Auburn Tigers: Ellis Johnson

Auburn spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
10:00
AM ET
Three things we learned in the spring about the Auburn Tigers:

1. The offense is scary good: Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense made quite a splash in his first season as head coach at Auburn, and although star running back Tre Mason is gone, the offense could be even better in Year 2. Quarterback Nick Marshall is back and looks more confident running the show. He has a deeper and more talented group of skill players at his disposal, and the offensive line returns four starters. SEC defenses beware.

2. D’haquille is the real deal: The expectations were high for D'haquille Williams, the No. 1 junior college player in the country in the Class of 2014, but he not only met those expectations, he exceeded them. The coaches say he’s further along than they thought he would be at this point, and it was evident during the spring game as he had five catches for 88 yards and a touchdown.

3. Depth remains a concern: Injuries took their toll on Auburn during spring practice, and while it might have created opportunities for some, it also showed what little depth the Tigers have at certain spots. Players had to play out of position in some cases, and the second-team offense and defense looked completely outmatched in what turned into a lopsided spring game.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinAuburn signal-caller Nick Marshall will have several talented playmakers around him in 2014.
1. How good is the defense?: At this point, we have no idea. It was a question mark heading into the spring, and it remains a question mark. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he probably had close to a dozen players on defense who missed a good chunk of spring practice, making it nearly impossible to see how all the pieces fit. Not to mention, the coaches expect part of the 2014 class to make an impact, specifically on defense.

2. Who will be the starting left tackle?: It was clear early on that the staff would wait until the fall to make a decision on who would replace Greg Robinson. After the spring, Shon Coleman seems to be in the driver’s seat, but Patrick Miller is still in the mix, and there’s also the theory that he moves to right tackle and Avery Young moves to guard.

3. Where does Holsey play?: The emergence of junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief at safety has created a logjam in the secondary. Moncrief impressed the coaches so much this spring that they are now considering keeping him at safety and when Joshua Holsey returns from injury in the fall, they would try him at either cornerback or the Star position.

One way-too-early prediction:

If the offense is as good as advertised, then there’s no way that Marshall won’t be invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He led all quarterbacks with 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing last season, and he’s made it a point to improve as a passer this offseason. In a league where most of the elite quarterbacks have moved on, Marshall has a chance to be special for Auburn this season.
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.”

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.



AUBURN, Ala. -- Gabe Wright isn’t a defensive end. At 6-foot-3 and 284 pounds, he simply doesn’t fit the bill. He’s too big, too valuable a space-eater inside at defensive tackle. Moving him to end would be like chasing a sports car with a tank. Some things just don’t make sense. Some players just aren’t built to play in space.

Yet there he is during practice this spring, lining up on the edge of the defensive line, pinning his ears back and rushing the passer. In doing his best Carl Lawson impression, Wright has gotten some fans on The Plains excited. But, as defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson cautions everyone: “I don’t foresee that being permanent.”

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Gabe Wright believes he'd be an effective defensive end in certain situations after getting reps there this spring.
Sorry, folks. The so-called “Rhino Package” won’t be an every down occurrence this fall, though the imagery in itself is something to root for -- plumes of dust, the screech of fans in the distance, the target of the hunt a helpless SEC quarterback named Brandon Allen or Dak Prescott or Dylan Thompson.

Wright and fellow tackle Montravius Adams aren’t the new wave of roughly 300-pound ends, though. They’re tackles through and through. Their time spent at end this spring has been only by necessity, making up for a shortened rotation of ends as Dee Ford and Craig Sanders were lost to graduation. Auburn took another hit when LaDarius Owens broke his foot, Keymiya Harrell went down with an unspecified injury and Elijah Daniel hurt his groin, leading to one of the more perplexing out-of-context quotes of all time from Johnson: “Groins can be funny.”

When asked if Auburn was thin at end, head coach Gus Malzahn responded, "We definitely are."

On the bright side, it's making things interesting for the rest of the defensive line.

“It’s a blessing for me to get on the edge,” said Wright, who played some end in high school. “We had some guys go down, some depth issues this spring. So guys had to step up.”

