Auburn Tigers: Jermaine Whitehead
Key player: DB Nick Ruffin
Auburn will be without starting safety Jermaine Whitehead for the second straight week, which means another start for Joshua Holsey and more playing time for the younger players such as Ruffin and Stephen Roberts. Holsey didn’t miss a beat moving from boundary safety to free safety against Kansas State -- he was named the SEC defensive player of the week -- but I’m more intrigued with how the freshmen play, especially Ruffin. He’s played some this season at both star and safety, and he’s growing more confident with every game.
Key question: What will Jeremy Johnson's role be?
We all saw Johnson line up at wide receiver for a couple plays against Kansas State, right? And then when it looked he might get a snap as the quarterback, there was some confusion and Nick Marshall came right back in the game. The plan, the timing of it, the execution -- everything about Johnson’s appearance was odd. I expect the sophomore to have a more prominent role this Saturday against Louisiana Tech. The coaches want to use him going forward, and this is the perfect opportunity to give him more game experience.
Key stat: Auburn has not allowed a third-quarter touchdown this season.
The Tigers have only allowed three touchdowns in the last 10 quarters combined after giving up three touchdowns to Arkansas in the first half of the season opener. To me, this says two things. First, the defense is much improved in Ellis Johnson’s second year as coordinator. They’re still lacking that dynamic pass rusher off the edge, but they’ve been solid against the run and they’re forcing turnovers. Second, whatever the coaches are telling the players at halftime must be working because Auburn’s second-half adjustments have been very good.
Earlier this afternoon you should have read Chris Low's breakdown of the top-10 cornerbacks in the SEC. Now it's time for the safety rankings entering 2014.
Safety position rankings
2. Landon Collins, Soph., Alabama: It’s scary to think what he’ll do as a starter from Day 1. Alabama fans will remember that Collins was the backup to Vinnie Sunseri at strong safety last season and only became a full-time starter after Sunseri tore his ACL. Despite starting only nine games, Collins led the team in passes defended and finished second in total tackles. A heavy hitter as much as he is a ball hawk, Collins could easily develop into a first-round pick with a strong junior season.
3. Tony Conner, Soph., Ole Miss: Talk about fulfilling on promise. Conner, a four-star safety prospect coming out of high school, was an immediate impact player for Ole Miss, playing in all 12 games and earning Freshman All-America honors for his 66 tackles, one interception and seven passes defended.
4. Braylon Webb, Sr., Missouri: Gary Pinkel’s defense could use a veteran presence now that E.J. Gaines, Matt White and Randy Ponder are all gone. Webb, fortunately, is just the stabilizing force that’s needed. He has 30 career starts, and last season he was the team’s second leading tackler in addition to picking off three passes.
6. Jermaine Whitehead, Sr., Auburn: The Tigers’ secondary was unspectacular last season, but Whitehead wasn’t the problem. The soon-to-be senior finished fourth on the team in tackles (65) and third in passes defended (6), two of which he turned into interceptions. Now with a full year in Ellis Johnson’s system, he and the rest of the defense could take a big step forward in 2014.
7. Brian Randolph, Jr., Tennessee: Count Randolph among the better players you probably don’t hear much of. A year after suffering a season-ending injury, the former SEC coaches’ All-Freshman team selection had the best year of his career in 2013, finishing second in the team with 75 tackles. On top of that, he finished fifth in the SEC with four interceptions.
8. Alan Turner, Sr., Arkansas: You’d be hard pressed to come up with a more productive, experienced safety in the SEC this season than Turner, who has played in more than 30 games for Arkansas. The 6-foot senior was the team leader in tackles last season with 97 and also hauled in two interceptions.
9. Ronald Martin, Sr., LSU: This might be Jalen Mills’ spot had he not been arrested and subsequently suspended indefinitely by coach Les Miles. Martin, nonetheless, is a worthy selection. Though he had a quiet 2013, expect a big senior season from him as he takes over for Craig Loston at strong safety in 2014, a spot where his 6-1, 218-pound frame should come in handy in run support.
