Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Auburn HR derby set

Auburn announced its annual home run derby on Wednesday. The event will be held Oct. 16 at Plainsman Park at 6 p.m. It features plenty of big names -- none bigger than Bo Jackson.

Other competitors include Braves pitcher Tim Hudson and catcher David Ross, former NFL WR Frank Sanders, Tampa Bay outfielder (and for Tigers QB) Gabe Gross, former baseball coach Hal Baird and former closer Todd Jones.

A minimum $1 donation is required for entry to the event. Proceeds will go to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lee County.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Tuesday notebook

When the polls came out Sunday, Auburn found itself as one of just three unranked 4-0 teams and one of four total undefeated teams currently unranked.

It marks the first time since 1963 that Auburn started 4-0 and was not ranked. Back then, though, the Associated Press only ranked 10 teams.

South Florida and Wisconsin are the only other 4-0 teams not ranked. Texas A&M is 3-0 and is also not in either top 25 poll.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said during his Tuesday press conference that he has not given any thought to the rankings.

“I don’t control that and I don’t even have a thought on it,” Chizik said. “Week to week we have to win and all that other stuff takes care of itself. I don’t spend a lot of energy on things I have absolutely no control over.”

Of everyone, Chizik should know firsthand how important rankings could be. As defensive coordinator of the 2004 Auburn team, he watched the undefeated Tigers get frozen out of the national championship game. USC and Oklahoma, both of whom ran the table after starting 1-2 in the polls, played for the title that year.

Auburn, meanwhile, was left out of the championship mix.

USC won the national title after pasting Oklahoma in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers topped Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl to finish their 13-0 season. They settled for “The People’s Choice National Championship.”

Still, Chizik does not seem alarmed that his team remains unranked despite staying perfect through September.

“I think the circumstances of each year – there are a lot of moving parts in those decisions,” Chizik said. “Again, it’s something I have no control over. So do I worry about it? No, I really don’t.”

Most players have followed their coach’s lead in dismissing the lack of national attention.

“It’s kind of frustrating, but it’s something we can’t control,” LG Mike Berry said. “We go out there and try to win every game that we can.”

Auburn will have another national stage when ESPN televises Saturday’s road game against Tennessee.

Berry knows a statement victory could elevate the Tigers into the top 25.

“They’re not talking about us now, but they’re going to have a reason to talk about us,” Berry said. “It’s about us going out there and putting up big numbers and having a great offense that can put up points.”

LB Craig Stevens said Auburn is accustomed to not being in the national spotlight.

“We talked about it the other week,” Stevens said. “Sooner or later if we keep winning, they're going to have to show us. We're used to not getting no love around here. Even when we were No. 2, we weren't getting no highlights on SportsCenter. We kind of used to it. I know the older guys are used to it.”

KEEPING TABS: When Auburn’s defense takes the field on Saturday, one of its first tasks will be finding Tennessee S Eric Berry on the field.

The reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year has 13 career interceptions and has returned them for 487 yards. He has also recorded 31 tackles through the first four games.

Chizik said Berry is the type of player a team must be able to locate at all times.

“Well I think you are always aware of where he is and where he is in aligning and who he’s on,” Chizik said. “What they decide to do, if they do decide to put him on a certain guy or take a certain guy out of the game, because he can do that; he can take a guy out of the game.

“From a whole defensive perspective, he is one of the guys that if you put him on somebody and you have him take somebody out of the game, you’ve got to know that, you’ve got to make previsions for that.”

ISOM QUESTIONABLE: RG Byron Isom missed Saturday’s game because of a suspension stemming from him violating team rules.

Chizik said Tuesday that Isom practiced on Sunday. Chizik opted against specifying whether the junior would play Saturday against Tennessee.

“If you guys see him out there, he’s going to do all the things that we said that he needs to do to get out there and play,” Chizik said.

Freshman John Sullen started in Isom’s place at right guard last week against Ball State. Chizik has also mentioned the possibility of playing either Jared Cooper or Bart Eddins at guard.

RETURN GAME: With Auburn still looking for a punt returner, RB Onterio McCalebb got a shot this week in practice.

The true freshman, along with WR Philip Pierre-Louis, has tried out in the return spot this week. Mario Fannin, Demond Washington, Anthony Gulley and Quindarius Carr – the four players that have been on the field to return punts so far this year – have also worked in the spot this week.

McCalebb said he hopes he gets an opportunity on Saturday.

“I’ve been wanting to do it since Day 1,” McCalebb said. “But they wouldn’t put me back there because I was doing a whole bunch of other stuff.”

BACK FROM INJURY: DE Antoine Carter said the time he missed in preseason camp and early this season stemmed from knee surgery he had in April.

Carter missed the first three games before returning last week against Ball State.

The junior underwent surgery on April 7. He tried to come back during the preseason, but re-aggravated the injury.

BETTER THAN THAT: Both Stevens and DE Antonio Coleman are displeased with the way the defense has played lately.

Auburn enters the game against Tennessee ranked 69th in scoring defense and 106th in red-zone defense.

“I think we're a lot better than that,” Stevens said. “Rankings don't mean anything, it's just going out there and stopping the other team whenever you get out there. I don't really buy into that stuff.”

Coleman is more dissatisfied with the stats. He said the 30 points the Tigers surrendered to Ball State looked bad.

“It doesn't sit with me... at all. We're a much better defense than that,” Coleman said. “To give up 30 points to Ball State? That's just bad. Like I said before, we can't do that. We're a much better defense than that -- much better unit than that. We're making a lot of small mistakes. Guys not fitting like they're supposed to and leaving guys wide open. You get in the SEC and you can get blown out just like that. We can't go down to Tennessee with that or any of these other games we've got left. It doesn't sit well with me at all. I don't like it.

“Met in a meeting and I just told them this is not a great thing. Opponents look at us on film and say, 'Ball State hung 30 on these guys.' It makes you look vulnerable on defense. Just talking to the guys, it's a lot of small things. So when a guy is in practice and he misses a fit or misses a tackle, I'm all in his ear. I feel that's my duty to do that just to make us a better team.”

CAST OFF: Coleman played last week with a cast on his right hand. DT Mike Blanc said last week that he likes playing with the cast. Coleman... not so much.

"I'm down on the line. I've got to have my hands. I've got to shoot my hands. I've got to get off blocks. I'm still adjusting to it. I'm messing with the trainers every day, but it's for my own safety and I respect that.

"I try not to let it affect me. Just do what you got to do. I'd rather be out there on the field than not at all on the sideline bandaged up or slinged up. I just try to make the best of what I can do out there on the field."

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Looking back on Auburn's 54-30 win over Ball State

Not much. Auburn was supposed to beat Ball State big. It did. That is a mark of a good team, though – beating the teams soundly that they’re supposed to beat.

Giving up 30 points to a bad Ball State team doesn’t look great, but the Auburn defense didn’t play poorly. The real tests come in the following weeks, starting with next week’s game at Tennessee.

QB Chris Todd
How’s this for a sign of the difference between this year’s offense and last year’s: Todd has nine touchdown passes in his last two games. Auburn had seven all last year. Todd tied a school record with five touchdown passes. He completed 19 of 26 passes for 287 yards. Auburn has proven in the last two games that it can beat teams through the air just as it can by running the football. That will be important in a difficult month of October.

WR Terrell Zachery scored his first touchdown and Auburn took a 14-7 lead. Auburn proceeded to jump up 30-7 and Ball State never closed to within 20 points.

The injury bug hit Auburn on Saturday, sidelining Kodi Burns and RB Onterio McCalebb. Auburn coach Gene Chizik said it’s too early to tell if they will play this week. Chizik also said that Auburn would still have Wildcat options if Burns can’t play.

Special teams remain a disaster. Here’s the rundown: one muffed punt recovered by Ball State, one fumbled punt the Tigers recovered, one failed punt that left McCalebb injured with a 30-7 lead, one delay of game penalty while the punt team tried to confuse the defense with shifts, one kickoff out of bounds, a penalty on a punt return, a few long Ball State returns. Auburn should not, and does not, feel good about its special teams going into Tennessee.

Why in the world did Auburn attempt that fake punt in the second quarter? The Tigers were up 30-7 facing a fourth-and-11 at their own 33. The game was already in hand. The offense wasn’t struggling to move the ball. Here was Chizik’s response to the question after the game: “The decision to fake the punt was we just felt like we faked one in the second game, and we just feel like we have it built into our package and we have some different things off those that we like to use. Our defense was playing really well at that point in time, so we decided to go with the fake and it didn’t work, but we will continue to fake them. That is just part of the offset we are trying to do with our punt team because we have a lot of athletes on our punt team.” I don’t have a problem with faking punts to keep opponents off-guard, the overall situation just seemed fishy.

