Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Tuesday notebook: Auburn offense needs early spark

On the heels of three consecutive losses, Auburn C Ryan Pugh thinks the Tigers need something positive to happen early Saturday against Ole Miss.

The offense has been entirely out of sync during the three losses. Auburn hasn’t consistently strung together long drives, nor has it produced the numerous big plays it did through the first five games.

With so much talk surrounding the wounded offense, Pugh said it’s imperative to get an early spark.

“It’s something where we have to build our confidence back up, and get a big play early in
this game and get something going on offense,” Pugh said. “I think it’s something we have to have early, something that happened often in the first five games.”

In losses to LSU and Arkansas, Auburn has been outscored 44-3. The Tigers scored first during a loss to Kentucky, but their initial touchdown came on Neiko Thorpe’s 69-yard blocked field goal return.

Pugh said the team’s spirits are “down a little bit,” but reminded reporters that Auburn is 5-3 and not 3-5. That said, Auburn was 4-1 when it started its dash to mediocrity in 2008.

“We know we can play. That’s not the problem,” Pugh said. “We’ve just got to cut out the mistakes we’ve been making the past three weeks that we didn’t make the first five. The competition is getting better, so we have to play better.”

GOOD RESPONSE: After watching his team drop a 31-10 road game to LSU, Auburn coach Gene Chizik thought his team needed a day off.

So Sunday, instead of returning to the practice field, Chizik gave his team a physical break and had them work more on the mental aspects.

“I thought that the timing was really good,” Chizik said. “They were excited about really looking at the film. Their response was great, and I think that the timing was just right.”

The way Auburn’s schedule sets up, the Tigers don’t have a bye week until 12 weeks into the season. That is troublesome for a team that lacked depth in late August and certainly lacks healthy players now.

“We’ve been practicing three straight months, and we haven’t had a day off,” Chizik said. “I thought it’d be a great time to take more time on the film and the mental aspect of the game and just trying to go over in more detail just taking our time. Our practice time is short on Sunday’s anyway. So, I just thought it’d be a good time to work on our mentality – why we were good at times, why we were bad at times.”

MENTALLY TOUGH: In his one-plus years at Auburn, QB Chris Todd has walked the spectrum of fan reaction.

The message boards clamored for Kodi Burns, and not Todd, to start last year when Auburn struggled. Disgruntled fans admonished Todd as then-offensive coordinator Tony Franklin’s golden child, arguing that’s why he earned the starting spot.

Todd won the starting job again in the preseason this year and started the season with remarkable statistics. That led to a mea culpa of sorts from the message boards that now sided with Todd.

Three sub-par performances in losses later, the fans have seen enough again. Many message board posters are now clamoring to see backup Neil Caudle or one of the various freshmen alternatives, like Tyrik Rollison.

Chizik said during his Tuesday press conference that Todd is strong enough to withstand the public outcry for his benching.

“Really and truly I just think that a quarterback has to be a tough-minded person,” Chizik said. “It all comes with the territory and they all mentally have to be prepared for it. If you’re
not mentally tough enough to get through those things then more than likely you shouldn’t be a quarterback in this league. That’s just the way it is.

“It’s no different than coaching, right? You get the good and you get the bad and it all comes with the deal.”

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Sunday notebook: Chizik sticking with Todd

Here's a peek at tomorrow's story for The Anniston Star:

AUBURN – Five games into the season, Auburn’s offense averaged 41.4 points per game. That same offense has scored 47 total points during the three-game losing streak.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Sunday that he plans to look at every aspect of his team’s struggling offense this week.

One change he won’t make, he said, is the starting quarterback.

Chizik said the blame shouldn’t be directed entirely toward QB Chris Todd.

“We're not going to make a change this week,” Chizik said a day after his team’s 31-10 loss at LSU. “After going back and looking at it, obviously we would have loved for the offensive production as a whole to be better than it was.

“We still think Chris gives us the best chance to win. It's not that our offense has not done it, but we are obviously again against competition in this league that's at a higher level.”

Todd started the season red hot and was a big reason for the Tigers’ 5-0 start. Over the last three games, he has completed just 33 of 66 passes for a total of 260 yards. During those games, he has been intercepted twice and lost a pair of fumbles while failing to throw for a touchdown.

Todd said he understands the quarterback takes most of the heat after losses – especially when the offense struggles as it has recently.

“You kind of have to have that sense when you go out and practice, that you're always competing for your job,” Todd said. “You're going out there and battling every day, because that makes you better. But any time things happen, you have to be, as a quarterback, you have to take that on your shoulders and take some blame when things are going bad. When things are good you get some credit for some stuff, and when things are bad, you take that too.”

For more, pick up a Monday copy of The Star.

On to the notes...

Chizik gave his team a physical rest Sunday, a day after Auburn’s 31-10 loss to LSU.

For the first time since Labor Day weekend, the Tigers didn’t practice on Sunday. That week they practiced on Monday, something they won’t do this week.

Auburn instead opted for additional meeting time and film time.

DE Antonio Coleman said the day off from practice came as a pleasant reward for a team that has played eight consecutive weeks.

“We're beat up. We're banged up defensively,” Coleman said. “We don't have that much depth. Today helped us and tomorrow is going to help us.

“It was a good thing in the sense that we watched film, sat down and saw all the mistakes we made and how the correct those. We had a lot of time and need to watch film.”

The break came a day after Auburn’s losing streak extended to three games.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said the break from the Tigers’ weekly routine was helpful.

“I think the change of pace is always good and coach Chiz knows what he's doing and made a good decision and I think we got a lot of good work done today,” Roof said.

QUARTERBACK CLARITY: Backup QB Neil Caudle said he is “absolutely” prepared to start if called upon, but stands behind Todd despite the senior’s recent struggles.

“We’re handling it the right way. We believe in Chris. We believe he’s a good player. He’s showed that numerous times,” Caudle said. “Things aren’t clicking on offense right now but we’re going to get it fixed and we know Chris is going to do a good job for us.”

Todd threw for a season-low 47 yards Saturday against LSU.

Caudle entered the game on the final drive and led Auburn to its lone touchdown, passing for 34 yards on the way.

Even with the offense’s recent struggles, Caudle isn’t thinking about a change at the top of the depth chart.

“I don’t think about that kind of stuff,” he said. “I’m just going to go into this week like I have every other week – learn all the new stuff we’re doing and prepare mentally and physically for the game.”

Todd said Sunday night that he’s confident the offense will bounce back.

“We have a really good football team now,” he said. “The thing is when we play well, we play really well. We have to get to that.

“We've had a few weeks here where we haven't executed as well as we can and I think people see that. I think they see that we're so close on some things, but we're putting ourselves in bad situations and it's just hit-or-miss on a lot of things. I think if we get back into that and still continue to prepare like we were and get ready for each week, I think as teams are adjusting to us, we still need to adjust to that.”

TOUGH CALLS: Chizik took the high road Sunday when asked about a couple questionable calls during Saturday’s 31-10 loss to LSU.

One of those penalties, a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty against S Zac Etheridge, came after an incomplete pass on a third-and-long. The penalty gave LSU a first down and the Tigers scored on the next play.

Another questionable call came when Auburn was flagged for a defensive delay of game. Chizik didn’t explain the penalty, but said it was the first time one of his teams had been called for it.

Instead of complaining about the penalties, Chizik praised the league officials, which have drawn ire for questionable – and sometimes incorrect – calls in recent weeks.

“They're doing the best they can do,” Chizik said. “Officials do a good job and they do the best they can do.”

BATTERED: The LSU-Auburn series is known for big hits and close games.

The close game part didn’t come to fruition on Saturday, but there were certainly some big hits.
Wildcat triggerman Kodi Burns’ mouth is proof.

The junior took a big shot in the first quarter that momentarily knocked him out of the game. Chizik said Sunday that the hit knocked a couple teeth out of Burns’ mouth. He also needed stitches in his lip.

