Auburn Tigers: Gus Malzahn

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.

SEC's lunch links

April, 17, 2014
Apr 17
1:00
PM ET
Let them eat a late lunch!
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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.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Cameron Artis-Payne addressed the media last week, he didn’t look like a player who was in the midst of a heated position battle. He looked at ease and confident of where he stood. And why wouldn’t he be? Spring has been kind to the second-year running back. It was when he emerged last year, and he hopes it will be when he solidifies a starting role for this fall.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The running back battle could go the way of the left tackle battle and spill over into the fall, but Artis-Payne is hoping -- no, confident -- he will put an end to it Saturday with another MVP-caliber performance in the spring game.
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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. -- If there are any questions as to whether Corey Grant can be an every-down running back this fall, just go back to last year’s Texas A&M game.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now it's Grant's turn.

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

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

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

“I know there’s a tremendous desire inside of him to be the every-down back. I also know that he’s going to do whatever Coach Malzahn and Coach [Rhett] Lashlee ask him to do to help Auburn University be successful. He’s just got that in him.”
When asked by reporters about his freshman season, Ole Miss' Robert Nkemdiche said he could’ve done better. Auburn's Carl Lawson echoed the same tune this spring, telling the media he was “a little disappointed” with his performance last fall. Both players played the majority of the season and both made an impact, but that wasn’t enough in their eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s good news for Auburn, Mississippi State and Ole Miss fans, but not so much for the new, inexperienced quarterbacks in the SEC.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When asked about newcomer D'haquille Williams, the nation’s top junior college player, Nick Marshall said he has been very impressive to this point, but the senior quarterback was quick to point out that Auburn has a number of other great wide receivers this season, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the more plays made, the better Auburn will be this fall.
AUBURN, Ala. -- There wasn’t much fire in the voice of Gus Malzahn as he stood at the podium following Auburn’s first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday. All told, it was a pretty boring scene. No injuries to report. No position changes to speak of. Only one turnover and a handful of big plays. His team had to move indoors because of the threat of rain, but as he said, “It didn’t bother us a bit.”

Watching Malzahn, you got the feeling he wasn’t playing coy. This was the difference a year makes. Last spring was an anxious time for Auburn. There was no quarterback, no depth chart and no sense of expectations. Malzahn and Co. were simply trying to pick up the pieces left behind from the previous staff.

This spring has a much different tone. All one needed to do was look at the long-sleeve, collared shirt Malzahn wore after practice, the one with the SEC championship patch on its left shoulder. The building phase of Malzahn’s tenure is over. The questions are much fewer this year than the last. And with that, the sense of urgency is far more diminished.

“We've got more information now, so we're not as urgent,” Malzahn said. “We pretty much know a lot about the guys returning.”

Not every coach in the SEC is in the same enviable position.

“You've also got to keep in mind next year," Malzahn said. "You want to get your guys as much reps as you can moving forward for next year, because that's what it's all about ... but I would say, probably, for the most part, that we've got guys in the position that we want them to be in."

Not every coach can afford to look ahead this spring. Not every coach has the time.

With that said, let’s take a look at the programs with the most to accomplish this spring, ranking all 14 schools by the length of their to-do list.

Vanderbilt: Any new coaching staff has the most work to do, from determining the roster to installing new schemes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a new starting quarterback and the raid James Franklin put on the recruiting class, and it adds up to an enormously important spring for Derek Mason.

Kentucky: Mark Stoops has done a lot to turn around the culture at Kentucky. In fact, veteran defensive end Alvin Dupree said it feels like more of a football school now. But the fact remains that Stoops has a very young group to deal with, so inexperienced that true freshman Drew Barker is in contention to start at quarterback.

Tennessee: The Vols are facing many of the same challenges in Year 2 under Butch Jones. He has brought in a wealth of talent, including a remarkable 14 early enrollees. Considering the Vols lost all of their starters on both the offensive and defensive lines, there’s a lot of work to do.

Florida: The hot seat knows no reason. All is good in Gator Land right now as a new offense under a new coordinator is installed, injured players -- including starting quarterback Jeff Driskel -- return, and expectations creep upward. But a bad showing in the spring game could change the conversation quickly for Will Muschamp.

Arkansas: There’s nowhere to go but up for Bret Bielema after a 3-9 finish his first year with the program. The good news is he has young playmakers on offense (Hunter Henry, Alex Collins, etc.). The bad news is the quarterback position is unsettled and his defensive coaching staff is almost entirely overhauled from a year ago.