WR Terrell Zachery – The junior recorded his first career 100-yard performance. He had touchdowns of 46 and 65 yards and has emerged as the big-play threat in Auburn’s passing game. WR Darvin Adams is Todd’s favorite target, but Zachery proved he can be an effective weapon as well.

LB Josh Bynes – Bynes had a hand in two of the biggest plays in Saturday’s game – the fumble recovery that set up the Tigers’ first score and the safety that really directed the game into blowout territory.

S Daren Bates – The true freshman led the team with seven tackles. It was the first time Bates showed the potential that teammates raved about all summer. He seemed to be around the ball a lot, had 1.5 tackles for loss including half a sack and helped force the fumble Bynes recovered. LB Craig Stevens thinks Bates is turning the corner to become a good player. “I think he’s getting more comfortable out there on the field,” Stevens said. “Coming downhill, making big hits, he’s starting to do what he’s shown us in practice. Especially going into the big games, we need him ready for that.”

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Game Day Injury Update

The following players will not play today:
  • OLs Byron Isom, Jorell Bostrom, Vance Smith and A.J. Greene
  • Ss Drew Cole, Mike Slade, Mike McNeil
  • LB Spencer Pybus
  • DL Nosa Eguae
On a positive note for Auburn, DE Antoine Carter is suited up. He told reporters this week that he expects to make his season debut tonight.

Good start to the day for Auburn

With Auburn trying to works its way into the top 25, the Tigers had plenty of good news before they squared off against Ball State.

Top-25 teams North Carolina and Florida State were already upset. Meanwhile, other top-25 teams Michigan struggled against Indiana and Kansas is currently having a hard time against Southern Miss. No word on if the Kansas football team got into a fight with its equestrian team.

If Auburn handles business tonight, I think the Tigers will find themselves ranked for the first time this season when they travel to Rocky Top for the Tennessee game next week.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wednesday notebook

Approaching Gene Chizik about an all-access television show must have been a daunting task for executives.

The first-year Auburn coach, after all, is known for his cautious, guarded relationship with the media.

Instead, Chizik and Auburn jumped at the forward-thinking idea, albeit with one significant catch – the university gets final say in all editorial content. That decision ultimately resulted in the origins of “Auburn: Every Day…”

So far, Chizik likes what he has seen.

“Auburn’s a great story and we just felt like there were a lot of great Auburn people out there who would enjoy the every day part of it that very few people on the outside really have a chance to kind of see inside,” Chizik said. “I think it’s great for our players. I think it’s really great for our fans who love Auburn and I think it was cutting edge for trying to get us out there, our team to our fans.”

The show has featured Auburn preparing for games, showing the team in practices while also covering some hot topics. For instance, the cameras caught Kodi Burns’ speech to the team, which he gave after learning Chris Todd would start at quarterback and Burns would move to receiver.

While football is the main theme, “Auburn: Every Day…” also focuses on other team activities – such as a team trip to a water park, where some Tigers players dumped Chizik into a pool.

Though cameras seem to catch every moment, Chizik said the crew has not been invasive.
LB Craig Stevens said the team watches the show fairly regularly. This week that left TE Tommy Trott taking some grief from teammates.

The show featured a knee injury Trott suffered during the Mississippi State game, playing downtrodden music and reactions from teammates. It also showed Trott receive a supportive text message from fellow TE Philip Lutzenkirchen.

As it turned out, Trott didn’t miss any time. He returned for the West Virginia game and contributed with a couple big catches.

“I caught a little grief about the last episode, to be honest,” Trott said. “They started playing funeral music.”

“Auburn: Every Day…” can be seen Friday nights at 7:30 p.m. on WJXS-TV 24.

MCKENZIE GETS DEFENSIVE: Gabe McKenzie has spent part of his practice week getting a look at defensive end, Chizik said after Wednesday's practice.

The senior has played sparingly as a tight end this season. Chizik thinks McKenzie could help give Auburn depth at the position.

"We did. He's already played it before so he's already got a little bit of experience to bring in to the mix," Chizik said. "I don't know that we've done it enough to really have a great evaluation. We're just kind of tinkering with it."

McKenzie moved from tight end to defensive end in 2008. In 10 games at the position, he recorded 11 tackles and returned an interception for a touchdown against LSU last season.

When he moved back to tight end for the final few games, McKenzie said he was born to play tight end.

TOO FAST IS NEVER ENOUGH: Chizik is seemingly asked every week what he would like to see his team improve upon.

One of his consistent answers has been offensive tempo. From what offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn says, that will be a never-ending task.

“It’s never too fast, unless you’re at the end of the game trying to win the game and slow the thing down and run the clock out,” Malzahn said. “We’re going to continue to stress pace. Obviously, after we get a first down, our pace picks up. If we go three-and-out, obviously it doesn’t.

“We’ve just got to keep working at it. Our kids are starting to understand that. I think they are improving. At times we were very slow in the game, but a lot of it had to do with them. There were times when we got the momentum. You can really feel the confidence in our players when we do have momentum and we do have pace.”

Though neither Chizik nor Malzahn seems content with the pace, Auburn’s 236 total offensive snaps rank third among the most in the nation. Among teams that have played three games, only Texas (245) and Air Force (237) average more plays per game.

AIRING IT OUT: With the way Auburn ran the ball over the first two weeks, Malzahn knew defenses would eventually dare the Tigers to pass.

That finally happened Saturday against West Virginia.

Todd answered by throwing for 286 yards and four touchdowns in guiding the Tigers to the victory. Malzahn said the rest of the offense rose to the challenge as well.

“I thought he responded pretty well,” Malzahn said. “I thought our offensive line responded well because they’ve got some guys who can really rush the passer. Our receivers came up with some big plays, too. It was encouraging. From the get-go, they were going to stop the run. They rode that extra safety down early and made us throw the football.”

Though Malzahn wants to run a rush-oriented, play-action attack, he knows he can only do what the defense allows.

That’s what made Saturday’s passing performance so important.

“To be successful you have to be able to do both,” Malzahn said. “You have to be efficient running the football and throwing the football. They were going to take away the run. That was their plan. We figured there was a decent chance of that, but we didn’t think they would completely sell out like they did. They did, and we were fortunate enough to make some plays in the passing game.”

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Tuesday notebook

A couple weeks into preseason camp, true freshman Anthony Gulley figured he would probably redshirt this season.

Three games into the season, he has already established himself as Auburn’s top punt returner.

“It’s a dream come true,” Gulley said after averaging 12 yards per return on Saturday. “I never thought in a million years from 1A football to playing at an SEC school, starting.”

Gulley restored credibility to a punt return unit that had none through the first two games. The Tigers muffed a pair of punts and struggled to gain any positive yardage on returns.

The former Brantley High School standout said his hometown turned out several fans for his debut. He joked the entire town showed up, adding that accounted for “about 50 people.”

Gulley has stuck to his rural roots since coming to Auburn.

“He is the most country guy I know,” receiver Tim Hawthorne said. “The most country person I’ve known in my life.”

In addition to returning punts, Gulley has also made his way into the offensive rotation at times this season.

Hawthorne sees bright days ahead of the freshman.

“He has a lot of potential – a raw athlete,” Hawthorne said. “The sky is the limit for Anthony Gulley. It’s just a matter of confidence. I think being back for punt returns has given him a lot on that, and as a receiver, also.

“He got his feet wet last week. I think his confidence will continue to grow.”

HOT RETURN: Defensive end/aspiring journalist Antoine Carter has asked more interview questions than he has played snaps so far this year.

The junior visited the interview room and asked DT Mike Blanc what he thinks of Carter’s return to the team.

That return, Carter said, is coming this week when the Tigers host Ball State.

Carter, once considered a pass-rush specialist, was supposed to challenge Michael Goggans for the strong-side defensive end position. Instead, he missed the first three games with a knee injury.

Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker said Carter had returned to practice last week, but wasn’t sure when he would return. Apparently that comeback is slated for Saturday.

“He’s been doing good,” LB Craig Stevens said. “He’s been out there running around, he’s still trying to get used to running full speed and things like that but he’s back.”

Stevens also said LB Spencer Pybus, who had been sidelined with a concussion, has also returned to practice.

Speaking of Blanc, we’ve now gotten to the bottom of his suspicious absence during the first half of Game 1. Blanc said he was suspended for the first half of the game because he showed up late to that Tuesday’s practice. Nick Fairley started in his place.

RUNNING CLOCK: Through most of Saturday’s game, West Virginia shut down the Auburn run game.

In the fourth quarter, though, RB Ben Tate saw his opening. The grueling pace started wearing on the Mountaineers, leaving Tate and the Auburn offense ready to run some clock.

“I couldn’t really sense them getting slower, but I could tell their defensive line was getting a little gassed,” Tate said. “They weren’t as bad as the other two teams were in the fourth quarter, but you could still sense that they were pretty tired.”

Tate responded by gaining 25 yards on five carries in the ensuing possession, helping the Tigers run 3:53 off the clock.

“When you see their hands on their knees – I might be a little tired, too, but I’m used to it, I can push through it – that’s definitely a time when you look to pound them and add on the yards in the second half,” Tate said.

UNDECIDED: QB Tyrik Rollison and RB Dontae Aycock have not played through the first three games of the season.

That doesn’t necessarily mean they are on their way to redshirt seasons.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said during his Tuesday press conference that the coaching staff has yet to make decisions on those true freshmen.

“It’s just a long season, and we’re only going into game four,” Chizik said. “One play Saturday could change all of our ideas. Obviously, Tyrik and Dontae have not played yet, and if we continue on that path, then redshirting will be the idea. But we’re just taking it day-by-day and seeing where our team is.”

CHANCE OF REST: After several defensive players suffered minor injuries during Saturday’s win over West Virginia, Chizik acknowledged he hopes to rest some of them.

DT Jake Ricks, DE Antonio Coleman and S Zac Etheridge all found themselves needing attention from trainers during the game.

All returned to the game after missing a few plays and are expected to play this weekend.

Chizik said he hopes to give them all some rest, but doesn’t plan on that being a possibility.

“If it was a perfect world and it ended up that way, we would be OK with it, but we’re certainly not looking at it like that,” Chizik said. “We prepare for every game to be a last two-minute of the game win, and this won’t be any different.”

BECOMING ‘EXACT’: In his first career start, LB Eltoro Freeman struggled at times during Saturday’s game.

It started right away when a blitzing Freeman seemed to have a clear shot at Jarrett Brown, but whiffed once the West Virginia quarterback made a move.

The high-motor linebacker found his way to the ball carrier several times, but couldn’t always bring him down.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof acknowledged Freeman has work to do.

“We’ve got to get a little more exact with him,” Roof said. “He certainly has the right attitude and he’s giving great effort. We just have to continue to work on being exact and he’ll do that because it’s important to him. He’s got a lot of pride in the way he plays and I have every confidence in him that he's going to get better.”

Roof said Freeman specifically needs to improve on alignment, proper angles and timing.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Stevens named SEC Defensive Player of the Week

LB Craig Stevens set a career-high in tackles and clinched Auburn’s win over West Virginia on Saturday night.

Monday, the SEC recognized Stevens’ effort by naming him the SEC Defensive Player of the Week.

Stevens finished the game with 11 tackles. His biggest contribution came on one play, though.

With less than 4 minutes remaining, Stevens tipped a screen pass to himself for an interception. He returned it 15 yards for a touchdown, boosting Auburn’s lead to the final 11-point margin.

Stevens is currently tied for sixth in the conference in tackles.

TENNESSEE TIME SET: Auburn will make its first appearance on ESPN when it plays at Tennessee on Saturday, Oct. 3.

The network announced its decision to pick up the game on Monday. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:45 CST.

Auburn has played two games on the ESPN family of networks this season. ESPNU broadcast the Louisiana Tech game and ESPN2 televised the West Virginia game.

The game against Tennessee will mark the program’s first trip to Knoxville, Tenn. since 2004.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Sunday notes

Here's a look at tomorrow's story:

A day after his team survived an offensive shootout, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said he likes his team’s effort.

It’s the execution that has him worried.

Still, Chizik has found a resiliency in his team over the last two weeks.

“They just keep playing,” Chizik said. “They just don’t let circumstances dictate how they play. They just keep coming when things aren’t good.”

On the top of Chizik’s to-do list is finding a way to sure up a defense that allowed 509 yards of total offense to West Virginia during Auburn’s 41-30 Saturday night win.

The defense certainly found its share of difficulties, but the Tigers forced six turnovers including four in the decisive fourth quarter.

Those turnovers helped Auburn’s defense erase what was otherwise a forgettable night.
“We’ve got a lot of work to do on defense,” Chizik said. “A lot of the yardage last night was just simply missed tackles. We’d come off the edge and take poor angles. Just tackling issues were a little bit of a problem.

“We’re still having a bit of a problem right now of getting off the field on third down. We’ve got to revisit a lot of that and go back and look at some of that.”

For more, read tomorrow's Anniston Star.

On to the notebook...

Chizik wasn’t thrilled with Auburn’s special teams performance on Saturday.

At the same time, he realized it marked a significant improvement over the previous week.

“It comes back to a continuity issue with our special teams,” Chizik said. “There were some more young guys on there last night and then as the game goes on, guys get nicked up and bruised and you have to throw some other guys in there. I like where we’re going in special teams in terms of what we’re doing.

“I thought last night we didn’t do anything that was catastrophic.”

Chizik knows there is still plenty of room for improvement, but said it is more of a situation where the team just needs to continue to gain experience.

One area where the team clearly made strides from the Mississippi State game was the punt return unit.

Auburn muffed punts twice during the first two games. The Tigers recovered both, but Chizik and special teams coach Jay Boulware acknowledged it was a tremendous area of concern.

Anthony Gulley provided a spark in the return game Saturday against West Virginia. The true freshman returned both punts – one for 17 yards and another for seven.

“We really spent a lot of time on it this last week and we’re really getting some things ironed out,” Chizik said. “I thought that the team as a unit gave him a little more time than we had the previous two.

“He’s a baseball player and when you’re a baseball player, being able to judge punts and being able to move like a center fielder in baseball I guess would be the best analogy. He’s got that and because he’s got that hand-eye coordination and he can be good at it. He’s getting more comfortable back there as time goes on; at least it appears to me.”

KICKING INTO HIGH GEAR: Wes Byrum’s bounceback from a disastrous sophomore slump continued Saturday.

The junior kicker connected on a pair of field goals – one from 46 yards and another from 42. Those types of kicks, specifically, proved troublesome for Byrum last season when he managed just to make just 6 of 13 attempts between 30 and 49 yards.

So far this season, Byrum has yet to miss on a field goal or on an extra point.

“That’s very impressive. I’m really proud of him,” Chizik said. “I think he’s gaining confidence as the games go on and he just needs to stay in the groove. He needs to keep trying to get better every day but certainly up to this point he’s really done well and he’s had some huge contributions to our wins.”

UNRANKED: Auburn’s 41-30 win over West Virginia apparently wasn’t enough to sway voters to push the Tigers into the top 25.

Both polls, released Sunday, had Auburn among the top teams receiving votes, but still not in the top 25. The Tigers enter Saturday’s game with Ball State the No. 28 team in the Associated Press Poll and the No. 29 team in the Coaches Poll.

Looking back on Auburn's 41-30 win over WVU

Auburn won a game last night that it wouldn’t have won last year. The Tigers trailed 14-0 in the first quarter. Yes, there was still plenty of time remaining, but can you imagine last year’s Auburn team thinking it could win a shootout? That seems difficult to believe.

Not only that, but Auburn fans learned QB Chris Todd can win a game. That was a huge question coming into last night’s game. Auburn’s run game didn’t get on track until the final minutes. Todd had to bring Auburn back in the meantime. He posted a career day, becoming the first Auburn quarterback since 2001 to throw for four touchdowns in a game.

Because of deadlines, I couldn’t go for interviews after the game. However, one report I read said Todd had the flu late in the week. He didn’t always look great, but threw for 285 yards and four scores. Anyone who doubted Todd’s ability to win a game was silenced last night – that group includes me. It wasn’t that I thought Todd couldn’t win a game, I just wanted to see it before saying he could do so.

LB Craig Stevens returned his interception 15 yards for a touchdown. West Virginia went to the well too many times with its middle screen and it backfired in a big way. Auburn intercepted the pass twice – once by Stevens and once by DT Jake Ricks. The last time, Stevens made it a two-possession game.

There’s little doubt WVU’s one-two punch of Jarrett Brown and Noel Devine is as good as any Auburn will face this season. That duo made the Tigers look bad, though. Through the first three quarters, it looked like Auburn couldn’t tackle. Will that tackling improve in SEC play?

The AU run game has already shown it is potent. Everybody already knows how good it can be. Now the question is can it be more effective against strong defenses. West Virginia shut down the Auburn run game for three-plus quarters. The Tigers had just 10 rushing yards until their final drive in the first half.

Where was Devine in the deciding minutes? For that matter, where were the receiver screens that Auburn struggled with all night? West Virginia was at its best when it stuck with the short game – handoffs, short flanker screens, throws into the flat. The Mountaineers went away from that strategy in the fourth quarter, likely leaving several visiting fans puzzled as to why.

WR Darvin Adams – With limited success in the run game, Auburn needed someone to step up in the passing game. Adams responded with Auburn’s first three-TD reception game since 1989. Adams has become Todd’s favorite target and seems poised for a huge season.

Stevens – Clinched the game with an interception returned for a touchdown.

CB Neiko Thorpe – Toward the end of the first half, West Virginia led 21-13 and had the ball inside the Auburn 20. With another score, the Mountaineers could have virtually buried the Tigers early. Instead, Neiko Thorpe came up with a huge interception. Auburn scored on the ensuing drive and trailed just 21-20 at halftime.

DTs Mike Blanc and Ricks and CB Walt McFadden – All three forced critical turnovers. Blanc and Ricks set up Auburn scores by earning takeaways inside WVU territory. McFadden’s interception inside the 10-yard line kept West Virginia from a field goal attempt.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Pre-game updates

There are a few personnel changes to report:
  • For a second straight game, Mike Blanc will start at DT in place of Nick Fairley. Though Fairley is listed as a starter on the depth chart, Blanc started last week and is the actual starter.
  • LB Eltoro Freeman will start in place of Adam Herring at the weak-side spot. Again, no surprise. The spot was basically Freeman's before he got injured during preseason camp. Herring will probably play in a backup capacity.
  • WR Tim Hawthorne will dress out tonight. It will mark the first time he has done so this season after he broke his foot over the summer.

Game preview, Billings leaves team

This was a note from yesterday's paper, in case you didn't see it:

WR Montez Billings will not return to the Auburn football program when he is eligible to return from his four-game suspension.

Auburn released a statement late Friday saying the senior receiver had left the program for personal reasons.

Billings graduated in May, but the NCAA suspended him for four games because of an academic issue.

“Montez has his degree and has decided to leave the Auburn football team to pursue other opportunities,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “We appreciate what he gave to the football program during his career and wish him the best in his future endeavors.”

Billings finished his career with 55 catches for 645 yards and one touchdown in 34 career games. When interviewed in August, Billings said, “I graduated in may, so everything will be all right.” That was a few weeks before the NCAA handed down the suspension.

Now here's my preview for today's game:

Between West Virginia RB Noel Devine and QB Jarrett Brown, Chizik knows the Mountaineers are tough to stop.

Fortunately for the Tigers, they have been equally difficult to defend through the first two weeks.

That led WVU coach Bill Stewart to predict a high-scoring affair when the two teams square off on Saturday.

“I see a track meet. It is going to be very difficult to contain the Auburn Tigers,” Stewart said. “They are fourth overall in total offense and second in rushing. That tells me they go and they make a lot of plays. They are a fast team and they are playing very well right now. It is going to be a tremendous challenge for our guys.”

Chizik is equally impressed by the Mountaineers’ attack. During his Sunday afternoon teleconference, Chizik likened choosing to focus on either Brown or Devine to choosing to cut off your nose or gouge out your eyes.

In other words, trying to focus on one instead of both doesn’t seem like a good idea.

However, Chizik is pleased with the way his team has progressed over the first two weeks and is prepared for the biggest challenge to date.

“It’s really just as the way the schedule would unfold, it’s really interesting,” Chizik said Tuesday. “It’s a building block every week for a better team or a team that, you know, gives you different issues. Not necessarily that one is better than the other, this is a really good football team that we’re playing. They are different in the fact that their speed element and what they do offensively, and things of that matter, challenges you in different ways than the first two.

“I really love this because this is a great challenge for us and a great way to see where we are at. It comes at a great time. We are ready to play this type of game right now. I don’t know if we would open with them. I think it is time for us to play a team that is this good and just see where we are Sunday morning. I think it will be a great challenge for us.”

It’s not just the Auburn defense that faces a unique challenge this weekend.

West Virginia runs a stack 3-3-5 – an unusual alignment defensive alignment the Mountaineers have run for years. By now, WVU has become very good at executing the defense and it boasts a strong run-stopping unit.

Part of the challenge is to get the offensive linemen to block the right linebackers and handle the defensive linemen effectively. Getting to the next level will be key for the run game’s success.

“Schematically, they’re just trying basically take up two blockers with one guy – the nose take up the center and guard – allowing the linebackers to roam and make plays,” left guard Mike Berry said. “Basically what you have to do is get up to the linebackers and get on those guys.”

The Tigers know this game carries national significance. If they win, they will throw themselves emerge even more into the national media spotlight.

Linebacker Josh Bynes, however, said that is not the real motivation.

“We ain’t worried about that,” Bynes said. “They didn’t want to talk about us so now I don’t really care.”

Friday, September 18, 2009

Cleaning out the notebook

The newest rage at Auburn football games has nothing to do with Tigers or foam hands.

Instead, Trooper Towels have swept through Jordan-Hare Stadium.

The towels, inspired by Trooper Taylor’s energetic sideline show, started making their way around the stadium last weekend.

Taylor said a group of students – Daniel Dreher, Rob Silverii and Hunter Harris – called him beforehand and asked for permission. At the time, Taylor thought that meant five or six fans would copy his actions on the sideline.

Instead, the white towels had the words “Trooper Towel” written on them.

“I didn’t know they were actually going to print up towels and actually sell the, but it was flattering and I think my children were more impressed than anything,” Taylor said. “They had it up on the Jumbotron, they said, and some people were trying to get them to me to autograph.

“The guys are really nice guys. They’re students. I tip my hat to them that, No. 1 they were trying to do something different and No. 2 they were trying to get the student body involved. That’s kind of the thing we’ve been doing. We’ve been trying to make sure we show the fans appreciation for coming and make sure they feel a part and we give them something to cheer about and feel proud to be an Auburn Tiger.”

Taylor is not receiving a cut of the profits, but has asked the innovators to donate a percentage of the proceeds to a charity yet to be determined.

“We thought of the idea at the first game when we saw coach (Taylor) waving his towel on the sidelines,” Dreher said through e-mail. “We think the Trooper Towel is another unique way to add to the Auburn Family and support the team and coaching staff. We will be donating a portion of the earnings to a charity of coach (Taylor’s) choice.”

FRESHMEN PAYING DUES: Throughout the preseason, Taylor talked about the impression he expected true freshmen WRs Emory Blake and DeAngelo Benton to make on the offense.

Two weeks into the season, neither has recorded a reception.

Part of the reason has been the performances of starters Terrell Zachery and Darvin Adams. Those two have paid their dues and, now that they have gotten their opportunities, have made the most of them early in the 2009 season.

As Zachery and Adams make more plays, Blake and Benton seem less likely to see the field.

“They’ll be involved when they earn it. They’ve got to make plays,” Taylor said. “That’s pretty simple. Right now, two guys are making plays and if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Those two guys have really stood out. I think Darvin and T-Zach have really earned what they’re getting. Until something changes in practice or one of those guys goes down or doesn’t make plays, then they will.”

Adams has caught nine passes for 181 yards and a touchdown so far this year and is coming off a 116-yard performance. Zachery has five receptions for 139 yards and a score.

Taylor said another reason they haven’t played as much as expected is because of Kodi Burns’ “smooth transition” to the receiver position. He doesn’t run as a true receiver all the time, but because Auburn prefers to move swiftly into the Wildcat formation, the staff prefers to keep him on the field.

Benton, also, is expected to contribute more than he did last week. Taylor said Benton missed a good portion of practice before the Mississippi State game because of a death in the family.

DEFENDING BROWN: West Virginia QB Jarrett Brown poses several problems for opposing defenses.

The senior has proven capable of hurting opposing defenses with his throwing arm as well as his scrambling ability.

Brown’s abilities have certainly caught Auburn defensive line coach Tracy Rocker’s attention.

“The thing is you see this guy throw people off him,” Rocker said. “The football doesn’t look like it’s college-sized. It looks like a little miniature ball in his hands. He’s so strong, he’s slinging people off and the thing you see is he can run. We’ve got a big challenge there.

“I definitely respect his play. You see people putting pressure and they look like they’re about to sack him and he goes. First down.

“It’s going to be important for us up front. Our four guys against their five. The most important thing is going to be tackling – tackling and playing fast.”

Rocker isn’t the only coach concerned with Brown’s versatile nature.

Cornerbacks coach Phillip Lolley knows his ability to run or throw makes it difficult for his players if Brown gets out of the pocket.

“A quarterback like him causes a lot of problems because when he decides to scramble or come out of the pocket, then you’ve got a tough situation,” Lolley said. “You got a lot of questions during a ball game: Zone versus man. Do you play the quarterback in this situation? He causes a lot of problems.”

BLANC CHECK: Mike Blanc barely played during Auburn’s season opener against Louisiana Tech.

That changed last week when the junior started alongside Jake Ricks. Blanc finished with four tackles and a pair of quarterback hurries.

Rocker said Wednesday that Blanc is still ahead of Nick Fairley, who started in Week 1.

However, Rocker does want to get Fairley more snaps than the JUCO transfer saw last week.

HOT TOPIC: DE Antoine "Hot" Carter is nearing a return to the lineup, but Rocker stopped short of saying he would return this weekend.

“He’s getting back, he’s moving a lot, he’s getting more reps in practice,” Rocker said. “So I feel comfortable about him feeling good about himself. The biggest thing we’re trying to do is getting him back in cardio, cardio shape. And working out the nervous things about when you’re playing on that knee.”

Carter tried to go through part of preseason practice with the knee injury, but missed the first two games with the injury.

Rocker said he wants Carter’s knee to be full strength when he returns.

When Carter does come back, Rocker said he thinks the junior could make a significant contribution.

“I’m looking at him, I’m hoping that he comes in and hopefully he can pursue to be an every-down guy,” Rocker said. “That’s the deal. It all depends on how everything holds up and the mental thing of taking on blocks and the banging and the practicing. It’s going to be a challenge but yeah, I’m hoping as we get on down in the thick of the season he can help us win.”

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Auburn Football Mad-Lib

Special teams coordinator Jay Boulware was not pleased after watching his team give up a blocked punt for the first time in his five-plus years in that capacity.

That's putting it lightly.

Boulware acknowledged he was upset about the situation in a tirade filled with questionable language -- not rated NC17, but probably R. EDIT: Rated R might be a bit harsh. But if you look around the state newspapers today, it would be tough to find the word.

Here's the quote, only it's up to you to fill in the blanks:

"You guys know I'm ___________. You guys know my mentality by now. I'm _____________. And I've been ___________. And I'll be _________________for a long time. I hadn't had a punt blocked in about six years. And two years with Coach Chizik. So I was ____________________. I'm still _________________."

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Wednesday night notes

Gene Chizik said TE Tommy Trott is making progress as Saturday draws nearer, but S Drew Cole is out.

Chizik did not say whether he expects Trott to play, but said Tuesday that true freshman TE Philip Lutzenkirchen would take on an extended role this week.

Cole appeared to injure his left ankle during the first quarter. Trott hurt his knee shortly before halftime.

Meanwhile, WR Tim Hawthorne is nearing a return to practice. Receivers coach Trooper Taylor said Hawthorne is working at specific times at practice. Hawthorne is not expected to play this week and he has not yet had contact since breaking his foot over the summer.

“Tim’s come on more in the last three or four days,” Chizik said. “We don’t know exactly where he’ll fit in the whole plan but we’re hoping to get him slowly but surely ready to play.”

Chizik described S Mike McNeil, who’s recovering from a broken leg suffered during the spring, as “kind of a work in progress still.”

PLAYING IN THE RAIN: With a looming 60 percent chance of rain forecast for Saturday night, Chizik said he didn’t mind working in the rain during practice this week.

He said it has been good to work on concentrating despite the weather.

“I think it was good that we were able to do that two days in a row – ball handling and ball security issues,” Chizik said. “Then when you’re out here and it’s raining, you’ve got to focus.”

SHARING SPOTLIGHT: After the first two games, the Auburn defense is getting adjusted to an unfamiliar feeling – getting overshadowed by the offense.

Not that the defenders are minding the feeling.

“It’s fun to watch our offense get on the field and score so many points,” CB Walt McFadden said. “It’s good to see a different defense get tired out there, because they do it to us sometimes during practice, and the second-team just be laughing at us, but it’s good to be laughing at a different defense on the other sideline.”

McFadden said he expected at least 28 points per game from the offense this year.

“I thought that was going to be enough, because just being here before, it was all about the defense,” he said. “Now, it’s not just about the defense – it’s a new and improved offense.”

NEW APPROACH: Consider LG Mike Berry among the fans of line coach Jeff Grimes’ kinder, gentler approach.

Berry said seeing the way Grimes handles in-game situations has only furthered his appreciation for the new coach.

“He’s a real positive guy. I don’t see him get down a lot and he always tells us to get our demeanor up and never let it change,” Berry said. “He evaluates the problem more I believe. He just doesn’t get on you. He helps you see what you did wrong in a positive light. He doesn’t yell at you.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Tuesday night notes

With TE Tommy Trott’s status in question for Saturday’s game, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said he would turn more to freshman TE Philip Lutzenkirchen this week.

Trott injured his knee during last week’s win over Mississippi State. Chizik has not said how long the senior would be out, if at all, instead listing him as day-to-day.

Though TE Gabe McKenzie, H-back John Douglas and RB Eric Smith could also see more playing time with Trott out, Chizik said he plans mostly to use Lutzenkirchen.

“He’s a young guy that’s going to be a very good player, and we are going to up his responsibility in his role,” Chizik said. “We’re going to look at it without me going into great detail, but we’ve got a plan.”

Lutzenkirchen recorded his first career catch on Saturday when he hauled in a 13-yard touchdown pass from Kodi Burns.

He said he was more of a pass catcher in high school and is still adjusting to his role, which features more blocking.

“I’m just getting use to doing a lot more work than I’ve been doing the last two weeks, and it just really trying to fill the void Tommy left,” Lutzenkirchen said. “Since I’ve been here, they’re really preached that I need to get the blocking down, so I guess they are – I wouldn’t say comfortable, but more comfortable at where by blocking is at.”

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said the true freshman will be forced to mature more quickly than planned.

“He’s got a lot of talent. He’s getting used to college football, and the demands from the physical and mental standpoint,” Malzahn said. “He’s going to be a very good player for us, but we’re going to need him to step up very quick.”

TAKING SHOTS: QB Chris Todd acknowledged on Sunday that he made a few throws he perhaps should not have attempted.

The senior quarterback enters the weekend with two touchdown passes against zero interceptions, but knows he needs to make smarter decisions at times.

“Sometimes we have shots built in that we’re going take no matter what but we need to be smart with the ball,” Todd said. “Going back and watching in certain situations, I might need to check down or hit an underneath route.”

As Todd gains experience in the system, Malzahn said he would naturally make better choices.

“He’s still learning his reads. He got a little greedy a couple of times but all the things that happened are correctable,” Malzahn said. “He made a couple of good plays, too, under pressure. I think the more comfortable he gets, I’m going to really get him to take what they’ll give us.”

STAYING GROUNDED: As the national media starts to pay more attention to Auburn, Chizik remains confident his players won’t get wrapped up in the attention.

He said keeping them humble shouldn’t be a difficult task.

“I don’t think that A) That’s who we’re going to let them be; and B) I don’t think that’s really who they are,” Chizik said. “When you sit in a film session, and you sit in and you watch all of the things that we’re not doing well, I don’t know how you could walk out of that meeting and feel good about where we’re at, anywhere offensively, defensively, special teams. I don’t know how a player could walk out and feel good about it.”

CATCHING ON: CB Walt McFadden knows he’s got some catching up to do in the interception race.

Through two games he is yet to record a pick while DE Antonio Coleman dropped into coverage on Saturday and intercepted his first career pass.

“I thought he put some glue on his hands, because he snatched that one out of the air,” McFadden said. “It’s pretty shocking that he caught a ball but it’s just a great play by him. He’s very athletic.”

McFadden said Coleman joked during film session that he should move back to safety.
The senior corner had his own response – moving down to defensive end and showing he could take down the quarterback if Coleman could intercept passes.

“I think I can get down there and do a little bull rushing,” McFadden said. “I’ve got a couple of spin moves. I’m a Dwight Freeney type of guy. I like to get down there, do a couple moves.
“If you see me down there this week, don’t be surprised. I’m trying to tell you a hint.”

Monday, September 14, 2009

Early notes from Monday

Auburn is starting to gain some recognition. named offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn its Offensive coordinator of the Week and Antonio Coleman was named Defensive Lineman of the Week by the SEC.

Malzahn's offense posted nearly 600 yards during the Tigers' 49-24 win over Mississippi State. Coleman scored his second career touchdown during the second quarter when he returned an interception for a touchdown.

ALSO: The SEC announced today that the Auburn-Ball State game to be played Sept. 26 will have a 6 p.m. kickoff. Fox Sports South will televise the game.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Sunday night's notes

First, here's a look at my story for tomorrow's paper:

Two games into the season, Auburn coach Gene Chizik finds himself walking the tightrope between confidence and tempering expectations.

The first-year coach, now 2-0 on the Plains, rejects the notion that the Tigers have yet to play a tough game.

“Those were some tough wins for us,” Chizik said. “We’re not playing perfect, and there’s a lot of times that we’re not playing very well at all. We’re a work in progress.

“To beat West Virginia this week, we’re going to have to be better than we were the first two.”


For more, read tomorrow's Anniston Star.

Now on to the regularly scheduled notes:

Chizik said during his Sunday afternoon teleconference that DE Cam Henderson would not play this season.

The Auburn coach didn’t go into details, but said, “there is no chance of Cam Henderson playing this year.”