“(He) went right back in there and played the whole game – just one of those tough guys,” Chizik said. “I've got to give him a lot of credit. He went out there and continued to play for the whole three quarters.”

TURNING AROUND: Though Auburn has fallen on hard times lately, Chizik’s former team, Iowa State, is off to its best start since 2005.

That year also marked the last time the Cyclones played in a bowl game.

Former Auburn defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads led Iowa State to a 9-7 upset win at Nebraska on Saturday.

Chizik has noted his former team’s success.

“I'm really happy for them,” Chizik said. “They had a huge win yesterday and that's great. Those are great kids and they deserve some good things to happen to them for sure.”

Friday, October 23, 2009

Cleaning out the notebook: CB Adams dismissed from team

Auburn confirmed Thursday that sophomore CB Harry Adams has been dismissed from the team for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Adams' departure means the Tigers have just three cornerbacks that have played all season. With starter Walt McFadden already playing on a bad knee, that could spell trouble from a depth standpoint.

When McFadden came out of the game against Arkansas, Adams saw some playing time with the first-team defense. He has also played as a dime defensive back and had eight tackles on the season. Demond Washington has served as the team's nickelback.

With Adams gone, the Tigers will likely turn to either T'Sharvan Bell or D'Antoine Hood for depth. Both players started as cornerbacks before moving to safety. Neither has played any meaningful minutes on defense this season. Hood made his lone career start at Ole Miss last year.

Adams moved from corner to receiver during spring practice, but moved back to corner when Aairon Savage suffered an Achilles injury and three players were kicked off the team for violations of team rules. Christian Thompson, a safety, was one of the players booted from the team. That prompted Hood and Bell to move to safety permanently, and created a need at cornerback.

Adams played sparingly as a true freshman last year.

ON THE MEND: One injured Auburn player is ready to make a bigger impact, another is returning to practice and a third might not play at all this season.

WR Tim Hawthorne, who has seen limited playing time since starting the West Virginia game, is finally getting back to 100 percent, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Wednesday.

Now it’s a matter of getting him more practice time to rebuild his arsenal as a playmaking receiver.

“I think Tim's getting to the point where he's back, obviously much more healthy than he was a month ago,” Chizik said. “But again, the reps and the things need to build up. We're getting close, but he is healthy and he's one of those guys that I'm talking about that needs to help us. Not just offense but wherever on the team, special teams and things of that nature, to help us. He needs to.”

That’s the best prognosis Chizik gave on a player with a lingering injury on Wednesday.

He did, however, say that QB Barrett Trotter has returned for limited practice repetitions. Trotter has missed several months after he suffered a serious knee injury toward the end of spring practice. Before suffering the knee injury, he was in the quarterback competition with Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle.

“He's practicing some. Barrett's coming along real well,” Chizik said. “He's out there and he's running around. Again him, day-by-day with his injury is really where we're at. But he's back out there doing more than he did a month ago.”

Chizik also said Trotter is not currently game-ready – or at least that’s not the plan for him to need to be game-ready.

The news isn’t as good for S Mike McNeil.

The junior started every game last year as a sophomore, but broke his leg during a spring scrimmage. Chizik didn’t say if he has returned to practice, but he did say a redshirt is a possibility for McNeil.

“He and I have had some good conversations. We're going to play it by ear,” Chizik said. “We're going to play it week-by-week. He's not ready to play this week, obviously. And of course the hourglass has been turned over. So we're coming down into the last quarter of the season, certainly after this week. So we won't rule anything out. There's possibilities both ways.”

GOING HOME: True freshman WR DeAngelo Benton is already familiar with LSU’s Tiger Stadium even before he plays his first collegiate football game there.

That’s because Benton signed with LSU twice out of high school. Both times, however, he failed to qualify academically. After the first attempt, he went to Hargrave Military Academy. Another failed attempt later, Benton instead chose to finish his qualification back at Bastrop (La.) High School rather than going the junior college route.

Benton again leaned toward LSU throughout his recruiting process this year. During the final hours before National Signing Day, though, LSU rescinded his scholarship offer.

The next day, Benton signed with Auburn.

Now he’s preparing for his first game as a Tiger at LSU – only he will be wearing an Auburn jersey instead of donning an LSU uniform.

“I'm sure he'll be excited to go back to the state and play as anybody would be,” Chizik said. “I don't think that that's something that's got him uptight or anything of that nature.”

Receivers coach Trooper Taylor said he has seen an energized Benton this week.

“I told him if he’d been practicing like this the whole time he’d probably be starting,” Taylor said. “He is definitely excited. He has a lot of ties to a lot of guys, and plus he gets to see his family.
“The big deal is making sure he stays calm and doesn’t try to do too much or get carried away. As a coach, you have to balance those two things out. He has to understand we’re on a business trip. This is not a trip for a reunion. But he’s mature. He’s an older receiver, anyway. I think he understands that.”

REUNITED: Auburn line coach Jeff Grimes fondly remembers the days he spent working for current LSU offensive coordinator Gary Crowton.

Crowton, then the head coach at BYU, hired Grimes to work for him in 2004. However, Crowton was fired after the season.

Grimes stayed on as the offensive line coach before moving to Colorado and, eventually, Auburn.

“We worked together for a year there, his last year at BYU,” Grimes said. “Great guy. One of my favorite people in all of coaching. He was not only the head coach there, he was the offensive coordinator, so he and I worked together very closely together there for a year. Number one, a great person, great family man, just thoroughly enjoyed working for him. Still stay in touch with him. But also a great offensive mind, really knows football, knows how to attack a defense, very creative. So I'm looking forward to seeing him.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Wednesday notes: Walk-on Richardson returning to Baton Rouge

Saturday marks a homecoming of sorts for Auburn’s Ashton Richardson.

The walk-on linebacker moved to Baton Rouge, La. during high school when Hurricane Katrina displaced his family from New Orleans. The Richardson family moved in with his grandmother and subsequently moved to Tallahassee, Fla.

Richardson, and his father, Al Richardson, stayed behind for the younger Richardson to finish his high school career.

Moving to Baton Rouge was a homecoming for Al Richardson as well. The elder Richardson was an LSU great, earning all-America honors as a senior in 1982. He is the current record holder at LSU for career tackles (452) and single-game tackles (21).

Despite his football background, Al Richardson tried to persuade his son to pursue other options as a child.

“It's actually kind of funny because growing up he didn't want me to play football,” Ashton Richardson said. “He always influenced me to play other sports like baseball and basketball just because he was afraid of me being hurt.

“Once I got to high school and I showed that I wanted to play, he finally let me go out and play. He did his best to let me figure out the game on my own but at times where he felt like he'd help, he'd give me little pointers here and there. He was never just on me telling me I had to do this thing or that thing, he just kind of gave me help where he saw I needed it.”

Ashton Richardson said his father didn’t push him to attend LSU either.

Instead, the younger Richardson spent the end of his high school career looking for schools that would accept him as a walk-on.

“I actually called them ahead of time during the time I was figuring out the school I wanted to go to,” Ashton Richardson said. “I just called a bunch of different schools and it's funny because Auburn was the last school I called. I felt like they were going to give me a shot so I called them and when they gave me a good response, I decided to come and started as a student. Once I sat out a semester, I just went out and walked on.”

Richardson has only played minimally at linebacker.

However, he has factored prominently in special teams.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said players like Richardson have been crucial this season.

“He is one of six or seven guys on this team that have walked on and really helped this football team,” Chizik said. “He is a walk-on that has never asked for anything. He is out there working hard every day. He loves Auburn and going to school here. So when you have guys like Ashton step up to the plate and help you win, it is not only special for the football team but also for them. Ashton has been a huge help, but again there are six or seven guys just like him that have provided help for us, especially on special teams.”