LSU: A depth chart full of question marks is nothing new for Les Miles, who has endured plenty of underclassmen leaving for the NFL before. But missing almost every skill player on offense (Zach Mettenberger, Jeremy Hill, Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry) hurts. He has to find replacements at several key positions, and we haven’t even gotten into the defense.

Texas A&M: Cedric Ogbuehi can replace Jake Matthews at left tackle. The combination of Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil can replace Mike Evans at receiver. But who replaces the legend of Johnny Football? Determining a starter under center won’t be easy, but neither will be overhauling a defense that was far and away the worst in the SEC last year.

Georgia: Jeremy Pruitt should breathe some new life into a struggling Georgia defense. Having Hutson Mason to replace Aaron Murray helps as well. But off-the-field problems continue to plague Mark Richt’s program. With stars such as Todd Gurley, the players are there. The pieces just need to come together.

Missouri: After 13 seasons in Columbia, Gary Pinkel knows how to handle the spring. Maty Mauk appears ready to take over for James Franklin at quarterback, and even with the loss of Henry Josey, there are still plenty of weapons on offense. The real challenge will be on defense, where the Tigers must replace six starters, including cornerstones E.J. Gaines, Kony Ealy and Michael Sam.

Alabama: The quarterback position won’t be settled this spring, so we can hold off on that. But still, Nick Saban faces several challenges, including finding two new starters on the offensive line, replacing C.J. Mosley on defense and completely overhauling a secondary that includes Landon Collins and a series of question marks.

Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze has his players. Now he just has to develop them. With emerging stars Robert Nkemdiche, Tony Conner, Laremy Tunsil, Evan Engram and Laquon Treadwell, there’s plenty to build around. Include a veteran starting quarterback in Bo Wallace and there’s a lot to feel good about in Oxford.

Mississippi State: It’s a new day in the state of Mississippi as both state institutions have high expectations this spring. Mississippi State returns a veteran defense, a solid offensive line and a quarterback in Dak Prescott who could turn into a Heisman Trophy contender. A few months after Dan Mullen was on the hot seat, he now appears to be riding high.

Auburn: Losing Tre Mason and Greg Robinson hurts, but outside of those two stars, the roster remains fairly intact. Nick Marshall figures to improve as a passer, the running back corps is well off, and the receivers stand to improve with the addition of D’haquille Williams. The defense should get better as youngsters such as Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson gain experience.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier would like to remind everyone that Dylan Thompson was the only quarterback in the country to beat Central Florida last season. Sure, Thompson wasn’t the full-time starter last year, but he has plenty of experience and is ready to be the man. Throw in a healthy and eager Mike Davis and an improving set of skill players, and the offense should improve. The defense has some making up to do on the defensive line, but there’s no reason to panic, considering the rotation they used last year.
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.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn’s five early enrollees arrived in January, their heads were spinning. They were balancing school and studying with workouts, meetings and everything else that comes with playing football. They went from high school, or junior college in some cases, to the daily grind at an SEC program.

It was a difficult adjustment and one that’s even harder now that spring practice has started, but each of them has a unique opportunity in front of him. Everybody gets a chance in the spring, and it’s no different for the newcomers.

[+] EnlargeD'haquille Williams
Courtesy of Mississippi Gulf Coast C.C.Juco WR transfer D'haquille Williams has made a big first impression as an early enrollee at Auburn.
“Each guy is a little bit different that came in,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “There will be a few of them that will rotate with the first group or with the second group. The great thing about it is everybody’s getting reps. Everybody’s learning -- the offense, defense and special teams -- really at the same pace.”

The headliner of the group is wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s top junior college player a season ago and one of the more anticipated recruits ever to sign with Auburn. It was hard to miss his 6-foot-2, 216-pound frame the first day of practice, and he’s certainly impressed the coaches through the first week.

“You can tell why we needed him and why we wanted him,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He’s got God-given abilities that are really good, and I think he’ll really add value to our receiving corps.”

Williams has been one of the players who has rotated in with the first group early on, and he also has worked some with the kick and punt returners. His addition plus the return of Sammie Coates, Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis gives the Tigers a talented and deep group of wide receivers for quarterback Nick Marshall to throw to.

“[Williams] is very impressive,” Marshall said. “He’s a guy who will make a play for you when the ball is in the air. We’ve got great receivers this year. It’s going to be sick watching them.”

Although it’s Williams who has grabbed most of the attention, his junior college teammate Derrick Moncrief has been every bit as impressive through the first part of spring. The former Prattville (Ala.) star has played the lion’s share at boundary safety with Joshua Holsey still on the mend, and he has made the most of his opportunity.

