Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Newton named QB1

They were the question Auburn coach Gene Chizik fielded more than any other this spring: Who would be his starting quarterback? When would he be named?

Every time, the second-year coach answered the questions with the same, tired, rehearsed lines like a broken record. The coaching staff would evaluate at the end of spring. The sooner the better but he didn’t to rush into a commitment. The race was too close to call.

About that…

Chizik and the coaching staff pulled a misdirection play worthy of Gus Malzahn’s offense when they announced Wednesday that Cam Newton is the No. 1 quarterback.

“After thoroughly evaluating our quarterbacks during spring practice and over the last week, Cam has emerged as our post-spring No. 1 quarterback,” Chizik said. “Obviously, he will have a lot of work to do over the summer and during two-a-days to continue along this path. We fully expect our other quarterbacks to continue to work hard and compete with Cam during the off-season and into fall camp.”

For more, read tomorrow's Anniston Star.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Luper: Fannin will have huge year

Running backs coach Curtis Luper isn’t one to back away from making bold predictions.

Now that he thinks he has found his next workhorse tailback, the second-year Auburn assistant offered steep praise for apparent starter Mario Fannin.

“It's obvious to me that Mario can do what Ben (Tate) did for this offense, after being with him for a month,” Luper said after Auburn finished its final spring practice on Monday. “That's what we expect.”

Luper correctly forecasted Tate to rush for more than 1,200 yards last year and offered a similar projection for Fannin.

“Mario will run for 1,000 yards if he stays healthy. No question. Write it down. Bold letters,” Luper said. “It's a combination of things. The offense lends itself to it. He has everything that you need to get that done. But I have to say, ‘If he stays healthy…’ because he has a propensity to get banged up every now and then.”

That’s a bold statement considering Fannin will enter his senior year having rushed for 971 career yards and having a career-high of 448 rushing yards.

It hasn’t just been Fannin’s running ability that has given Luper so much confidence in him. Fannin’s performance in pass protection has also drawn praise.

“He's had a history of some shoulder ailments, so we were concerned of him stepping up and hitting a Josh Bynes in the mouth or something like that,” Luper said. “But he doesn't shy away from it all. He did a really good in pass pro this spring. He's a complete back. He can do it all, and expectations are going to be high for him.”

Still, Fannin might have a significant problem in compiling the 1,000 yards Luper predicted.
In addition to injuries, Fannin faces another potential setback that Tate didn’t have to worry about – losing snaps to a freshman.

Onterio McCalebb got a number of carries especially early last season, but essentially played a different position than Tate. That allowed them to be on the field at the same time.

The same might not be true for Fannin when highly anticipated freshman Michael Dyer arrives on campus.

Luper also offered a steep prediction for Dyer.

“He'll get 1,000 too,” Luper said.

Asked if he would guarantee it, Luper backed off some.

“You better put that one in small print,” he said. “Until I at least work with him in practice.”

DEFERRED DECISION: In what came as a surprise to nobody who has paid attention this spring, Auburn coach Gene Chizik confirmed Monday that he wouldn’t name a starting quarterback this spring.

He also said the competition is more likely to carry over into the summer than it is to be settled within the next few weeks.

Right now, Chizik said, all four quarterbacks are still on an even playing field, but added “Now that we've reached the end of spring, what are we feeling? I mean, there's got to be an order somewhere.”

Chizik and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn aren’t divulging what that order might be.

While the coaches haven’t said anything, Clint Moseley thinks he is at the back of the pack, though he added that he hasn’t been told anything for certain.

Cam Newton, considered the favorite by many, said he doesn’t have a feel as to who leads the competition.

“We’ll meet with coach Malzahn someday this week, and I’m pretty sure he’ll go over that with us,” Newton said. “But it’s really not important right now.”

ROLLISON UPDATE: Whether or not the four-man quarterback race could become five when preseason camp begins still remains to be seen.

Chizik still has not ruled QB Tyrik Rollison out despite the fact that his father, Michael Kelly, told reporters a few months ago that Rollison planned to transfer to Sam Houston State. Rollison is still currently enrolled at Auburn, but did not participate in spring practice.

“I will touch base again here before school ends,” Chizik said. “I can't give you any positives one way or the other, but I will assure you that when we know, we will get it out there and it will be clear-cut.”

Rollison redshirted last year and was suspended for the Outback Bowl for a violation of team rules.

POSITIVE STEPS FOR COLEMAN: There is no timetable for OL Shon Coleman to join Auburn’s football program.

The incoming freshman underwent chemotherapy in March for an unspecified illness. His mother, De Keisha Tunstall, said last week via her Facebook page that Coleman is now cancer-free. On Friday, she wrote that Coleman was back in the hospital because of low-sodium levels.

Chizik said earlier this spring that he’s not even thinking about football with Coleman at the current time. Now he hopes Coleman can be around the team even if he can’t play.

“If he can be here with everybody else, whether he plays football or not, we want him here with everybody else,” Chizik said. “Obviously that's going to be up to the people that are taking care of him. We would love to have him be around his teammates whether football's involved or not involved. That's really insignificant at this point. We'll play the rest of that by ear.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Newton shines in scrimmage

Through two drives of Auburn’s half-scrimmage Wednesday, it looked like the offense might again dominate its defensive counterpart at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Then the turnovers starting mounting. The offense threw at least two interceptions and fumbled three times, allowing the defense to avenge its loss in Saturday’s scrimmage.

“We pride ourselves on taking care of the football, and we turned it over,” receivers coach Trooper Taylor said. “You’ve got to give credit to the defense. We need to take better care of the football.”

Though the defense won the scrimmage, the real winner might have been QB Cam Newton.

No, there is still no news in the quarterback race. As details continue to emerge about the four-man competition, Newton only seems to help his cause. The junior-college transfer threw a pair of touchdowns Wednesday – one to DeAngelo Benton and another to Kodi Burns.

The throw to Benton, especially, served as apparently an impressive display of Newton’s accuracy.

“Cam let it go perfectly where only he could catch it,” Taylor said. “The DB was in good position, but D’Lo went up and made a nice play. The ball placement was unbelievable. If he had missed it, it would have gone out of bounds. That’s what you’re looking for. We talk about catching balls in windows, and that was a peephole. He put it in there.

“He made a nice throw to Kodi Burns, too. It was a frozen rope between two defenders.”

Nobody has said definitively that there has been any decision on the quarterbacks, but it seems Newton has put himself in position to win the starting position.

Players and coaches couldn’t seem to remember which quarterbacks threw the interceptions, nor could they recall who threw the third touchdown.

Defensively, Ikeem Means and Drew Cole turned in interceptions. Though the defense forced three fumbles – two by walk-on Davis Hooper and another by walk-on receiver Ralph Spry Jr. – it didn’t recover any.

In addition to the turnovers, LB Craig Stevens said the defense also earned a couple three-and-outs to help establish the win.

A-DAY FORMAT: Taylor said Auburn will change up the format from last year’s spring game.
Saturday’s exhibition won’t feature starters against starters or starters against scout team, but rather a combination of players on two different teams.

Those teams, however, are yet to be determined.

“We’re trying to make it as competitive as we can,” Taylor said. “The problem that you have is guys crossing over on special teams. That’s what we’re trying to iron out. But we’re going to make it competitive.”

CHANGING LANES: Stevens hasn’t been spectacular during his Auburn career, but he has always been a steady producer.

Now, as a senior, he has moved from his traditional strong-side linebacker position to the weak-side. He thinks the position change gives him an opportunity to make more plays.

“(Weak-side), you've got to make a lot more back-side plays,” Stevens said. “I'm in the box more and I have a chance to make a lot more plays in the run game than I would at (strong-side).”

The new position doesn’t only spell new chances for Stevens.

Sophomore Jonathan Evans has worked his way onto the starting defense at strong-side linebacker.

Evans played significant minutes in just two games last year – after Eltoro Freeman went down with an injury in the Georgia game. Evans said the experience at the end of the Georgia game and his start against Alabama has benefitted him.

“That helped me a lot, just getting the tempo of the game, the speed, all that,” Evans said. “Just getting used to all that noise and how the games are going to be. That was a good start for me. I feel like it's really going to help me.”

The coaches have been hesitant to say Evans has put himself in line for playing time, but seem down on Freeman, who is now working behind Josh Bynes at middle linebacker.

Freeman could especially find playing time hard to find if Daren Bates plays linebacker when he returns from off-season shoulder surgery.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof remained non-committal on Bates’ position status Wednesday, but did say Bates is spending more time in linebacker meetings than safety meetings.

Aairon Savage, Zac Etheridge and Mike McNeil are all expected to be back in 2010 despite all suffering significant injuries in 2009. However, Auburn coach Gene Chizik said Monday that McNeil “needs to step it up” when asked if reporters should look into the fact that the junior has not been made available to the media this spring.

Bates started all 13 games at safety last year, but Auburn has seriously looked at moving him permanently to linebacker. Roof said he doesn’t want to shuffle the sophomore between the positions.

QUICK OUTS: K Wes Byrum said QB Neil Caudle is currently the frontrunner in the holder competition. Caudle has been a backup holder for the last couple seasons. The senior is also still part of the ongoing quarterback competition… Byrum also said he sat out a few practices last week because of soreness in his right knee. The senior kicker said there is no significant injury, but wanted to be right for A-Day week… WR Darvin Adams didn’t participate in Wednesday’s scrimmage. Adams has a slight shoulder injury, but was held out largely to get other receivers – like Benton and Emory Blake – more reps.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lutzenkirchen becoming versatile

Playing in space has never been a question for TE Philip Lutzenkirchen.