The blessing, for someone like Wright, is obvious.

“Let’s see: End, you get maybe 30 percent of a double team,” he explained. “When I’m inside, I get 90 percent of a double team.”

Wright, who finished second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and third with three sacks a year ago, said that spending time at end has helped him work on his pass-rushing skills. No longer struggling for space to move in a double team, he can get off the line and either rush the edge, swim inside or go one-on-one and bull-rush an offensive lineman.

Versatility, though, might the biggest benefit to having both Wright and Adams at end this spring. When opposing offenses go into jumbo packages, expect to see a few more big bodies along the defensive line this season.

“I think it does nothing but help us moving forward,” Malzahn said.

Said Wright: “The fact that we can maybe go four D-tackles at one point, that just amazes me. It’s like, What do you do? We can bull-rush the tackles and we can bull-rush the ends.”

When asked point blank whether he genuinely expected to play outside, Wright hedged his bets.

“When we do have teams like Arkansas, Alabama, LSU -- and this is not what coaches have told me -- I just believe it will be a factor,” he said. “You’ve got two-, three-tight-end sets. Why not be able to put a D-tackle out there?”

Whether he's at end or tackle, one thing will remain the same: Defensive line coach Rodney Garner will be there in his ear shouting words of, say, encouragement.

“All the same,” Wright said of Garner's colorful vocabulary. “It’s all 'exciting', 'exquisite' and 'extraordinary.' ”

And expletive?

“Expletive,” he said. “Very expletive.”

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
10:00
AM ET
Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
This is Part II of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- There have been plenty of questions surrounding Auburn’s defensive line this offseason. How do you replace a guy like Dee Ford? Who will be the leaders now that Ford and Nosa Eguae are both gone? What should be expected of the rising sophomores? Will any of the newcomers make an impact?

Here’s a bold prediction for the spring: The defensive line will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013.

How can that be when Auburn is losing a combined 20 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks from Eguae and Ford? Three reasons -- star power, experience and depth. The line was the strength of the defense a year ago, and it’s expected be the strength again this season.

The key will be that trio of rising sophomores -- Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- who should evolve from promising young rookies to the dominant defensive linemen that Auburn fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the years.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstCarl Lawson showed he could be Auburn's next defensive star after a solid freshman season.
All three came to Auburn as highly ranked recruits, and though they had their moments last fall, it was clear they were still raw. As spring practice approaches, they have had a chance to play in the SEC, and they’ve been able to work out in a major college weight room. They’re ready, both physically and mentally, to take the next step.

Lawson, in particular, could be in line for a huge spring as he looks to replace Ford at one of the defensive end spots.

“That guy is going to be a mammoth player by the time he leaves here,” Eguae said of Lawson, a former five-star recruit.

The talent and star power might be in the sophomore class, but experience cannot be taught, and Auburn has plenty of it. With defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker expected to return for a fifth season, the Tigers will feature five scholarship seniors on their defensive line.

It’s a group that includes LaDarius Owens and Gabe Wright, two starters from the BCS title game. They might not be as good as Eguae and Ford just yet, but the duo still combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. Former junior college transfer Ben Bradley is another senior to watch. He played well early in the season but faded late.

Auburn also signed six defensive linemen in 2014 to add even more depth to an already deep unit. The three most likely to contribute next year are juco teammates DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence and ESPN 300 defensive end Andrew Williams, who waited until signing day before choosing the Tigers.

“That was a strength of ours last year,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of the defensive line. “We lost some seniors, but we really feel like we filled our needs there. We got some outstanding impact players that coach [Rodney] Garner is very excited about.”

All four starting spots on the defensive line will be up for grabs, but Garner proved last season that just because a player isn’t in the starting lineup doesn’t mean he’s not going to play. Early in the year, Auburn was rotating eight or nine bodies up front. Garner and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have plenty of options to choose from as they put together the rotation for the season opener. It’s a pool of players that’s talented, experienced and deep.
Editor’s note: This is part three in a week-long series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- On Tuesday, the Auburn coaches and players looked on as former defensive end Dee Ford showed off his athleticism at the Tigers’ pro day. It was a bittersweet moment for most of them. On one hand, they want to see Ford get drafted in the first round. But it also reminded them of what they’re going to be without next season.

