Auburn Tigers: Johnathan Ford

Auburn midseason overview

October, 16, 2014
Oct 16
10:00
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It's the midway point for Auburn and for most of the teams in the SEC. Earlier in the week, we looked at the conference as a whole in our SEC midseason overview. Now it's time to break down the Tigers after the first six games.

Offensive MVP: C Reese Dismukes

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIAuburn center Reese Dismukes makes Gus Malzahn's offense run smoothly.
After missing the first half of the season opener, Nick Marshall has been great. Cameron Artis-Payne is third in the SEC with 664 rushing yards. Even D'haquille Williams, the junior college transfer, can make a case. But the player who makes it all go is Dismukes. He's been the constant for this Auburn offense since Gus Malzahn arrived. When the Tigers are running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense, Dismukes is the one getting everybody set and making the calls. That's no easy task. His experience is simply irreplaceable.

Defensive MVP: DB Johnathan Ford

Nobody saw this coming before the season, but Ford, a running back in high school, has played as well as anybody on Auburn's defense. He leads the team with 41 tackles, and he also has two interceptions, one fumble forced and half a sack. The sophomore is doing it all for the Tigers, and it's his first year playing safety. It's safe to say he's found a home. In Saturday's loss to Mississippi State, Ford finished with nine tackles, one interception, one fumble forced and one quarterback hurry. How's that for a stat line against the No. 1 team in the country?

Newcomer of the year (not named D'haquille): DE Davonte Lambert

Since Duke Williams is our SEC newcomer of the year at the midway point, we're going to go a different route and take Lambert. The junior college transfer didn't have the luxury of going through spring practice, but it's easy to see why Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner was raving about Lambert once he got on campus. He cracked the starting lineup after the third game, and he leads the team with five tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. He's not Dee Ford. He's not Carl Lawson. But he's filled in admirably, exceeding expectations.

Biggest surprise: Ellis Johnson's defense

In August, everybody was asking if Auburn score enough points again this season to make up for an average defense. Well, the Tigers took exception to that. The defense has played much better in Johnson's second year as coordinator. Before Saturday, they had allowed 21 or fewer points in each of the first five games, the longest such streak since 2007-08. Even in the loss, Auburn forced four turnovers and allowed only 10 points in the second half. If not for shortcomings on offense, it might have been a different game.

Room for improvement: Consistency on offense

Speaking of those shortcomings, it's been a struggle at times for Auburn's offense. They never really got going at Kansas State; they started slow against Louisiana Tech; and they turned the ball over twice on the first two plays in Saturday's loss to Mississippi State. The talent is there. The coaching is there. They've even shown glimpses of last year, but they have been way too inconsistent. To reach that level, that standard that Auburn set for itself last year, this offense needs to improve on the little things.

Biggest game of the second half: Nov. 1 at Ole Miss

Take your pick. The Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa obviously stands out. A trip to Georgia in November will be difficult regardless of whether Todd Gurley plays. And Auburn can't overlook home games against South Carolina and Texas A&M. But the most meaningful game left on the schedule is in Oxford against Ole Miss. The Rebels are undefeated, having already beaten Alabama and Texas A&M, and a win against Auburn could make it mighty difficult to keep them out of the playoff. On the flip side, every game is a must-win now for the Tigers, and that one is no different.
Today, our SEC position-by-position rankings move to an area that will see plenty of turnover throughout the league: special teams.

There are a ton of SEC heavyweights who lost key special teamers, like league champ Auburn -- which lost punter Steven Clark, kicker Cody Parkey, now-legendary return man Chris Davis and kickoff returner/tailback Tre Mason -- LSU (All-American Odell Beckham) and Alabama (punter Cody Mandell and kicker Cade Foster). That’s just a start.

The league is full of dynamic playmakers who can become stars in the return game, but as of right now, many SEC teams have questions to answer on special teams. That’s why teams that have returning veterans at those positions sit high in our rankings.

Special teams position rankings

1. Texas A&M: There aren’t many SEC teams that can make this claim, but the Aggies have a clean sweep of returning specialists. Leading the way is an All-American and Ruy Guy Award finalist at punter, Drew Kaser, who broke the school record with a 47.4-yard average last season. Texas A&M also has kicker Josh Lambo (8-for-10 on field goals in 2013), kickoff returner Trey Williams (25.2 yards per return, fifth in the SEC) and punt returner De’Vante Harris (6.7 yards per return, sixth in the SEC) back this fall. That’s a solid collection of talent that should help an Aggies team that certainly has some questions to answer on offense and defense.

2. Missouri: This is another squad that returns the key figures from a season ago, led by versatile return man Marcus Murphy. Murphy was fifth in the SEC in punt returns (7.0) and 11th in kickoff returns (22.2) while also contributing to the Tigers’ solid running game. Andrew Baggett (18-for-25 on field goals, 8.6 points per game) was the SEC’s second-leading scorer among kickers, and he returns along with punter Christian Brinser (41.0 yards per punt).

3. Georgia: Truth be told, Georgia was frequently terrible on special teams last season. The Bulldogs struggled to generate much of anything in the return game and experienced some issues with blocked punts. Coach Mark Richt changed the way the coaching staff will address special teams during the offseason, and perhaps that will make a difference. The individual specialists are actually pretty good -- particularly kicker Marshall Morgan, who should generate some All-America attention himself. Morgan was 22-for-24 (91.7 percent) and led all SEC kickers with an average of 10.3 points per game, truly one of the best seasons by a kicker in school history. Punters Collin Barber and Adam Erickson were mostly average, which is more than can be said for the Bulldogs’ return men. Keep an eye on freshman Isaiah McKenzie in August to see if he has a chance to contribute in the return game.

4. LSU: The return game will certainly suffer a blow without electric All-American Beckham -- the winner of last season’s Paul Hornung Award as the nation’s most versatile player -- but LSU has no shortage of athletic players (running back Terrence Magee is one option) whom the coaches can plug into Beckham’s old spots. The Tigers are solid at kicker with Colby Delahoussaye, who led the SEC by making 92.9 percent of his field goals (13 of 14). They held a competition for the punting job during the spring between hot-and-cold Jamie Keehn (41.0 ypp) and walk-on Trent Domingue.

5. South Carolina: Here’s another one where experience helps, although the Gamecocks have much to improve upon this season. Punter Tyler Hull (37.8 ypp) is back, but South Carolina ranked last in the SEC with an average of 34.1 net yards per punt. They were mediocre both returning and covering kickoffs and at returning punts, although Pharoh Cooper (22.4 ypr on kickoffs and 4.4 ypr on punts) might be a breakout candidate for the Gamecocks this fall. Elliott Fry was a solid performer (15-for-18 on field goals, fourth in the SEC with 7.6 ppg) at place-kicker in 2013.

6. Alabama: The Crimson Tide should rank higher on this list by season’s end. After all, they have arguably the SEC’s top return man in Christion Jones (second in the league with 28.7 ypr on kickoffs and second with 14.0 ypr on punts). But they also lost a dynamic punter in Mandell and a place-kicker, Foster, who was solid last season before melting down in the Iron Bowl. Perhaps Adam Griffith (1-for-3 on field goals) will take over the kicking job, but Alabama also has high hopes for signee J.K. Scott, who is capable of kicking or punting in college.

7. Arkansas: The rankings start getting murky around the middle of the pack. Arkansas has a phenomenal punter back in ambidextrous Australian Sam Irwin-Hill (44.3 ypp, fifth in the SEC), but the Razorbacks also lost kicker Zach Hocker (13-for-15 on field goals) and punt returner Javontee Herndon. Kickoff returner Korliss Marshall (22.2 ypr, 10th in the SEC) is back. It would be huge for Arkansas if signee Cole Hedlund, USA Today’s first-team All-USA kicker for the Class of 2014, can come in and take over Hocker’s job.

8. Florida: We’re speculating here that Andre Debose comes back healthy and reclaims his job as the Gators’ kickoff return man. That would be a big deal since Debose is tied for the SEC’s career lead with four kickoff returns for touchdowns. Now-departed Solomon Patton did a great job in his place last season, averaging 29.2 ypr. The Gators also lost punt returner Marcus Roberson (9.2 ypr). The big issue, though, is at kicker, where former top kicking prospect Austin Hardin (4-for-12 on field goals) was awful last season and eventually gave way to Francisco Velez (6-for-8). Likewise, Johnny Townsend (42.0 ypp) took over at punter for former Groza finalist Kyle Christy (39.6) because of a slump, although both are back.