10. Justin Cox, Sr., Mississippi State: Cox was admittedly a step behind last season after transferring from a junior college. He was asked to play cornerback and ended up contributing very little. But this spring he came up to speed and was welcomed back with a new position that better suits his 6-3 frame: safety. Now the word from Starkville is what an upside he has at safety, how it’s a more natural fit and how he can really cover some ground. Though he may not start right away, don’t be surprised if he climbs the depth chart quickly.
We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.
Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.
With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.
Secondary position rankings
2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.
3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.
4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.
5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.
6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.
7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.
8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.
9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.
11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.
12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.
13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.
14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.
DE Carl Lawson: If Lawson were to go down at any point, Auburn would be in good hands with veteran LaDarius Owens on the other side and sophomore Elijah Daniel behind him, but neither has the same talent or freakish ability. Lawson is a man-child. As a freshman, he was second on the team with four sacks, and with Dee Ford gone, it’s now up to Lawson to pick up the slack and get to the quarterback. The defensive line was the strength of the defense a year ago, and it will remain that way this season as long as Lawson stays healthy.
LB Cassanova McKinzy: As a sophomore, McKinzy played in all 14 games and led the team with 75 tackles. He was the model of consistency for a linebacking corps that received its fair share of criticism throughout the season. Now he’s moving to middle linebacker, where he will likely make more of the calls and become more of a leader for this unit. Injuries slowed him down this spring and opened the door for the likes of Kenny Flowers and Cameron Toney, but McKinzy is still Auburn’s best linebacker.
CB Jonathon Mincy: It’s hard to imagine that a cornerback with one interception over the last three years would be considered indispensable, but Mincy is now the veteran at a position where Auburn remains thin. Reinforcements from the 2014 class are expected to arrive at the end of the month, and former wide receiver Trovon Reed looked solid in the spring game, but you can’t teach experience. He’s not going to be Carlos Rogers or Jerraud Powers, but without Mincy, the cornerback position becomes a real question mark for the Tigers.
S Jermaine Whitehead: “The guy that has played day in and day out, play in and play out, and been the rock, the consistent guy, has been Whitehead,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said late last season. And looking back, Whitehead didn’t get enough credit for his play. He quietly finished fourth on the team in tackles (65), third in interceptions (2) and third in pass breakups (6), but more importantly, he held together a secondary that saw multiple starters go down. He’ll likely be that rock again this season.
DT Gabe Wright: In April, Wright told ESPN.com that this Auburn defensive line could go down as one of the best, if not the best, in the SEC and the nation. That’s bold considering Ford, the team’s sack leader, has moved on to the NFL. But if there’s any chance of Wright’s prediction coming true, it starts with him. The senior, who was once a coveted recruit, has the talent and athleticism to be special. After a disappointing sophomore season, he showed flashes last year with 8.5 tackles for loss, but he’s yet to put it all together. Will this be the year?
That answer remains unclear.
The 58-3 final score looks bad, but more than anything, it shows a lack of depth on the defense, which is understandable given the number of injuries that ravaged the Tigers this spring. Last week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he had about a dozen guys who either missed all of spring practice or a good portion of the spring. Saturday was no different.
“I feel like the defense did good,” defensive lineman Gabe Wright said after the game. “It’s hard to say that when the team has got 50-something points, but the first-team unit, we did better. There wasn’t a lot of loafs, according to the coaches. Guys were making plays, so overall I feel like it’s a win for us.”
Wright, who started at defensive tackle last season, played defensive end in the spring game because of all the injuries. He was one of the many players who moved around this spring, and he’s another reason why the grade for the defense is incomplete.
One positive that came from all of the attrition was that it gave several younger players a chance to compete.
With Joshua Holsey out this spring, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief stepped up and earned himself some playing time at one of the safety spots, while versatile sophomore Johnathan Ford played well at the other spot in place of Whitehead on Saturday.
“They looked pretty well,” Robenson Therezie said of the two safeties. “Those are the type of guys we can count on in a big game. They’re not rookies anymore, especially Derrick Moncrief. He came in, and he just got it. He caught up with everything. We feel pretty comfortable with the secondary right now.”