[+] EnlargeJameis Winston
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesLaDarius Owens, right, is the most experienced defensive end on Auburn's 2014 roster and recorded half a sack in the BCS title game.
Despite missing the first two games of 2013, Ford still led the team with 10.5 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss. He had one of the quickest first steps in the SEC and provided a consistent pass rush that more than made up for deficiencies on the back end.

“We don’t max blitz,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said prior to the VIZIO BCS National Championship. “We have to get there with four or five. ... I think our edge guys have been much more productive, and it’s obvious.”

So how do you replace that kind of production? That’s the question Auburn will try to answer this spring. It won’t be easy, but the Tigers do have a good mixture of veterans and rising stars who will vie for playing time.

The contenders

LaDarius Owens (senior): With Ford gone, Owens becomes the veteran of the group. He has played in 31 games and started 11, including the BCS title game. As a junior, he finished with 30 tackles, including five for a loss, and 2.5 sacks. He might not be the most explosive defensive end on the roster, but he’s the most experienced. And if last year was any indication, the coaches tend to lean toward experience.

Carl Lawson (sophomore): If you’re looking for the star of the group, look no further. Lawson was ranked the nation's No. 2 overall player in the 2013 ESPN 300 coming out of high school and showed flashes of that potential last season as a freshman. His teammates raved about his talent throughout the season, and Johnson said physically Lawson was ahead of where the older guys were at that point in there careers, Ford included. Lawson still has to earn his spot, but with his work ethic and attitude, he could be in for a monster spring.

Elijah Daniel (sophomore): Lawson stole the headlines last year, but he wasn’t the only freshman defensive end to make an impact. Daniel had a strong season in his own right. The former ESPN 300 prospect didn't start any games but still finished among the team leaders with 2.5 sacks. The upcoming spring is critical for the rising sophomore. Even if he doesn’t win a starting job, he can solidify his spot in the rotation before the newcomers arrive this summer.

Gimel President (sophomore): The next-most-experienced end on the roster is President, who played in three games last year and made three tackles. He’ll have an opportunity this spring to crack the two-deep depth chart and make a case for more playing time.

Keymiya Harrell (junior): He missed most of spring practice a year ago due to a knee injury, but Harrell is healthy and hoping to make the most of his opportunity this spring. He played in just one game last season.

Note: Three freshmen defensive ends are expected to arrive this summer, including ESPN 300 recruit Andrew Williams.

Spring forecast
Owens and Lawson should be the front-runners to start next season, but there are still plenty of opportunities available for the other players. Johnson likes to rotate his defensive linemen so he can keep his starters fresh for the fourth quarter, and there’s always the potential for injury, too. That’s why this spring is so important for players like President and Harrell, who could be running out of time to make an impression.
Setting up the spring in the SEC West:

ALABAMA

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Succeeding McCarron: The Crimson Tide must find the person who will step into AJ McCarron’s shoes. There are several quarterbacks on campus: Blake Sims, Alec Morris, Parker McLeod and Cooper Bateman. The person most have pegged as the favorite, however, won’t be on campus until the summer: Jacob Coker. A transfer from Florida State, Coker is finishing his degree before enrolling at Alabama. But new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will get a chance for a long look at the others this spring.
  • What’s next for Henry?: Running back Derrick Henry has the fans excited after his Allstate Sugar Bowl performance (eight carries, 100 yards), and he brings great size to the position (6-foot-3, 238 pounds). T.J. Yeldon is a returning starter who is more experienced and battle-tested, and there are still other talented backs on the roster, such as Kenyan Drake. But plenty of eyes will be on the sophomore-to-be Henry.
  • Replacing Mosley: Linebacker C.J. Mosley was a decorated star and leader, so his presence will be missed. Alabama has plenty of talent in the pipeline; it’s just not tremendously experienced. Watch for Reuben Foster and Reggie Ragland.
ARKANSAS