“Moncrief has been an extremely pleasant surprise,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said Thursday. “When you get a junior college player who’s not played in your system, you always wonder how long it’s going to take him to transition. He’s making some mistakes out there, as you would expect, but I think at this point, he is way beyond all the new safeties.”

The problem will be what to do with Moncrief when Holsey returns, but that’s a good problem to have, especially considering the lack of depth back there last year.

The only other junior college player to enroll early was offensive lineman Xavier Dampeer, and he, too, has drawn praise from the coaching staff. He’s currently backing up Reese Dismukes at center, a position that’s critical to the offense.

“He’s getting reps,” Malzahn said. “His snaps have been good. I thought his communication has been good the first few days. He seems like a really football-savvy guy. I think he likes to compete, so he’ll have a chance.”

For Chris Laye and Stanton Truitt, the two younger enrollees, the adjustment has been a little more difficult. It has been a little over two months since they finished their high school careers, and now they’re in college, practicing with the defending SEC champs.

Still, they’re getting an opportunity this spring and have an advantage over the rest of the 2014 signees who won’t arrive until the summer.

At the end of the day, the rookies are always going to make a mistake here or there. It’s that way at every school. But through the first week, Auburn’s early enrollees have not only shown potential. They’ve shown that they belong.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Nick Marshall sat in the film room and watched last year’s tape with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, he saw all of his flaws. He wasn’t making the right reads. He was handing the ball off when he should’ve kept it. He was overthrowing his wide receivers or throwing it behind them. He was tentative at times, afraid to make a mistake.

He didn’t look ready.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's coaches are looking for significant improvement in Nick Marshall's completion percentage.
To his defense, Marshall showed up at Auburn over the summer and had very little time to learn the offense. He had his natural abilities, but playing for Gus Malzahn in the SEC was a far cry from his days of playing in junior college.

“If somebody could go out there and try to play quarterback for us I think it would blow their mind,” Malzahn said. “Just pre-snap what they have to do, communication, get everything straight before they even look at the defense. There’s a lot to it.”

After watching tape from earlier games against LSU and Texas A&M, Lashlee fast forwarded to the Tennessee game. It was like night and day. Marshall completed his first two passes, and midway through the first quarter, he dropped back, went through his progressions, looked off a safety and threw a gorgeous touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah.

Those turned out to be his only three completions in the game, but you could see the poise, the moxie. He was confident again and in control of the offense.

Two months later, Marshall had maybe his best game passing of the season when Auburn played Florida State in the BCS title game. He went 14-of-27 for 217 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in a 34-31 loss to Seminoles. The quarterback who showed up that game looked completely different than the one who was missing throws early in the season.

Fast forward again. Spring practice has started for the Tigers, and the quarterback who sits in the film room with Lashlee is even further along than the one who lost in Pasadena. It’s only been a week, but Marshall already looks like he’s in midseason form.

“It's just the way he's carrying himself,” Malzahn said. “You can tell he's getting more comfortable, and the game's a lot slower for him. He’s had a solid first week.”

As the game slows down, Marshall’s passing picks up. He missed his fair share of deep balls last season, but according to his receivers, he’s been putting them on the money this spring. He’s also been crisper on the short routes and looks more comfortable in the pocket.

“I’m seeing an NFL-caliber quarterback right now, and it’s just the spring,” senior receiver Quan Bray said. “He’s making throws that he wasn’t making last year.”

“Nick’s throwing the ball real good,” fellow target Sammie Coates added. “It’s going to be a shock to the world what he’s going to do when he puts it all together.”

It’s not like running the ball didn’t work for Auburn last year. The Tigers led the nation in rushing, and their offense carried them all the way to the national championship game. However, with an experienced Marshall and a talented group of skill players around him, Malzahn expects his quarterback to throw it more this fall.

“Nick's a very talented player, not just running, he can really throw it,” Malzahn said. “I know I said that a lot during the fall, but now that he's got a spring, he'll be more comfortable, more reactive and we feel very good about him throwing the football."

Just because Marshall was known more for his rushing abilities last season doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy throwing it. He threw for 3,142 yards the year before while in junior college.

But the goal is not just to have Marshall throw it more. The goal is to have him throw it more and throw it at a higher completion rate. Last week, Lashlee said he wants his quarterback to complete between 65 and 70 percent of his throws. That would be a significant improvement from a year ago when Marshall had a 59.4 completion percentage.

“It’s a goal,” Marshall said. “It should be a goal. The expectations for us are high this year. I’m just going to do what the [coaches] tell me and complete the passes like they want me to. I’ll go through all my progressions and not turn the ball over.”

The expectations are high for Auburn this year, and its success rides on both the legs and the arm of its quarterback. The Tigers will go where Marshall takes them.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Who better to cover a wide receiver than a former wide receiver? That’s what Auburn was thinking when the coaches moved Trovon Reed to cornerback this spring.

The former four-star recruit from Thibodaux, La., has spent his entire Auburn career on offense. He’s played in 36 games and made four starts as a wide receiver over the last three seasons, but he’s yet to ever break through like many expected when he signed with the Tigers in 2010. As a junior this past season, he finished with just nine catches for 98 yards.

[+] EnlargeTrovon Reed
AP Photo/Dave MartinTrovon Reed has fit in well with Auburn's defensive backs after being moved to defense from wide receiver.
Now, as he heads into his fifth and final season at Auburn, Reed is moving into enemy territory. He’ll join a secondary that he’s competed against for the last four years, and one that knows him well.

“I’ve always liked Trovon’s energy,” safety Jermaine Whitehead said. “When he played offense, he was the guy who got us pumped to have a good game. Now he’s on my side of the ball, so it’s going to be a long year for the offense.”

The move was hinted at just days after the BCS title game, when Reed posted on his Instagram that he will be “the best cornerback in the nation” in 2014, but coach Gus Malzahn refuted the rumors, calling them premature. It wasn’t until the day before the Tigers opened spring practice that Malzahn confirmed the move.

For Reed, it’s a new position since coming to Auburn, but it’s not one he’s unfamiliar with. He played some defensive back in high school. In fact, his RecruitingNation scouting report says “his feet, hips and ability to accelerate could make for a great corner prospect.”

The skills were there. All he needed was an opportunity.

Through the first week, the transition has been seamless. Reed is competing with the likes of Jonathan Jones and Kamryn Melton at the field cornerback spot, and he’s providing a unique perspective for his teammates.

“He's an older guy,” Jones said. “He adds depth and experience. Coming from receiver, I'm always asking him, ‘What do the receivers think?’ He has the mindset of a receiver coming from receiver, so he definitely has knowledge that can help us.”

Reed isn’t the first Auburn player to shift from offense to defense under Malzahn. Former starting quarterback Kiehl Frazier moved to safety last fall, and 2013 signee Johnathan Ford started fall camp at running back before he switched to cornerback.

Ford, who is now at safety, played in all 14 games as a freshman and finished with five tackles and one pass break-up.

The Auburn coaches are hoping Reed can make a similar impact and provide depth at a position where the Tigers don’t have much experience, but as top cornerback option Jonathon Mincy can attest, it’s not as easy as it looks.

“Playing wide receiver, it’s a lot different than playing corner,” Mincy said. “Learning the role of defense, learning what the cornerback is supposed to do and just playing with his eyes ... that’s going to be a big adjustment. But he’s making a good transition. He’s eager to learn and he’s a very competitive person.”

With Tuesday’s practice in the books, Reed has 11 more practices this spring to learn the position and earn his spot before Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin, a pair of ESPN 300 cornerbacks, arrive over the summer. The next three weeks will be vital for the former wide receiver.

It’s his last shot.
Sean WhiteTom Hauck for Student SportsSean White is getting acclimated to Auburn's workout plan while finishing up high school in Florida.

Auburn is loaded at quarterback with Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson, but that doesn’t mean the coaches aren’t excited about incoming freshman Sean White, an ESPN 300 quarterback from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., who earned MVP honors at the Elite 11 competition and the Under Armour All-American Game.

We caught up with White to talk about the upcoming season, how he fits in Gus Malzahn’s offense and who he has winning it all in basketball.

I know you’ve been watching the tournament. What are your thoughts so far?

White: It’s been good. There’s been a lot of close games, fun to watch. I haven’t been doing too well (with his bracket), but that’s OK. There’s always more games, so we’ll see how it goes.

What do you think of Auburn’s new basketball coach, Bruce Pearl?

White: I think it’s awesome. I know he was a great coach at Tennessee. He had them going deep in the tournament. I know he’ll do the same thing at Auburn because Auburn is a great place. I think they were just waiting on a real good coach to come in because they have a beautiful gym and everything like that. I think he’s going to do a great job there.

Getting back to football, Auburn started spring practice this week. What are your expectations for the upcoming season?

White: My expectations are high. I think that we have a lot of guys back, especially on offense. We lost a couple guys, but the majority of people are back and defensively I think we’ll be even stronger than we were last season. Teams are going to be looking for us. We’re going to have a bigger target on our back, but I think we’re going to be ready for that. We’re going to work hard in the summer like they’re already up there working hard in the spring. We’ll be ready for everybody’s best shot.

They ran a lot last season. Something like 73 percent of the time. When you get there and it’s your time, do the coaches plan to throw it more?

