Auburn Tigers: Jake Holland

Room to improve: Linebacker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As a freshman, he won a BCS national championship. Two years later, he endured a 3-9 season and the coaching change that ensued. But the senior defensive end stuck around and finished his career as a part of this year’s Auburn team that came a play or two away from winning a second national championship in the last four years.

[+] EnlargeWinston Sacked
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNosa Eguae ended his senior season in the same way he ended his freshman season in 2010 -- starting for Auburn in a BCS championship game.
“It's been a big roller coaster,” Ford said prior to Monday’s title game. “There's a message behind it. Things aren't going to work out when you expect it to. It’s really revealed who we are as individuals and who we are as a team.”

Things didn’t work out for the Tigers in Pasadena. They ultimately fell short of the ultimate goal, losing to Florida State in the national championship, but it was still a season to remember for Ford and the rest of that senior class. After everything, they went out on top.

“It means a lot for me to go out (like this) my last year,” Ford said after the game. “In the entire time, we set a goal to have the biggest turnaround in college football history, and it was an amazing journey for me. I'm definitely proud to be an Auburn Tiger right now. We didn't win, but at the end of the day, I'm still proud of my team.”

It was the same sentiment shared by all 15 seniors. The majority of them were there for the 2010 national championship. They all went through last year’s difficult season and finished this season on top, despite the loss to the Seminoles.

It was a journey that brought them closer together.

Ford’s partner on the defensive line, Nosa Eguae, is also a senior. In fact, he was the only starter from the 2010 team still on the roster. On Tuesday, Eguae addressed his fellow seniors in an open letter to the fans that he shared with multiple media outlets.

“This is the last time my brothers and I will get to spend a day with each other,” Eguae said. “For tomorrow, we will go our separate ways and pass the torch to the next group of seniors that will lead and fight for the greater good of the family. From tragedy to triumph, I could not ask for a better group of men to ride off into the sunset with.”

In addition to Eguae and Ford, the senior class that has grown so close together includes the likes of Steven Clark, Chris Davis, Jake Holland, Cody Parkey, Jay Prosch, Ryan Smith and Ryan White -- all who started or made an impact at some point during the season.

It’s a group that could have won two national championships during their time at Auburn but will still leave behind a legacy that will affect the program for years to come.

“There will be a lot of great things and great memories that our seniors have led us to be,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “We were just on the brink of making it one of those magical seasons, but there's so many great things that we'll take. I just told the seniors they laid the groundwork for our program moving forward, and our program is very bright right now.”

With nine starters returning on offense, pending Tre Mason's decision, and seven starters returning on defense, the Tigers should be among the nation’s elite teams again next season. They’re ranked No. 5 in ESPN’s Way-Too-Early Top 25 for 2014. But it will be up to the seniors-to-be to provide the leadership.

Center Reese Dismukes, a three-year starter, knows he’ll be counted on as a leader again next season, but he showed his appreciation to the departing seniors after Monday’s game.

“Proud of my teammates and coaches,” the Auburn captain tweeted. “We fight and fight til the end. Thanks seniors for all you’ve done for this program.”

The torch has been passed.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Sammie Coates' voice didn't tremble when he spoke. He didn't pound his fist or raise his voice. He kept both hands on the podium, looked each reporter in the eye and answered every question with restraint in one of the most candid interviews you'll see from an athlete on any level.

Still, it was called a rant, a tirade, a young player pitching a fit.

If what Coates said had come from an established leader or, even better, a coach, we'd look back on Oct. 9, 2012, as a seminal moment in the football program at Auburn. We'd hear common sense, passion and a determination to turn things around from a freshman acting well beyond his years. We'd see how at least one player understood that Auburn lacked leadership and how his teammates needed motivation.

"Some of us need to see the picture for what it is," said Coates, then an unknown receiver with three career catches to his name. "So many older guys want it, but don't want it bad enough."

His soliloquy went on for nearly nine minutes: "Nobody is showing how they want to win. ... We just keep falling in a hole. ... Nobody is stepping up. ... We go out there [to practice] dead. ... To win, we have to let that anger go."

But no one listened. Then-coach Gene Chizik said that Coates' message was only "one guy's opinion." Linebacker Jake Holland said he didn't see any "finger-pointing" in the locker room.

Auburn was 1-4 when Coates spoke that day. The Tigers went on to finish 3-9, winless in the SEC. The entire coaching staff was fired. Whatever "new day" Auburn's newest coach Gus Malzahn offered seemed a long way off.

