Auburn Tigers: Cassanova McKinzy

Three keys: Auburn vs. LSU

October, 3, 2014
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Oh, how the tables have turned since last year. Auburn is now the top-10 team favored at home against a young LSU team that's starting a new quarterback. But this is still LSU. The only time Auburn has beaten the Bayou Bengals in the last seven years is when a guy named Cam was playing quarterback. Nothing will be easy.

Key player: WR D'haquille Williams

Shocker, right? Well, Williams would have been on here even if he wasn't playing the school where he was one committed. With Sammie Coates banged up and inconsistent play from Ricardo Louis and Quan Bray, it's been Duke who has picked up the slack. Quarterback Nick Marshall is completing 62.5 percent of his passes when targeting Williams and just 53.1 percent when targeting any other player. The matchup is a difficult one for Williams, but expect the Louisiana native to come up with at least one big play against LSU.

Key question: How many of Auburn's injured players will play Saturday?

Auburn might have come away with a win against Louisiana Tech last Saturday, but it didn't come without a cost. Four starters -- Montravius Adams, Kris Frost, Cassanova McKinzy and Patrick Miller -- all left the game due to injury and only Adams returned. The sophomore defensive tackle looks good to go Saturday, but the other three remain day-to-day. If both Frost and McKinzy are out, it would leave the Tigers extremely thin at linebacker and force freshman Tre Williams into action. Auburn remains hopeful that all three will play.

Key stat: LSU is allowing the third-most rushing yards per game in the SEC and has allowed two opponents to rush for at least 250 yards, according to ESPN Stats & Info. The Tigers did not allow any team to reach that mark in 2013.

This isn't the LSU defense we've grown accustomed to seeing. Mississippi State dominated the Tigers up front two weeks ago, rushing for more than 300 yards. That's not a good sign heading into a matchup with Auburn, the No. 1 rushing team in the country a season ago. However, through the first four games, Auburn is missing key pieces like Greg Robinson, Tre Mason and Jay Prosch more than they anticipated. The offense hasn't looked as sharp. Maybe this LSU defense will be the perfect remedy to get Auburn going on the ground.

Three keys: Auburn vs Arkansas

August, 29, 2014
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Winning the SEC championship isn’t easy, but winning it two years in a row has proved nearly impossible as of late. The last team to repeat in the SEC was Tennessee in 1998. But that is the goal for Auburn this season, and the quest begins Saturday at home against Arkansas.

Key player: Auburn linebacker Cassanova McKinzy

Injuries, suspensions and ineligible players have left a lot of questions marks on this Auburn defense, but McKinzy is one player you can count on. He led the Tigers with 75 tackles a year ago, and that number should increase this season with his move to middle linebacker. The junior will be especially important on Saturday against a physical Arkansas team that features a trio of talented running backs, and he also might get his feet wet as an edge pass-rusher, a spot where the coaches want to use him on third-down-and-long situations.

Key question: How will Jeremy Johnson play in his first SEC start?

The big question is obviously how long it will take before Nick Marshall comes into the game, but I’m curious to see how Johnson responds to the opportunity. He played well against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic last year, but those weren’t SEC opponents. All eyes will be on him this Saturday. How will he handle the pressure? If he struggles early and Marshall replaces him, he is a forgotten man. However, if he puts on a show in the first quarter, he might force the coaches to play him more this coming season.

Key stat: Arkansas allowed opponents to convert 43 percent of their third downs last season, 13th in the SEC and 94th best in the FBS -- ESPN Stats & Info

The key to slowing down this Auburn offense is to keep them off the field, and to do that, you have to make stops on third down. In last season’s game, the Tigers converted 6 of their 11 third-down attempts en route to a 35-17 victory. How do you make life easier on third down? By creating negative plays on first and second down. That will be a major part of the Razorbacks’ game plan for Saturday, so it’s important for Auburn, regardless of who plays quarterback, to get positive yardage on every play.
Quarterback Nick Marshall and center Reese Dismukes were among the players Auburn cannot live without on offense, but what about the defense?

