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.

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