harris Gaston and Jonathan Evans, are true freshmen. Spencer Pybus played last year as a true freshman, but didn’t really stand out. He is an important part to the defense this season because he knows how to play several different positions. He has missed a good portion of practice this fall.

Defensive backs

Another spot of minimal depth is cornerback. Auburn has four scholarship corners. Two of them, Neiko Thorpe and Walt McFadden, have any starts to their credit.

Thorpe showed promise at times last season, but also got burnt on occasion. Cornerbacks coach Phillip Lolley loves Thorpe’s instincts and thinks he could be special now that he has some seasoning.

McFadden has NFL pedigree and could be an NFL prospect himself by season’s end. With Jerraud Powers limited by hamstring issues last year, McFadden served as the primary cover corner and he fared very well in that position. He seems to have the type of talent that could make him a game-changer.

Sophomore Harry Adams has little experience and split time between receiver and corner during the spring and summer. Demond Washington, another JUCO transfer, is learning how to play the position. Not to say Adams and Washington can’t get the job done, but it’s easy to see why Auburn would hope McFadden and Thorpe can stay healthy for most of the year.

The Tigers could probably move D’Antoine Hood back from safety to cornerback if they were in a bind.

One way to make the numbers work is employing three safeties in the nickel package. Don’t be surprised if Auburn tries that.

Zac Etheridge is a certain starter at strong safety. He admits his shoulder prevented him from playing his naturally physical brand of football at times last year. Now his shoulder is healthy and he’s primed for a big season. Etheridge knows the biggest key for the safeties this year – and for the defense as a whole – is to force more turnovers. Last year, Etheridge and Mike McNeil combined for 24 starts and just two takeaways.

McNeil is still recovering from a broken leg, creating competition for the free safety spot. True freshman Daren Bates has emerged as a serious contender for immediate playing time and could even start if McNeil’s not ready by Sept. 5.

Drew Cole and Mike Slade are also vying for the starting job. That could be like the quarterback race in that if neither claimed the job earlier, the newcomer might have the advantage.

Hood and T’Sharvan Bell are still learning how to play safety. They seem more likely to contribute on special teams.

Special teams

Kicker Wes Byrum thinks he’s healed from the mechanical and psychological problems he faced last year. It won’t take long to find out since he seems destined to win the starting spot.

Punter Clinton Durst is now on scholarship. I haven’t seen much practice, but Durst seems to be out-punting Ryan Shoemaker in both distance and consistency.

The return game is unclear right now.

No comments: