Auburn Tigers: SEC

Stopping the run in the SEC

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
4:15
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The game of football will always evolve, and there are always going to be changes -- from how fast teams want to play on offense, to whether the quarterback lines up under center, to whether there are four or six defensive backs on the field.

What doesn't change, at least if you want to be good, is that you have to be able to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense.

To the latter, I went back and looked at the recent SEC champions.

Last season, Auburn was 62nd nationally in rushing defense, the lowest any SEC champion has finished in rushing defense in the SEC championship game era. Nine of the previous 10 SEC champs had finished in the top-15 nationally in rushing defense, and six had finished in the top 10.

So, clearly, Auburn was the exception a season ago. The Tigers allowed an average of 162.1 rushing yards per game last season, the most by an SEC champion since the advent of the SEC championship game in 1992. Only three other SEC champions during the championship game era have averaged giving up more than 120 yards per game on the ground.

Prior to last season, the last seven SEC champs averaged giving up just 91.1 yards per game rushing.

Here's a look at the rush defensive numbers for all of the SEC champions going back to the first SEC championship game in 1992. Their national rank is in parentheses:
  • 2013 -- Auburn (62nd) -- 162.1 yards
  • 2012 -- Alabama (1st) – 76.4 yards
  • 2011 -- LSU (5th) – 90.1 yards
  • 2010 -- Auburn (9th) – 109.1 yards
  • 2009 -- Alabama (2nd) – 78.1 yards
  • 2008 -- Florida (15th) – 105.4 yards
  • 2007 -- LSU (12th) – 106.1 yards
  • 2006 -- Florida (5th) – 72.5 yards
  • 2005 -- Georgia (52nd) 143.8 yards
  • 2004 -- Auburn (12th) 104.2 yards
  • 2003 -- LSU (3rd) – 67 yards
  • 2002 – Georgia (19th) 114 yards
  • 2001 – LSU (21st) 116.7 yards
  • 2000 – Florida (39th) 133.1 yards
  • 1999 – Alabama (2nd) 75.3 yards
  • 1998 – Tennessee (6th) – 93.9 yards
  • 1997 – Tennessee (8th) – 93.3 yards
  • 1996 – Florida (18th) – 108.6 yards
  • 1995 – Florida (25th) – 130.2 yards
  • 1994 – Florida (5th) – 84.6 yards
  • 1993 – Florida (9th) – 111.2 yards
  • 1992 – Alabama (1st) – 55 yards

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
1:00
PM ET
Let them eat a late lunch!
video
AUBURN, Ala. -- Shortly after a string of grueling 6 a.m. offseason workouts and just before spring practice began on the Plains, Auburn’s offensive players gathered together. Around the same time, the defense locked itself away, too.

There was no discussion of mutiny or complaining about the harsh offseason that was. These meetings were strictly business and about progress.

Offensive players anonymously wrote down their ideas on what it was going to take to push forward and what would hinder their growth, while defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson preached to his unit that it was much easier to build on losses than success.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGabe Wright leads a group of young, hungry defensive linemen intent on keeping Auburn atop the SEC.
Both sides emerged motivated to cast away any complacency. They were hungry to capitalize on a special season that saw the Tigers rebound from an embarrassing 3-9 2012 to march to the final BCS national title game, only to come up seconds short to Florida State.

“We’ve not arrived,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in early April. “We had a really good season and we came a long way. We were 13 seconds away from winning the whole thing, and we’re trying to use all of that in a positive way moving forward and not let any of the things that come with success seep in. We have a heightened alert of it.”

More than a year removed from the dark stain that was 2012, the Tigers embark on a season in which they’ll be viewed as favorites more often than not, but they’re looking to evolve. Last year has vanished, and while it was a special season, everyone on the Plains feels something was left out in California with the loss to FSU.

Complacency isn’t an option for this year’s Auburn Tigers.