Spring start: March 16

Spring game: April 26

What to watch:
  • Keeping it positive: It’s been rough around Fayetteville, Ark. The Razorbacks closed their season with nine losses in a row; coach Bret Bielema is a focal point in the unpopular NCAA proposal designed to slow down hurry-up offenses; and leading running back Alex Collins served a weeklong suspension last month for unspecified reasons. The Hogs could use some positivity.
  • A new DC: The Razorbacks will be working in a new defensive coordinator, Robb Smith. He came over from the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, where he was the linebackers coach. Smith made a significant impact at his last college stop, Rutgers, where he led the Scarlet Knights' defense to a No. 10 ranking in total defense in 2012.
  • Year 2 progress: Making a drastic change in scheme isn’t easy to do, which is what the Razorbacks tried to accomplish in Bielema's debut season. In the second spring in Fayetteville for Bielema, things should come a little more easily as the Razorbacks continue to institute Bielema's brand of power football.
AUBURN

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 19

What to watch:
  • Picking up where they left off: The Tigers put together a memorable, magical 2013, and with eight starters returning on offense, keeping that momentum going is key. Replacing running back Tre Mason and O-lineman Greg Robinson won't be easy, but there is still plenty of talent on offense to aid quarterback Nick Marshall.
  • Marshall's progress: Marshall’s ascent last year was impressive, but can he continue it? He’s great with his feet and made some big-time throws last year. As he continues to progress as a passer, it should add another facet to the Tigers’ explosive, up-tempo, multifaceted attack.
  • Improving the defense: The Tigers lost five starters from a group that was suspect at times last season. But defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a history of improving defenses from Year 1 to Year 2, and it should be interesting to see if he can do that at Auburn.
LSU

Spring start: March 7

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
MISSISSIPPI STATE

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 12

What to watch:
  • All eyes on Prescott: With some strong performances to close out the season in the Egg Bowl and in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl, quarterback Dak Prescott certainly played the part of an elite SEC quarterback. He'll enter the season with more national attention after putting together some gutsy performances while pushing through some personal adversity last season after the death of his mother.
  • Malone stepping in: Justin Malone was on pace to start at right guard last season, but was lost for the year with a Lisfranc injury in his foot in the season opener against Oklahoma State. With Gabe Jackson gone, the Bulldogs need another solid interior lineman to step up, and a healthy 6-foot-7, 320-pound Malone could be that guy.
  • Offensive staff shuffle: The Bulldogs added some new blood on the offensive coaching staff, bringing in young quarterbacks coach Brian Johnson, a former Utah quarterback. Billy Gonzales and John Hevesy were promoted to co-offensive coordinators, though head coach Dan Mullen will continue as the playcaller in games.
OLE MISS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 5

What to watch:
  • Wallace’s development: Coach Hugh Freeze believes quarterback Bo Wallace will be helped by having more practice this time around; last year, January shoulder surgery had Wallace rehabilitating most of the offseason, and Freeze believes it affected Wallace's arm strength later in the season. A fresh Wallace going into the spring can only help, and as he’s heading into his senior season, the coaching staff will look for more consistency.
  • Status of Nkemdiche and Bryant: Linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant were arrested last month and suspended. Ole Miss is investigating the situation, but their status remains undecided.
  • A healthy Aaron Morris: During the season opener against Vanderbilt, Morris tore his ACL and missed the rest of the season. The offensive guard was recently granted a medical hardship waiver to restore that season of eligibility. Getting Morris back healthy for 2014 is important for the Rebels as he is a key piece to their offensive line.
TEXAS A&M

Spring start: Feb. 28

Spring game: None (final practice is April 5)