Chizik did say Henderson is still on the team but did not directly a question about Henderson’s eligibility status.

WR Philip Pierre-Louis, on the other hand, does not have a season-long ban. Instead, Chizik said Pierre-Louis is a week-by-week situation.

Though Chizik wouldn’t give a timeline to the Pierre-Louis situation, he did say it’s his decision when the redshirt freshman returns.

Chizik didn’t go into details on TE Tommy Trott’s injured knee. He declared it a day-to-day situation, but didn’t rule out him missing time.

“Right now I don’t know exactly what’s anything, but that’s why it’s going to be day-by-day – because I just don’t know,” Chizik said.

NO SLOWING DOWN: An obvious problem with an offense that runs as fast as Gus Malzahn’s is that it can tire out Auburn’s defense as well as the opposing group.

With the Tigers’ pace, short possessions become even shorter possessions and make it difficult for the defense to get a breather.

Even if the tempo costs Auburn’s defense better statistics, defensive coordinator Ted Roof is willing to accept it in exchange for wins.

“I don’t care how fast. I just want to win,” Roof said. “As long as we win, that’s a wonderful thing. So we’ve had lots of discussions about it as a staff, but that’s what we do and that’s what we hang our hat on and we’re all in.”

Chizik said he understands Malzahn’s offense “very well.” He also added that he’s “got it figured out.”

That prompted the question about whether Chizik could stop the attack.

“Probably not. It’s a lot of moving parts,” Chizik said. “It’s good stuff. Again, he’s very good at his trade.”

ELTORO PRODUCES IN DEBUT: Roof praised linebacker Eltoro Freeman for his productive game Saturday.

Freeman missed the season opener with injuries, but bounced back with a six-tackle performance in a part-time role.

“I was pleased with his effort. It was his first college football game on this level,” Roof said. “I thought he did some good things but there are some areas that we need to get better at and continue to work on.”

In addition to Freeman, Roof singled out DE Antonio Coleman, S Zac Etheridge and CB Walt McFadden for their productivity.

LB Craig Stevens said Freeman gives the defense a new element.

“He brings another angle to the defense, a little energy once he gets out there and makes a play,” Stevens said. “He gets hyped and all that. Whatever it takes to bring the defense up.”

ZIEMBA THE DECOY: QB Chris Todd said it didn’t surprise him when Malzahn called for OT Lee Ziemba to spread out wide toward the end of the first half on Saturday.

On the play, Ziemba jumped up and down while waving his hands. The distraction allowed WR Darvin Adams to get open for a 20-yard reception to the MSU 1-yard line.

The playcall wasn’t nearly as surprising as the timing – in the final minute of the first half. Still, Todd said the team practices the play enough that it didn’t feel any different.

“We’ve done that several times in practice,” Todd said. “It really just feels like a regular play. Everybody feels comfortable so it’s kind of like going out there and executing a regular play. It’s a little wrinkle we have to try and make a play where we needed one. We rep enough to where everybody feels comfortable doing it.”

While Ziemba worked as a distraction on the play, Chizik said the tackle wouldn’t be any more than that.

“He looked like he was hungry for that thing,” Chizik said. “Just let me assure you that will never happen, no matter how much he yells for it out there.”

GAINING RESPECT: Auburn still isn’t ranked after its 49-24 win over Mississippi State, but it is receiving far more votes.

The Tigers were eighth in the “Also receiving votes” category in the AP poll and sixth in the coaches poll. On Sunday, Auburn has 26 and 30 votes in the polls respectively, after receiving just four and 13 last week.

Auburn will also have a national television audience this week when it hosts West Virginia. The SEC announced Sunday that the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lincoln's Howard standing out

Even in a 49-13 loss at Handley last night, Auburn commit and current Lincoln star D.J. Howard looked like a future star.

Howard only touched the ball 11 times (including two catches for two yards) and finished with nine rushes for 186 yards and a pair of touchdowns.

The tailback was most effective when Lincoln turned to the Wildcat formation. That's how Lincoln scored both times -- one on an 80-yard Howard run and another on a 68-yard run by Howard.

Howard's most impressive run came on his first score. He started left, but got hit in the backfield. Handley had three or four defenders right on him before Howard switched fields and turned the corner. He showed elusiveness, speed and the ability to break tackles on the play, but what impressed me most was the way he set up his block on the outside. He faked outside, allowing his receiver to stay on his block, and then broke inside at the last minute. The move created enough of a block to let Howard go 80 yards for the score.

When Howard gets to Auburn, it might not be as a tailback. Auburn might use him instead as a safety. Last night erased any doubt that he could be a valuable addition to the Tigers' backfield, though.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Cleaning out the notebook

First, here's what I am looking for Saturday, when Auburn hosts Mississippi State at 6 p.m.:
  • Can more freshmen step up? Yes, I was right about RB Onterio McCalebb immediately contributing to the offense. That is completely overshadowed by the fact that I whiffed so badly on WRs Emory Blake and DeAngelo "Voodoo" Benton. Neither registered a catch during their respective debuts. Blake only had one opportunity and it would have been a tough catch -- he had to jump and the ball was thrown behind him. Benton, on the other hand, seemed to be making mistakes on his routes -- particularly a pair of out patterns in the third quarter. Coaches chalked their debuts up to first-game jitters. Let's see how they react on Saturday.
  • Will any players return? Because Auburn coach Gene Chizik is so secretive when it comes to injuries, I don't have a good handle on whether or not LB Eltoro Freeman will play, nor do I know the status of DE Antoine "Hot" Carter. Neither player even attended the game last week. There are several other injured players that could return, such as DT Zach Clayton, but I'm more interested in Freeman and Carter because they weren't even on the field.
  • Can QB Chris Todd beat a defense when it loads up against the run? I'm not sure we will get an answer this weekend because I expect Auburn to be able to run the ball on Saturday. Todd looked great in the Louisiana Tech game, but he also looked good against Southern Miss last year. I do think Todd is a different player than he was last year. He seems to have better arm strength. Still, let's keep the verdict out until he faces a defense that forces Auburn to win by passing the ball.
  • Who runs the better Wildcat? With offensive gurus Gus Malzahn and Dan Mullen squaring off, Saturday could be an exciting game full of innovation. That's what I'm hoping to see -- trick plays, gadget plays, Wildcat formations. Which coordinator gets big plays, either from the odd formations and plays or just from their traditional offenses?
  • What does RB Eric Smith do in his debut? Chizik admitted Smith was not at full speed when he first returned on Monday. Smith didn't practice for 2 1/2 weeks while sitting out after his Aug. 21 arrest. Those charges -- a Class A misdemeanor for assault and a Class C misdemeanor for disorderly conduct -- are still pending and his trial is set for Nov. 5. I would also love to know what Smith did to become "a better Auburn man" over those 2 1/2 weeks. On the field, he is apparently going to see most of his snaps at H-back -- not tailback. How does he fit into this new offense?
  • Can an Auburn back make it two in a row? Auburn hasn't had a runner go for 100-plus yards in back-to-back games since 2005. Both RBs Ben Tate and Onterio McCalebb have an opportunity to do so this week. Chizik has tried to temper expectations for McCalebb all week. Let's see if he's that good against a defense with SEC speed.
  • How will new starters DT Nick Fairley, LB Adam Herring and FS Daren Bates hold up against an SEC opponent? All three had strong first-start performances. Bates and Fairley had Auburn's two takeaways.

Here's the notebook:

During Saturday’s opener, Wildcat QB Kodi Burns said he felt like the offense was a block away from a big play on a few occasions.

Burns did score Auburn’s initial touchdown of the season out of the formation. When offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn utilized it, the Tigers had success as well.

Still, Burns hopes Auburn will get even more from the package in the future.

“I definitely think it has a lot more potential for it to be better than it was, because if you notice, the guys who were tackling either Onterio or me were in the secondary,” Burns said. “I guess it’s a pretty good sign we can get on those guys. We just have to be able to make them miss and go all the way.

“With the Wildcat, I think we’re just scratching the surface, and there are a lot of different things we can do.”

Auburn won’t be the only offense utilizing the attack this week. Mississippi State showed last week it can be dangerous with the offense, especially with sophomore quarterback Chris Relf.

Last week, Relf threw for three touchdowns while also rushing for 82 and another score.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik knows how difficult stopping the Wildcat can be – especially with someone like Relf or Burns running the show.

“Basically, when you have two quarterbacks in the game it spreads the defense out, while still being able to run sort of a power running game, but with a quarterback instead of a running back,” Chizik said. “That is the advantage of running it, but teams are getting good at defending it, because they know what is coming and that’s the down side of it. When you see Kodi Burns in the backfield, you are getting to defend all the runs that can possible happen, which is the disadvantage.

“If you can have a guy back there that can also pass, that is a great advantage as well, which Kodi Burns can. It poses problems for defenses if you have a two dimensional guy.”