Coates knew two things: He never wanted to lose like that again and he had to get better, on and off the field.

 




"I really wasn't into football like I was supposed to have been," Coates admitted a few weeks ago while his team prepared to face Florida State for the VIZIO BCS National Championship. "This year I'm into everything. Football, I’m more focused on that. I’m more focused on helping others and more focused on my schoolwork. It’s really helped me be levelheaded and keep a solid mind."

[+] EnlargeCoates
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAuburn wideout Sammie Coates caught 38 passes for 841 yards and seven touchdowns this season.
Coates has always had a lot on his mind. He lost his father, Sammy Sr., in a work accident when he was 10 years old and Sharon, his mother, raised him on her own while working at a gas station near their home in Leroy, Ala. A tattoo on Sammie's chest reads, "Like Father, Like Son," but outwardly he has never expressed much pain.

"He seemed to be an outgoing kid," said Danny Powell, who coached football at Leroy High. "It didn't make him inverted or anything. He's just a really good guy."

Coates lost five games in his entire career at Leroy, winning state titles as a sophomore and senior. When he wasn't playing football, he was throwing in the low 90s and drawing the attention of Major League Baseball scouts.

In other words, Coates wasn't used to failing. He was, in the words of Powell, "A big small-town hero."

It took time for colleges to notice Coates, who was then a slender 180-pound athlete with great speed and tons of untapped potential. He started drawing the attention of scouts before his junior year, but he broke his ankle and didn't make it back until second game of his senior year. He committed to Southern Miss before former Auburn assistant Phillip Lolley took a flier and invited him to camp.

Coates ran a 4.35 40-yard dash and caught a number of passes over future Florida cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy, according to Powell. Auburn offered on the spot and he signed with the Tigers a month after they won the BCS National Championship.

"He has that thing you can't teach," Powell said. "He had a knack of making the spectacular play."

Coates injured his knee his first season on campus and was forced to redshirt. The next year he got to play some, but between losing and dropping some passes, frustration grew. He'd smile on the outside -- even during his so-called "rant" he flashed appeared optimistic -- but inside he felt the need to change.

When he spoke to the media that October day, he wore a bright orange Auburn sweater that read, "Protect this house." But as he threw open the program's doors to reveal its flaws, he neglected his own.

He talked the talk, but this season he chose to walk it, too. A year after pointing out the flaws of others, he and teammate Trovon Reed were baptized.

"Really, both of us became leaders on the team, and it's one of the big things that helped us out," Coates said. "I'm so thankful to him coming up and talking to me about doing it. It was one of the biggest steps I could have made in my life."

 




His feet now firmly planted, Coates has emerged as one to watch in the BCS title game. At 6-foot-2 and 201 pounds with speed to burn, he's a matchup nightmare for Florida State. He's in the top 10 of the SEC in receiving yards and touchdowns, and trails only Mike Evans and Brandin Cooks nationally for the most receptions of 30 yards or more.

While Auburn's running game gains most of the attention, it's Coates' ability to stretch the field that makes Malzahn's offense go. Without him keeping defenses honest, Nick Marshall and Tre Mason would face nine and 10 men in the box.

"Any time you’ve got a guy who can run as tall as him, and can jump, that’s a threat," Malzahn said.

Coates credits the entire coaching staff for being a father figure, with wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig improving his play on the field while helping him "grow up and become a better man" off of it.

But when asked about Malzahn, his eyes lit up. When Malzahn was hired, everything changed. His competitiveness and positivity, Coates said, was infectious.

"Oh, man, he's a genius," Coates said. "He is unique. He's one of those guys that loves the game and he's going to put his all into it no matter what.

Whatever complaints Coates had before are now gone. Instead of getting his message confused for a negative rant, it's all praise.

"Malzahn, he comes in and tells us it's a new day and we're not going to have what we had last year, the team really bought into it," he said. "If you weren't going to be part of his new day, he wasn't going to have you here. He was going to get rid of you. That's Malzahn's mindset and that makes you work harder. … We just bought in, we fought together, we started coming closer as a team and that really helped us."