“Getting to the national championship was one of the hardest things to do,” senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said, “but let’s face it: Getting there and then not winning it probably puts more fire in you than getting there and winning it. I know this team is highly motivated, highly driven, and that’s not coach-talk -- that’s talk in the locker room, and that’s exactly how we feel.”

Beyond hunger, this team has talent. Important pieces such as running back Tre Mason (a school-record 1,816 rushing yards and 2,374 yards of total offense), defensive end Dee Ford (10.5 sacks), cornerback Chris Davis (15 pass breakups and the Alabama kick-six) and left tackle Greg Robinson (future first-round draft pick) are gone, but the Tigers are stockpiled with more than adequate personnel.

Auburn has an All-SEC candidate quarterback in Nick Marshall, a healthy stable of running backs, older and improved receivers, and a young, yet beastly, set of defensive linemen that could be budding stars.

This team isn’t perfect, but it isn’t learning so much this spring as it is adjusting and growing. There’s less installing. Practices have been more technical than anything, with extra wrinkles being thrown in.

There’s also a healthy nucleus of veterans and youngsters who were key to last season's success, creating a great balance of camaraderie and skill.

Going 12-2 with an SEC championship and some miraculous victories set the college football world ablaze, but it hasn’t satisfied an Auburn team looking for more.

“It’s going to be tougher next year,” senior center Reese Dismukes said. “Now, everyone is going to have a target on us. You can’t let the little things slip ... you have to focus on everything being right.

“You can’t ever sleep. You gotta keep working hard and keep getting better because someone is always going to be coming after you.”

With a schedule that features trips to Kansas State, both Mississippi schools, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will get all it can handle during its run to repeat as SEC champs. To attack that road, the no-longer-sneaky Tigers must make sure their defense can keep up with what should be another potent offense.

After allowing 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game in conference play, Johnson described last season's defense as not very good. It gave up too many yards, had too many missed assignments, made too many adjustment mistakes, and allowed too many “cheap plays,” Johnson said.

But with the experience returning, instead of rebuilding and re-coaching, Johnson said he’s been able to work with a more comfortable group. Players know what they are doing now and aren't making the same silly mistakes that plagued them last spring and fall, which has made the defense "so much better" this spring, Johnson said.

“It’s a fine line sometimes between panic and recklessness,” Johnson said of his defense. “We’ve got to keep that recklessness and intensity if we’re going to have a chance. We’re still not one of the most talented teams in America, but we’re talented enough if we continue to focus like we did last year and keep trying hard and improving.”

It would be easy for the Tigers to rely on their talent and past success. But that's not the mindset. The mindset is that this team has so much more to show in 2014. The Tigers want to get comfortable with a championship lifestyle.

“Really and truly, I don’t think the confidence level could be too high," Wright said. "It’s not anything about overconfidence, it’s just that we don’t want to maintain to stay here. We know there’s another level to go.”

If the season opener was this Saturday, Auburn defensive back Joshua Holsey would be playing. It’s not, though. It’s only the spring game, and that’s why Holsey will be held out just like he has been for the majority of spring practice.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Holsey
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJoshua Holsey has made a remarkable recovery from last season's injury.
The junior safety tore his ACL in practice just days before the Texas A&M game last fall and missed the remainder of the season. It was a tough blow for the Auburn defense at the time, but the recovery has been nothing short of remarkable to this point. Holsey was back and ready to go by the start of spring practice, just five months after the injury occurred.

“We’re just erring on the side of caution,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said last month. “He’s doing some one-on-one and out there in a little bit of pass scale. If we were getting ready to line up and play next week against Arkansas, he’d be ready to go.

“He’s been playing here. He’s got two years under his belt, one year under our system. We know what he can do. We’re just kind of erring on the side of caution with him.”

If it were up to Holsey, he’d be out there with his teammates. Fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said Holsey was sneaking in and taking reps on the first day of practice, and even when he’s not been out there, he’s still finding ways to help his secondary mates.

