Auburn Tigers: Gabe Wright

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn might have been 3-9 in 2012, but that didn’t stop the fans from piling inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for last year’s spring game. There was a record crowd of 83,401 who were on hand to welcome new coach Gus Malzahn, not thinking that he would eventually lead the Tigers to the BCS title game nine months later.

“I think [A-Day] is for the overall program,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together -- our fans, our players, our coaches. This is one of those unique opportunities. We want to make it exciting for our fans, and at the same time, we want to get better.”

The crowd could be even bigger this year with the Tigers coming off a 12-2 season and an SEC championship. Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s spring finale (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET):

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith his confidence sky high, expect Auburn QB Nick Marshall to be even better running the Tigers' high-powered offense.
1. Faster is better: The proposed “10-second” rule never made it to a vote, and that means that Auburn’s offense is only going to get faster. It took first-year quarterback Nick Marshall nearly half the season before he became comfortable in Malzahn’s offense, and even then he wasn’t as confident as he has looked this spring. The senior is making better reads, throwing the ball better and more importantly, he’s become a leader. Expect Marshall to take the hurry-up, no-huddle offense to another gear this fall, and although the spring game won’t give much away, it will give the fans a glimpse of what’s to come.

2. Juco impact: If you ask the fans, the player they most want to see Saturday would almost certainly be wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player a year ago, and there’s already talk that he could be one of the top wideouts in the SEC next season. The coaches and players alike have raved about his talent this spring, and he’ll make his debut in front of the fans this weekend. However, don’t sleep on his juco teammate Derrick Moncrief. The former Prattville (Ala.) defensive back has had as good as spring as anybody on the team and could push for a starting role in the secondary.

3. Blind side battle: Don’t expect the left tackle battle to be decided during Saturday’s spring game. The coaches have all but said they will wait until the fall before naming a starter. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth keeping an eye on. Sophomore Shon Coleman, who served as Greg Robinson's primary backup last year, might have a leg up in the race and will likely take the field with the first-team offense, but Patrick Miller, the more experienced of the two, will get his reps, too. In his first two seasons at Auburn, Miller started 14 games at right tackle, and he might see some time there depending on what the coaches do with Avery Young.

4. Health concerns: There could be some familiar faces not in action Saturday. It’s been a frustrating spring from a health standpoint, and while there haven’t been any serious injuries, there have been enough nagging injuries to force the coaches to get creative. Defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright have both worked some at end, and with LaDarius Owens out and Carl Lawson questionable, the “Rhino package” could make an appearance. Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson indicated that some of the starters who have been banged up might not get as many reps in the spring game.

5. The running backs: It was this time last year when Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer at the time, first made his mark on the Plains. He had 164 yards of offense and a touchdown in the spring game, which earned him offensive MVP honors. He’d like to duplicate that performance in this year’s game and claim the starting job, but Corey Grant won’t go down without a fight. Grant, who primarily ran the jet sweep last year, will show what he can do as a featured back. And don’t forget about redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who could wind up leading the team in carries when it’s all said and done.
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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.”
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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.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Shon Coleman knows a thing or two about battles. He was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 2010, just months after signing with Auburn. It kept him off the football field for four years, but he won that fight and returned to action last season against Arkansas State.

“It was very exciting just to get back on the field,” Coleman said Saturday. “I hadn’t been out there in a long time. It was really a dream come true to see myself get out there.”

[+] EnlargeShon Coleman
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIShon Coleman, who was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, has recovered completely and is squarely in the battle to be Auburn's starting left tackle.
The left tackle competition that he’s engaged in this spring with Patrick Miller might seem trivial in the grand scheme, but it’s anything but that to Auburn fans right now. It’s the No. 1 topic on the Plains this offseason, and it’s been highly contested through the first two weeks of spring practice.

“It’s a knock-out, drag-out fight,” fellow offensive lineman Alex Kozan said. “Both of them are great athletes, Pat and Shon. They’re both 6-foot-7, long arms, can bend, can move, have great hip explosion. Both of them are going to be great players.

“It’s like I said: Both of those guys could start for pretty much any team in college football, so we have a pretty good situation on our hands. Both of those guys are attacking every day, trying to get better, and I don’t think it’s going to be settled until fall camp.”