[+] EnlargeGabe Wright
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsFor Auburn's defensive line to stay dominant, Gabe Wright must continue to step up his game.
Who are the five most indispensable players on Auburn’s defense this coming season?

DE Carl Lawson: If Lawson were to go down at any point, Auburn would be in good hands with veteran LaDarius Owens on the other side and sophomore Elijah Daniel behind him, but neither has the same talent or freakish ability. Lawson is a man-child. As a freshman, he was second on the team with four sacks, and with Dee Ford gone, it’s now up to Lawson to pick up the slack and get to the quarterback. The defensive line was the strength of the defense a year ago, and it will remain that way this season as long as Lawson stays healthy.

LB Cassanova McKinzy: As a sophomore, McKinzy played in all 14 games and led the team with 75 tackles. He was the model of consistency for a linebacking corps that received its fair share of criticism throughout the season. Now he’s moving to middle linebacker, where he will likely make more of the calls and become more of a leader for this unit. Injuries slowed him down this spring and opened the door for the likes of Kenny Flowers and Cameron Toney, but McKinzy is still Auburn’s best linebacker.

CB Jonathon Mincy: It’s hard to imagine that a cornerback with one interception over the last three years would be considered indispensable, but Mincy is now the veteran at a position where Auburn remains thin. Reinforcements from the 2014 class are expected to arrive at the end of the month, and former wide receiver Trovon Reed looked solid in the spring game, but you can’t teach experience. He’s not going to be Carlos Rogers or Jerraud Powers, but without Mincy, the cornerback position becomes a real question mark for the Tigers.

S Jermaine Whitehead: “The guy that has played day in and day out, play in and play out, and been the rock, the consistent guy, has been Whitehead,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said late last season. And looking back, Whitehead didn’t get enough credit for his play. He quietly finished fourth on the team in tackles (65), third in interceptions (2) and third in pass breakups (6), but more importantly, he held together a secondary that saw multiple starters go down. He’ll likely be that rock again this season.

DT Gabe Wright: In April, Wright told ESPN.com that this Auburn defensive line could go down as one of the best, if not the best, in the SEC and the nation. That’s bold considering Ford, the team’s sack leader, has moved on to the NFL. But if there’s any chance of Wright’s prediction coming true, it starts with him. The senior, who was once a coveted recruit, has the talent and athleticism to be special. After a disappointing sophomore season, he showed flashes last year with 8.5 tackles for loss, but he’s yet to put it all together. Will this be the year?
AUBURN, Ala. -- What’s the adage? Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Well, after Nick Marshall and the first-team offense put up 44 points in the first half of Saturday's spring game, it’s clear that Auburn has enough firepower to win games. But do the Tigers have a defense good enough to win a championship?

That answer remains unclear.

The 58-3 final score looks bad, but more than anything, it shows a lack of depth on the defense, which is understandable given the number of injuries that ravaged the Tigers this spring. Last week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he had about a dozen guys who either missed all of spring practice or a good portion of the spring. Saturday was no different.

[+] EnlargeBrandon King
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Brandon King breaks up a pass intended for Marcus Davis during the spring game. The Auburn defense's lack of depth showed on Saturday.
Potential starters Carl Lawson, LaDarius Owens and Jermaine Whitehead did not play, and a handful of other key contributors were limited in action, making it difficult to get a read on how good this unit really is.

“I feel like the defense did good,” defensive lineman Gabe Wright said after the game. “It’s hard to say that when the team has got 50-something points, but the first-team unit, we did better. There wasn’t a lot of loafs, according to the coaches. Guys were making plays, so overall I feel like it’s a win for us.”

Wright, who started at defensive tackle last season, played defensive end in the spring game because of all the injuries. He was one of the many players who moved around this spring, and he’s another reason why the grade for the defense is incomplete.

One positive that came from all of the attrition was that it gave several younger players a chance to compete.

With Joshua Holsey out this spring, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief stepped up and earned himself some playing time at one of the safety spots, while versatile sophomore Johnathan Ford played well at the other spot in place of Whitehead on Saturday.

“They looked pretty well,” Robenson Therezie said of the two safeties. “Those are the type of guys we can count on in a big game. They’re not rookies anymore, especially Derrick Moncrief. He came in, and he just got it. He caught up with everything. We feel pretty comfortable with the secondary right now.”

It was no different at linebacker, where injuries limited both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and paved the way for Kenny Flowers. The former junior college transfer was named defensive MVP of the spring game after he finished with seven tackles, 2.5 for loss and a sack.

“It felt great,” Flowers said. “I wasn’t a big factor last year, but I hope to be this year.”

Ultimately, the defense that Auburn rolled out Saturday probably isn’t capable of winning a conference championship, let alone a national championship, but it’s going to look a lot different in the fall, when everybody is back and healthy. That’s when the true test will come.

“This defense is going to be really good,” Therezie said. “Probably better than last year, because we have some guys coming back. We understand the concept of what Coach Johnson is running and everything, so it’s going to be really good. I can’t wait to see it.”

Room to improve: Linebacker

February, 21, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is part five in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn literally ran its way to the BCS title game, rushing for 368 yards per game in the team’s last five wins to close out the regular season. However, what was lost in that magical run was that while the Tigers were running all over its opponents, its opponents were also running over them.

Auburn’s defense allowed over 200 yards rushing in four of those last five games. Even Arkansas and Tennessee, two non-bowl-eligible teams rushed for over 220 yards against the SEC champs.

So what’s the problem or more importantly, who’s to blame?

There’s not one single unit at fault. Part of the blame falls on the defensive line, which was effective rushing the passer but struggled against the run. Part of the blame probably falls on the secondary for allowing good runs to become great runs. But if you’re looking for a scapegoat, look no further than the linebackers.

It’s a group that had its moments in 2013 but ultimately needs to play better if this Auburn defense wants to improve in Year 2 under defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson.

[+] EnlargeJaViere Mitchell
AP Photo/Dave MartinJaViere Mitchell could make a big impact for the Tigers this season.
Battling for No. 1: Before we go and start putting all the blame on the linebackers, let’s not forget that Cassanova McKinzy, the team’s weakside linebacker, had a very solid season. The sophomore led the team with 75 tackles, including eight tackles for loss. Barring injury, he’s entrenched as a starter heading into next season. At middle linebacker, last year’s combination of Jake Holland and Kris Frost played well at times, but the duo was inconsistent overall. Holland graduated which leaves an opportunity for Frost to take sole possession of the job, but he’ll have to earn it by fending off some of the up-and-comers. The other question mark is at the Star, a hybrid position between linebacker and defensive back. Robenson Therezie started every game last year, but his lack of size hurt Auburn at times against the run.

Strength in numbers: The most experienced backup is junior-to-be Anthony Swain. He played in all 14 games last season and finished 13th on the team with 26 tackles. He’ll likely backup McKinzy on the weakside, but he has the size to play middle, too. After Swain, there are still a number of players who could see action this year including JaViere Mitchell, who made two key fourth-down stops against Arkansas, and Kenny Flowers, a junior-college transfer who played in 11 games. The player to watch this spring is Justin Garrett. He was the team’s MVP last spring and was slotted to start at the Star before a multitude of foot injuries limited him to just two games. If Auburn can get him back healthy, it could provide a huge boost for this defense.

New on the scene: The most likely player to push Frost at middle linebacker is one that’s not even on campus yet. ESPN 300 linebacker Tre Williams signed with Auburn in hopes of early playing time, and though he probably has the talent to start from Day 1, he knows he still has to earn it. As a senior, Williams finished with 119 tackles and was named to the all-state team. Don’t be surprised if it turns into another time share between he and Frost, similar to what the Tigers used last year. Auburn also signed Derrick Moncrief, the nation’s No. 1 junior college outside linebacker. Moncrief enrolled early, which gives him the advantage of going through spring practice, and he’s expected to push for immediate playing time at the Star.

How Missouri and Auburn were built 

December, 4, 2013
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After losing 16 games combined last season, Missouri and Auburn have come a long ways as they prepare to face off Saturday in the SEC championship game. How, exactly, did both of these schools get here?

Their success on the field this season -- just two losses combined -- is more impressive considering Auburn is in Gus Malzahn's first season as coach and Missouri moved over from the Big 12 to the SEC before last season. Recruiting is tough enough as it is, but going through such a major transition for both programs can be detrimental to a school's recruiting class.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsFormer No. 1 overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham has caught 49 passes for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
If games were determined by recruiting rankings, Missouri would be at a big disadvantage. Over the past five years, Missouri has never finished inside the top 25 in the team recruiting rankings. In that same time period, the Tigers have landed only five recruits ranked in the ESPN 300.

Week 11 helmet stickers

November, 10, 2013
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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. -- There were plenty of helmet stickers to pass around for Auburn on Saturday. After a slow start, the Tigers found their groove in the second half and cruised to a 55-23 victory. It was the most points scored by either team in the series.

QB Nick Marshall: On the opening drive, Auburn came out throwing. Marshall completed his first pass, but after two incomplete passes and a sack, the Tigers went back to their bread and butter -- running the football. They finished with 444 yards on the ground, and it was Marshall who was the catalyst. The Auburn quarterback rushed for a career-high 214 yards and two touchdowns. He had 164 yards by halftime. He became the 25th player in school history to run for more than 200 yards and the first since Cam Newton did it against LSU in 2010. Marshall completed only three passes all game, but one was a 25-yard touchdown to tight end C.J. Uzomah. The former Georgia defensive back will face his old team next week.

CB Chris Davis: It was only a matter of time before Davis broke one on a punt return this season, and Saturday was the day. With the game tied 13-13 early in the second quarter, the senior cornerback returned a punt 85 yards for a touchdown. He dropped it initially but picked it back up, made a couple of moves and the rest was history. It was the third-longest punt return in school history. In the first quarter, Davis returned a punt 42 yards which set up the Tigers for their first touchdown. He finished with 127 return yards. On defense, he made four tackles and now has 47 on the season, second on the team.

LB Cassanova McKinzy: There were plenty of outstanding performances to choose from on the Auburn defense. Robenson Therezie pulled down his fourth interception of the season. Elijah Daniel recorded his second sack of the season. But nobody played better than McKinzy. He was all over the field for the Tigers. The sophomore led the team with 10 tackles, including 1.5 for loss. At times, he was asked to spy Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs, and although Dobbs got loose a couple of plays, it could have been a lot worse if not for McKinzy. The linebacker corps has struggled this year, but McKinzy seems to play better every week. He now leads the team with 49 tackles.

Honorable mention: RB Tre Mason
AUBURN, Ala. -- Outside of special teams, Auburn linebacker JaViere Mitchell didn’t play until midway through the second quarter of Saturday’s game at Arkansas. But when the Razorbacks drove inside the 5-yard line, the coaches called Mitchell’s number, and he responded.

With help from the defensive line and fellow linebackers, Mitchell came up with back-to-back tackles at the goal line to prevent the Razorbacks from getting in the end zone. Auburn clinged to its 14-3 lead, and the momentum shifted back in the Tigers’ favor.

“Boy, he made two great plays down there, the first one especially,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “The first one he came over the top, and if he didn’t hit that running back, I don’t know if he’d then squirt into the end zone.

[+] EnlargeJaViere Mitchell
AP Photo/Dave MartinAuburn sophomore linebacker JaViere Mitchell made two big goal-line stops at Arkansas.
“Our front did a really good job creating some penetration. Kris [Frost] did a good job of taking on the lead, but Javi made two really good tackles there. That was really the only two plays that he got to play, and both of them were excellent.”

It’s been a difficult year for Mitchell. He missed a week in the spring with a concussion. He lost weight over the summer because of a stomach issue. During the season, he’s moved back and forth between linebacker positions.

Johnson said Mitchell started to catch on and make progress the last three weeks, and the coach said he would feel comfortable putting the sophomore in the game.

Mitchell’s emergence is the latest positive move for a group of linebackers that was thought to be a weakness. But the unit has more than held its own, and it continues to improve every week.

“I feel like there are a lot of things we can do better, but I feel like right now they're all playing very solid, making some plays a lot better than we were at the beginning of the year,” Johnson said.

On Saturday, starting weakside linebacker Cassanova McKinzy had seven tackles, assisted on a tackle for loss and made a key interception. At middle linebacker, Jake Holland and Frost combined for nine tackles and a fumble recovery. The trio has played in every game, and all three have more than 30 tackles this season.

It wasn’t Auburn’s best performance this past weekend as the Razorbacks still rushed for 243 yards, but between the turnovers and the goal-line stand, the linebackers made the plays when it mattered.

“It wasn’t a great week of practice [in preparation for Arkansas],” McKinzy said. “The first two quarters, it showed up. We weren’t getting our right run fits, and they were busting runs on us because of that. There’s just no excuse for it.

“What I take from it: We did decent without a good week of practice. If we have a great week of practice, I feel like it’s going to be hard to get those yards that Arkansas got.”

Auburn will need to start having better practices the rest of the way with three of the SEC’s top rushers -- Tennessee's Rajion Neal, Alabama's T.J. Yeldon and Georgia's Todd Gurley -- still on the schedule. It begins with the linebackers.

Helmet stickers: Week 10

November, 3, 2013
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Auburn’s 35-17 win at Arkansas on Saturday was the Tigers’ first win in Fayetteville since 2007, and the 35 points are the most scored by Auburn at Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium in series history. Now it’s time to hand out some helmet stickers from the game.

RB Tre Mason: If it’s an SEC game on the road, it’s a safe bet that Tre Mason is getting the ball early and often. He carried the load against LSU and Texas A&M earlier this year, and it was no different Saturday. Mason carried it 32 times for 168 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. The Auburn running back was picking up big chunks of yards. He was fighting for the tough yards. And, like he’s done all season, he had a nose for the end zone. He’s now scored at least one rushing touchdown in six consecutive games and 13 of his last 16 contests. Mason is quickly emerging as one of the top running backs in the conference.

DE Dee Ford: Another game, another helmet sticker for Ford. The senior defensive end has been the catalyst for this Auburn defense since returning from a knee injury in Week 3, and he put together another solid performance against Arkansas. Ford finished with just two tackles, but both were for a loss, and his sack in the fourth quarter came on fourth down and ended a Razorbacks’ drive. He now has seven sacks in seven games, an average that puts him among the leaders in college football. For also deflected a pass that wound up in the hands of Cassanova McKinzy for a key interception early in the game.

LB JaViere Mitchell: Ford and Mason are regulars on this list, but Mitchell was the unsung hero for Auburn. He recovered an onside kick in the first half that put the Tigers in good field position and led to an eventual touchdown. Had Arkansas recovered, the momentum could have swung in the Hogs’ favor. Later in the game, Mitchell came up huge with back-to-back goal line stops that kept the Razorbacks out of the end zone. Twice, they ran up the gut, and both times the backup linebacker was there to meet the ball carrier at the line of scrimmage. The push from the defensive line helped, but credit Mitchell for making a play.

Honorable mention: WR Sammie Coates.

Planning for success: Auburn

October, 10, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s Homecoming week which means a lesser opponent for Auburn on Saturday, but that doesn’t change anything for the Tigers. They’re treating Western Carolina like any other team, even with Texas A&M looming.

“There's a lot of different philosophies,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “Some people want to spend a week and just work on the next opponent and some people don't.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Wallace
John Reed/US PRESSWIRECould backup quarterback Jonathan Wallace see some action for the Tigers vs. Western Carolina?
“We're more of the mind-set that we want to treat it (like a regular game). We want to try to keep things consistent for our guys. So for the most part, it's going to be a normal game week. We’re preparing for one opponent, and we’re not really going to work ahead at all.”

Auburn is 2-0 against Western Carolina, including a 56-0 win over the Catamounts in 2002, their most recent meeting.

What Auburn needs to do to win: It’s safe to say Auburn will likely win the game, but it’s not as much about the outcome or the final score as it is about the team playing well and improving. The Tigers are currently riding a wave of momentum, and they want to continue that through this weekend and into the Texas A&M game. Western Carolina has given up more than 40 points in four games this season, so the offense should have no trouble moving the ball. It would be a victory for the defense, which has given up their fair share of yards, to keep the Catamounts out of the end zone or off the scoreboard altogether.

Players to watch

Auburn QB Jonathan Wallace: Starting quarterback Nick Marshall suffered a minor knee injury against Ole Miss, and although it’s likely he’ll play, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t ruled one way or the other yet. If Marshall can’t go, Wallace is next in line to get the start. He started four games for the Tigers a year ago.

Auburn DT Montravius Adams: How much will he play? Adams suffered a leg bruise which kept him out of the second half against Ole Miss. The coaches say he’s fine, but it will be interesting to see how much he actually plays Saturday. If he does suit up, he’ll be hungry to match the performance fellow freshman Carl Lawson had last weekend.

Quotable
“Whenever you have one of your players carted off, that is one of the worse feelings you can have as a coach. I looked up and saw him back on the sidelines standing up and moving with a smile on his face. That gave me a lift, and I am sure it gave the rest of our coaches and players a lift, too.” -- Gus Malzahn on Cassanova McKinzy’s neck injury from Saturday
Auburn defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker will not return to the field this season and will receive a medical redshirt, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday.

Whitaker started the last two seasons for the Tigers and was expected to be an anchor on the defensive line this year before he underwent surgery on his right knee during fall camp. The senior was working his way back but will now wait and return in 2014.

"Jeff has been playing banged up the last year or so anyway," Malzahn said. "I think it will be good for him to be healthy. That is our goal -- to get him healthy for next year and have a chance to have his best season."

In 35 appearances with Auburn, Whitaker had 44 tackles, three for a loss, and a forced fumble.

The staff recently moved Nosa Eguae from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he joins a rotation that includes two-year starter Gabe Wright, junior college transfer Ben Bradley and true freshman Montravius Adams.

Malzahn also announced on Tuesday that linebacker Justin Garrett will not play this weekend because of a foot injury. He has already missed three games this season, and the Auburn coach said Garrett will be "week-to-week" going forward.

On a more positive note, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy returned to practice Tuesday after suffering a neck injury over the weekend. He had to be carted off the field.

"That was a scary deal, and it looks like it is going to turn out good," Malzahn said.

The Tigers will host Western Carolina on Saturday at 1 p.m. CT.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 7, 2013
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Here are some of today's headlines from around the SEC.

Auburn uses open week to get healthy

September, 26, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn has played four games under new coach Gus Malzahn, and although the Tigers are coming off a loss to LSU, the results have been fairly positive. They started 3-0, won their first conference game in nearly two years and stayed competitive in Death Valley.

With no game this weekend, the Tigers are planning for the future.

“The open date comes at a very good time for our team,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got four games under our belt for our coaches to evaluate our personnel, see where we’re at as a team and plan moving forward for the rest of the year to put our guys in the best place to be successful.”

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
AP Photo/Dave MartinDee Ford is slowly rounding back into form after recovering from an MCL injury.
But more importantly, the week off gives Auburn a chance to get healthy.

“I don’t think I’ve been around a team that had that many (injuries) this early and to main impact players,” Malzahn said. “Defensively, we’ve been playing without a lot of our impact players, and even when we get them back, they’re not quite 100 percent yet. But they’re getting there.”

Both Dee Ford and Justin Garrett missed the first two games due to injury but returned against Mississippi State. Ford, the team’s top pass rusher, sprained his MCL in fall camp but is slowly working his way back. Garrett sprained his foot in camp and has since moved positions from the Star to weakside linebacker.

Against LSU, Auburn was without cornerback Chris Davis and defensive end Craig Sanders as both players suffered ankle injuries prior to the game. Davis led the Tigers with 10 tackles against Arkansas State in week two and also serves as the team’s primary punt returner.

Additionally, running back Corey Grant, defensive back Robenson Therezie and linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy all missed time or were limited against LSU.

Needless to say, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Auburn.

“That may be the biggest blessing of the off week that we have a chance to get some of our guys healed up,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got guys that weren’t 100 percent that played anyway last week, so hopefully this week will help them get back to 100 percent. And the guys that haven’t played, we’ll have a chance to have two weeks before our next game and have a chance to get one of those guys back on the field.”

Defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker is among those who have yet to play this season, but his status is a little more in question. The two-year starter suffered a knee injury in fall camp that required surgery, and the coaching staff said they plan to make a decision on his future in the coming weeks.

The team also confirmed this week that wide receiver Jaylon Denson would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

“To lose a guy like Jaylon Denson is a huge blow, but it creates opportunities for other people,” Malzahn said. “The good thing is for the future we’re playing a whole bunch of young guys. That will do nothing but helps us for the future.”

Next up for Auburn is a home game with Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 5.

Planning for success: Auburn Tigers

September, 12, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn hosts Mississippi State this Saturday, it will be the 10th straight year the two teams have opened the conference season with each other. Because of that, the game has a little extra meaning for the Bulldogs and Tigers.

“It's the first SEC game of the year,” MSU head coach Dan Mullen said. “Here at Mississippi State in the little time I've been here, I think even prior to my time, it's been against Auburn every single year, so I think it adds a little bit of a rivalry aspect to the game.”

Since the two started playing each other in their first SEC game, Auburn has had the Bulldogs’ number, winning seven of the last nine meetings. However, Mississippi State took last year’s game, 28-10, in what Mullen now calls one of his top victories as head coach.

But Auburn looks much different in 2013. The coaching staff has changed. The offense has changed. And more importantly, the Tigers are 2-0. They will put that undefeated record on the line Saturday in what has become a pivotal game for both teams.

Storylines

Which quarterback will play for Mississippi State?

Starting quarterback Tyler Russell suffered a concussion in week 1’s loss to Oklahoma State. He left in the third quarter of the first game and didn’t play at all last weekend against Alcorn State. In his absence, backup signal caller Dak Prescott has thrown for over 250 yards and two touchdowns. The Auburn coaches expect Russell to return Saturday, but they’re still preparing as if both quarterbacks will play. Russell will likely get the start if healthy, but Prescott could still play in certain packages. He adds a running threat to the offense.

What will we see from Auburn’s offense?

Gus Malzahn’s no-huddle offense is all about tempo. The faster the pace, the better the offense runs. There’s already been a noticeable difference from last year, but the Auburn head coach says it’s not fast enough. That’s partly due to new quarterback Nick Marshall, who’s still learning the offense, the schemes, the calls, everything. As he gets more comfortable with his offense, expect the Tigers to hurry up even more. There’s also a good chance Malzahn and his staff will have a few tricks up their sleeves for Saturday’s SEC opener.

Who will win the turnover battle?