“He’s been one of the better guys as far as helping us with what he sees, what he thinks the offense is going to do,” Whitehead said.

Once fall camp rolls around, the question won’t be whether Holsey returns, it will be what position is he going to play when he does return?

As a sophomore, he started every game at boundary safety before the injury occurred. However, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief has stepped in and found a home at the same position this spring. The newcomer has played so well that the coaches might look to move Holsey when he does return from injury.

“We feel like with Holsey coming back that we’ve still got a wild card,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice. “We feel fine about the guys that went this spring, but in the back of your mind, you have to feel like Holsey was a legitimate starter. And who’s job is he going to take?

“The four that finished the spring -- [Jonathan] Jones, [Jonathon] Mincy, Whitehead and Moncrief -- all had good springs. And then Johnathan Ford, he and some of the other guys made great progress, and we’ve got confidence in them right now.

“[With] all that being said, I just have to believe that Josh Holsey will come back and probably get in the fight for a starting job. Is he going to be the boundary safety? Is he going to be a boundary corner? Where are we going to need him the most?

“We’ve got some question marks, but they’re not the type of question marks where we’re not sure who can do this. It’s more of who’s going to win that battle and who’s going to be that No. 1 guy and who’s going to be that No. 2 guy.”

Ultimately, that’s not a bad problem to have if you’re Auburn.

The secondary looked depleted at times last year, and it was never more evident than when Holsey went down midway through the season. The Tigers lost top cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White this past offseason, but when Holsey returns, they’re going to be better off than they were a year ago, regardless of his position.


SEC lunchtime links

April, 15, 2014
Apr 15
12:00
PM ET
The tax man cometh ...
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Cameron Artis-Payne addressed the media last week, he didn’t look like a player who was in the midst of a heated position battle. He looked at ease and confident of where he stood. And why wouldn’t he be? Spring has been kind to the second-year running back. It was when he emerged last year, and he hopes it will be when he solidifies a starting role for this fall.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne is ready to carry the load in Auburn's backfield this fall.
“Who me?” Artis-Payne joked when asked about winning offensive MVP honors for the second year in a row. “I definitely got a shot at that ... I don’t think I’m going to need as many as touches as I did last year.”

Artis-Payne had 20 touches in last year’s spring game and finished with 164 yards of offense and a touchdown. It was a breakout performance that capped what was an impressive spring for the junior college transfer, and it ultimately landed him a contributing role in Auburn’s backfield this past season.

Although he gave way to Tre Mason once SEC play began, Artis-Payne still finished with 610 yards and six touchdowns in his debut on the Plains.

With Mason leaving early for the NFL, Artis-Payne is now battling fellow senior Corey Grant for the featured back role this spring, and although they are looked at as very different runners -- Artis-Payne known for his power and Grant for his speed -- there’s more than what meets the eye.

“It’s funny that we get that label,” Artis-Payne said. “A lot of people say I'm a power back, but I can run in the low 4.4 range. And Corey is one of the strongest guys on the team.”

Both players have shown they’re more than capable of carrying the load, but regardless of who wins the job, they’re both going to play in 2014 and play to their strengths.

“We complement each other very well,” Artis-Payne added. “It's something that just happens naturally. Out there on the field, it's just a change of pace with a guy like Corey. He's literally a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. And then you've got a guy like me that grinds away the defense. It's just a good thing to have.”

Earlier this spring, Artis-Payne admitted that he was eager for a resolution and wanted to know who the starter would be, but there has been no indication to this point as to who will win the job or when it will be announced. That’s up to head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff.

“Everybody wants to be the guy, so from that aspect of course [I want to know],” Artis Payne said. “But at the end of the day, that's out of my hands. We just need to go out there and keep working, and when he feels like it's time for a decision to be made, he'll make it.”