The reps have been split evenly to this point, and it was no different during Saturday’s scrimmage. Coleman started with the first unit, but Miller replaced him on the next series. They have been going back and forth every day.

As Kozan alluded to, a decision might not come until after spring camp is over.

“Like we’ve said, we probably won’t make a decision and may not make a decision even after spring,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Both of those guys are veteran guys, and we feel like both of them have a starter-type mentality and talent.”

Coleman is just a sophomore, but he’s been with the team since 2012 and played in seven games last fall behind starter Greg Robinson. Miller has 14 starts under his belt, but all have come at right tackle, where he started out last fall before losing his job to Avery Young midway through the season.

Coleman and Miller are similar in size, but they bring different strengths to the team, according to defensive lineman Gabe Wright, who has faced both of them at some point this spring.

“I believe Pat may be a better pass setter, but Shon is one of the tougher run setters that I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wright said. “It’s like hitting a brick wall with a helmet on. Seriously.

“We were just talking the other day that if you guys thought Greg was strong, you got another thing coming. Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg. I’m not even sure he has his playing weight back from when he was sick.”

Coleman, who is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, looks like he did before he became sick, only stronger.

Between the two, it’s hard not to root for Coleman, knowing what he’s been through and what he’s overcome in his life, but even he understands that the best player will win the job, and there’s a chance that it might not be him.

“Whoever the guy is, it’s going to be better for the team, so I’m all right with that,” Coleman said. “Really, it’s all about getting back to a national championship. That was the best feeling in the world, so I’m just trying to help the team as much as I can and do my part to get back.”
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.

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.
Editor’s note: Each day this week, Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in next Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. The first matchup is between Florida State’s offensive line and Auburn’s defensive line.

Florida State’s offensive line: The five starters on the line for Florida State are all NFL prospects. The group is led by senior center Bryan Stork, a first-team AP All-America selection. Tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson were first-team All-ACC selections.

The group excels at run-blocking, and Florida State topped 2,600 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground for a second consecutive season. Factoring out yards lost to sacks, FSU is rushing for more yards per carry against FBS teams this season than Auburn.

The question — if there is one — for Floirida State is in its pass protection. The Seminoles have allowed a sack on 6.7 percent of passing attempts, which ranks 83rd nationally, and 13 of the 29 sacks allowed have came in the last five games.

While those numbers might be a cause for concern against an stout Auburn defensive front (28 sacks, tied for third in SEC), two factors mitigate any perceived struggles.

For one, teams have blitzed Florida State often in hopes of rattling quarterback Jameis Winston, as 36 percent of his throws come against the blitz. Occasionally they’ve gotten to him, with 12 sacks when rushing five or more defenders, according to ESPN Stats & Info. More often, however, he burns them. Winston is completing 71 percent of his passes against the blitz, with 20 TDs and three interceptions.

The second issue is Winston’s desire to complete the deep ball. The redshirt freshman won the Heisman Trophy by being aggressive, but he admits there are times he needs to check down and get rid of the ball quicker rather than asking his line to hold blocks for a few extra seconds. The payoff to the approach, however, has been an array of big plays. Winston leads the nation in yards per attempt (10.9) and only LSU’s Zach Mettenberger has a higher percentage of completions gain 15 yards or more than Winston (43 percent). Winston is tough against pressure, completing 62 percent of his throws when hit or hurried — nearly double the average for a quarterback from a BCS automatic-qualifying conference. Even getting him into third-and-long situations doesn’t help much; he’s an absurd 16-of-21 with 15 first downs on third-and-10 or longer.

Auburn’s defensive line: When Auburn last won the national championship in 2010, it had an above-average defense, but it was a defense that featured a dominant front line with All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley and veterans Antoine Carter, Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc. The 2010 Tigers also had highly-touted freshman defensive end Corey Lemonier, who is now a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstAuburn freshman Carl Lawson had four sacks this season.
This year’s Auburn team is similar. The defense has struggled at times this season, but its strength is up front on the defensive line.

The star is defensive end Dee Ford, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries. A senior, Ford missed the first two games with an injury but has since recorded a sack in seven of Auburn’s last 11 games. He’s a different type of animal than Fairley, but an animal nonetheless.

The rest of the line also has its share of veterans with senior Nosa Eguae and juniors Gabe Wright, LaDarius Owens and Ben Bradley. Eguae, who moved inside to tackle midway through the season, started in the 2010 BCS title game.

And then there are the freshmen. The trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel is as good a collection of young defensive linemen as there is in college football. Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 player coming out of high school in the 2013 recruiting class, leads the group with four sacks.

Fairley was dominant in the 2010 game as Auburn’s defensive line controlled the line against a smaller, quicker Oregon team. That likely won’t be the case this time around against a Florida State offensive line that’s much stronger and much more impressive, but the key to stopping the Seminoles will still begin and end with the front four. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will rely on his line to get pressure on Winston, knowing how good the Heisman Trophy winner has been against the blitz this season.

Hale: Edge to Florida State

Ostendorf: Toss-up

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.

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Week 14 helmet stickers

December, 1, 2013
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The Iron Bowl is known for making good players great and turning great players into legends. It was no different Saturday in Auburn's thrilling 34-28 victory over Alabama. There were plenty of memorable performances by players on both teams, but now it's time to hand out some helmet stickers to the victors.

CB Chris Davis: The 100-yard missed field goal return for a touchdown will go down as one of the greatest plays in Iron Bowl history. Many thought Gus Malzahn called timeout before Alabama's final field goal attempt as a ploy to ice the kicker, but he just wanted to get Davis in the game and give him a chance to return it. The plan paid off. On the game's final play, Davis took the missed kick from the back of his own end zone and returned it up the Auburn sideline for the game-winning score. He has made plays all season for the Tigers, but he did it on the biggest stage imaginable Saturday. The senior cornerback also finished with a team-high 10 tackles, joining safety Ryan Smith who also recorded 10 stops.

RB Tre Mason: It was a slow start for Mason. He didn't have much running room early in the game, and his fumble in the second quarter led to an Alabama touchdown. But Auburn didn't give up on him. Just two drives after the fumble, the coaches gave it to Mason four straight times, and he picked up 64 yards. He capped the drive with a one-yard touchdown run. On the Tigers' final possession, he went for 26 yards on six straight carries and set up the game-tying touchdown pass. Mason finished with 164 yards rushing, the third-most by any player against Alabama in the last 10 seasons. He now has 1,317 yards on the season.

QB Nick Marshall: The performance by Davis was legendary. Mason's was tough and gutsy. But Auburn never would have had a chance if not for the play of its quarterback. Marshall set the tone early with his 45-yard touchdown run. He was instrumental to the Tigers' rushing attack with 99 yards on the ground. But it was what he did through the air that set him apart. Everybody knew Auburn had to throw it to beat Alabama, and Marshall went 11 of 16 for 97 yards and two critical touchdowns. His touchdown pass to Sammie Coates in the final minute might have been unorthodox, but it worked. Marshall continues to make plays late in games to help his team win. It's a major reason why Auburn is in the position its in.

Honorable mention: DT Gabe Wright

Five things: Auburn-Georgia

November, 16, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s called the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry for a reason. When Auburn and Georgia play Saturday, it will be the 117th meeting between the two bitter rivals. That’s tied for the fourth most-played current series in the nation, six games behind Minnesota and Wisconsin, which have played a record 122 times.

The winner of Saturday’s game will break a 54-54-8 tie in the all-time series. Here are five things to watch for:

Marshall check: It’s a big game for both teams, but even more so for Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall. It’s been well documented this week that Marshall began his career at Georgia but was dismissed after his freshman season for a violation of team rules. After playing in junior college for a year, he’s now on the other side of this heated rivalry. The Peach State native has always been considered calm and cool going back to his high school days, but there’s no telling what to expect Saturday. It’s critical for him to keep his emotions in check because he’s the team leader. The Tigers go as Marshall goes.

Run or pass: Auburn would love to finish with less than 10 pass attempts Saturday. That means the offense did what it’s been doing all season and ran over the opponent. The Tigers are tops in the SEC (3rd nationally) with 320 rushing yards per game. They put up 444 yards last week at Tennessee and only threw the ball seven times. It starts with Marshall, who leads all SEC quarterbacks with 734 rushing yards. He’s averaging more yards per attempt and has a higher Total QBR than Cam Newton the year Newton won the Heisman Trophy. However, it’s a strong possibility that Marshall will be asked to use his arm more against a stout Georgia run defense.

Gurley man: Georgia running back Todd Gurley might not be 100 percent, but he’s back and that could spell trouble for Auburn. The Tigers have struggled against bigger, more physical running backs such as LSU’s Jeremy Hill or Tennessee’s Rajion Neal. The latter rushed for 124 yards and a touchdown last week. Gurley is the best of the bunch when healthy. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson called him the most physical back in the SEC. He finished with 116 yards and a touchdown last season in Georgia’s 38-0 rout over the Tigers.

Out for revenge: The all-time series might be tied, but Georgia has won six of the last seven meetings between these two, including last year’s lopsided affair. The seniors are the only class to know what it feels like to beat the Bulldogs. They did it back in 2010 when Newton was still the quarterback. The game is extra personal for the 26 Georgia natives on the roster. Marshall is the most well known, but starters Quan Bray, Jonathon Mincy, C.J. Uzomah and Gabe Wright also hail from the Peach State.

Iron Bowl implications: It’s hard to look ahead, but if the Tigers wins Saturday, it turns the Iron Bowl into a virtual SEC championship play-in game between in-state rivals Alabama and Auburn. Both teams still control their own destiny with just two conference games left for each. It would be the first time since 1994 that both the Crimson Tide and the Tigers entered the game with one or fewer losses in SEC play. However, Auburn knows it can’t look past Georgia. The Bulldogs still have a chance to win the SEC East and make a return trip to Atlanta. They need to win Saturday and hope that Missouri loses its last two remaining conference games.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gabe Wright was supposed to be a part of Georgia’ “Dream Team” recruiting class in 2011.

He hails from Columbus, Ga. He was teammates with Isaiah Crowell, a five-star running back who signed with the Bulldogs. As a sophomore, Wright thought he wanted to stay in state and play for Georgia.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia native Gabe Wright never doubted his decision to spurn the Bulldogs for Auburn.
“There was pretty much no doubt then that I wanted to be a Bulldog,” he said.

But all that changed when Todd Grantham replaced Willie Martinez as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs transitioned from a 4-3 defense to a 3-4 defense, and among other things, Wright didn’t feel like he was a fit with the in-state school anymore.

So on signing day, when Crowell held up a bulldog puppy to announce his intentions to sign with Georgia, Wright put on an Auburn hat and signed with the Tigers.

Mark Richt and his staff inked 19 recruits from the Peach State in that 2011 class, but they let Wright, the state’s No. 4 prospect, slip away.

At first, the decision looked like it could be the wrong one. Wright watched as Georgia went 12-2 last season, narrowly missing a chance to play for the BCS national championship. Meanwhile, Auburn finished 3-9 and failed to win an SEC game. When the two teams met, Georgia shut out the Tigers to the tune of 38-0 last November.

“Before this season, I remember telling the [players] it was hard to go home and wear some of our 'AU' gear because we were 3-9,” Wright said. “It's not so much that people look at the Georgia game. It was just as a whole.”

But Wright never doubted his decision. He never wavered.

Now, Auburn is 9-1, ranked No. 7 in the BCS, and it controls its own destiny in the SEC West. It’s been the biggest turnaround in college football, and Wright can proudly wear his Auburn gear when he goes back home now.

But the Tigers face an old nemesis on Saturday in Georgia, a team that has beat them in eight of the past 11 games.

“It's the Deep South's Oldest Rivalry,” Wright said. “From a personal standpoint, I've yet to beat Georgia. There are a lot of guys that have yet to beat Georgia, all except that senior class.”

In all, Auburn has 26 players from the state of Georgia on its roster. It’s a big game from the standpoint of where the Tigers are and what they can still accomplish, but it’s also a big game on a personal level for a number of players.

“Growing up, all I hear is Georgia so I’m definitely amped up about this game for sure,” said tight end C.J. Uzomah, a native of Suwanee, Ga.

Cornerback Jonathon Mincy grew up in Atlanta as a Georgia fan, but he wasn’t even recruited by the Bulldogs.

"For everybody from Georgia, this is a personal game,” Mincy said. “Just us being there, being [from] in state and for the folks that weren't able to be recruited. It's going to be a fun game, and I'm excited to go out there and play."

But ultimately, it’s just another game on the schedule. Auburn has taken the one-game-at-a-time approach, and this week is no different. It doesn’t matter that it’s a rivalry game. It doesn’t matter that there will be plenty of familiar faces on the opposite sideline. It’s just another game.

“All that aside, it's another week,” Wright said. “Guys have showed that we've been able to persevere, push through. There ain't no stopping now.”

Planning for success: Auburn

November, 14, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- In the last two games, Auburn has only completed 11 passes. Yet the Tigers have put up 90 points in two road victories at Arkansas and at Tennessee. It’s because nobody can stop their rushing attack. They rushed for 233 yards against the Razorbacks and 444 yards against the Volunteers.

It could be more of the same when No. 25 Georgia comes to town Saturday.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsEveryone knows Nick Marshall can run the ball, but how he passes it against Georgia could be a key factor for Auburn against the Bulldogs.
“They don’t have to throw the ball,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I think they can throw the ball, and I think they can throw it well. We’re preparing for that.

“But I think they’ll go into this game like a lot of the other games. They’ll have a plan to do both, and if the team just cannot slow them down running the ball and they keep moving the chains and scoring points, I don’t think they’re necessarily going to throw it too much if they don’t have to.”

Auburn boasts the No. 1 rushing offense in the SEC and third nationally with 320 yards per game. However, the Bulldogs are only giving up 126 yards per game on the ground this season. Something’s got to give.

What Auburn needs to do to win: If there’s an area where Georgia’s defense has been susceptible, it’s been through the air. Auburn will have to take some chances in the passing game, and it starts with wide receiver Sammie Coates who is second in the nation in yards per catch (24.92). But the Tigers still have to be careful not to turn the ball over against an opportunistic UGA defense. The more ominous task will be in front of Auburn’s defense. How to stop Aaron Murray and Todd Gurley? The latter might not be 100 percent, but if he’s healthy enough to play, he’s healthy enough to make an impact. If the Tigers can jump out to an early lead at home, it could take Gurley out of the game and make it difficult for Georgia to come back.

Players to watch

QB Nick Marshall: How has Marshall’s name not been mentioned yet? Everybody knows by now that he’s facing his former team, but all that side, he genuinely is the most important player in Saturday’s game. He needs to keep his emotions in check, continue to execute the zone-read and maybe hit a few passes before it’s over.

DB Jermaine Whitehead: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson referred to Whitehead as the rock for this Auburn defense. He might not be flashy and he might not make all the plays, but he’s been the most consistent player in the Tigers’ secondary. He needs another solid performance this Saturday against Murray and a very talented Georgia offense.

Quotable

“The sky is the limit. If the sky is not the limit then there are footsteps on the moon. Elijah is as talented as they come. If you believe in the five-stars, he would be five-star. The only thing that was holding him back was mental. From a physical standpoint he’s there in the SEC. I give him all the praise and the glory. He deserves it.” -- Gabe Wright on teammate Elijah Daniel

AUBURN, Ala. -- Coming out of high school, Carl Lawson didn’t know Robert Nkemdiche personally, but he was impressed when he watched his highlight tape.

“I always go around and watch different people’s film,” Lawson said. “I really liked his film, and he’s a great player.”

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstFreshman defensive end Carl Lawson had two sacks in Auburn's win over Ole Miss.
The two were always grouped in the same circles. They were both talented defensive ends coming out of the state of Georgia. They both committed to SEC schools. In the 2013 ESPN 300 recruiting rankings, Nkemdiche was the top-ranked player overall, and Lawson was No. 2.

“I didn’t really want to pay attention to it,” Lawson said of the rankings. “There’s competition for me against any defensive end because I want to one day work to be the best, but I’ve got a long way to go.”