What to watch:
  • Life after Johnny Manziel: Texas A&M says goodbye to one of the best quarterbacks in college football history and must find his successor. Spring (and fall) practice will be the stage for a three-way battle between senior Matt Joeckel, sophomore Kenny Hill and freshman Kyle Allen. Only one of those three has started a college game (Joeckel), and he played in just one half last August. Whoever wins the competition will be green, but all three have the ability to run the Aggies’ offense.
  • Retooling the defense: The Aggies were pretty awful on defense last season, ranking among the bottom 25 nationally in most defensive statistical categories. They have to get much better on that side of the football if they want to be a real factor in the SEC West race, and that starts in the spring by developing the young front seven and trying to find some answers in the secondary, particularly at the safety positions.
  • New left tackle: This spring, the Aggies will have their third different left tackle in as many seasons. Luke Joeckel rode a stellar 2012 season to the No. 2 overall pick in the NFL draft. Senior Jake Matthews made himself a projected top-10 pick for this year's draft while protecting Manziel last season. This season, Cedric Ogbuehi gets his turn. Ogbuehi has excelled throughout his Texas A&M career on the right side of the offensive line (first at right guard, then at right tackle last season) and is looking to follow in the footsteps of Joeckel and Matthews.

Editor’s note: This is part one in a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The Star position. What is it? A hybrid between a linebacker and a defensive back. What are its responsibilities? To help against the run, to blitz at times and to cover the slot wide receiver or tight end. Who will fill the role next season for Auburn? To be determined.

Senior-to-be Robenson Therezie would seem like the favorite. He started every game at the Star last season during Auburn’s run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, led the team with four interceptions and finished sixth in tackles.

However, there’s a reason the Auburn staff pushed so hard for ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans, who was projected to come in and compete at the Star as a freshman. The local prospect ended up signing with Alabama, but it still begs the question, is Therezie the clear-cut starter heading into spring practice?

“Robenson was a corner when we finished spring [last year],” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “We had to move him to get some depth at Star, and Justin Garrett, probably the best playmaker we had coming out of spring ball, got injured. By the time he got back, Robenson had taken that job.”

Now everybody’s healthy, and there’s a new face in the mix.

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie could be the player to beat at Star, but he'll have some athletic competition.
The contenders

Therezie (senior): Make no mistake about it: Therezie was a playmaker last fall. After not playing much his first two years on campus, he finally got an opportunity and took advantage of it. He was known as a big hitter from his high school days, and he had the ability to cover, too. Perfect, right? The only problem was his size. At 5-foot-9, 204 pounds, he’s a tad undersized for the position.

Garrett (junior): He was supposed to be the ideal fit at Star in Johnson’s new 4-2-5 defense. He looked more like a linebacker, but he could cover like a defensive back. He was the MVP of the spring a year ago and listed atop the depth chart, but injuries kept him out of fall camp and opened the door for Therezie. When Garrett returned, he moved to weakside linebacker but was never fully healthy, playing in just two games before opting to take a medical redshirt. Now he’s back and hoping to duplicate the success he had last spring.

Derrick Moncrief (junior): The wild card in all this could be Moncrief, a junior college transfer who enrolled in January. He was the top-ranked juco outside linebacker and is expected to make an immediate impact either at Star or one of the safety positions. On signing day, coach Gus Malzahn called him a big, rangy guy who has very good ball skills and is a very good tackler. By the sound of it, he has all the right attributes.

Mackenro Alexander (sophomore): The plan was likely to redshirt Alexander, but injuries forced the freshman into action, and he served as Therezie’s backup for much of the season. In eight games, he finished with four tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

Spring forecast
This is still Therezie’s job to lose, but with openings at cornerback and safety -- until Josh Holsey returns from injury -- the Auburn coaches might experiment with Therezie at other positions in the secondary, allowing for both Garrett and Moncrief to receive more reps at Star. The goal is always to get the best players on the field, and that could mean moving Therezie to a new position. Unlike last season, there are plenty of options.

Players to watch: DE Carl Lawson

February, 25, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is part two in a weeklong series looking at five Auburn players to watch this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Like any freshman, defensive end Carl Lawson was inconsistent at times in 2013. The talent was there, but it took him a while to figure it all out. Even when he did, it was difficult to sustain that level of play game in and game out.

There was one game in particular that should have Auburn fans excited and opposing quarterbacks nervous about the former five-star prospect. In October, Lawson wreaked havoc on the Ole Miss backfield. He sacked Bo Wallace twice and finished with 3.5 tackles for loss. The only critique would have been his sack dance, which clearly needed a little fine-tuning.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstCarl Lawson had his best game last season against Ole Miss.
After the game, his cohorts on the defensive line were singing his praises.

