Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Coaches: AU making good progress

A week into spring practice, it’s all but impossible to find a coach who will say his team is ready to win a championship.

It’s no different at Auburn, where coaches have maintained their stance throughout the first eight days that their team is improving but still has a long way to go.

Both coordinators, however, found a silver lining with their units’ performances – significant improvement from where the groups were at this time last year.

“I think it’s the continuity with the staff, it’s the second year in the system with the players,” defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. “We’re working to get it better now that they’ve heard it and the newness of things has worn off.”

Roof finally has additional depth he desperately missed last year, especially at linebacker. He said true freshmen LB Jessel Curry and DE Craig Sanders will have every opportunity to work their way into the playing rotation, as will every other player in the defensive white jerseys.

On offense, there are only a few positions to fill, but they are vital roles. Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is searching for a new starting quarterback and tailback as well as a new right tackle.

Still, he’s convinced his group has made more progress in the first week than it made last March.
“The veterans definitely have a better understanding, as they should,” Malzahn said. “Our expectations are a lot higher, though. We’re just trying to focus on the little things. We’re trying to be demanding on the guys and strain them so they can be as good as they can be.”

ARMS RACE: Malzahn said he hasn’t trimmed the quarterback field down.


Sticking with his original timeline, Malzahn said Wednesday that could change in a matter of days.

“We’ve been evaluating each possession. We’re to a point now we can start working on narrowing things down,” Malzahn said. “Obviously, you can’t rotate four quarterbacks equally all spring. I’ve told our guys it’s getting to the point where we need to start making some decisions.”

Malzahn said he has installed as much of the offense as he plans to at this point in the spring, so he can start evaluating the players on their abilities instead of how well they learn on the fly.

He didn’t limit himself to a certain number, saying he wasn’t sure if he would cut the process down to two or three. He did, however, recommit to whittling the number down as quickly as possible.

Deciding who will be left behind, it seems, is the toughest part of the equation right now for Malzahn.

“That’s a good thing,” he said. “That’s a really good thing. We feel like we have four quality quarterbacks and we’ll be in better shape depth-wise going into this season than we were last season.”

CATCHING ON: One of the offensive themes this spring has centered around the coaching staff finding a reliable third receiver.

The most prominent and consistent names to come forward have been Emory Blake and DeAngelo Benton. Now another name might be surfacing toward the forefront – walk-on Ralph Spry, Jr.

“I think he feels like he can play now where before he knew he was going to be scout team and there was no light at the end of the tunnel,” receivers coach Trooper Taylor said. “It’s hard to get kids to see that he should be getting himself better whether or not he’s playing. That would have put him ahead. Now that he’s doing that he really looks good. He’s fast. He can run.”

Spry is the son of Auburn track and field coach Ralph Spry and went to Auburn High School.
He ultimately decided to sign well away from home – with Minnesota.

There, Spry started six games and played in 12 contests as a freshman, catching 23 passes for 226 yards. He was suspended for a violation of team rules, though, and couldn’t regain his starting position.

He decided to transfer back home in January 2009 and went through spring practice with the team last season.

After sitting out the 2009 season because of NCAA transfer rules, Spry now has a chance to work his way into the playing rotation.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Barbee will be next coach at AU

Tony Barbee will take over as Auburn’s new men’s basketball coach, a source close to the situation confirmed.

Barbee, a former assistant to Kentucky coach John Calipari, recently concluded his fourth season as head coach at Texas-El Paso. He led the Miners to a 26-7 record and the NCAA Tournament this year.

An official release is expected shortly.

Former Auburn star Chuck Person also interviewed for the program’s vacant coaching position Wednesday, a source close to the situation confirmed.

More to come…

Wednesday notes: Rollison's status unclear

QB Tyrik Rollison was nowhere to be seen on Auburn’s practice field or on the spring roster when the Tigers opened spring practice Wednesday.

That, coach Gene Chizik said, is not an indication that he is done with Auburn.

“He's still on our football team and he's still in school,” Chizik said. “As the end of the semester unfolds, obviously we'll know more but academically, that's the nature of our focus right now.”

Chizik said Rollison is academically eligible, but will not participate in spring practice.