WRITING OUT: All offensive line coaches have their ways of motivating their players to meet expectations.

For many line coaches, that includes a healthy earful whenever players fall short of what is demanded.

That’s not Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes’ style. Grimes can catch a player’s attention with a rant as well as anyone, but prefers a far subtler approach.

That’s why, in addition to giving linemen individual grades after games, Grimes has all of his players submit a written performance review after watching film.

“I’m big on getting them to evaluate themselves and giving me a write-up after each game of how they felt like they played and the things they need to work on the most,” Grimes said. “To me that’s a whole lot more valuable than saying so-and-so graded out at 74 percent.”

Grimes does give out grades. He bases his system off how many times each lineman puts a defender on the ground and also if the player commits any errors like penalties or allowing sacks and quarterback pressures.

With Grimes, though, it’s more about the players learning what they did well and what they need to improve upon.

NO GOOD PENALTIES: Though Chizik wasn’t thrilled with the number of penalties his defense committed during Week 1, he chalked them up mostly to what he calls “try-hard” penalties.

That Auburn had 87 yards of penalties certainly didn’t thrill Chizik, but he accepted them because his defense was active.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof, on the other hand, was not as willing to take the miscues.

“You don’t ever accept them because they hurt the football team,” Roof said. “There are going to be penalties at times and you’ve certainly got to play through them.

“They kept us on the field. If you look back at what happened after we committed those penalties, bad things happened. We had chances to get off the field and didn’t.”

The Tigers committed four penalties – including a trio of 15-yard personal fouls – on Louisiana Tech’s opening drive. That eventually allowed the Bulldogs to score a touchdown on the possession. That was Louisiana Tech’s only touchdown.

FIRST GAME: It didn’t take long for true freshman Daren Bates to realize he wasn’t playing high school football any more.

Starting at free safety in his first collegiate game, Bates received a wakeup call within the first possession.

“When I went to get my first tackle and I tried to wrap up, he just ran through my arms,” Bates said. “I was like ‘OK, you’ve got to take a different approach to it.’ That was my first one right there and I knew I had to adjust to make a better effort.”

Bates said he “wasn’t freaked out” when he first took the field, but he couldn’t hear anything.
After the first possession, though, Bates said he settled down.

He earned his first career interception later in the game.

HAPPY RETURNS: Two punts might have been enough to cost Mario Fannin his starting punt returner spot.

Granted, it was not a great pair of plays for the junior.

Fannin muffed the first punt. Fortunately for him, teammate Chris Humphries pounced on the loose ball, allowing the Tigers to retain possession.

The second punt was no better. Fannin decided to allow it to roll and it took a great bounce for Louisiana Tech.

Next time Louisiana Tech dropped back to punt, special teams coach Jay Boulware replaced Fannin with true freshman Anthony Gulley.

On four tries, Gulley wasn’t much more impressive in the return game.

That led Auburn back to the drawing board this week. Trooper Taylor, who works with the punt returners, said several players – Quindarius Carr, Demond Washington, Emory Blake, Zac Etheridge and Walt McFadden – all auditioned for the spot.

“We gave everybody, managers, trainers, I'm telling you, we had an open tryout,” Taylor said.

Taylor did not indicate who would get the first opportunity against Mississippi State.

Fannin might have also lost his spot as kick returner.

“We’re still checking guys out and we’ve got a couple of guys obviously,” Boulware said. “Mario took one back. I didn’t like how he danced back there. I’m not looking for a guy that’s going to dance. I’m looking for a guy that’s going to get downhill.”

Boulware was more impressed with Onterio McCalebb.

“You’re looking for a guy that’s going to find the seam and attack it and he did that on the two returns he had,” Boulware said.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Notes from Wednesday

Here's your glance at tomorrow's story:

Ben Tate doesn’t like the idea of labeling Auburn’s rush game as thunder and lightning.

Not that Tate denies the speed credentials of Onterio McCalebb. Auburn players love telling the tall-tales about the true freshman tailback’s speed. One said McCalebb chases rabbits and squirrels by foot.

However, Tate considers himself more of a well-rounded back than a lower-the-shoulder-and-run-over-defenders type.

“I wouldn’t really call myself a thunder back,” Tate said. “I’m not a Brandon Jacobs guy. I’m not going to run everyone over, but I’ll pick and choose my battles. If I see a linebacker that’s about my size, I’ll try him. If that’s what they want to call it, whatever works for them.

“McCalebb’s definitely lightning, I’ll tell you that.”

Whatever the tailback tandem is ultimately known as, it got off to a tremendous start during Auburn’s Week 1 win over Louisiana Tech.

McCalebb ran for 148 yards and a touchdown while Tate went for 117 yards. The Tigers finished with 301 rushing yards, partly because of the way McCalebb provides a change of pace to Tate’s style.

“We’ve got two different types of running backs on our team,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “We’ve got the slasher/the slicer/the speed guy, and then we’ve got some more inside power guys. And you just got to figure out the balance of when you’re trying to use the two because they’re uniquely different, and they bring different talents to the table.”


For more, read tomorrow's Anniston Star.

On to the notes:

After announcing RB Eric Smith would dress for Saturday’s game, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Wednesday that Smith would play as well.

Smith hadn’t practiced since he was arrested during the early morning of Aug. 21. Because of that, Chizik said he looked “a little sluggish” earlier in the week.

However, he showed enough progress to be ready to play.

“I’m really proud of the way he’s responded to the things we’ve asked him to do,” Chizik said. “I think he’s ready to play.”

Smith has not been available for comment since his arrest.

He will return to a team that seemingly found its No. 2 tailback last week when Onterio McCalebb rushed for 148 yards and a touchdown. Running backs coach Curtis Luper said that leaves Smith competing with Mario Fannin for the No. 3 tailback role.

Smith’s primary responsibilities appear to come at the H-back position, where he will spell Fannin.

“It helps because we had three running backs last game,” Luper said. “It helps because he has some experience, he’s played and he’s a dual threat; he can play the 4 and can play the 3. It helps us and it gives us a few more options on offense.”

Smith’s return also means a likely redshirt for true freshman Dontae Aycock, who did not play in the season opener.

“It would be really nice if we could redshirt Dontae but we don’t know yet,” Luper said.

FAMILIAR FACES: Safeties coach Tommy Thigpen will see a former colleague and a mentor on the sideline when Auburn plays Mississippi State on Saturday.

Thigpen played and coached for MSU defensive coordinator Carl Torbush when he was the coach at North Carolina.

“He’s probably one of the best guys I’ve ever met – strong Christian, hard worker, one of my biggest mentors,” Thigpen said. “His schematics seem to be the same when he was at North Carolina in the late ’90s, when North Carolina was good.”

Torbush isn’t the only coach with whom Thigpen has experience. He also coached with MSU head coach Dan Mullen at Bowling Green under Florida coach Urban Meyer.

Thigpen said Mullen’s offense has evolved “quite a bit” over the years and is very difficult to defend.

CONTRACT TALK: Every coach on the Auburn staff has a two-year contract.

Chizik said that was important not just for the assistants, but also in showing the administration’s support for the program.

“I think it’s great for our administration to have been able to provide that for all our guys,” Chizik said. “I think it’s very important. I think everybody that coaches college football would appreciate that. I’m very, very happy that our administration provided that for our guys. It means a lot.”

STATUS UNKNOWN: All week, Chizik refused to commit to the idea of weak-side LB Eltoro Freeman playing on Saturday.

He continued that trend Wednesday, though he seemed optimistic the JUCO transfer could make his Auburn debut.

“We’re hoping and we’re going to play that by ear,” Chizik said. “We think today he looked better. But I don’t want to be premature on saying that. We’re hoping he’s able to play Saturday.”

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Notes from Tuesday

First, a look at tomorrow's story:

The Auburn defense carefully avoided blaming last season’s demise on its woeful offensive counterpart.

This week, though, the defense has admitted what a relief it was to see the offense produce on Saturday.

LB Craig Stevens said the second half offensive onslaught during the Tigers’ 37-13 win over Louisiana Tech helped the defense gain confidence in the offense.

“It feels good because we feel like this year we have more of an offense that can pay for us getting a stop,” Stevens said. “We feel like if we get a couple three-and-outs, the offense will be able to get the ball and just because of their pace, they’re going to wear down the other defense and they’ll be able to make them pay by putting points up on the board.

“Sooner or later, if you put enough points on the board, they’re going to get out of their gameplan and just be playing catch-up for the rest of the game.”

Auburn’s defense kept the Tigers in games most of last year. The offense simply couldn’t produce enough to close contests into narrow wins.

That wasn’t the case during the season opener. Auburn racked up 556 yards of total offense and 37 points. The Tigers also racked up 301 rushing yards.