“That guy is going to be a mammoth player by the time he leaves here,” Nosa Eguae said. “He’s just continuing to get better every single week. That guy -- he’s like a sponge -- he just soaks in everything. He asks a lot of questions. He just wants to be the best player he can be.”

“Carl’s a man-child,” Gabe Wright added. “There was nothing holding Carl back physically, it was just maybe a little bit mental.”

The fact that half of Lawson’s season sack total came in one game wasn’t due to a lack of effort. It wasn’t because the college game was too physical for a player who had dominated high school offensive tackles the year before. It was mental -- a missed assignment here or there.

“Physically, he’s probably ahead of where our older guys were at that point in their career,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said prior to the BCS title game. “But he may make an assignment bust that an older kid might not make.

“I think he’s going to be a great player because he studies the game, he works hard, and his learning curve is going to get better and better.”

Keep in mind that Lawson arrived at Auburn in June and had to play his first game just two months later. He didn’t go through spring practice and had little time to learn the intricacies of a college defense.

That’s why this spring is so important for him. Not only from a physical standpoint -- he’ll undoubtedly get stronger -- but from a mental standpoint. He has a year under his belt, and now he has a full offseason to work with Johnson, work with his fellow defensive linemen and work on becoming a complete player.

There’s also plenty of opportunity with Eguae and Dee Ford both gone. If Lawson has a good spring, followed by a strong fall camp, he could start for the Tigers next season. And with that, it won't be long before he's a star in the SEC.

Room to improve: Defensive line

February, 19, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is Part III in a week-long series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The defensive line wasn’t bad in 2013. In fact, it was quite the contrary. The line was considered the strength of the defense, and the rotation of players up front was one of the reasons Auburn won 12 games and made the run it did. However, when you lose two starters and arguably the two most consistent players on the line, there’s still plenty of room to improve.

It starts with defensive end Dee Ford. How do you replace a player who led the team in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (14.5)? The Tigers were without him the first two games this past season, and although they won, there was a noticeable difference when Ford returned to the lineup against Mississippi State.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGabe Wright (90) and Carl Lawson (55) figure to be major cogs in the defensive line rotation in 2014.
The other loss up front, Nosa Eguae, isn’t as talented as Ford, but he was just as valuable in his own way. He started the season at defensive end but moved to tackle midway through the season to help the team. Eguae might not get drafted, but the intangibles and the leadership qualities he provided will be difficult to replace.

The good thing is that defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have plenty of options to choose from. Auburn’s defensive line is as deep, if not deeper than any other position on the field. But can they sustain success, and more importantly, can they improve on last year?

Battling for No. 1: Seniors to be Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens were both listed as starters on the depth chart for the VIZIO BCS National Championship game, so they’re obviously the favorites to crack the starting rotation in 2014. Wright led all Auburn defensive linemen with 31 tackles in the 2013 season, and Owens was right behind him with 30. Defensive tackle Angelo Blackson started 10 games as a sophomore in 2012 but lost his job this past season when Eguae moved inside. He’ll be given every opportunity to win it back this spring. Beyond that, it’s a pair of former ESPN 300 prospects who are next in line. Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams just wrapped up their freshman seasons, and they both hope to take the next step in their second seasons. Lawson, who was second on the team with four sacks, has the makings of a star.

Strength in numbers: This is where Auburn thrived last season. The coaches were able to rotate close to seven or eight players up front each game, and the line didn’t miss a beat. That not only provided valuable game experience, but it also kept the starters fresh for the fourth quarter. Junior college transfer Ben Bradley and freshman Elijah Daniel were both thrown in the mix as soon as they arrived on campus, and both responded well. Bradley, who enrolled last January, started in three games in his first season. In reality, they both belong in the above group, as they will both compete with the first group this spring. But regardless of whether or not they start, they will be counted on for depth. There’s not much depth after that. The next-most experienced player, JaBrian Niles, has played in just seven games over the last two seasons.