On Saturday, Lawson had his chance to show he was the better prospect of the two when Auburn hosted No. 24 Ole Miss.

Early in the season, all the talk was on the Rebels’ freshman phenom and how dominant he had been through the first four games. Saturday’s game, however, belonged to Lawson. The Auburn star finished with six tackles, 3.5 for loss, with two sacks. Nkemdiche, meanwhile, had four tackles but none for loss.

“The last few weeks [Lawson] has been improving,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He just turned loose and played his best game. It was a very complete game -- not just rushing the passer, but (against) the run. If he keeps improving, he has a chance to be a really good player.”

Lawson originally committed to Auburn in March of 2012 when Gene Chizik was still coach. When Chizik was fired, Lawson began to look around at other schools, but Malzahn and his staff convinced him to stick to his original commitment. As a senior, Lawson had 44 tackles for loss and 27 sacks.

As expected, the expectations were high for the Peach State star when he arrived on campus over the summer. Physically, he was dominant -- even as a freshman -- but mentally, he still had work to do.

“When we recruited him, we felt like his motor was really something else,” Malzahn said. “He plays extremely hard. College football is a different game than high school, and it took him a couple of weeks to get everything down.”

Through the first four games, Lawson was rotating in at defensive end, and though he had his moments, he easily played his best game of his career against Ole Miss. He lived up to the hype and showed the raw talent that everybody had been raving about. The scary part is he's just beginning to tap into his potential.

“That guy is going to be a mammoth player by the time he leaves here,” defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said. “He’s just continuing to get better every single week. 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.”

Added teammate Gabe Wright: “Carl’s a man-child. There was nothing holding him back physically, it was just maybe a little bit mental. Carl’s a remarkable player. I’m sure the Auburn family and the media knows that now. He’s been doing that at practice consecutive days, and I’m proud of him. I couldn’t be more proud of him.”

After the game, Lawson was elated, but he knows he still has more work to do if he wants to be the best defensive end in college football. Saturday was just a start.

“It was a very good night,” Lawson said. “It means a lot, but I know there’s a lot of things I need to go fix and get ready for practice tomorrow.”
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.

Helmet stickers: Week 6

October, 6, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- The Auburn players had a week off to prepare for No. 24 Ole Miss, and it showed. The Tigers played well in all phases and pulled the upset, 30-22. Now let’s hand out some helmet stickers from the game.

QB Nick Marshall: Looking at the stat line -- 11 of 17 for 93 yards passing -- it doesn’t look like Marshall deserves to be on this list. But it was what he did with his legs that earned him a helmet sticker. The dual-threat quarterback ran 14 times for 140 yards and two touchdowns. He became the first Auburn signal caller to rush for more than 100 yards since Cam Newton did it against Georgia in 2010, and he’s also the fourth different AU player to rush for more than 100 yards in a game this season, a first in school history. Marshall had only 148 yards rushing with no scores through the first four games, but he nearly matched it with Saturday’s performance.

The Auburn defensive line: Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace threw for 336 yards Saturday, but he also was running for his life most of the night. Auburn finished with 17 quarterback hurries and sacked Wallace six times. It was as many sacks as the Tigers had all of last season. But it’s hard to single out just one player. Starters Dee Ford and Gabe Wright each had two sacks, and true freshman Carl Lawson recorded the first two sacks of his young career, including one late that put the game away. Nosa Eguae, starting for the first time at defensive tackle, also played a solid game, with three tackles and 1.5 stops for loss.

DB Robenson Therezie: It was the play of the game. With Ole Miss driving to tie or take the lead late in the first quarter, Therezie intercepted a short pass and returned it 78 yards for a touchdown. Auburn went up 13-3, and the Rebels were forced to play catch-up the rest of the way. It was Therezie’s third interception of the season and his first since the season opener. Known for making plays, he made the biggest one of the season for this Auburn defense. Therezie also drew the assignment of having to cover Ole Miss wide receiver Laquon Treadwell for most of the night, and he held the star freshman to just four catches for 45 yards.

Honorable mention: RB Tre Mason

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