It was no different at linebacker, where injuries limited both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and paved the way for Kenny Flowers. The former junior college transfer was named defensive MVP of the spring game after he finished with seven tackles, 2.5 for loss and a sack.
“It felt great,” Flowers said. “I wasn’t a big factor last year, but I hope to be this year.”
Ultimately, the defense that Auburn rolled out Saturday probably isn’t capable of winning a conference championship, let alone a national championship, but it’s going to look a lot different in the fall, when everybody is back and healthy. That’s when the true test will come.
“This defense is going to be really good,” Therezie said. “Probably better than last year, because we have some guys coming back. We understand the concept of what Coach Johnson is running and everything, so it’s going to be really good. I can’t wait to see it.”
If the season opener was this Saturday, Auburn defensive back Joshua Holsey would be playing. It’s not, though. It’s only the spring game, and that’s why Holsey will be held out just like he has been for the majority of spring practice.
“We’re just erring on the side of caution,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said last month. “He’s doing some one-on-one and out there in a little bit of pass scale. If we were getting ready to line up and play next week against Arkansas, he’d be ready to go.
“He’s been playing here. He’s got two years under his belt, one year under our system. We know what he can do. We’re just kind of erring on the side of caution with him.”
If it were up to Holsey, he’d be out there with his teammates. Fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said Holsey was sneaking in and taking reps on the first day of practice, and even when he’s not been out there, he’s still finding ways to help his secondary mates.
“He’s been one of the better guys as far as helping us with what he sees, what he thinks the offense is going to do,” Whitehead said.
Once fall camp rolls around, the question won’t be whether Holsey returns, it will be what position is he going to play when he does return?
As a sophomore, he started every game at boundary safety before the injury occurred. However, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief has stepped in and found a home at the same position this spring. The newcomer has played so well that the coaches might look to move Holsey when he does return from injury.“We feel like with Holsey coming back that we’ve still got a wild card,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice. “We feel fine about the guys that went this spring, but in the back of your mind, you have to feel like Holsey was a legitimate starter. And who’s job is he going to take?
“The four that finished the spring -- [Jonathan] Jones, [Jonathon] Mincy, Whitehead and Moncrief -- all had good springs. And then Johnathan Ford, he and some of the other guys made great progress, and we’ve got confidence in them right now.
“[With] all that being said, I just have to believe that Josh Holsey will come back and probably get in the fight for a starting job. Is he going to be the boundary safety? Is he going to be a boundary corner? Where are we going to need him the most?
“We’ve got some question marks, but they’re not the type of question marks where we’re not sure who can do this. It’s more of who’s going to win that battle and who’s going to be that No. 1 guy and who’s going to be that No. 2 guy.”
Ultimately, that’s not a bad problem to have if you’re Auburn.
The secondary looked depleted at times last year, and it was never more evident than when Holsey went down midway through the season. The Tigers lost top cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White this past offseason, but when Holsey returns, they’re going to be better off than they were a year ago, regardless of his position.
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.
“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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- The SEC is typically known as a defensive league, but offenses that dominated play last year. The conference featured the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Aaron Murray and James Franklin at quarterback, and defenses paid the price.
“The [secondary] is really a picture of what our defense has been,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said before the Florida State game. “They've been inconsistent, given up cheap plays, [but] they have made some unbelievable plays. When they make the kind of plays that they made at critical times, you have to trust them.”
The good news for SEC defenses is that all five of those quarterbacks have moved on. In fact, six of the eight league games on Auburn’s 2014 schedule will feature teams with a first-year starter at quarterback. However, the Tigers will be without top cornerback Chris Davis next season, as well as safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White.
The balance of power in the SEC is expected to shift back to the defenses, and if Auburn hopes to follow suit, it must have better play in the secondary. Who will step up?
Battling for No. 1: With Davis no longer in the picture, Jonathon Mincy is expected to slide over and take his role as the No. 1 cornerback. The senior to be finished with 56 tackles last year and has started 28 games in his Auburn career. The other cornerback spot is up for grabs, and the early favorite to win the job is Jonathan Jones. He has made three starts in his first two seasons, and when healthy, he’s one of the better defensive backs on the team. At safety, the Tigers get Jermaine Whitehead back, and they hope to have Joshua Holsey back from injury. Holsey tore his ACL in practice just days before the Texas A&M game, but he was the glue that held the secondary together before he went down. A combination of Whitehead and Holsey could make safety a strength heading into next season.