New on the scene: Auburn put together one of the top defensive line classes in the country a year ago. This year’s class might not rival that, but it’s still a promising group. The two most likely to compete for early playing time are junior college transfers DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence. Unlike Bradley, they weren’t able to enroll early, so they won’t go through spring ball, but they should still be ahead of the other signees physically. Lambert, in particular, has a real chance to make an early impact. He was the top-rated defensive tackle in ESPN Junior College 50 rankings. The Tigers also signed three ESPN 300 defensive linemen, headlined by defensive end Andrew Williams, who committed to Auburn on national signing day. The line should continue to be the strength of Auburn’s defense for years to come.

Season report card: Auburn

January, 27, 2014
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Auburn's report card for the 2013 season is the kind you can't wait to take home to mom and dad.

OFFENSE: A

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsIt was a storybook season in many ways for Gus Malzahn's Tigers.
It doesn't get much better offensively than what we saw from Auburn in 2013. No, the Tigers didn't drop back and throw it a bunch, but they ran Gus Malzahn's hurry-up offense with precision, purpose and power and ran it all the way to a berth in the VIZIO BCS National Championship. Auburn finished 12th nationally in scoring offense with a 39.5-point average. And you want consistency? The Tigers scored 30 or more points in 13 of their 14 games and led the country in rushing offense at 328.3 yards per game. In their last three games (and their three most important games), they ran for a total of 1,073 yards against three highly ranked run defenses. Tre Mason led the SEC in rushing with a school-record 1,816 yards. Nick Marshall really came into his own at quarterback after coming over from junior college and flirted with 2,000 passing yards (1,976) and 1,000 rushing yards (1,068). The most underrated part of the Auburn offense was an offensive line that was the best in the league when the season ended.

DEFENSE: B-

Auburn's numbers on defense weren't pretty. The Tigers ranked 12th in the SEC in total defense (420.7 yards per game) and gave up way too many big plays for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's liking. A prime example was the 49-yard catch and run by Florida State's Rashad Greene on the Seminoles' game-winning drive in the BCS title game. The Tigers had two players in position to make the tackle for a 10-yard gain, but it instead turned into a backbreaker. Nonetheless, Auburn's defensive plan in the championship game was outstanding, and the Tigers' defense played well enough overall to win. They made clutch plays all season on the defensive side of the ball and were excellent on third down and in the red zone. Senior defensive end Dee Ford developed into one of the best pass rushers in the league. This grade is a little higher on defense than maybe the numbers would suggest, but the Tigers played big when they had to.

SPECIAL TEAMS: A-

Punter Steven Clark was one of the best in the country at pinning teams deep and was one of the stars of the BCS National Championship. The Tigers were second in the SEC in net punting and second in punt return average. They also had three overall returns (two kickoffs and one punt) for touchdowns, not to mention the special teams play of the year in college football -- Chris Davis' kick-six to beat Alabama in the Iron Bowl. The downer was giving up the kickoff return for a touchdown to Florida State in the national title game, which completely changed the complexion of that contest. That's the only thing that keeps this from being a solid "A."

OVERALL: A

What a storybook season on the Plains. The Tigers, a year removed from going winless in the SEC, turned in one miraculous and/or thrilling finish after another to win the SEC championship and come within an eyelash of winning the national title. Malzahn did a masterful job in turning this program around, and his staff was equally superb. When you consider how far the Tigers came from where they were to end the 2012 season, this probably ought to be an A+. But we reserve those for national championship seasons. It wasn't quite a national championship season for Auburn. But, boy, was it a memorable one.

Past grades:

Alabama: B-
Arkansas: D
Editor's note: This is Part III in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Ellis Johnson is known for turning around SEC defenses quickly. He did it at Mississippi State in 2004. He did it at South Carolina in 2008. And it was no different this season at Auburn, his first as defensive coordinator.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsCarl Lawson will be called upon to step up as a pass-rusher in 2014.
Through the first 12 games, the Tigers were ranked No. 31 nationally in scoring defense, allowing 22.5 points per game. That was up 35 spots from a year ago when they gave up 28.3 points per game. The improvement can be attributed to a number of things, but the numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Auburn’s defense did a good job of keeping teams out of the end zone, but it wasn’t keeping them off the field. It wasn’t preventing the big plays, or "trash plays" as Johnson calls them. In reality, it wasn’t stopping anybody.