STAYING RED: Of Auburn’s 21-man 2009 signing class that eventually enrolled in school, 15 have played this season.

The other six – QBs Tyrik Rollison and Clint Moseley, RB Dontae Aycock, OL Andre Harris, TE Robert Cooper and DL Nosa Eguae – will likely sit out the remainder of the season.

That’s Chizik’s goal anyway – as long as he can afford to keep them off the field.

“If you had a perfect world, you would go ahead and continue to redshirt them through the rest of the year,” Chizik said. “It's really hard for me to say exactly what we would do in an isolated incident. But this late in the year, if people are redshirted , typically that's what you would like to do is continue to ride the year out. But again, depending on what happens with your football team, you have to do what's best for the team.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Tuesday notebook: Todd 'is fine'

Chris Todd’s right shoulder is fine.

That’s what both Auburn coach Gene Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said Tuesday when asked about the Tigers’ starting quarterback.

Malzahn said any difference in Todd’s throws is natural at this time of the season.

“I think Chris Todd is fine,” Malzahn said. “I think any quarterback in the country, week 8, that's thrown a little bit is maybe going to be a little bit different than the first game and I think he's no different than anybody else.”

Malzahn also said Todd practiced and looked good during Tuesday’s session.

Todd has completed just 48 percent of his passes over the last two games, throwing for just 213 total yards in those games. Internet rumors questioned the status of Todd’s surgically repaired right shoulder.

NEVER AGAIN: After watching his offense’s meltdown Saturday night, Malzahn said Auburn would not have the same penalty problems it had against Kentucky.

Malzahn blamed a lack of discipline for the miscues. Auburn finished with a season-high 10 penalties during its 21-14 loss to the Wildcats.

“It's just discipline. That's all there is to it,” Malzahn said. “That starts with me. I've got to make sure that never happens again. We're going to do that. That was an undisciplined fourth quarter. We're going to do better, I'll tell you that.”

Penalties cut down a pair of promising Auburn offensive drives, including the Tigers’ final opportunity.

Auburn committed back-to-back procedure penalties after setting up for a third-and-1 late in the fourth quarter. A pair of incomplete passes from Todd effectively ended any hopes of an Auburn comeback.

“Obviously we made way too many in the fourth quarter that probably cost us the game,” Malzahn said. “We're just trying to correct that to where it will never happen again.”

SWINGING GATE: Out of a timeout on Auburn’s final drive, the Tigers lined up in a formation to run the swinging gate.

The trick play that puts all five linemen on one side of the ball has the quarterback toss the ball to a running back. The back then runs a sweep behind the linemen.

Before the play, though, Auburn was whistled for an illegal procedure. That took away the surprise element and the Tigers went to another play after the penalty created a third-and-11.

Malzahn said he was disappointed because “there’s no doubt” it would have worked.

GOING BACK: OT Lee Ziemba doesn’t need any help remembering what happened the last time Auburn played in Baton Rouge, La.

During that game, Ziemba, then a true freshman, and Chaz Ramsey were involved in a chop block that left LSU standout defensive lineman Glenn Dorsey injured.

Dorsey, who was selected fifth overall by the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2008 NFL Draft, was widely considered the SEC’s best defensive player that season.

Both players involved as well as then-coaches Tommy Tuberville and line coach Hugh Nall all said the chop block resulted from a miscommunication.

Tiger Stadium isn’t exactly known for its friendly environment and Ziemba knows he can expect hostile treatment.

Still, he isn’t wary of returning to the LSU stadium.

“I don't dread it at all. I don't dread anything going to play anywhere,” Ziemba said. “But that was a good game my freshman year. I enjoyed playing there in that big stadium as a young'un. It was unfortunate what happened, but we have a good game plan and we want to go down there and show that we're a good team and show that not only can we compete, but we can beat these guys. We know we can beat these guys. So we have to go down there and go with that kind of mindset because it's true. It's not can we win. We have to go down there expecting to win.”

Monday, October 19, 2009

Ole Miss gametime set

Auburn's Halloween contest against Ole Miss will kick off at 11:21 a.m.
The SEC Network will televise the game.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Cleaning out the notebook

Auburn announced a 12:30 kickoff time for its Nov. 7 Homecoming game against Furman.

The game will be televised on Pay-Per-View.

PHILLIPS HAS LEFT TEAM: Gene Chizik said Wednesday that OL Aubrey Phillips has left the football program and is not currently in Auburn.

Chizik wouldn’t specifically say Phillips has withdrawn from classes, but said “right now he’s not here.”

“Aubrey is dealing with some medical issues as we all know,” Chizik said. “So he's kind of working through those personal, medical-type issues that we know he's got.”

Phillips went through two practices during preseason before suffering what Chizik termed a “non-football episode of some things medically that we’re pressing through.”

The Olive Branch, Miss. native did not return to practice after the incident.

Initially, Phillips signed with Florida State out of high school. During summer workouts, though, he had a falling out with FSU offensive line coach Rick Trickett.

The Seminoles subsequently released Phillips from his scholarship in late July, allowing him to transfer to Auburn. Chizik said after Phillips arrived on campus that the university would attempt to get a waiver to allow Phillips eligibility to play immediately instead of sitting out because of NCAA transfer rules.

Chizik never said if the NCAA granted the request.

Though Phillips is not currently with the team, Chizik did not close the door on a potential return.

“It's kind of a day by day situation just medically again the issues that he's got to work through,” Chizik said. “As we know that's kind of been the situation since almost the first day of practice. We'll play that by ear.”

REFOCUSED: Several players and coaches pinned last week’s loss to Arkansas on a lack of focus.

That, Chizik said, has not been the case this week.

“Really, really proud of our focus. I think guys kind of got re-tracked or refocused back in on what we needed to,” Chizik said. “We've had two good days of practice. I thought they were a little more physical than they have been in the past. So that was good to see. Obviously, we have another day of practice tomorrow where we need to continue and have some consistency in the way we're preparing but I fully expect that to happen.”

Chizik said he has also made some minor changes to practice.

The biggest difference has been an increase in physicality.

“We had to roll the dice a little bit,” Chizik said. “We had to up the tempo some and do a little less scout team stuff and a little more against each other. Just got to kind of bring that physical nature back to what we're doing. I feel like we weren't as physical of a football team that we needed to be this past Saturday, but again we're trying to be smart with the issues that we know depth-wise but again trying to get some fastball looks out there.”

Chizik also said LB Eltoro Freeman returned to practice, but added he’s still not committed to the sophomore playing Saturday.

Chizik said Freeman did not travel with the team to Arkansas because of personal issues.

SMALL CHANGES: Chizik said Sunday that Auburn needs to different answers in special teams.

He reconfirmed that there would be some changes this week, whether in personnel or scheme.
Special teams coach Jay Boulware said he isn’t sure what changes there are to make.

“There might be a few minor changes, but nothing significant,” Boulware said. “If we had
somewhere to go, we would have already done it. We’re just going to tie a knot at the end of the rope and hold on.”

Auburn had another rough day in special teams – especially in kickoff coverage.

Arkansas’ Dennis Johnson busted returns of 50 and 70 yards against the Tigers. The last of the long returns put the Razorbacks in position to put Auburn away in the fourth quarter.

“The thing that stood out to us the most was that we didn’t have anybody make a play,” Boulware said. “We forced them to change directions three or four times, but nobody wanted to go get him. Everybody was kind of passive.

“Coach Chizik brought to my attention: `I think we had five walk-ons out there, J.B.’ I thought about it, `We had five walk-ons out there?’ I looked back on the list and it was actually seven. We didn’t make a play. We have to make a play. We have to teach our guys to make a play.”

DOUBLE-TEAMED: When the season started, one of the questions was which receivers would emerge for Auburn.

QB Chris Todd quickly took notice that WRs Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery could be those players. So, too, did opposing defenses.