Strength in numbers: Depth in the secondary was an issue for Auburn last year, and it could be again this year. Freshman Johnathan Ford came to Auburn as a running back but moved to cornerback in fall camp because of the lack of players at the position. There has been no word yet on which side of the ball Ford will be on this spring. If Holsey is still out, the team’s next best option at safety is senior Trent Fisher. He has played in 32 games, starting two, and should get plenty of first-team reps this spring. Another candidate could be Robenson Therezie, who started every game at Star this past season. If the coaches go a different direction at the Star position, Therezie could make an impact in the secondary, at cornerback and/or safety. Therezie’s backup, Mackenro Alexander, also could provide help at safety if needed.
New on the scene: With depth a concern, Gus Malzahn and his staff made defensive back a priority in the 2014 recruiting class. They added three ESPN 300 cornerbacks, a late bloomer in Markell Boston and the nation’s No. 1 junior college outside linebacker Derrick Moncrief, who could help at both the Star and safety positions. The most intriguing player of the group is Stephen Roberts, a former Alabama commitment. The in-state product is listed as a cornerback, but Auburn plans to use him at safety where he can contribute immediately. On signing day, Malzahn tabbed Roberts, along with fellow ESPN 300 cornerbacks Kalvarez Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin, as guys who have a chance to come in and contribute early.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston was greeted by crowd of television cameras as he stepped out of the shiny black Chevy SUV that had escorted he and several of his teammates to the Newport Beach Marriott on Friday morning for the Seminoles’ offensive news conference.
Sipping on his Starbucks, Winston was once again unfazed as the center of attention.
“It's going to be a big factor,” Ellis said. “The play in the box, they have tremendous skill out on the edges, but the pressure in the box is going to be one of the biggest keys to any defensive success that we have. There will be some other things in the game we can't control, kicking game, offense, all are going to contribute. But as far as us performing defensively and giving our football team a chance to win, there's got to be pressure on the quarterback.”
Somehow, pressure doesn’t seem to get to the 19-year-old first-year starter.
According to ESPN Stats & Info, on plays Winston is pressured (knocked down or hurried), he completes an AQ-high 62 percent of his passes and is averaging 11.1 yards per attempt. The AQ average for a quarterback when pressured is 35 percent and 4.7 yards per attempt.
It’s a statistical mismatch in Florida State’s favor, but Auburn’s hybrid safety, Robenson Therezie, isn’t deterred.
“With our game plan I feel like when we execute and do our jobs, I feel like we can keep him outside his comfort zone,” Therezie said. “With our front four, I don't think he's seen the front four he's about to face on January 6th. It's a completely different front four than he's ever faced. With our secondary, I don't think he's seen the secondary that he's seen all year with our secondary. It's completely different from all the other leagues he's played in.”
The good news for Auburn’s defense: It has had a little experience with elite SEC quarterbacks. Now the bad news: Against the offenses of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and James Franklin, Auburn allowed 7.3 yards per play.
"I think seeing those type of players, week in and week out, definitely gets you ready," defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said. “I mean, seeing previous Heisman winners gets you ready for a guy that just won the Heisman. Playing against those guys a couple years now, watching them grow and watching how they transpired over the years, the depth of exactly what Winston has the capacity of ...
“I think being in those situations, also, has shown us how to be resilient, not give up when they make a big play. We understand that their college football team is one of the best in the country, and they’re going to have big times in the game, and how we respond is going to be the test of the game.”