“We have really given up way too much yardage to think that we have played extremely well this year, but we have played extremely well in some key situations,” Johnson said prior to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

Heading into its matchup with Florida State, Auburn was ranked No. 94 in yards per play (5.96) and against the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and James Franklin, the Tigers were allowing 7.3 yards per play. Based on yards per play, they had the worst defense of the 144 teams that had ever participated in a BCS game.

When it came time for the BCS title game, Johnson had his team ready, though. Auburn came out prepared and shut down Florida State through the first three quarters. It was arguably the Tigers’ most impressive performance of the season.

However, the fourth quarter belonged to the Seminoles, and it was a ‘trash play’ on the final drive -- a quick slant to Rashad Greene that went for 49 yards -- that set up the game-winning touchdown.

One stop and Auburn would’ve been national champions. Now it’s a distant memory that can be used as motivation going forward.

When the Tigers return to practice this spring, it’s safe to assume that Johnson will put a point on emphasis on the yardage problem and specifically the trash plays. It won’t be easy, however, with five starters gone from last year’s team including its top pass-rusher Dee Ford and its top cover corner Chris Davis.

How do you replace a player like Ford who led the SEC in sacks per game?

The answer is you can’t, but it helps to have a pair of former ESPN 300 prospects like Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel coming up behind him. They both showed potential as freshmen, but they will have to be more consistent next season.

The secondary will be an even bigger challenge. The staff has to not only replace Davis but also safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White.

If Auburn wants to get back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game, it’s up to the defense. The offense, despite losing two key pieces in Tre Mason and Greg Robinson, returns eight starters and should be among the SEC’s best next year. But the defense has to take another step forward, and it starts with taking out the trash.


NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson wouldn't have missed this for the world.

The only question, as it turns out, was which side of the field he would be on Monday night in the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

[+] EnlargeEllis Johnson
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIWhile Ellis Johnson's defense has had its struggles, the Tigers are second in the SEC red zone defense and third in sacks.
Johnson, one of the most respected defensive minds in college football, was one of Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher’s top targets when Mark Stoops left Florida State to become Kentucky’s head coach.

But one of the first calls newly hired Auburn coach Gus Malzahn made after getting the job was also to Johnson, who was fired after one forgettable 0-12 season as Southern Miss’ head coach.

“It was close. I guess I could have been on the other side,” Johnson said Saturday during media day. “I actually got a call from someone Jimbo and I both know before I even got fired at Southern Miss.”

To say the least, Johnson was intrigued and remembers telling his wife, Caroline, that the Florida State situation was ready-made.

“We really thought we were looking at a three-year deal here at Auburn,” Johnson said. “Nobody expected this, but I knew they were going to win at Florida State.”

After meeting with Malzahn, Johnson was scheduled to meet with Fisher, but didn't want to drag it out any further; he knew Auburn was where he belonged.

Getting back into the SEC was important for Johnson, as was getting a chance to work under Malzahn. But, ultimately, Johnson made his decision for family reasons.

He’d taken his family out of Columbia, S.C., which was home to his wife, to accept the Southern Miss job and felt as though they’d be happier in Auburn. Plus, he wasn't too far away from locking in a nice pension from the state of Alabama after working previously on Alabama’s coaching staff.

“There were a lot of reasons to go to Florida State, and I knew Jimbo was on the verge of something special there,” Johnson said. “But there were some other reasons outside football that made Auburn the right choice for us, and it’s been unbelievable the way this season has unfolded.”

Johnson’s first defense at Auburn has had its moments, both good and bad. But the Tigers have consistently made key plays during crucial situations and were second in the SEC in red zone defense.

“We’re going to have to play a lot more consistently in this game,” Johnson said. “If we give up some of the cheap plays we have this season at times, we’re going to have a hard time.”

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