Rollison created a stir in February by posting on Facebook that he was leaving Auburn. His father, Michael Kelly, told a few reporters that Rollison planned to transfer to Sam Houston State.

Reached later in the day by The Star, Kelly said he didn’t want to talk “until things blow over.” He also said, “I’ve got to talk to Ty,” and did not confirm the reports.

Auburn had not acknowledged the reports that Rollison would transfer until Wednesday.

“We're going to play it by ear,” Chizik said. “I don't pay any attention to any of the external hearsay. He's in school at Auburn, he's focusing on his academics, and that's what I know.”

OUT THE DOOR: While Rollison’s status remains unclear, five Auburn players are no longer with the program.

FB John Douglas and TE Bailey Woods elected to transfer – Woods to Georgia State and Douglas to a school to be determined. Darrell Roseman, a career reserve offensive lineman, chose to pursue his career rather than a redshirt senior season.

Walk-on H-back Jason King “is no longer on our football team,” Chizik said.

Chizik also said walk-on K Morgan Hull decided to leave the team.

INJURY UPDATE: A few players were held out or limited in practice on Wednesday.

Among them was starting G Mike Berry, who Chizik said was one of several players “somewhat limited” this spring.

Zac Etheridge, Daren Bates and Harris Gaston are the other players not expected to fully participate this spring.

Safeties Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil are also coming back from injuries, but were in white jerseys instead of the orange non-contact jerseys Wednesday.

Chizik still didn’t want to commit to them in a full-contact capacity.

“I think they fall into the category that we've got to be smart with them as we go along,” Chizik said. “To say that they were full-speed right now, I don't think that's necessarily accurate, but they've come a long way.”

ARMS RACE: Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is no stranger to quarterback competitions at this point in his career.

Whoever gets the starting nod at Auburn this season will be Malzahn’s fifth starter in five years as a college coach.

For that reason, Malzahn knows the timeline he wants to follow in accepting a starter.

“I told our guys, we're rotating four guys. You can't do that long,” he said. “Hopefully we'll in a short period of time be able to narrow it down to possibly three and then two.”

Malzahn said the ultimate goal is to determine a starter by the end of spring, but said he wanted to be “110 percent positive” before doing so.

Junior-college transfer Cam Newton, senior Neil Caudle, sophomore Barrett Trotter and redshirt freshman Clint Moseley are currently competing for the starting spot.

QUICK OUTS: Chizik confirmed Wednesday that Bates has moved from safety to linebacker. He said Bates’ position change is part of Auburn’s effort to get more speed on the field. Bates started all 13 games last year at safety… Anthony Gulley legally changed his name during the offseason to Anthony Morgan. He is listed on the roster as a receiver but worked at cornerback on Wednesday.

Early notes from Wednesday's practice

There were a few absences in this morning's practice: QB Tyrik Rollison and FBs John Douglas and Jason King. All three players were suspended from the Outback Bowl, Douglas and King for separate DUIs and Rollison for a violation of team rules.

We will ask Gene Chizik about all three when we speak with him in a few hours.

Rollison, a highly touted quarterback coming out of high school last year, draws the most interest. A few weeks ago, he posted on Facebook that he was moving on from Auburn. His father, Michael Kelly, told a few media outlets that Rollison was headed to Sam Houston State where he could play immediately. However, Kelly changed his story later in the day, ultimately deciding to stop talking about it altogether.

Auburn has yet to release a statement about the situation and Auburn sports information said Rollison is still on the official roster.

OL Darrell Roseman, a career reserve, was also not listed on the roster. He has been plagued with injuries throughout his career. Chizik hasn't talked about Roseman no longer being a part of the team.

If all four are officially off the team, Auburn can bring in all 25 players every SEC school can add according to NCAA rules.

New Players, New Numbers, One New Name
Anthony Gulley is no longer Anthony Gulley. His new name is Anthony Morgan. He's also apparently no longer an offensive player, wearing a white jersey and working with defensive backs.

As for the new players:
QB Cam Newton is wearing No. 2
DE Craig Sanders - 13
LB Jessel Curry - 33
OT Brandon Mosley - 75
OT Roszell Gayden - 78

By the way, for what it's worth: Mosley worked with the starting offensive line today, Gayden with the second-team line.