“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen something like that for an Auburn offense,” RB Ben Tate said.


For more, read tomorrow's Anniston Star.

More notes from Tuesday:

RB Eric Smith has rejoined the team and will be in uniform for Saturday’s game against Mississippi State.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik announced Smith’s return during his weekly Tuesday press conference, though he stopped short of saying Smith would play.

“I said when the incident happened about two or three weeks ago, I said that if you see Eric Smith back in an Auburn uniform, you’ll know that he did the things that we needed him to do to become a better Auburn man,” Chizik said when asked about Smith’s status. “You’re going to see him in a uniform this week. He’s done what we asked him to do. We’re going to move on. And without me going into details, you’re going to see him back in an Auburn uniform.”

Chizik said Smith returned to practice on Monday. He added that the team is excited to have him back in uniform.

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn did not commit to playing Smith, saying “it’s hard to say right now.”

That was the first time the sophomore practiced with the team since his Aug. 21 arrest. Smith did not dress for Auburn's season opener against Louisiana Tech.

When Smith was first arrested, Chizik did not give a timetable on Smith’s return. Smith's total penalty came to 2 1/2 weeks of practice and one game.

Smith was arrested early in the morning on Aug. 21. He still faces a Class C misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge as well as a Class A misdemeanor assault charge. His court date is set for Nov. 5.

Shortly after turning himself in on the assault charge, Smith countered with a harassment charge against the plaintiff, Auburn student Decari Jenkins.

Tate said he would provide quality depth at both the running back position and the H-back spot.

“Kind of like Mario (Fannin), he adds more depth because Eric can do it all,” Tate said. “He’s probably going to help us out right away.

“It’s great to have him back and around the team. He’s one of my friends so it’s great to be back around him and see a smile back on his face.”

COMEBACK KID: OT Lee Ziemba said he saw a calmer, more confident QB Chris Todd during Saturday’s season opener.

That Auburn’s run game clicked from the start probably didn’t hurt, but Todd also knows he can make throws he couldn’t make last year.

“It was nice to be able to put the ball where I wanted to,” Todd said. “A lot of times, especially last year, I’d see stuff open but then I’d have to think or second-guess myself and maybe don’t throw it or you do throw it and it gets there late.”

Todd said it might have actually helped to go through last year because he is more conscious of what is a good throw now.

Malzahn was pleased with his quarterback’s performance.

“He made some plays for us. We ask a lot of our quarterback,” Malzahn said. “It’s not easy to play quarterback in this system until you get comfortable and you don’t get comfortable in anything other than games. I feel like he’ll improve his communication but he did make plays for us and he handled the team well in spots.”

NEED FOR SPEED: Though Malzahn said Auburn’s 79 plays were close to the number he wants to run, he was not pleased with the offensive tempo.

The first-year offensive coordinator said numerous substitutions slowed down the offense during the first week. Increasing the rate of those substitutions was one focal point of Tuesday’s practice.

Chizik said during his press conference that he wants the offense to run much faster this weekend.

“We are not anywhere close to being satisfied with the rhythm and the tempo of our offense right now,” Chizik said. “We’re not close. Again, as we said, we did some nice things, but our tempo and the pace of our offense was not one of the things that we were satisfied with. It has got to be faster.”

RB Smith returning to team

RB Eric Smith has rejoined the team and will be in uniform for Saturday's game against Mississippi State, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said during his weekly Tuesday press conference.

Chizik said Smith returned to practice on Monday. That was the first time the sophomore practiced with the team since his Aug. 21 arrest. Smith did not dress for Auburn's season opener against Louisiana Tech.

When Smith was first arrested, Chizik did not give a timetable on Smith's return. Instead, Chizik handed out an indefinite suspension. Smith's total penalty came to 2 1/2 weeks of practice and one game.

Smith was arrested early in the morning on Aug. 21. He still faces a Class C misdemeanor disorderly conduct charge as well as a Class A misdemeanor assault charge. His court date is set for Nov. 5.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A close look at the Auburn coaching contracts

Gene Chizik’s mission statement upon accepting the head coaching position at Auburn included making the program a winner again.

Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs would reward him handsomely for doing so.

Chizik’s contract, released to the media for the first time on Monday, includes several performance incentives. The first-year coach’s salary could jump from $1.9 million to upward of $3.4 million if he meets performance and academic goals.

Here's a breakdown of his $1.9 million salary:
$500,000 for base salary
$700,000 for personal endorsements
$700,000 for radio, Internet and television rights and program and personal appearances

Here are his incentives:
  • Chizik could receive as much as $75,000 for his team’s academic performance. That would require a perfect Academic Progress Rate of 1.000. He would make $25,000 for a .930 APR and $50,000 for a .950 APR. Auburn scored a .959 last season. Georgia’s score of .976 led the SEC last year.
  • If he earns 10 wins in a season - $75,000; 11 wins - $100,000; 12 wins - $125,000; 13 wins - $150,000; 14 wins - $200,000
  • If he reaches the SEC Championship Game, he receives $100,000. If he wins the game, he gets an additional $200,000.
  • Chizik gets $50,000 for any bowl appearance.
  • If Auburn is ranked in the top 5 of either the Associated Press or the Coaches' Poll, he gets $100,000.
  • If he is named the SEC Coach of the Year, by either the coaches or the AP, Chizik gets $100,000.
  • He can get $100,000 for being honored as national coach of the year as well.
  • Chizik would make $500,000 if he wins the national championship.
Here's a look at some other points in both Chizik's contract and the assistant coaches' contracts:
  • Chizik gets $500,000 per year if he is fired without cause, paid in equal monthly increments until the end of the contract or until he finds other employment. In case of his contract getting terminated, he would also be required “to use reasonable efforts to obtain other employment and/or income from third parties…”
  • In case of termination without cause, Chizik would be paid $500,000 every year until he got another job, including broadcasting or any other work. Then he would get paid $500,000 minus whatever he got paid through his new gig. The same works for all Auburn football coaches.
  • Chizik is not due to get paid if he resigns.
  • Chizik may resign for free in case of serious illness or disability, but if he resigns for any other reason, he owes Auburn $500,000 for every year remaining on his contract. His first payment would be due within 30 days of contract termination and the second would be due one year from the termination.
  • In case of physical or mental disability, the university would pay Chizik 60 percent of his base salary for the remainder of the contract.
  • Auburn loaned Chizik the $750,000 it cost for his buyout at Iowa State. Every year he’s at Auburn, $150,000 of the total sum will be forgiven from the loan. If he stays through his contract it is entirely forgiven.
  • If Chizik’s contract is terminated for cause or if he resigns prior to Dec. 31, 2013, Chizik would owe the university a pro-rated amount of the loan. He would owe 50 percent of the remaining loan within 30 days and the other 50 percent within one year.
  • If Chizik’s contract is terminated without cause, he does not owe any money on the loan. Chizik gets two new cars and Auburn pays for gas, service, maintenance and insurance.
  • His contract was finalized on June 11.
  • Discretionary bonuses available as decided by the university.
  • All coaches must notify Jacobs if they wish to speak to other schools about job openings.
  • In case of an NCAA investigation of any particular coach or the program, Auburn may withhold any payments. If it comes back that there were no violations, the coach gets the money he was owed.
  • Any coach may be fired if “he or any person under his supervision or subject to his control or authority is involved in significant or repetitive violations of NCAA regulations.”
  • Any coach may also be fired if he committed any significant or repetitive violations during a previous stint with another school.
  • There is also a personal conduct policy that specifies if any coach’s actions reflect poorly on the program or university, he may be fired.
  • Coordinators Ted Roof and Gus Malzahn both signed three-year deals.
  • Both coordinators will receive an additional $25,000 payment within 30 days of Jan. 15 every year if they are still employed by Auburn for the final game of the regular season and they do not voluntarily resign prior to Jan. 15.
  • Through a car allowance, coaches are entitled to either 5 percent of his salary or $4,000 – whichever is greater. The allowance may not surpass $16,250 per year.
  • All coaches are repaid for program-related travel expenses.
  • Auburn’s assistants are paid a total of $2.56 million.
Here's a list of the assistant coach salaries:

Roof: 3 years, $370,000 annually, signed July 21
Malzahn: 3 years, $350,000 annually, signed Aug. 26
Trooper Taylor: 3 years, $320,000 annually, signed Aug. 26
Tracy Rocker: 2 years, $300,000 annually, signed Aug. 21
Jeff Grimes: 2 years, $290,000 annually, signed Aug. 24
Curtis Luper: 2 years, $260,000 annually, signed Aug. 21
Tommy Thigpen: 2 years, $250,000 annually, signed Aug. 21
Phillip Lolley: 2 years, $210,000 annually, signed June 18
Jay Boulware: 2 years, $210,000 annually, signed Aug. 3