RB Tre Mason: It's about time Mason is given the credit he deserves. The junior running back has done it all season, but he saved his best performance for last with 46 carries for 304 yards and four touchdowns Saturday. Mason's 304 yards are the second-most in a game in Auburn history and fifth-most in a game by an SEC player. When Auburn fell behind in the second quarter, it was Mason who put this team on his back, carrying nine times for 138 yards on back-to-back drives, capping both off with touchdowns. He scored twice more in the fourth quarter to put the game away. Mason now has 1,621 yards and 22 touchdowns on the season and likely booked a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
QB Nick Marshall: Mason took home MVP honors and deservedly so, but Marshall is still the spark plug for this Auburn offense. Outside of two fumbles in the first half, the AU quarterback played another terrific game, doing it with both his arm and his legs. Marshall went 9 of 11 through the air for 132 yards, rushed for 101 yards and scored two touchdowns. It was the fourth time this season he has reached the century mark rushing and is now over 1,000 yards on the season. He made the biggest play with his arm, though. Leading by a field goal in the fourth quarter, Auburn faced a third-and-8 from the Missouri 30-yard line. Marshall connected with Trovon Reed for 23 yards and a first down. The Tigers would score four plays later.
The offensive line: Before Saturday's game, Auburn led the SEC in rushing with an average of 318 yards per game. The Tigers nearly eclipsed that by halftime. They finished with an astonishing 545 yards on the ground. It was the soxth-most rushing yards ever by an SEC team and the most for Auburn since 1973, when the Tigers ran for 565 yards against Southwestern Louisiana. Credit the offensive line. There were gaping holes all game, and it felt like the kicker could've run for 100 yards the way Auburn's line dominated up front. They wore down a Missouri defense that ranked second in the conference against the run. Marshall, Mason and the other backs might get the recognition, but it starts at the line of scrimmage.
Honorable mention: DB Jermaine Whitehead
It could be more of the same when No. 25 Georgia comes to town Saturday.
“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.
“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
As a high school coach, he led seven teams to the state championship game in 14 years, winning three of them. From 2006 to 2011, he was offensive coordinator at Arkansas, Tulsa and Auburn and never endured a losing season. He won the national championship with the Tigers in 2010. And last season, his first as a college head coach, he led Arkansas State to the Sun Belt championship.
But after eight games, Auburn is already bowl eligible, and Malzahn’s team has higher aspirations now. They’re 7-1, ranked No. 11 in the latest BCS standings and four wins away from claiming the SEC West title.
"We’ve got some great players," safety Jermaine Whitehead said. "I most definitely saw us competing in a lot of games. I felt like we had one of the oldest teams coming back, and it was about time that we make our mark."
The national perception has changed, too. Auburn was the underdog in three of its four SEC games, but after wins against No. 24 Ole Miss and No. 7 Texas A&M, the Tigers are now the favorite Saturday against Arkansas and will likely remain that way until they host No. 1 Alabama in the Iron Bowl.
But the players don’t care about being the favorite. They don’t care that Auburn is on the verge of cracking the BCS top 10. They’re taking the same approach.
“It doesn’t change the mindset,” first-year running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “We’re just going to keep moving forward. We’re going to do the things that got us here. Coach Malzahn and the coaching staff definitely keep us grounded anyway, so there’s no way we’re going to lose what we’re doing.”
“You don’t want to think about rankings,” Dee Ford added. “That got a lot of teams in trouble early on in the year. You don’t think about rankings at all. You think about the task at hand. You really just want to focus on executing and playing football. At the end of the day, no matter what ranking you are, you have to play football.”
Still, with every win, Auburn is a team that is growing more and more confident. Beginning on Saturday, it has back-to-back road trips to Arkansas and Tennessee before finish the season at home with Georgia and Alabama. There’s not a game left on the Tigers' schedule that they don’t think they can win.
“We’re definitely gaining confidence,” Artis-Payne said. “We feel like we can beat anybody. We’re just going to keep working, and we’re going to see what happens when the smoke clears at the end of the season.”
It’s fun to look ahead to a potential top-10 matchup in the Iron Bowl, but the Tigers are focused only on their next opponent, a mindset that stems from their head coach.
“I feel like I’m saying the same thing every week, but it’s about Arkansas, and it’s about going on the road,” Malzahn said after Saturday’s win over Florida Atlantic. “It’s about trying to play our best football, and we’re not worried about all the underdogs or favorites. That’s our mindset.
“Any time you’re winning, you’re playing pretty good football. You have some things you can build upon. But every week is different.”