SEC lunchtime links

November, 22, 2013
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It's Friday, which means only a day until game day. Thank goodness. Here's some reading from around the league to get you ready:
AUBURN, Ala. -- Outside of special teams, Auburn linebacker JaViere Mitchell didn’t play until midway through the second quarter of Saturday’s game at Arkansas. But when the Razorbacks drove inside the 5-yard line, the coaches called Mitchell’s number, and he responded.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Planning for success: Auburn Tigers

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

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

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

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

Storylines

Which quarterback will play for Mississippi State?

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

What will we see from Auburn’s offense?

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

Who will win the turnover battle?

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

Players to watch

Auburn: LB Jake Holland

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

Mississippi State: RB LaDarius Perkins

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

Quotable

“We played against Oregon and Chip Kelly in 2010 and I got a chance to [again] last year. His signs were fancier than ours, so I tried to get a little competitive with that. Hopefully, we’re doing a better job. I’m not that creative in all that but our players, they have some ownership in that.” -- head coach Gus Malzahn, on Auburn’s play cards from the sideline
AUBURN, Ala. -- It will be a strange feeling for Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn when he looks across the field Saturday and sees his former team. Malzahn coached at Arkansas State last year, and this weekend, the Red Wolves will visit the Plains for a nonconference showdown with the Tigers.

In his one year at Arkansas State, his first as a college head coach, Malzahn finished 9-3 and started their current nine-game winning streak. But when the ball kicks off Saturday, the nostalgia will wear off and the Auburn coach will want nothing more than to put an end to the streak.

“Personally, I care greatly for a lot of their players,” Malzahn said. “Their administration was great to me while I was there. It was a very good experience. I am very grateful for the opportunity they gave me.

“Professionally, you have got to flip the switch once the game starts, and you have to do everything in your power to help your team win. We will definitely do that.”

It won’t be an easy task. Arkansas State hired another bright, young offensive mind in Bryan Harsin, and the expectations are once again high for the Red Wolves. The game plan has likely changed, but the personnel remains very much the same.

Malzahn
Malzahn
“I was very impressed with Bryan,” Malzahn said. “We shared ideas. He’s one of the best in the business, one of the better offensive minds in all of college football.

“It’s going to be a different offensive system. You know about personnel and you know quite a bit about the personnel, but the scheme is going to be different. You don’t know what to expect. They have a lot of good football players. That’s the thing I know most about it.”

Storylines

What to expect from Nick Marshall, part two?

The first game was well documented. Marshall played conservatively, didn’t turn the ball over, but turned in a subpar performance overall. Will he take a step forward in his second game? Malzahn hopes so. The Auburn head coach plans to open up the playbook more and more each game for Marshall, and he wants to try and pick up the pace on offense. However, he still wants to keep his quarterback out of potentially precarious situations. With the SEC schedule beginning next week, this would be the ideal time for Marshall to have a breakout game.

Will Auburn’s linebackers step up to the challenge?

In the season opener against Washington State, the secondary was tested. Auburn had just one linebacker on the field for the majority of the game. That won’t be the case Saturday. Starting Will linebacker Cassanova McKinzy will see a lot more snaps as they try to defend Arkansas State’s potent rushing attack. The Red Wolves rushed for over 500 yards in the season opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Auburn's middle linebacker combination of Jake Holland and Kris Frost struggled at times in the first game, but they will have to play better on Saturday.

Who will be the playmaker for the Tigers?

Last week, it was Corey Grant on offense and Robenson Therezie on defense. Both players came up huge for Auburn in the Week 1 victory. Who will it be this week? There are plenty of candidates, including any one of the three-headed monster in AU’s backfield or maybe one of the freshman defensive linemen, but the Tigers need somebody to emerge this weekend. The coaches are also hopeful to find a go-to wide receiver for Marshall to throw the ball to.

Players to Watch

Auburn player to watch: DT Montravius Adams

Stopping the run will start up the middle, and it will be a team effort among Adams, Angelo Blackson, Gabe Wright and Ben Bradley. However, it was Adams who provided the spark last week. He energizes both the crowd and his teammates.

Arkansas State player to watch: RB David Oku

Oku started his career in the SEC with Tennessee. He transferred to Arkansas State after his freshman year, and this is his chance to prove he can still play well against teams in the nation’s top conference. The Red Wolves had four different players rush for more than 100 yards last week, but Oku is the most talented of the group.

Quotable

“They've got a lot of weapons back on offense, and I know they've got some really good players back on defense. It's going to take a much better effort from us this week. We're going to have to see that Week 1-to-Week 2 improvement if we want to win the game.” -- Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, on Arkansas State

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