OG Mike Berry and Ss Zac Etheridge and Daren Bates did not practice during the portion open to the media. LB Harris Gaston is currently wearing an orange non-contact jersey.

OGs Jorrell Bostrom and Bart Eddins subbed in for Berry with the first-team line.

No Drops
Auburn's punt returners didn't have an opportunity to muff any punts during an early practice drill. They were instead trying to have the ball bounce off the tops of their helmets -- with varying degrees of success.

Not really sure what the drill does, but it was fun to watch.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Report: Woods transferring to Georgia State

Backup TE Bailey Woods will reportedly not be with Auburn when the team opens spring practice Wednesday.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported Monday that Woods has left the program for Georgia State, a Football Championship Subdivision team in the Colonial Athletic Association.

Woods played in 11 games last year. In addition to his tight end responsibilities, he was also the team's backup long snapper. He has two years of eligibility remaining.

IN OTHER NEWS: The Denton Record-Chronicle is reporting that North Texas coach Johnny Jones will interview with Auburn for its vacant head-coaching position sometime this week.

Reports: Lebo to ECU

Ten days after getting fired at Auburn, Jeff Lebo has apparently found work again.

East Carolina will reportedly hire the former Tigers coach, pending approval from the school’s trustees. As long as the trustees agree with the hire, Lebo will likely be in place within the next two days.

Lebo coached at Auburn for six years. He went 96-93 during that time. His downfall came in the Tigers’ inability to reach the postseason. During those six years he reached the NIT once and never made the NCAA Tournament.

Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs announced on March 12 that Lebo would not be retained as coach.

Auburn has still not yet found a coach for its vacant position.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Lebo out as AU coach

Auburn has confirmed that Jeff Lebo is out as head coach.

Auburn announced the university’s decision to dismiss Lebo in a late-afternoon press release Friday.

“I want to thank coach Lebo for all that he has done for Auburn University over the past six years,” Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs said in the release. “Coach Lebo has worked hard and has always represented Auburn with character, class and integrity. However, we feel like the time has come for Auburn basketball to move in a new direction. We deeply appreciate all that he and his staff have done for Auburn, and we wish each of them and their families nothing but the best.”

Lebo’s contract still had three years remaining. If fired, he is due a $1.5 million buyout.

Lebo came to Auburn in 2004 with the program under NCAA sanctions. Several of former coach Cliff Ellis’ top players left when Ellis did, creating early struggles for Lebo.

During his six years, Lebo went 96-93 as the Auburn coach. He went 35-61 in SEC play, including three seasons with 4-12 conference records.

The Tigers also managed just a 2-6 mark in SEC Tournament games under Lebo.

Auburn missed the NCAA Tournament every year with Lebo at the helm and made the postseason only once – the 2009 NIT. The Tigers won 24 games that year, matching the second-most in a season.

The 2008-09 season was the highlight of a six-year stint that included just one other winning year.

This year, though, Auburn fell back toward the back of the SEC West, finishing in a fourth-place tie with Alabama. Perhaps more troublesome is the fact that of the Tigers’ top six players, only one – Frankie Sullivan – was a non-senior and they still fell back in the conference.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Ten to Remember: No. 3

Spring ball is little more than a month away. With so many players returning from last year’s team, the faces and names will largely remain the same. Here is a look at the 10 under-the-radar players fans should know/remember going into spring practice.

No. 10
LB Jessel Curry

No. 9
RB Dontae Aycock

No. 8
DE Craig Sanders

No. 7
QBs Tyrik Rollison and Clint Moseley

No. 6
TE Philip Lutzenkirchen

No. 5
DE Nosa Eguae

No. 4
S Mike McNeil & Aairon Savage

No. 3
DT Nick Fairley

Auburn fans should already have an idea of Fairley’s capability. The top reserve defensive tackle last year had 28 tackles including 3.5 for loss. He also showed a pass-rush ability that topped starting tackle Jake Ricks – the two had the same number of sacks, 1.5, and Fairley had more quarterback hurries, seven to six, despite Ricks playing significantly more.