9. Kentucky: Although the Wildcats lost a solid kicker in Joe Mansour (12-for-14 on field goals), they still have several solid players returning. They include punt returner Demarco Robinson (10.4 ypr), kickoff returner Javess Blue (20.4 ypr) and punter Landon Foster (41.3 ypp). Austin MacGinnis, one of the nation’s better kicking prospects in 2013, claimed the place-kicking job during spring practice.

10. Auburn: As with Alabama, we expect Auburn to move up this list during the season. They have the No. 1 kicking prospect from 2013, redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson, taking over for Parkey at place-kicker. They have speedster Corey Grant as an option at kickoff return. And they have another talented redshirt freshman, Jimmy Hutchinson, inheriting the reliable Clark’s spot at punter. Quan Bray might be the man who takes over at punt returner for Davis, who averaged 18.7 ypr (which doesn’t include his 109-yard field goal return to beat Alabama), but he could face a challenge from candidates like Trovon Reed, Marcus Davis or Johnathan Ford.

11. Tennessee: Considering how the Volunteers lost punter/kicker Michael Palardy (third in SEC with 44.5 yards per punt and 14-for-17 on field goals), it’s a good thing that they signed top kicking prospect and Under Armour All-American Aaron Medley. Tennessee has return man Devrin Young (25.9 ypr on kickoffs and 7.9 on punts) and backup punt return man Jacob Carter (9.3 ypr) back, as well.

12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs return most everyone from last season (minus punter Baker Swedenburg, who averaged 42.5 ypp), but it remains to be determined whether that’s a good thing. They were mediocre or worse in most special teams departments in 2013 – especially at place-kicker, where Devon Bell (6-for-14 on field goals) and Evan Sobiesk (3-for-6) were hardly reliable. Bell (41.2 ypp) was a decent punter, but could face a challenge from signee Logan Cooke on kickoffs and punts. Return man Jameon Lewis (23.5 ypr on kickoffs and 2.3 on punts) is back, as is speedster Brandon Holloway (37.7 ypr on three kickoffs and 18.0 ypr on two punts), who is trying to crack the starting lineup at running back, but could become a dynamic return man if given the opportunity.

13. Ole Miss: By losing punter Tyler Campbell (44.4 ypp, fourth in the SEC), kicker Andrew Ritter (16-for-24 on field goals) and punt returner Jeff Scott (12.7 ypr), Ole Miss has plenty of holes to fill. They have kickoff returner Jaylen Walton (20.6 ypr) back and also signed the No. 2 kicking prospect for 2014, Gary Wunderlich, who is capable of becoming a standout performer as both a kicker and punter.

14. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason didn’t seem particularly enthused about his special teams units after spring practice. The Commodores lost kicker Carey Spear (15-for-19 on field goals) and potential replacement Tommy Openshaw struggled during spring scrimmages, potentially opening the door for a walk-on. Punter Taylor Hudson (42.9 ypp, seventh in the SEC) is back, but he and competitor Colby Cooke were apparently not very consistent this spring, either. Vandy lost punt returner Jonathan Krause (3.6 ypr) and returns leading kickoff return man Darrius Sims (22.8 ypr, eighth in the SEC).
AUBURN, Ala. -- What’s the adage? Offense wins games, but defense wins championships. Well, after Nick Marshall and the first-team offense put up 44 points in the first half of Saturday's spring game, it’s clear that Auburn has enough firepower to win games. But do the Tigers have a defense good enough to win a championship?

That answer remains unclear.

The 58-3 final score looks bad, but more than anything, it shows a lack of depth on the defense, which is understandable given the number of injuries that ravaged the Tigers this spring. Last week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he had about a dozen guys who either missed all of spring practice or a good portion of the spring. Saturday was no different.

[+] EnlargeBrandon King
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Brandon King breaks up a pass intended for Marcus Davis during the spring game. The Auburn defense's lack of depth showed on Saturday.
Potential starters Carl Lawson, LaDarius Owens and Jermaine Whitehead did not play, and a handful of other key contributors were limited in action, making it difficult to get a read on how good this unit really is.

“I feel like the defense did good,” defensive lineman Gabe Wright said after the game. “It’s hard to say that when the team has got 50-something points, but the first-team unit, we did better. There wasn’t a lot of loafs, according to the coaches. Guys were making plays, so overall I feel like it’s a win for us.”

Wright, who started at defensive tackle last season, played defensive end in the spring game because of all the injuries. He was one of the many players who moved around this spring, and he’s another reason why the grade for the defense is incomplete.

One positive that came from all of the attrition was that it gave several younger players a chance to compete.

With Joshua Holsey out this spring, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief stepped up and earned himself some playing time at one of the safety spots, while versatile sophomore Johnathan Ford played well at the other spot in place of Whitehead on Saturday.

“They looked pretty well,” Robenson Therezie said of the two safeties. “Those are the type of guys we can count on in a big game. They’re not rookies anymore, especially Derrick Moncrief. He came in, and he just got it. He caught up with everything. We feel pretty comfortable with the secondary right now.”

It was no different at linebacker, where injuries limited both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy and paved the way for Kenny Flowers. The former junior college transfer was named defensive MVP of the spring game after he finished with seven tackles, 2.5 for loss and a sack.

“It felt great,” Flowers said. “I wasn’t a big factor last year, but I hope to be this year.”

Ultimately, the defense that Auburn rolled out Saturday probably isn’t capable of winning a conference championship, let alone a national championship, but it’s going to look a lot different in the fall, when everybody is back and healthy. That’s when the true test will come.

“This defense is going to be really good,” Therezie said. “Probably better than last year, because we have some guys coming back. We understand the concept of what Coach Johnson is running and everything, so it’s going to be really good. I can’t wait to see it.”

If the season opener was this Saturday, Auburn defensive back Joshua Holsey would be playing. It’s not, though. It’s only the spring game, and that’s why Holsey will be held out just like he has been for the majority of spring practice.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Holsey
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsJoshua Holsey has made a remarkable recovery from last season's injury.
The junior safety tore his ACL in practice just days before the Texas A&M game last fall and missed the remainder of the season. It was a tough blow for the Auburn defense at the time, but the recovery has been nothing short of remarkable to this point. Holsey was back and ready to go by the start of spring practice, just five months after the injury occurred.

“We’re just erring on the side of caution,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said last month. “He’s doing some one-on-one and out there in a little bit of pass scale. If we were getting ready to line up and play next week against Arkansas, he’d be ready to go.

“He’s been playing here. He’s got two years under his belt, one year under our system. We know what he can do. We’re just kind of erring on the side of caution with him.”

If it were up to Holsey, he’d be out there with his teammates. Fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said Holsey was sneaking in and taking reps on the first day of practice, and even when he’s not been out there, he’s still finding ways to help his secondary mates.

“He’s been one of the better guys as far as helping us with what he sees, what he thinks the offense is going to do,” Whitehead said.

Once fall camp rolls around, the question won’t be whether Holsey returns, it will be what position is he going to play when he does return?

As a sophomore, he started every game at boundary safety before the injury occurred. However, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief has stepped in and found a home at the same position this spring. The newcomer has played so well that the coaches might look to move Holsey when he does return from injury.

“We feel like with Holsey coming back that we’ve still got a wild card,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice. “We feel fine about the guys that went this spring, but in the back of your mind, you have to feel like Holsey was a legitimate starter. And who’s job is he going to take?

“The four that finished the spring -- [Jonathan] Jones, [Jonathon] Mincy, Whitehead and Moncrief -- all had good springs. And then Johnathan Ford, he and some of the other guys made great progress, and we’ve got confidence in them right now.

“[With] all that being said, I just have to believe that Josh Holsey will come back and probably get in the fight for a starting job. Is he going to be the boundary safety? Is he going to be a boundary corner? Where are we going to need him the most?

“We’ve got some question marks, but they’re not the type of question marks where we’re not sure who can do this. It’s more of who’s going to win that battle and who’s going to be that No. 1 guy and who’s going to be that No. 2 guy.”