As a result, opponents have focused more attention on the two primary Auburn receivers – especially Adams.

“They know where he's at. Let’s put it that way,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “We like to think that we're an offense that tries to take what they can give you. Sometimes they take away certain things and what we've got to do a better job of is taking better advantage of what they give us. Darvin and T-Zach have both had very solid seasons and have performed well for us. And so that has a lot to do with it.”

Adams has been Todd’s favorite target. He has 25 catches for 387 yards and five touchdowns.
Zachery has been the big-play threat. He has 15 receptions that have gone for 329 yards. He also has four touchdowns, including a 93-yarder in the season opener against Louisiana Tech.
However, only four other receivers have any catches. Walk-on Jay Wisner leads that group with three receptions.

“The longer you go the more you have to have a third guy or even a fourth guy – some guys to get involved and take some pressure off our main guys,” Malzahn said. “We're working hard to do that and we're hoping we have some guys in the wings that can do that.”

True freshmen DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake were believed to be in the mix to be players who stepped up. However, Benton has struggled this season and has yet to record a catch. Blake rarely takes offensive snaps.

Tim Hawthorne enjoyed a spring that impressed receivers coach Trooper Taylor, but he hasn’t seen extensive playing time since returning from a broken foot.

One answer could be Philip Pierre-Louis, who Chizik held out for the first four games for unexplained reasons. Pierre-Louis missed the first two weeks of preseason camp. Taylor said he was working on personal issues.

Though Pierre-Louis came back as a punt returner against Tennessee, Chizik said after the game that he was not practicing with the offense.

Taylor said Thursday that Pierre-Louis has begun working as a receiver – his natural position – and could start seeing snaps on offense.

“He was playing the 3 position, the bubble guy, the reverse guy, that sort of stuff,” Taylor said. “He's got a knack for finding little holes in the defense and setting it down. You could see him also out wide as a 2.

“He's done that and he's earned that.”

BYE THE WAY: With depth a consistent concern for Auburn, the Tigers find themselves entering the midway point desperately in need of a break that isn’t coming soon.

Auburn’s schedule is set up for a Week 12 bye, giving the Tigers a week off only before the Alabama game.

Six games into the season, that has become a concern for Chizik.

“No question. We’re racking our brains day and night trying to figure out how to keep our guys,” Chizik said. “It’s a new guy or two every week, and right now we’re in a very physical place in our schedule, with six games to go. We’re trying to work our way through, and have got to.”

Chizik often ducks controversial topics. That didn’t change when he was asked if he would like the bye to be earlier in the season.

“There are pros and cons to all of it. If you are sitting here and have three recruiting classes under our belt and feel like our scholarship numbers are where they need to be and things of that nature, then on later in the season doesn’t necessarily mean what it does right now,” Chizik said. “I don’t know. It depends on how I feel about my team. I think there are good things about having one in the middle of the season, and good things about having one at the end.

“I guess that’s a roundabout way of saying I’m not going to answer that question.”

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Tuesday notebook

The highly anticipated meeting between Auburn coach Gene Chizik and DE Antonio Coleman has apparently reached an anticlimactic conclusion.

Chizik confirmed during his weekly Tuesday press conference that the two, indeed, met. They spoke mostly about Coleman’s role, which has produced zero tackles in the last two games.

Coleman, an all-SEC player before the season started, has been hampered by a wrist injury that has required a cast. He said a knee has also bothered him.

“Him and I had a great conversation the other day just about him personally, production, and things of that nature,” Chizik said. “I am really proud of him for playing through all of the issues that he has had to play through. He has had to play with that cast on his hand, and that limits what he can do with his thumb, and for a defensive lineman, that’s something you need to have.”

Neither Coleman nor Chizik went into the specifics of what they discussed. However, Coleman said he was pleased with the sit down.

“It went great. I went up and talked about the defense,” Coleman said. “He’s a very understanding guy. We sat down, had words, nothing serious. It was a great chat. I chatted with him about all the small things that caused us to lose, the things we have to correct.”

Coleman didn’t say what those “small things” were.

Chizik also defended what appears to be Coleman’s lack of production.

“He is doing what we are asking him to do within the defense,” Chizik said. “Don’t look or read into whether he had a sack or he didn’t. We have to play within the structure of the defense and that’s what we tell the guys and he is doing what we are asking him to do and he has been the ultimate teammate.”

STATUS UPDATES: CB Walt McFadden is awaiting medical examinations that will likely determine whether he will play Saturday against Kentucky.

The senior injured his right knee during his second-quarter interception during Saturday’s loss to Arkansas. He limped off the field and did not return to the game.

“I’m going to get it cleared up by Wednesday hopefully,” McFadden said. “I’m trying to run on my own, trying to do a couple of things, but I really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Chizik said Tuesday that it might be a game time decision and “our hopes are he’ll play.”

LB Eltoro Freeman is also in the day-to-day category, but not for injury reasons. He did not travel with the team to Arkansas last week. Chizik said he stayed behind for personal reasons.
Chizik would not say if Freeman had returned to practice, only offering that the JUCO transfer is “still working through personal issues – we are.”

Freeman was not made available to the media on Tuesday.

NEW WILDCAT: Since Wildcat triggerman Kodi Burns got hurt during Auburn’s win over Ball State, the Tigers have largely gone away from the formation.

That move has surprised RB Onterio McCalebb, who often motions behind the triggerman as the option back in the backfield. He does think Auburn will return to the package against Kentucky.

McCalebb also said that if Burns couldn’t play, the Tigers would likely turn to H-back Mario Fannin.

“Mario backs him up some of the plays in the Wildcat,” McCalebb said. “This Saturday, we’re going to be at full speed. Everybody’s going to be healthy and ready to go.”

GAMETIME DECISION: Kentucky coach Rich Brooks decided he wouldn’t make an announcement on who will start at quarterback until the Wildcats first take the field against Auburn on Saturday.

Starter Mike Hartline sustained an MCL injury last week against South Carolina and will not play this week. Brooks will turn to either junior Will Fidler or true freshman Morgan Newton.

Brooks also elected against making either candidate available to the media.

“Because I don’t think they need the distraction of all the stuff that’s going on,” Brooks said to Kentucky reporters on Tuesday. “Besides, that gives you (media) guys more stuff to write about and have fun with and do your polls on who should start. This is more fun for you than if I say ‘So-and-so is starting.’ I’m giving you some cannon fodder.”

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday notebook

Against Tennessee, Auburn seemed to take a step forward in special teams play. Saturday, the Tigers took several steps back, especially on kickoff coverage.

Arkansas returner Dennis Johnson returned three kicks for 145 yards – an average of 48 yards per try. The total included returns of 50 and 70 yards.

“The 70-yard one, the long one that put us in a bind when we were trying to come back, that was missed tackles,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. “You’ve got three or four guys sitting there.”

Special teams coach Jay Boulware said a couple weeks ago part of the problem is personnel. Auburn tries to spare its starters from the extra snaps because of the depth concerns at numerous positions.

Chizik agreed that has become an issue on special teams.

“This is where we’re starting to see our depth issues creep up on us,” Chizik said. “You want your best guys on those cover teams and there’s no question about it, but where we are right now, we’ve got some starters on it and some that aren’t on it. The bottom line is at some positions if we lose that starter, there’s such a drop-off to the next guy that we’re playing a lot of young guys.

“We’re going to have to have some different answers.”

COMING ALONG: CB Walt McFadden’s status was no clearer Sunday than it was when he checked out of Saturday’s game with a leg injury.

The senior hobbled to the sideline and directly to the trainer’s table after intercepting a second-quarter pass. He did not return, but watched the game from the sideline.

Chizik offered only his generic “day by day” prognosis when asked about McFadden’s injury and likelihood of playing Saturday against Kentucky.