Auburn’s defense has been far from perfect. They’ve had to rely on turnovers and fourth-down stops to keep their opponent out of the end zone for the most part. That won’t work every game, but it could be the key against Mississippi State. The Bulldogs’ two quarterbacks have already thrown three interceptions through the first two games. On the flip side, Marshall has yet to throw a pick for Auburn. If the Tigers can win the turnover battle Saturday, it will go a long way in increasing their chances to win the game.

Players to watch

Auburn: LB Jake Holland

With middle linebacker Kris Frost suspended for the first half, it will be up to Holland to carry the weight. Holland started the opener but struggled against Washington State. He played much better in Week 2, and Auburn needs another strong performance from both Holland and fellow linebacker Cassanova McKinzy this week.

Mississippi State: RB LaDarius Perkins

Russell isn’t the only Mississippi State player returning this week from injury. Perkins missed the Alcorn State game due to an ankle sprain, but he’s expected to play Saturday. The senior proved to be one of the better backs in the SEC a season ago, rushing for over 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns.

Quotable

“We played against Oregon and Chip Kelly in 2010 and I got a chance to [again] last year. His signs were fancier than ours, so I tried to get a little competitive with that. Hopefully, we’re doing a better job. I’m not that creative in all that but our players, they have some ownership in that.” -- head coach Gus Malzahn, on Auburn’s play cards from the sideline
AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first two games, Auburn’s defense is ranked in the bottom half of the NCAA, giving up 443 yards per game. But yet, the Tigers have not allowed a touchdown since Washington State scored in the second quarter of game one. That’s six straight quarters and 19 straight possessions that Auburn has kept the opponent out of its end zone.

“We’ve got a lot of things we can improve on, but like I told the players, any time somebody doesn’t touch the end zone, you’ve done something right,” Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said.

During Saturday’s victory, there was a point midway through the second quarter where Arkansas State had more yards and had nearly doubled the time of possession, yet trailed 14-3. The Red Wolves made it inside the AU 30 on each of their first three drives, but they were stopped on fourth down twice and had to settle for a field goal the other time.

Just like in game one, the Tigers’ defense stepped up and made plays when they needed to.

“We had an edge not to let them in the end zone going into the game,” linebacker Cassanova McKinzy said. “Like Coach Johnson says, when you face a team, you don't let them in your end zone. It has nothing to do with the play calling. It was the heart of all the guys on the field. I feel like we just had an edge. We were just playing like a brand new team.”

McKinzy, in particular, had a good game. The weakside linebacker didn’t play much in the opener because of personnel and schemes but finished with eight tackles and two quarterback hurries against Arkansas State.

LaDarius Owens also recorded eight tackles for Auburn, including two for a loss and one sack. In the second quarter, he chased down the quarterback and forced an incomplete pass on fourth down, a stop that killed a 14-play, 54-yard drive for the Red Wolves.

“It’s kind of a bend-not-break theorem,” Owens said. “We’re still in the early parts of the season, a few kinks we’ve got to correct, but it’s all about attitude. Whether you give up a big play, it’s next-play mentality. That’s what the defense is all about.

“We have to stick together through the good and bad times. We were able to stay strong in short yardage, fourth-and-short and dealing with them getting in our red zone.”

Auburn’s first-year defensive coordinator has been around the game for a long time, but it’s been awhile since he’s heard the bend-don’t-break philosophy.

“If somebody coaches that way anymore, I don’t know,” Johnson said. “I’ve heard all that. A lot of people like if you blitz a lot or do you not blitz a lot -- not blitzing is bend, don’t break. I think I was in the third grade when that term started and as you can see, I’m pretty old.

“We certainly don’t have a philosophy where each series we say, ‘We want to give up 50 yards guys but don’t give up a touchdown.’”

Ideally, the defense would like to get off the field in three plays or less, but for Auburn, the bend-but-don’t-break philosophy has worked to this point. On the flip side, it’s also helped mask some of the team’s weaknesses early in the season, including missed tackles and third down stops, but the Tigers are still 2-0 through the first two games.

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