What is yet to be seen is how good the former junior-college player can be as a full-time starter. If Auburn stays in a 4-3 defense – which right now is an if – Fairley is the strongest candidate to assume Ricks’ starting spot next to Mike Blanc.

However, Daren Bates’ apparent move from safety to linebacker has some wondering if Auburn is contemplating a switch to a 3-4 defense. The Tigers already have Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens returning as seniors and Eltoro Freeman improved dramatically toward the end of the season. If the Tigers do stay in the 4-3, Freeman and Bates would compete for playing time – a curious decision considering both showed the potential during their first seasons at Auburn to be very good players at the SEC level last season.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof said during an interview with The Star this week that he would not comment on Bates’ status or position, referring to it as “a (Gene) Chizik question).”

Fairley is a strong enough presence that he could man the nose position if called upon. His size – 6-foot-5, 293 pounds – doesn’t put him in the Terrence Cody class of mammoth-sized human beings, but it certainly isn’t bad either.

If Auburn does move to a 3-4, Fairley and Blanc would likely split the role.

Regardless of what defense Auburn aligns itself with this season, the unit must find ways to improve its run defense. That has been the constant, nagging question Roof seeks to answer first and foremost this season. Whether Auburn is in a 4-3 or a 3-4, that starts up front.

Someone, Blanc or Fairley, must do a better job dominating the line of scrimmage to improve the rush defense. That, more than anything, might determine how good Auburn’s defense can be in 2010.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Q&A with Trooper Taylor

Here is the bulk of an interview I had with receivers coach Trooper Taylor about the recently announced Big Cat Weekend:

The Star: What was the impact of Big Cat Weekend, 2009?
TT: I think what it did is it kind of carried over momentum-wise because it was something different. It was something where we weren’t testing them in the 40, we weren’t asking them their vertical and all that stuff. We want them to come and build relationships because we really emphasize the family side of it and the people part of it. All those things are important for us.

Now we’ve got kids asking ‘When is it?’ and ‘Am I invited?’ and ‘Can I get there?’ and all that kind of stuff. It’s still carrying over into this year.

The Star: What does that say about last year’s player response?
TT: That they had a great time. The great ones want to be around other great ones. This guy wants to know what that guy’s thinking. If you think that those guys don’t read the internet and check the web sites, they’re all over all those things. The best way for them to communicate is through those things.

Then they start asking each other, ‘Well, are you going to Big Cat Weekend?’ ‘I’m going to Big Cat.’ When that spreads throughout the top players, it just grows. It lets you know that: 1) They had a good time and 2) They were excited about what they saw and they enjoyed it enough to where they wanted to tell more people about it. The best advertisement you can get as a coach or a school or a place is word of mouth. It’s not the billboards. It’s not the emails. It’s the word of mouth from other players because they respect that – because here’s a five-star talking to another five-star or a three-star talking to a five-star. We think that’s the biggest advertisement they can get.

The Star: How important is it for the big prospects to get to know each other at Auburn as opposed to elsewhere?
TT: The more the better. The reason why is we want them to see what we have to offer. We want them to understand that Auburn’s more than just the verticals and the 40-yards dashes and the football side of it. Come see us as people, not just as coaches, and develop relationships.

Then, if it doesn’t work for you, that’s OK. We also want you to come here and be able to leave with that ability to make that judgment on Auburn based on the things that you saw – not the things that you heard from someone else or, in the recruiting battles, all this negative stuff.

That’s one thing we pride ourselves on: We’re never going to go into a home and bash another school. That’s not our deal. Our deal is to go into a home and sell what we’ve got because that’s what we know and that’s what we’re trying to do.

The Star: How do you mix keeping the prestige of a Big Cat Weekend invitation for highly rated prospects with not offending other prospects?
TT: It’s not really an invite when we say it’s select. It’s the top guys start talking and they want to come. We don’t turn anybody away. We don’t take a guy and say, ‘No, you’re not allowed to come to Big Cat Weekend,’ because, say he’s a two-star but we’ve looked at him on tape and think he can play. It doesn’t matter to us. If we think he can play, we’re going to go after him.