If McFadden can’t play, CB Demond Washington is a potential replacement. The junior college transfer split series with Harry Adams after McFadden left the game.

Sunday, Chizik gave Adams less than stellar marks, saying he played “average at best.”

He did think Washington played well in McFadden’s absence.

“Demond’s got a chance to be a really good football player here the more he plays at this level,” Chizik said. “I think he’s going to be – he’s going to get better and better every week. Really and truly, to this point, he has gotten better every week.”

BLUE BLOOD: QB Chris Todd was a Kentucky fan growing up in the Bluegrass State.

The Auburn starter will get his first chance to play against the Wildcats Saturday.

“Most of the games we went to in college were Kentucky,” Todd said. “I watched them a lot when Hal Mumme was there and Tim Couch played for them. I remember growing up watching a lot of Kentucky football.”

Todd said he would also see several acquaintances when the two teams square off.

“I’ve got some buddies who play for Kentucky,” he said. “Some guys I played high-school ball with, some guys who played for rival schools. It’s always fun to go back and play against them.”

SO HART-LESS: When Auburn faces Kentucky on Saturday, the Wildcats will almost certainly be breaking in a new quarterback.

Starter Mike Hartline suffered what the Associated Press reported as “a severe MCL injury” Saturday against South Carolina. Kentucky coach Rich Brooks said in various reports Sunday that he doesn’t think Hartline’s situation is good news.

With Hartline likely to sit out this week, Kentucky will turn to either junior Will Fidler or true freshman Morgan Newton. So far Newton has not played this season. He would burn his redshirt to play.

Star WR Randall Cobb could also see extensive time as a triggerman from the Wildcat formation.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Looking back on Auburn's 44-23 loss to Arkansas

All year, Auburn has asked – neigh – begged for respect. The Tigers finally got some this week and the players said all the right things. It didn’t matter to them. The only time rankings matter is after the season. They want to be ranked higher. Perhaps not coincidentally, the first time Auburn got any love from the national media, it played its worst game of the season. Think that’s a coincidence? How about this? “As a whole, I don't think our week of practice was as good as it should have been,” QB Chris Todd said. “It starts with practice. Coach got on us a little bit the way we practiced this week and it showed in the game,” RB Ben Tate said. Sounds like it might not have been a good week.

The Auburn passing game has work to do. The Razorbacks dared Todd to beat them. He couldn’t. They took away Auburn’s screens and flat passes for the majority of the game and basically said Todd had to beat them vertically. The incomplete pass intended for WR Terrell Zachery was a microcosm for the game because of the missed opportunities. It also provided a blueprint for opponents – know that Auburn will take its shots down the field, but take your chances.

This Auburn defense is in trouble. There’s no denying that Arkansas runs a good offense, but Alabama held the Razorbacks to just seven points. Arkansas did whatever it wanted to offensively against Auburn. RB Michael Smith averaged 8.1 yards per carry, going for 145 yards and a touch. QB Ryan Mallett torched the Auburn secondary on virtually every play but CB Walt McFadden’s spectacular interception. The Tigers managed a meager pass rush – when it provided a pass rush. If McFadden is out for any amount of time, that secondary is in trouble.

Yet again, special teams miscues spelled trouble for Auburn. This time, they added to an already lackluster performance. Dennis Johnson broke kickoff returns for 50 and 70 yards – the latter of which helped the Razorbacks ice the game. Mario Fannin also lost a fumble on a kickoff return. Arkansas scored three plays later.

QB Ryan Mallett
This could have gone to Mallett or Smith. I gave the nod to Mallett because of the big chunks of yardage he gave the Razorbacks simply by putting the ball in exactly the right spots. He finished 24-of-37 passing for 274 yards and two touchdowns. His best play probably came on the deep pass down the sideline to WR Greg Childs, which went for 38 yards.

RB Ben Tate
In posting his fourth 100-yards game of the season, Tate set a career high with 184 rushing yards. He also scored a pair of touchdowns. Tate already has more rushing yards (766) and rushing touchdowns (4) than he had all last season and has established himself as a candidate for some preseason accolades.

Johnson’s 70-yard kickoff return set the Razorbacks up for a touchdown. Not only did Arkansas score to basically put the game away, but it came on the heels of Auburn’s 20 unanswered third-quarter points. The return changed momentum for the final time on Saturday.

Where is the pass rush? DE Antonio Coleman said he thought the Tigers rushed well at times. Probably so, but this “attacking” defense has struggled in sacking the quarterback of late. Tennessee and Arkansas both passed more than 35 times. Auburn had one sack to show for all those passes. When the front four proved it couldn’t get to the quarterback, where were the blitzes? Auburn’s secondary was obviously overmatched on Saturday and isn’t good enough to defend elite receivers for long periods of time. It needs help from the pass rush, which has been difficult to locate in the last two games.

Where were all the running plays in the first half? They seemed to work pretty well in the third quarter. Arkansas does have a decent run defense, but Auburn seemingly tried to pass too much during the first half.

How will Auburn bounce back from its first loss of the season? Gene Chizik seems to think the Tigers will be fine. The schedule sets up well because they now have a home game against an average Kentucky team.

RB Michael Smith – Not only did Smith gain 145 yards and averaged 8.1 yards per carry, he also helped the Razorbacks hold onto the football for an amazing 38:27. He only had 180 rushing yards coming into the game, but nearly doubled that number despite sitting out the entire fourth quarter with an apparent hamstring injury.

LB Jerico Nelson – The Arkansas linebacker finished with 10 tackles, a sack, three tackles for loss and a forced fumble.

LB Craig Stevens – This is almost entirely because I felt like being nice to Auburn. He led the team with 12 tackles. It’s difficult to justify anyone other than Tate getting a helmet sticker, but Tate already got the game ball. If I overlooked someone, let me know.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Wednesday notebook

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn prefers to maintain a breakneck pace.

That said, he actually enjoys it when opposing defenses call timeouts to slow down his attack.

“It’s good to see our hard work, we really strained our guys, we tried to get them in no-huddle shape, and then when we upped the tempo it was nice that they had to use a timeout in the middle of the game,” Malzahn said. “I know our guys really felt good about that.

“They feed off it. The thing is we strained them and we pushed our kids in that area. We’d like to think we’re in a different kind of shape then a lot of people. So when tat hard work pays off it’s a good feeling for players and it’s also a good feeling for coaches to see the hard work pay off too.”

During the second quarter against Tennessee, the Volunteers were forced to call a timeout to regroup after Auburn moved the ball 66 yards from its own 13-yard line.

RB Ben Tate scored from 12 yards out two plays after the timeout.

“It meant a lot to us. It kind of signified that we’re doing our job as far as pacing, and that’s something that we feel is going to be a great advantage for our offense,” H-back Mario Fannin said. “Coach Malzahn harps on it during practice and it pays off.”

BULLETIN BOARD MATERIAL: Former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville always made sure to offer his opponents respect in the days leading up to games.

Now that he’s a football analyst instead of a coach, however, he doesn’t worry about shying away from his opinions.

Tuberville said Wednesday on Birmingham sports talk radio station WJOX that he expects Auburn to win by three touchdowns.

Arkansas can’t stop a cold but they’ll try to score some points,” Tuberville said. “They’re not real good. They can score on you. They can’t play defense.”

The two coaches squaring off in Saturday’s game – Auburn’s Gene Chizik and Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino – both coached under Tuberville as coordinators in 2002.

Petrino was also involved in Jetgate, when Auburn attempted to oust Tuberville in favor of the then-Louisville coach.

CELEBRATE QUIETLY: The SEC announced this week that officials made the wrong decision when they penalized A.J. Green for an unsportsmanlike penalty in the closing minutes of Saturday’s LSU-Georgia game.

Partially because of a 15-yard penalty enforced on the kickoff, LSU got a long return. The Tigers scored a few plays later to sneak out of Athens, Ga. with the win.