Auburn has lost five of the past seven meetings with the Razorbacks, but the Tigers are hoping to change that Saturday and keep the wins coming for their first-year head coach.
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- The morning traffic in Birmingham on Saturday was unbearable. One side of the interstate was littered with cars, trucks and campers sporting some combination of crimson and white. Rows and rows of drivers were "On my way to see Bama play," according to the stickers on their vehicles. The caravan inched slowly toward Tuscaloosa, weaving on and off exits and around construction.
The Crimson Tide, the state's pride with back-to-back national championships, would demolish rival Tennessee 45-10 that afternoon to remain undefeated and firmly atop the BCS standings at No. 1 overall.
The Tigers, mired in mediocrity since winning the national championship in 2010 but recently resurgent under their new coach Gus Malzahn, would dispatch Florida Atlantic with ease later than night. The 45-10 win would boost Auburn to 7-1 and a No. 11 ranking in the BCS standings.
The wins and the rankings of both schools are one thing. Seeing the line of cars siphoning through the state's largest city, though, was a visual representation of where the rivalry is today. The Iron Bowl, after two years of being so incredibly one-sided in favor of Alabama, is relevant again. The Tide and the Tigers are squarely in the title hunt and only weeks away from a matchup that will determine both programs' postseason hopes.
Alabama's success is taken for granted these days, and for good reason. Coach Nick Saban has built the program into the model of success with only five losses and a staggering .907 winning percentage since 2009. The Tide has won three of the last four BCS National Championships and is well positioned to compete for an unprecedented third straight should it reach Christmas undefeated.
Auburn's rise to national relevance is much more surprising. The fact that Malzahn could resurrect a program left for dead by Gene Chizik is a shock. Auburn finished 8-5 in 2011 and fell further in 2012, ending the year 3-9 and winless in the SEC. To make matters worse, the Tigers were dominated in the Iron Bowl, losing the past two contests with Alabama by a combined 77 points. Off-field problems rotted out the program and Chizik was fired two years after he and Cam Newton led it to a national championship.
"It’s very exciting," said safety Jermaine Whitehead, who signed with Auburn in 2011. "It’s the most live I’ve seen the fan base since I’ve been here. I think everyone has bought in, everyone believes. It kind of looks like the championship year -- the reason that I came here -- and I think we’re going to have a great story to tell when it’s all done."
Their story is already interesting. Two weeks ago Auburn went on the road to then-No. 7 Texas A&M and upset the Aggies in dramatic fashion. Quarterback Nick Marshall, a transfer, led Auburn to the come-from-behind win with a late fourth-quarter touchdown drive.
Corey Grant, who redshirted the 2010 season at Alabama before transferring to Auburn in 2011, said that there wasn't a time last year where he would have believed this season's turnaround could have happened. Beating Johnny Manziel, the defending Heisman Trophy winner, and the Aggies would have been unthinkable. But when Malzahn arrived he said the players were desperate for change and "we always just kept a new mindset and it turned out good for us."
"At the beginning of the season, things started off slow, but as the season got going, and Coach Malzahn kept preaching on what he wanted, and also this coaching staff, and everybody, all the players buying in, it's going good," he added.
As they say at Auburn, it's a new day. How long it will last, though, remains to be seen.
The Iron Bowl will be the ultimate litmus test for both programs.
Alabama has a major hurdle in No. 13-ranked LSU in two weeks, but neither Mississippi State nor Chattanooga in the following two weeks should prove an obstacle on the way to the Iron Bowl.
Auburn, meanwhile, should be favored in its remaining three games against Arkansas, Tennessee and Georgia. The Deep South's Oldest Rivalry, as the Georgia-Auburn game is affectionately known, will be played at Auburn.
With LSU and Texas A&M currently sporting two losses, the West is either Alabama or Auburn's to steal.
Should both schools reach Nov. 30 without another loss, their matchup in the Iron Bowl would be huge, the biggest in years. It would be the first time the rivalry game comes with a trip to the SEC Championship Game on the line for both schools. The 1994 game did decide the SEC West champion, however Auburn was ineligible to play in the title game in Atlanta at the time.