The uncertainty certainly hasn’t affected Artis-Payne this spring. He has practiced with that same confidence he had last spring and the same confidence that carried over into the season. He’s not concerned with what’s going on around him. He’s just putting in the work.

“Love it,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of Artis-Payne’s confidence this spring. “Cam's a pro. Cam was a pro last year. He practices like a pro. What that means is he comes to meetings every day. He's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's always attentive. He's always trying to get better.

“I've got a lot of confidence that Cam will do everything we ask him to do -- carrying the ball, protections -- and really do a good job.”

The running back battle could go the way of the left tackle battle and spill over into the fall, but Artis-Payne is hoping -- no, confident -- he will put an end to it Saturday with another MVP-caliber performance in the spring game.

SEC lunchtime links

April, 10, 2014
Apr 10
12:00
PM ET
Plenty going on as spring practices continue in the SEC. We have pro days, coaching talk, players adapting to new positions and even reality TV news in today's lunch links:

SEC's lunch links

April, 9, 2014
Apr 9
12:00
PM ET
Ten of the Top 25 tailgating schools reside in the SEC, including all of the top six. Does this surprise anyone?
AUBURN, Ala. -- If there are any questions as to whether Corey Grant can be an every-down running back this fall, just go back to last year’s Texas A&M game.

On Auburn’s opening drive, Grant took a toss sweep around the left side and picked up 32 yards. At the end of the run, the Tigers’ “speed” back could’ve just run out of bounds, but instead he lowered his shoulder and laid out a Texas A&M defender before stepping out. It was his way of showing the Aggies that they better bring a little extra when they try to take him down.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMICorey Grant is in the running to inherit at least some of Tre Mason's carries, if not the lion's share.
“It’s kind of like a chip on my shoulder,” Grant said. “Coming into the game, guys know that I’m the speed-sweep guy. When they come up to tackle me, in their minds it’s ‘he’s not a big guy or he’s not the power back so I don’t have to come at him like that.’ But I always try to be the hammer instead of the nail. In that situation, that’s what was on my mind.”

This spring, Grant is competing with Cameron Artis-Payne for the No. 1 running back job. Despite teammates calling him one of the strongest members of the team, there are still questions about his strength and durability. Can he run in between the tackles? Can he carry the load? Can he be more than a just speed guy?

It’s the same questions that were asked when he signed with Alabama out of high school and the same questions that were asked when he transferred to Auburn after just one season.

“Corey is a gym rat,” former high school coach Brian Blackmon said. “He loves the weight room, and I think that’s something he has a real passion for. He’s probably as physically strong as he can be. He does over and above what they ask him to do.

“I think he’s plenty strong enough to be an every-down back. I think he’s plenty strong enough to take that beating as an every-down back in the SEC.”

Auburn coach Gus Malzahn shared similar thoughts after the team’s first scrimmage this spring, calling Grant “very physical” and “one of the stronger guys in the weight room.” It’s why the staff is giving the senior running back every opportunity to win the job.

And who better to comment on the position battle than Tre Mason, the man they’re vying to replace?

“It’s going to be a good battle,” Mason said after his pro day workout. “Cam has carried the load at times. He knows exactly what to expect. Corey is a speedster, but Corey is very versatile. He can run in between the tackles, too, because he’s tough.”

Mason knows a thing or two about toughness. In the same game that Grant lowered a shoulder and laid out a defender, it was Mason who carried the ball 27 times for 178 yards and scored the game-winning touchdown on a run in which he refused to go down.

As a junior, Mason led the SEC in rushing and earned an invitation to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation, but he, too, had questions asked about his durability when he arrived on the Plains.

“I learned a lot from Tre,” Grant said. “The biggest thing that I really liked about him and what comes to mind every time somebody asks me about him is never letting the first guy tackle you. That was always my thing. You can go back and watch his film, and you can always see where Tre, he would never let that first guy take him down. He would break tackles everywhere.”

Now it's Grant's turn.