Chizik didn’t weigh in on whether the call was appropriate or not, saying simply the rule is left to the officials’ discretion.

Instead, he hopes his players don’t put the team in a situation to be penalized.

“It kind of goes back to the team concept,” Chizik said. “If you’re going to celebrate, make sure you celebrate with your teammates and hand the ball to the official. We try to, every day, impart that on our guys but sometimes the excitement of the moment can get you. They have to be very cognizant of that rule.”

DEPTH CONCERNS: Even before the season started, Chizik was concerned about the depth situation at linebacker.

Now he finds himself down a pair of scholarship linebackers – Spencer Pybus and Harris Gaston.

For Pybus, who has struggled while attempting to come back from a concussion, there is no timetable on his return.

“There are some medical issues, obviously,” Chizik said. “We’ve had some in-depth talks and I won’t go into the details about it at this point but the medical issues are still out there.”

Chizik also said Pybus is “more than likely” out for the remainder of the season.

Gaston has played in four games this year but missed Saturday’s game with an undisclosed injury.

“Harris is going to be kind of a day-by-day thing,” Chizik said. “We’re just going to have to kind of play that one by ear. That one could go either way. He’s not going to play this week. We’ll see what happens once the weeks go on.”

Tuesday notebook

Over his first three years at Auburn, Bart Eddins had futilely attempted to overcome knee injuries.

He had undergone three knee surgeries going into the season, trying to work through what surgeon James Andrews called “a weird knee.”

Saturday at Tennessee, Eddins got his first start, subbing for suspended RG Byron Isom.

“I thought my run game was pretty good,” Eddins said Sunday. “There’s always stuff you can work on, the little detail things. Pass game – I’d say pass and run were average. I need to work on some smaller things. I’d say around a C.”

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Sunday he was “really proud” of Eddins’ performance.

“He came in there and played and just really proud that he was able to step up and help our football team win and that's what he did,” Chizik said.

It’s not yet clear whether Eddins will start Saturday when No. 17 Auburn plays at Arkansas.

Eddins started the most recent game, but true freshman John Sullen started the previous game, against Ball State.

There’s also a possibility Isom could return for the game. Chizik has remained mum on Isom’s suspension, leaving it as an undefined length.

TE Tommy Trott said Tuesday he wasn’t sure what he was allowed to say about the practice situation and who got the majority of first-team snaps.

LOOKING FOR MORE: Auburn had to settle for field goals instead of touchdowns three times inside the red zone last week against Tennessee.

On two of those chances, the Tigers offense stalled inside the UT 5-yard line.

That, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said, has been addressed early during Auburn’s practice week.

“I think it’s what you focus on and we need to work that much harder,” Malzahn said. “We had a couple opportunities and we’re very fortunate our defense was playing extremely well. We’ve got to find a way to score touchdowns. It was great to get some points, our kicker did a wonderful job, but as an offense we’ve got to find a way to score touchdowns when our defense gives us opportunities.”

Though Auburn settled for field goals three times inside the red zone, it still scored on all five possessions inside the UT 20. The Tigers are also tied for 10th in the nation with their 95 percent red-zone success rate. Last year Auburn finished last in the nation, scoring on just 57 percent of its red-zone chances.

GEARING UP: The Auburn secondary knows it will have its hands full Saturday against Ryan Mallett and the Arkansas offense.

The pass rush views the contest equally as challenging. DE Michael Goggans said Tuesday that the defensive line’s ability to put pressure on Mallett could determine the defense’s success.

“It’s going to be very crucial,” Goggans said. “We’re just going to have to get a lot of pressure to keep the DBs safe back there. We can’t just let them have every day to throw. He’s got a good arm and we can’t just leave our DBs out to dry. So pass rush is going to be a big key.”

Goggans also said he thought the pass rush played well last week despite failing to sack UT QB Jonathan Crompton on his 43 pass attempts. The Tigers did get five quarterback pressures, but will need a much stronger effort to keep the Razorbacks offense honest.

JUST SCORE ALREADY: Most tailbacks pride themselves on moving the chains and slowly winding the clock.

Not Auburn’s Ben Tate.

The senior wants to maintain the breakneck pace Malzahn prefers regardless of what it does to time of possession.

“I don’t think all that really matters as long as you’re scoring points,” Tate said. “Time of possession doesn’t really matter. The only time it really matters is when it comes down to the game and you’re trying to seal the game. When you have four minutes left, what we call our prime time, when there’s four minutes left in the game and you’re trying to hold onto the ball and just get first downs.”

Tate rushed for 128 yards and a touchdown during Auburn’s 26-22 win over Tennessee last Saturday. His effort helped the Tigers own a nearly 10-minute advantage in time of possession.

Monday, October 5, 2009

SEC honors Byrum, McCalebb

Two days after No. 17 Auburn earned its first road win of the season, the SEC honored a pair of Tigers players.

The league named K Wes Byrum the SEC Special Teams Player of the Week. The junior made 4 of 5 field goals, missing only from 46 yards. He has now made 10 of 11 kicks this year.

RB Onterio McCalebb nabbed SEC Freshman of the Week honors after compiling 204 yards of total offense. McCalebb finished with 51 rushing yards, 59 receiving yards and 91 kickoff return yards on two tries. It marked the second time this season McCalebb brought home the award.

GAMETIME ANNOUNCED: Auburn’s next home game – an Oct. 17 tilt against Kentucky – will be televised at 6:30 p.m. on ESPNU.

It will mark the second time this season the Tigers have played during ESPNU’s 6:30 timeslot – the other time coming during the season opener against Louisiana Tech.

The game will be the first match-up between Auburn and Kentucky since 2005, when the Tigers won 49-27 in Lexington, Ky.

TROTTING ON THE ROAD: Despite a knee injury that could keep him sidelined throughout the year, QB Barrett Trotter traveled with Auburn on Saturday.

By SEC rules, only 70 players may travel with the team. Trotter couldn’t have played on Saturday, but Auburn coach Gene Chizik thought it important to bring the redshirt freshman for the trip.

“Barrett has been great because he’s been able to sit in on all the quarterback meetings and really soak up the offense,” Chizik said. “He’s on the road for that reason. We want to keep him around the offense. And he does some things with some signaling sometimes with him and three or four others. That’s his role.”

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sunday notes

For the first time this season, Auburn went an entire game without any fumbles or muffs in its punt return game.

Redshirt freshman Philip Pierre-Louis handled the return duties after Anthony Gulley got banged up while covering a kickoff.

Though Pierre-Louis capably filled the role, Auburn coach Gene Chizik did not commit to using him in that capacity next week.

“Philip went in there and alls we asked was just let us keep the ball – just don’t turn the ball over,” Chizik said. “Then he started feeling a little bit comfortable enough to take them and get some return mileage out of them as well, so that was good to see.

“We’re going to work again this week and we’re going to see where we are with that.”

Pierre-Louis missed the first two weeks of preseason camp. Receivers coach Trooper Taylor said he spent the time at home, trying to work through personal problems. The former receiver had not been on the sideline for any of the previous four games.

Pierre-Louis tore his ACL on the opening kickoff in 2008 and was granted a medical redshirt. Chizik said Sunday that his knee seems to be healthy, adding, “that really hasn’t been his issue.”

Chizik has not commented on why Pierre-Louis missed the first two weeks of preseason camp, nor did he address why Pierre-Louis wasn’t on the sideline through the first four games.

There doesn’t seem to be an immediate return to receiver in Pierre-Louis’ future either.

“Philip is going to continue to work with us as a punt returner,” Chizik said. “Right now, we’ve thrown that around. At this point he hasn’t worked any offensive things.”

GAMETIME SET: ESPN announced Sunday that it would televise Saturday’s Auburn-Arkansas game.