Imagine the traffic in Birmingham if that happened. Post-Thanksgiving holiday shopping and an Iron Bowl? The roads were bad enough this weekend. Who knows if the state can handle both its teams being in the title hunt a month from now.
“It felt good to get back in the groove of things, to get the rust off,” he said. “Once I made that play, I was in it for the rest of the game and was able to help contribute.”
The sophomore cornerback missed the first four games with a broken bone in his ankle, an injury he suffered when he slipped on some wet steps during fall camp. He returned against Ole Miss but played sparingly. He sat out the next game with a separate injury to his leg, and although he made the trip to Texas A&M, he hardly played against the Aggies.
“I was definitely frustrated,” Jones said. “But I've got good teammates and good coaches that helped me stay positive, look forward and know that I'll be back soon. I just prayed with my mom, prayed through it and tried to stay positive -- motivate the teammates, try to stay involved as much as I could even though I was hurt.”
Now, Jones is back and a major part of this Auburn defense.
“It's exciting,” he said. “I've been waiting for the opportunity to get back out there with my teammates, just have fun and contribute.”
The excitement spilled over to the field Saturday. After making the tackle for loss, Jones broke up a pass on the very next play. He later energized both his teammates and the crowd with a bone-jarring hit on a kick return.
“He’s been getting a lot of reps in practice,” fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said. “They finally worked him in the rotation in the game, and he do what he always do. I expected that from him -- to be a big-time player, small guy that plays really big.”
For Auburn, Jones’ return couldn’t have come at a better time. The Tigers recently lost starting safety Joshua Holsey for the season with a torn ACL. The staff moved cornerback Ryan White to safety to make up for the loss, but that left very little depth behind Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy at the cornerback position.
“We’re very thin back there,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “Getting [Jones] back was very important. We had to move Ryan White inside with the loss of Holsey. We lost our leading returning tackler at the beginning of the season -- never played a down.
“We keep moving guys inside, so it’s very important that Rudy (Johnathan Ford) and Jonathan [Jones] come along and give us some quality depth at corner.”
In addition to losing Holsey, the Tigers also lost starting safety Demetruce McNeal, who was dismissed from the team during fall camp. They have been without at least four other defensive backs -- Jones, Chris Davis, T.J. Davis and Kamryn Melton -- at one point or another through the first eight games. Still, the unit is holding it together.
“We’re growing on it,” Whitehead said. “We lost a couple of key players, but guys stepped in and made remarkable moves. It’s been a great turnaround.”
“That is a tough blow for our defense,” Malzahn said. “It was a freak injury on Thursday towards the end of practice.”
However, when one man goes down, it creates an opportunity for another. That was the case for Ryan White. The senior cornerback was asked to move to safety to help make up for the loss of Holsey. He had no prior experience at the position and no practice time to speak of.
“We brought him in that morning,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “Coach [Charlie] Harbison spent a few hours with him and he had a walk-through that afternoon with the unit. He knew the position mentally -- just being a defensive back, he knows what that guy does.
“The adjustments and the alignments and being in the right place and coverage leverage. I thought he did a magnificent job with no practice.”
Against Texas A&M, White finished with five tackles and an interception, the first of his career. On Tuesday, Malzahn said he plans to move the 5-foot-11, 196-pound defensive back into that role -- the boundary or deep safety -- for the foreseeable future.
The move allows for Ryan Smith and Jermaine Whitehead to rotate between the other safety spot and the dime, the position filled by Holsey before the injury.
“Ryan White did a magnificent job of picking up how to play the boundary safety,” Johnson said. “We moved Whitehead and Ryan Smith down to the dime and rotated them a little bit. We felt like that was the best thing to do because Whitehead and [Smith] had been working at the dime, backing up Josh, and they knew the position.”
Smith also recorded an interception against Johnny Manziel and the Aggies on Saturday.
Four SEC West Teams In AP Top Five
Final Furman 10 South Carolina 41 Final 21 Texas A&M 0 7 Alabama 59 Final 10 Georgia 45 Arkansas 32 Final Tennessee 3 3 Ole Miss 34 Final Missouri 42 Florida 13 Final Kentucky 3 LSU 41