Regardless of whether he wins the job, he will have a role in the offense next fall. He’s still running the speed sweep this spring, and he’s likely to be the first player to come in and spell Artis-Payne next season if he’s not the starter.

But like every competitor, Grant wants to be the guy. He has a hard time admitting it, but he wants to carry the load and be an every-down back.

“Corey is a competitor so he’s going to give everything he’s got to win the job,” Blackmon said. "But he’s also one of the most unselfish players I’ve ever been around, an incredible team player.

“I know there’s a tremendous desire inside of him to be the every-down back. I also know that he’s going to do whatever Coach Malzahn and Coach [Rhett] Lashlee ask him to do to help Auburn University be successful. He’s just got that in him.”

SEC's lunch links

April, 8, 2014
Apr 8
12:00
PM ET
The SEC has been pumping out internet memes lately. Over the weekend there was Gene Chizik staring down his daughter's prom date. Then during Monday night's basketball national championship game, rapper Drake's many sports allegiances (Kentucky among them) were on display. Oh, and the kid Cats lost to UConn and then acted like they'd never heard of the NBA draft.

Let's swim back into the friendlier waters of SEC football, shall we?
When asked by reporters about his freshman season, Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche said he could’ve done better. Auburn's Carl Lawson echoed the same tune this spring, telling the media he was “a little disappointed” with his performance last fall. Both players played the majority of the season and both made an impact, but that wasn’t enough in their eyes.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAuburn DE Carl Lawson said it took some time to adjust to the college game last fall.
The two premier defensive end prospects were ranked No. 1 and No. 2 coming out of high school. Nkemdiche followed his brother to Ole Miss, and Lawson stuck to his original commitment to Auburn despite a coaching change after the season. The expectations were high before either one ever stepped foot on campus.

Once they did, it didn’t take long for them to realize they weren’t in high school anymore.

“There were times I got double-teamed, triple-teamed,” Nkemdiche said. “[Teams] tried to come at me with different things, get me out of the game. It was more than I expected.”

“[I was disappointed] in how long it took me to adjust to the college game,” Lawson added.

In 11 games, Nkemdiche made 34 tackles, including eight for a loss, and had two sacks. Lawson played in all 14 games and finished with 20 tackles, 7.5 for loss and was second on the team with four sacks. Those would be impressive numbers by most first-year player standards, but not these two. They strive to be great.

Regardless of any stats, the experience gained from playing last season was invaluable.

“I don't think you can measure it,” Ole Miss defensive line coach Chris Kiffin said. “The experience coaches talk about it all the time -- game experience -- especially for [Nkemdiche] in the SEC, to come in and really play a whole season in front of those crowds, in the bowl game and doing everything that he did, I just think that he's going to be that much better this year.”

That experience has shown this spring. Physically, both Nkemdiche and Lawson were ready, but it took time to understand the defense and its various schemes and assignments and know what to do in certain situations. Now, as they go through their first spring, they’re beginning to adapt to the intricacies of the college game.

[+] EnlargeRobert Nkemdiche
Spruce Derden/USA TODAY SportsRobert Nkemdiche expects more from himself heading into his second season at Ole Miss.
“Having knowledge of the offense and defense allows you not to waste as much energy,” Lawson said. “If you’re all over the place, you’re wasting energy and you’re putting your time and effort in the wrong direction. Once I have a better understanding of what I’m doing, the game [will] come easier to me.”

The game must be coming to easier to Lawson because he has been one of the stars for Auburn through the first three weeks of spring practice.

“We have high expectations for Carl, coming off the season he had,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “You can just tell he's a lot more confident out there and trying to be a leader by example.”

The same can be said for Nkemdiche, who wrapped up the spring on Saturday with the Rebels’ annual Grove Bowl.

Kiffin believes both Nkemdiche and Lawson, as well as Mississippi State sophomore-to-be Chris Jones, are primed for breakout seasons in 2014. Jones posted similar numbers to the other two, as he finished with with 32 tackles, seven tackles for loss and three sacks last fall.