The game kicks off Saturday at 11 a.m. at Reynolds Razorback Stadium. It will mark Auburn's earliest kickoff since the 2007 Cotton Bowl.

The gametime was set late because CBS exercised its 6-day option to choose its game of the week. The network ultimately selected the Alabama-Ole Miss game.

LINEMEN’S REWARD: RB Ben Tate enjoyed a 128-yard, one-touchdown performance Saturday night against Tennessee.

To celebrate the performance, the senior said Sunday he plans to treat his starting offensive line and FB Eric Smith.

“For those guys’ efforts this week I’m taking them all out to eat tomorrow,” Tate said. “I’ll probably take them to Golden Corral, something like that.”

Tate joked he had to take them to a buffet-style restaurant because “they all like to eat… that’s too much money.”

The senior tailback said he has set benchmarks before for specific games previously, but had not yet reached the goal to treat his linemen. This time, his line helped him reach the milestone – “about the 130 mark” – and Tate said he was happy to live up to his part of the bargain.

SORTING IT OUT: Weak-side LBs Eltoro Freeman and Adam Herring have split reps throughout the 2009 season thus far.

Saturday night, Herring took on an extended role during the second half against Tennessee.

“We just really look and see basically how they’re fitting in the defense and how they’re adjusting to certain things,” Chizik said. “Are there a lot of new things in the offense that we weren’t expecting? Are there a lot of the same of what we practiced?”

Freeman watched most of the second half from the sideline. He also didn’t join several defensive powwows on the sideline after the unit came off the field.

The junior college transfer has started the last three games, but hasn’t played as much as starting LBs Craig Stevens or Josh Bynes.

“I don’t know if I want to get into what’s holding kids back, but he just needs to keep working,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “It’s a tough position, and because of the depth situation, there is no learning curve, or time for you to season. You’ve got to come play. So, we’ll just keep working him and I’m sure things will work out.”

Looking back on Auburn's 26-22 win over Tennessee

Another asterisk can be erased from the Auburn resume. Yes, the Tigers started 4-0 and beat a decent team in West Virginia. However, they had yet to beat an opponent away from Jordan-Hare Stadium. By the way, Auburn coach Gene Chizik had never won a road game as a head coach. Auburn’s 26-22 win over Tennessee won’t soon be remembered as a masterpiece, but it did show the Tigers can go into a place like Neyland Stadium and win. Tennessee might not be a great team – rather it proved to have numerous and obvious flaws on Saturday. Still, an SEC road win is impressive -- especially in the league's biggest stadium.

Auburn will find ways to score points even against the best defenses. The 26 points scored are easily the lowest output of the season, but against what was easily the best defense the Tigers have faced to date. Despite all its flaws, Tennessee still fields a championship-caliber defense. There isn’t a better defensive player in the SEC – and possibly in the nation – than UT S Eric Berry. Auburn still could have easily scored more than 26 points if a couple different breaks went its way or if the defense needed additional scores.

The Auburn secondary, meanwhile, could be in trouble. Giving up 181 yards and two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to UT QB Jonathan Crompton does not bode well for a unit preparing to face Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett. Crompton is almost certainly among the two worst starting quarterbacks in the conference. Mallett, in contrast, is one of the conference’s best drop-back passers.

Lastly, Philip Pierre-Louis didn’t do much in his season debut. He did, however, add some stability to the punt return game. If he can just catch the ball regularly, it would be a significant boost to the unit. If he can also make something happen in the game, he could be a crucial part of the team.

RB Ben Tate
The senior tailback did a little bit of everything on the ground Saturday night. He reversed field for a decent gain on one play. On another, he juked defenders on the way to the end zone. Then there was also the play where he trucked Berry. Tate finished with 128 yards and a touchdown on 25 rushes and helped Auburn own a nearly 10-minute advantage in time of possession.

K Wes Byrum connected on his 21-yard chip-shot field goal. The kick bumped Auburn’s lead back to 10 points and capped a nine-play drive that lasted 3:32, leaving Tennessee with just 34 seconds. Byrum finished with four field goals. He did miss one, ending his perfect season, but is now 11 of 12 on the year.

All year, Auburn has faced teams that predominantly have wanted to run the football or mix it up. Next week against Arkansas will be the first time the Tigers have opposed a pass-happy team interested primarily in passing the ball. How will the secondary fare in its first real test? The X-factor could be the defensive pass rush. Auburn got to Crompton several times last night, but never in time to drop him for a sack. This is especially a challenge for DE Antonio Coleman, who failed to register a tackle last night. He finished with just one quarterback hurry to his credit. Getting to Mallett will be imperative.

Though the special teams were largely good on Saturday, the kickoff coverage still seems a weak spot. A few Tennessee returns seemed one block away from a touchdown.

Just because Tennessee’s defense was easily the best Auburn has face this year, the question will be asked if this team will settle for field goals instead of scoring touchdowns against elite units. To that, I would say the UT defense is probably among the two or three best Auburn will face all season – possibly behind only Alabama. That Auburn managed 26 points and had a chance for significantly more, I think, bodes well for the Tigers in the long run.

RB Onterio McCalebb – Though McCalebb rushed for just 51 yards on 13 carries, McCalebb finished with 204 all-purpose yards. He had a few big receptions and also turned in a critical 52-yard kickoff return that set up Auburn’s game-clinching field goal.

QB Chris Todd – He didn’t finish with the sexy stat lines he enjoyed over the past two games, but he managed the game well and made wise decisions. Todd also bought himself additional time by scrambling away from defenders. He finished with 218 passing yards and a touchdown pass to WR Terrell Zachery.

LBs Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes – Stevens led the team with 11 tackles, including one for a loss. He also had a pass breakup and a quarterback hurry. Bynes added nine additional tackles, a pair of pass breakups and a quarterback hurry. He also recovered a fumble that set up Auburn’s second field goal.

Auburn shoots into the polls; Arkansas gametime set

On the heels of Auburn's 26-22 road win over Tennessee, the Tigers find themselves ranked for the first time all season.

Auburn is ranked 17th in the Associated Press poll and 19th in the coaches' poll.

ESPN also announced that it would televise next week's Auburn-Arkansas game in Fayetteville, Ark. Kickoff is set for 11 a.m.

More to come from last night's game later, including the game ball and helmet stickers.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Clearing out the notebook: Early edition

When Auburn’s players get off the bus Saturday in Knoxville, Tenn., they won’t go through their customary Tiger Walk.

Tennessee canceled the pre-game event earlier this week as a safety precaution.

The Opelika-Auburn News, citing an e-mail it obtained, reported Tennessee assistant athletic director for public relations Tiffany Carpenter said Tiger Walk could still be an unofficial event.

“The area where the visiting teams drops off is on a hill in a very tight space (by Gate 10),” Carpenter said. “In 2004 when the Tigers played here, we had approximately 5,000 fans show up with the band and the cheerleaders, which was a great atmosphere but a huge safety issue for the student-athletes, band, cheerleaders and fans because of the tight space. If something had happened to a fan in that area, EMT would not have been able to respond because of the crowd size.

“Auburn fans can still come greet the team as they get off the bus, we have just requested that the band and cheerleaders not set up because it does create a safety issue.”

Auburn released a statement Wednesday evening confirming Carpenter’s e-mail.

“Officials at the University of Tennessee have informed Auburn athletics that Tiger fans will be allowed to greet the team as they get off the bus, but that the band and cheerleaders may no participate because of safety and crowding concerns in the visiting team drop-off area, which is on a hill in a very tight space,” the statement said.

GRAN STANDING: CB Walt McFadden said he looks forward to Saturday’s game at Tennessee partially because he will see Eddie Gran, Auburn’s former running backs coach.

Gran recruited McFadden to Auburn. Now McFadden is using the former Auburn coach as motivation.