White: When Coach Malzahn recruited me, he said he adapts his offense to what the quarterback can do. With Nick at quarterback, he’s obviously an unbelievable runner with the ball, so on offense they used his running ability on a lot of plays. The next quarterback that steps in, whether it’s me or someone else, he’s just going to adapt the offense to their strengths and fit it to what they can do well. I think that’s why he’s so successful. Pretty much every quarterback he’s worked with, he’s had success with.

Malzahn is known for his hurry-up, no-huddle offense. How do you feel about running it?

White: I feel really comfortable because in high school, it wasn’t quite as fast as Auburn runs it, but we ran a no-huddle offense, so I’m used to going fast and getting as many plays in as possible. I’m excited to get to Auburn, run it more and play for Coach Malzahn and his system that’s worked for years. Words can’t describe how excited I am.

I have to ask you about the proposed 10-second rule. Obviously it didn’t go through, but what did you think when you saw that?

White: It was pretty obvious that the teams that were for putting in a 10-second rule were teams that ran a small, methodical, pro-style offense, so they were obviously going to try and slow down some of the teams that were beating them with the fast-tempo offenses. They want to play slow. They want to play methodical. So they were trying to get the rule changed, but there’s no evidence that going fast is affecting player safety. I don’t see the NCAA making a rule to change anything like that, so I think Auburn will just be going as fast as ever.

What’s your plan between now and when you enroll? What are you working on?

White: I’m just down here in South Florida throwing. They gave me the huge workout book so I can get accustomed to what they do and the workouts they do. So I’ve been doing those workouts down here over at the school weight room. I’ve been doing speed training and everything just to get myself physically ready, so when I move to Auburn, I’ll be ready to go.

Lastly, who do you have winning it all in the NCAA tournament and why?

White: I like Virginia. I’ve been watching a couple games of them this year. They don’t have any weaknesses. They can score, rebound, do it all. And they’ve been battle-tested in the ACC. I think that’s the best conference in basketball.
AUBURN, Ala. -- SEC defenses had no answer for Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense last season. It wasn’t a complicated scheme, but Auburn’s pace simply overwhelmed the rest of the conference. The Tigers led the nation in rushing and averaged 39.5 points per game en route to a league title and a spot in the national championship game.

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinThink Nick Marshall and Auburn's offense played at quick pace last season? The Tigers are hoping to go ever faster in 2014.
If you ask Malzahn, it wasn’t fast enough. He wants to go even faster in Year 2.

"We think we can be quite a bit faster,” he said in his pre-spring press conference. “There were times last year [when] we had a lot of new people out there, a lot of moving parts, and as you get more comfortable, the faster you can get.”

The emphasis on tempo was evident Tuesday when Auburn opened spring practice. There was little time wasted between each drill, and the second period was dedicated solely to pace. Despite coming off a three-month break from football, the players embraced it.

“We love the pace,” offensive lineman Chad Slade said. “Some people don’t get used to it, but we’re used to it by now. Everybody is back, and we have high expectations for everything [including] the pace going faster.

“[Looking at] how fast we went last year, we can go 10 times faster than we did.”

Ten times faster? That’s crazy, right? Maybe not.

Consider that Auburn returns eight starters on offense including four on the offensive line. The coaching staff, which had never worked with the players this time a year ago, is back and has a year of experience under its belt. And then there’s Nick Marshall, the starting quarterback and the man who orchestrated the HUNH offense.

Marshall arrived in Auburn last summer as a junior college transfer. It took him less than a month to win the starting job, and though he started slowly, it didn’t take long before he had a grasp of the offense. By the end of the season, he looked like a natural.

Now, he is entering his first spring practice with the team, and he’s more comfortable than ever.

“I think he’s really looking forward to the spring,” Malzahn said. “This is the first time we’ve actually had a quarterback [who] will go through spring practice that started the year before. Coach [Rhett] Lashlee is excited about that, and that will be a good thing moving forward.

“I’d like to think if your quarterback comes back, we’ll be a little farther ahead.”

It’s the first time Auburn has returned a starting quarterback from the year before since Brandon Cox in 2007.

But Auburn isn’t the only team looking to speed up the pace. Based on the Tigers’ success from a season ago, more and more teams in the SEC are following the same blueprint this spring. Florida showed a little up-tempo offense when it opened practice on Wednesday, and even Alabama, whose head coach advocated for the 10-second rule, has picked up the pace.

Still, as the rest of the conference tries to catch up, Auburn is only going to get faster. The pieces are in place for Malzahn to take his HUNH offense to the next level this season.

And that is a scary thought for SEC defenses.

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