You look at Shaun Kitchens. He was one of our earlier commitments and he was just a two- or three-star at the time and then he kept on going. Shon Coleman: His teammate was a five-star and we recruited Shon based on tape and we wanted him here.

We don’t give out a select deal where we say, ‘You’re the only one that can come.’ We evaluate you on tape and if we think you are what we’re looking for, we’re going to bring you. Most of them that are on the fence and say, ‘Oh, I didn’t know about that,’ or ‘I didn’t get that,’ – we’re always going to have our doors open.

They kind of invite each other. We put the dates out there and then they start snowballing. ‘I heard about Big Cat last year and I’m not missing it.’ I’ve got kids that are calling me already and saying, ‘Hey coach, I’m coming to Big Cat Weekend.’ I’ve got coaches across Florida, Georgia, even Louisiana that are calling about Big Cat Weekend. I think that’s big. Obviously those things do nothing but open up doors for us.

The Star: With so many players interested, how do you keep it at a personal level?
TT: Even if 200 came, we make sure that we break the groups up into small enough groups. If it takes 10 groups or 20 groups, whatever it takes, we do that. Here’s what we’re not afraid of – spending time. We’ll go from 7 in the morning until midnight. That’s the thing you’d be amazed at is that we’ll work all the way up until that fine line where it says we can’t go any more.

To get it done, we’ll make sure that we do that. We don’t put a time limit on it. We say recruiting’s like shaving – if you don’t do it every day, it will show. We want to make sure that not only are we doing it, but we’re doing it right.

The Star: How do you stay cutting-edge without pushing the envelope?
Intentions. If you go out and say, ‘I know this rule is this way,’ and try to break that rule, that’s when you’re wrong. If you’re going out there and you’re not intentionally trying to break a rule or you’re just trying to get outside your box, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that.

I think there are a lot of companies out there doing that right now – that are brainstorming and trying to do things different because it’s really marketing. That’s what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to market the product that we have, which is Auburn. The good thing about it is it’s not something that’s hard to sell.

We love it. We all believe in it. We believe in the people that are here. That’s not a hard thing for us to do – go out and sell Auburn.

The Star: Based on last year, do you guys have to be more cognizant of the rules during Big Cat Weekend?
No, what we have to do is – now we understand the parameters. Those are the ones that we will work with because there’s a precedent that’s been set that these things can happen, these things can’t and that’s what we’ll abide by.

Before there wasn’t a precedent (referring to Toomer’s Corner).

Taylor: QB Rollison has not reached a final decision

Trooper Taylor said Tuesday during an interview with The Star that redshirt freshman QB Tyrik Rollison has not made a final decision on whether or not to transfer to Sam Houston State, as has been widely reported.

Rollison's father, Michael Kelly, told a few media outlets last week that Rollison would transfer to Sam Houston State, but declined comment when reached by The Star. Auburn has not released an official statement about Rollison.

Though Taylor said Rollison has not yet made up his mind, he did say that Rollison's status for spring football remains uncertain. It will continue to be unclear until Rollison reaches a decision.

Taylor also said he understands players can get homesick and have to do what's best for themselves. He said Auburn will support Rollison either way.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Big Cat is Back

Auburn coaches have talked about wanting to build on this year's recruiting success.

Part of that process, apparently, will include repeating some of the more successful methods. Jeffrey Lee of reported today that Auburn is bringing back Big Cat Weekend -- an unofficial visit weekend intended for Auburn coaches to get to know the biggest targets on Auburn's board.

Auburn landed 10 prospects that visited during Big Cat Weekend last year. That list included high-profile recruits such as RB Michael Dyer and LB LaDarius Owens.

The weekend did have its drawbacks, though. A portion of the weekend led to some well-documented rules violations and cost Auburn in recruiting -- specifically with specific players and with Trooper Taylor's punishment that prevented him from off-campus recruiting for a few months.

Jay G. Tate of The Montgomery Advertiser had an interesting interview with Taylor today. In that interview, Taylor said Auburn needs to find a balance between obeying the rules and remaining cutting-edge.

This year's Big Cat Weekend will begin May 28.