“He’s the guy we want to show up and play against because we know how he used to use other people and teams and talk about them when he was here with us,” McFadden said. “We know he’s saying the same thing about us.

“We can see him now saying ‘These guys are sorry. These guys can’'t do it. These guys are going to give up.’ That’s just motivation for us, so we know our old coach and how he acts on game week. He doesn’t mean any harm by it, that’s just him motivating his team.”

NEW COMMIT: DE Craig Sanders, a defensive end from Ariton High School, committed to Auburn on Wednesday night, AuburnSports.com first reported.

Sanders previously committed to Alabama, but decommitted Wednesday before announcing Auburn as his new choice.

Rivals.com ranks Sanders as a four-star recruit and the No. 7 recruit in Alabama.

SPECIAL EFFORT: Special teams play took a turn toward the comically bad for Auburn during last week’s 54-30 win over Ball State.

Among the lowlights were a muffed punt recovered by Ball State, a fumbled punt the Tigers recovered, a failed punt that left RB Onterio McCalebb injured, a delay of game penalty while the punt team tried to confuse the defense with shifts, a kickoff out of bounds and a penalty on a punt return. The Tigers did improve on their kickoff coverage, but are still ranked 85th in the nation.

However, special teams coach Jay Boulware did not seem upset with his groups on Wednesday.

“I call them ‘the others’ – the other guys that nobody really knows on this football team and they’re allowing our team to stay fresh,” Boulware said. “They’re allowing us an opportunity to rest a Josh Bynes, a Craig Stevens, a Neiko Thorpe. On a thin football team, they’re allowing us to play guys that haven’t had any snaps in college football until this year.

“I preach to them all the time: ‘With you guys out there, that allows our team to stay fresh.’ We’re not deep. That’s been our Achilles heel all along.”

Boulware said he is pleased with the effort players are giving on special teams. Now he wants to see an improvement in their overall production.

The punt return unit has been especially troubling. Auburn has so far tried three different returners this season – Mario Fannin, Demond Washington and Anthony Gulley.

All three were fired after either muffing punts or fumbling on returns.

Auburn coach Gene Chizik said the coaching staff would again revisit the situation this week. A few different names – like McCalebb and RB Eric Smith – have cropped up for the first time.

“Those guys have either got it or they don’t, in my opinion, and I haven’t seen anybody who’s got it as of yet, so we’ll see,” Boulware said.

Boulware would not confirm that he would start a new punt returner Saturday against Tennessee, but seemed to lean in that direction.

Though Boulware wants to see marked improvement, he thinks it’s a positive that the group has yet to make a mistake that crippled the team.

“They haven’t killed us yet,” Boulware said. “They haven’t done anything that’s helped us win a game, per se, but they haven’t killed us where we’ve lost one.”

To date, that might be the most positive thing an Auburn coach has said about the special teams this year.

GUARD UNKNOWN: Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes wasn’t overly enthusiastic when asked to rate true freshman OL John Sullen’s starting debut.

“OK for a true freshman,” Grimes said. “That’s a tough job to be in is a true freshman to step in and start. I’ve done it at the last three schools I’ve coached at and every time it’s a challenge because there’s just so much to learn in terms of what to do and how to do it for young guys. Tough spot to be in.”

Sullen started at right guard in place of Byron Isom, who was suspended for a violation of team rules.

Chizik said Isom practiced with the team earlier in the week, but neither Chizik nor Grimes said whether the junior would play this week.

If Isom does not play, Sullen is one of three options at guard. Jared Cooper and Bart Eddins have also tried out for the starting spot this week.

Grimes refused to say who would start.

“I would say I’ve got to be confident in who I put on the field,” Grimes said. “If not, I haven’t done my job as a coach.”

ON THE MEND: Approximately a week ago, LB Spencer Pybus seemed to be on the comeback trail.

The sophomore missed most of the preseason after suffering a concussion, but returned to practice last week.

Chizik carefully avoided saying Pybus suffered a setback, but acknowledged “Spencer has had some health problems.”

“We don’t know exactly where that’s at right now,” Chizik said. “Like everybody, we just kind of take it day-by-day with each one of those guys. He’s trying to get back and he’s trying to get healthy. It’s just in a situation where time is the only thing that’s going to be the great healer for him.”

Since Pybus has already missed the first four games and doesn’t seem to be nearing a return, Chizik admitted the coaching staff is contemplating a redshirt for him.

REDSHIRTING AFTER ALL: When Grimes read that Andre Harris played on Saturday, it was news to him.

The true freshman offensive lineman was listed on Auburn’s participation chart. During his weekly Sunday teleconference, Chizik confirmed that Harris played.

Harris had not played through the first three games and seemed on track for a redshirt.

When asked about the decision to burn Harris’ redshirt, Grimes took the opportunity to set the record straight.

“He didn’t play. There was some report out there where someone said he did but he didn’t play,” Grimes said. “He didn’t play a snap and has not played a snap all year.”

Auburn media relations confirmed Wednesday that Harris, in fact, did not play.

TRAVELING MAN: With Saturday marking Auburn’s first road game, it is the first time this season the new coaching staff is required to determine which players would travel.

Chizik hadn’t quite finalized the list after Wednesday’s practice, but confirmed that QB Tyrik Rollison would make the trip.

“We’re pretty far along in that as far as knowing where we’re going to go,” Chizik said. “It’s really coming down to one or two guys that are backups, but right now I think we’re in good shape.”

Rollison, a true freshman, has not played this season and appears destined for a redshirt. He seemed a potential candidate to stay home for the trip.

Chizik said that while most decisions have been made, WR Philip Pierre-Louis makes up one of the remaining choices.

Pierre-Louis has not played a game this year, nor has he been on the sideline for a game.

“We just kind of take it day-by-day with him and he’s been out there practicing and working every day,” Chizik said.

McCalebb said Pierre-Louis has spent time in practice this week returning punts.

The redshirt freshman started the season as a return specialist, but injured his knee on the first play of the season. Pierre-Louis had surgery a few weeks later and missed the entire season.

Regardless of whether Pierre-Louis makes the trip or not, receivers coach Trooper Taylor plans to bring all four true freshmen on the road.

Two of those freshmen – DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake – were supposed to make immediate impacts in 2009. Four games into the season, neither player has recorded his first career reception.

Taylor said injuries have played a factor with Blake whereas inconsistency has plagued Benton.

“If Emory hadn't had an injury – he’s been hurt the last two games where he wasn’t 100 percent – he probably would have played more,” Taylor said. “D’Angelo knows I’m disappointed with him in the drops he’s had.”

Though neither former highly sought prospect has made the splash originally expected, Taylor said he had no regrets about playing them instead of giving them redshirt seasons.

“There’s no substitute for experience – whether they played two plays or 200,” Taylor said. “Just traveling with the team will make them better next year. Being at these stadiums and going into these hostile environments like they’re about to see at Tennessee will make them better for the future.

“I believe those two guys will get more playing time.”

Taylor credited the strong play of starting WRs Terrell Zachery and Darvin Adams as the primary reason none of the freshmen have seen more consistent playing time.

TWITTER TRACKER: LB Craig Stevens is one of several Auburn players who use Twitter as a social mechanism.

“I just did it just to get on it,” Stevens said. “I just got on it to see what it was because everybody was talking about it. I got on it just to have fun. I don’t know. I kind of like it.”

New technologies, such as Twitter, enable both professional and amateur athletes to more easily communicate with fans and other people.

After a loss and some subsequent poor decisions, Texas Tech coach Mike Leach decided to ban his players from Twitter.

Stevens said if he were put in that position, he would “be kind of mad for a while.”

However, he also added he understands Leach’s position.

“He doesn’t want his team out there saying bad things about their team and have fans looking at this and saying, ‘Man, they gave up on us as a team. So why should I have faith in them?’” Stevens said. “I understand where he’s coming from.”