The sophomore came to Auburn as a pass-catching presence hoping to make a big impact early in his career.

He is still confident he can be a big part of the passing game, but is currently focusing on his blocking ability.

“You can see him getting confidence and getting more physical,” offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn said. “We know he can catch the football, but we're asking him to do more dirty work and he's starting to really get confidence and do a better job each practice.”

Malzahn hopes to run his offense at a faster pace on a regular basis. Doing so hinges on his ability to substitute less regardless of down and distance. Lutzenkirchen’s newfound versatility, then, could mean additional playing time.

Not only is Lutzenkirchen working in the traditional tight end spot, he is also learning the H-back/fullback position. Playing both positions would keep Auburn from changing personnel when it previously needed to switch from tight end to fullback.

“I think one of the reasons I didn’t play a lot last year is because I wasn’t comfortable playing on the ground,” Lutzenkirchen said. “All last year and all this spring we’ve been working with my hand on the ground a whole lot more and I feel a lot more comfortable with that. I feel pretty even with both of them.”

Lutzenkirchen thinks he will have a bigger role in the offense in 2010, but he also faces some competition. H-back Eric Smith returns and Robert Cooper is pushing Lutzenkirchen at the tight end spot.

That’s why it was so important for Lutzenkirchen to get back from an injury he sustained earlier this spring. During a full-contact team drill, Lutzenkirchen took a hit from S Drew Cole and LB Eltoro Freeman that sent his head into the ground. He missed a few practices for precautionary reasons, but has returned for the last two sessions.

Now he’s back and fighting for a starting position.

“It’s sparking me to get better overall,” Lutzenkirchen said.

DEFENSIVE STAND: Auburn split Wednesday’s practice between individual workouts and a half-scrimmage.

Defensive coordinator Ted Roof didn’t offer details, but seemed happier with his unit’s performance than he was after Saturday’s scrimmage.

“I thought the contact speed was a little bit better than it was the other day,” Roof said. “I thought that improved and certainly it's not to be confused with where we need it to be, but I thought that the overall contact speed and I thought that the procedure was better.”

LB Craig Stevens offered up little more, though he did say the defense came up with a few stops. He said the unit never forced the offense into a three-and-out, but only allowed one touchdown – a Cam Newton touchdown pass to WR DeAngelo Benton.

BULL FIGHT: Just because Freeman returns as an incumbent starter this year doesn’t mean he already has a starting spot secured.

Roof said Wednesday that he is still searching for a regular starting linebacker to team with Josh Bynes and Stevens. Freeman is among a group that includes Jonathan Evans and Jessel Curry currently competing for the third spot. Sophomore Daren Bates, who started all 13 games at safety last season, will also enter the mix when he gets fully healthy this fall.

Stevens thinks Freeman has made definite progress so far this spring.

“He's kind of calmed down a little bit and trying to actually get into the playbook a little bit more,” Stevens said. “I think we're going to see that by the time the season comes around and see his change in play.”

Though Auburn will have improved depth at linebacker, it still isn’t a strength. Therefore, the biggest theme right now comes from crosstraining the other linebackers at all three linebacker positions.

Stevens said Freeman worked behind Bynes at middle linebacker on Wednesday.

NO MOVEMENT: After two weeks of spring practice, Wednesday finally provided some quarterback news for Auburn.

Christian LeMay, one of the most highly sought quarterback prospects, visited Auburn from North Carolina during practice.

As for the four-man quarterback competition, Malzahn said there is no news on that front. Newton is still thought to be a heavy favorite, but Auburn’s coaches haven’t said anything about the race.

“Common sense would tell you you'd like to do that as soon as you can just for your team's sake, but at the same time we have the luxury of the spring,” Malzahn said. “I just want to make sure and coach (Gene Chizik) just wants to make sure that we get the right guy and give everybody equal chance.”

FANNIN IN FRONT: Malzahn said Mario Fannin got an extended workload during Wednesday’s scrimmage.

The second-year offensive coordinator hopes his senior tailback is now jumping to the front of the pack.

“We definitely would like him to,” Malzahn said. “He was kind of battling some injuries coming up to spring, so now he's getting healthy enough to really show what he can do.”

Onterio McCalebb and Dontae Aycock are challenging Fannin for the starting spot. Incoming freshman Michael Dyer is also expected to push for immediate playing time once he steps on campus.

McCalebb is thought of more as a speed back, but has added weight in hoping to prove he can be an every down back.

Fannin, a senior, has sometimes been in the starting tailback role and has enjoyed modest success.