“I think your biggest improvement comes in your second year from your first year,” Kiffin said. “For all three of those guys, they're all physically mature. When you watched all three of them play last year, they all struggled a little bit with technique here and there, but they're all clearly very, very good football players.

“I think this year you'll see all three of them playing with great technique and making plays all over the field.”

That’s good news for Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss fans, but not so much for the new, inexperienced quarterbacks in the SEC.

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
12:00
PM ET
There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 4, 2014
Apr 4
12:00
PM ET
LSU and Ole Miss will hold their spring games on Saturday, with six more teams set to play their games next Saturday. As spring practice winds to a close at many of the schools around the conference, let's take a look at some of today's headlines.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When asked about newcomer D'haquille Williams, the nation’s top junior college player, Nick Marshall said he has been very impressive to this point, but the senior quarterback was quick to point out that Auburn has a number of other great wide receivers this season, too.

[+] EnlargeCoates
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsTop wideout Sammie Coates and the rest of the Tigers' receiving corps from 2013 return this season.
That’s because with the exception of Trovon Reed, who moved to cornerback this spring, the Tigers have their entire receiving corps back from last season.

Sammie Coates, the team leader in receptions, yards and touchdowns, is back for his junior season. Ricardo Louis, the hero from the Georgia game, has returned this spring with an added chip on his shoulder. Quan Bray and Marcus Davis, two reliable slot receivers from a year ago, are both back to solidify the position again in 2014.

Throw in former ESPN 300 stars Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker, who are both coming off their first seasons on the Plains, and what’s not to like if you’re Marshall?

“I think the biggest thing is the depth,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “That is the biggest difference [from last spring]. We’ve got two, sometimes three at each position that at least have a good idea of what is going on. We’re trying to give those guys all a chance to show what they can do. That’s a good thing moving forward.”

Last spring, Bray was Auburn’s top returning wide receiver after catching only 14 passes in 2012. Nobody else on the roster had more than 10 catches the season before. Needless to say, the position was a huge question mark.

That’s no longer the case. There still might be questions as to who the go-to target will be -- though Coates filled that role admirably in 2013 -- but for the first time since the Tigers won the BCS title in 2010, there’s depth and experience at receiver.

"This year, I think it'll be more like everybody eats,” Stevens said. “Right now, we've got so many weapons on offense from the running back position to the offensive line to the skills. If you stop one of us, then you've got plenty more receivers in the slot, or at running back with Cam [Artis-Payne], Peyton [Barber] and Corey [Grant].”

The surplus at wide receiver has also led to more competition this spring, and more competition only makes the position better.

"Coach [Dameyune] Craig is really working hard to make us become the best receiving corps in the nation,” Louis said. “We do a lot of drills on and off the field. Times we don't have practice, we’ll be out together doing drills."

The orchestrator of the extra workouts has been Marshall. The dual-threat QB wants to improve as a passer, so he has made it a point to spend time with his receivers this offseason. Whether it’s after practice or in study hall, he’s taking them out to the field, working on specific routes and coaching them on what he wants them to do.

"We know to have a good season between quarterback and receiver you have to have a good relationship off the field and on the field,” Louis said.

The extra time has brought them closer to Marshall, but it’s also brought them closer to each other. Despite the fact that they’re all battling for playing time this spring, they still want to see each other do well.

“It’s a brotherhood for us,” Davis said. “Everybody’s together. Everybody wants to see each other do good, so we just correct each other and make plays. Everybody feels good when their brother makes a play.”

And the more plays made, the better Auburn will be this fall.

SEC's lunchtime links

April, 3, 2014
Apr 3
12:15
PM ET
It's not exactly like the fall, but at least we'll have some football (spring) games this weekend. Let's take a quick spin around the SEC and see what's happening as the final spring scrimmages approach at some of the league's schools.

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