Ultimately, that’s not a bad problem to have if you’re Auburn.

The secondary looked depleted at times last year, and it was never more evident than when Holsey went down midway through the season. The Tigers lost top cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White this past offseason, but when Holsey returns, they’re going to be better off than they were a year ago, regardless of his position.


AUBURN, Ala. -- 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.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
Editor’s note: This is Part 5 in a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Cornerback was an area where Auburn struggled at times last year, and it didn’t help that both Chris Davis and Jonathan Jones missed time with injuries. Davis is gone, but Jones is healthy and ready to compete this spring.

Still, it was a position of need for the Tigers, and the coaches addressed it on the recruiting trail. Auburn’s 2014 class included five defensive backs -- three ranked in the ESPN 300 -- and height clearly was a priority as all five players are listed at 6-feet or taller.

“We feel like we have guys that can cover, and also if you look at this group, they’re long,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Their length is very good. They all can run. They’re good tacklers. They’ve got very good ball skills and give us some versatility.”

It’s an impressive group, but outside of junior college safety Derrick Moncrief, it’s a group that won’t arrive until the summer. That means highly touted cornerbacks Kalvaraz Bessent and Nick Ruffin, who are both expected to push for time next season, won’t get the chance to do so until the start of fall camp.

That opens the door for a handful of players already on campus to make an impression this spring before the reinforcements arrive.

The contenders
[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Brett Davis/USA TODAY SportsJonathon Mincy is expected to be Auburn's top cornerback in 2014.
Jonathon Mincy (senior): He started in all 14 games as a junior and finished with 56 tackles, 14 pass breakups and one interception. If there’s one thing you can count on, it’s that Mincy will be starting at cornerback next season. He’s expected to move over and claim the No. 1 role occupied by Davis last season, meaning he’ll draw the assignment of covering the opposing team’s top wide receiver every game. Although most remember him for giving up a 99-yard touchdown to Amari Cooper in last year’s Iron Bowl, he’s still a solid option.

Jonathan Jones (junior): As mentioned above, Jones missed the first four games last season after he broke a bone in his ankle during fall camp. He then suffered a separate leg injury his first game back that basically kept him out through the end of October. It was a trying season for Jones, who started in three games in 2012 and was expected to play a major role for the Tigers before the injuries derailed his season. He’s healthy now and looks like the early favorite to start opposite Mincy if he has a good spring.

Johnathan Ford (sophomore): When Davis and Jones were injured, Ford took advantage. The freshman came to Auburn as a running back but moved to cornerback in fall camp to help with depth. He eventually moved up on the two-deep depth chart and appeared in 12 games. The coaches haven’t said which side of the ball Ford will play this spring, but if he stays on defense, he’ll be in the mix for a starting role.

Kamryn Melton (sophomore): He’s another player who was affected by the injuries last season. If it were up to Auburn, they would have redshirted Melton, but the injuries forced him to appear in three games and waste the redshirt. On the bright side, he now has game experience that will help him this spring, his first with the team.

T.J. Davis (sophomore): Time is running out for Davis. The redshirt sophomore has yet to carve out a niche in Auburn’s secondary, and with all of the talent coming in this summer, it’s now or never.

Spring forecast
Barring injury, Mincy will start at one cornerback spot, but that’s all we know. The other spot is up for grabs and could be one of the more intriguing battles this spring. Jones has the upper hand, but both Ford and Melton will be given the opportunity to win the job. It’s an important spring for Jones, not only for him to hold off the other two candidates, but to impress the coaches and lock down the position before Bessent and Ruffin arrive this summer.
Editor’s note: This is part four in a week-long series looking at five positions battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- As Auburn searches this spring to find a replacement for running back Tre Mason, who better to ask about the competition than Mason himself? He led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing, and he knows a thing or two about the other players who will vie to take over his featured role in the backfield.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne rushed for 610 yards and six touchdowns in 2013.
The two leading candidates are Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Both ran for more than 600 yards, and both finished among the top-20 rushers in the SEC.

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

There will be others in the mix including incoming freshman Racean Thomas, the nation’s No. 5 running back, but Mason says to temper expectations on Thomas, who won’t arrive on campus until the summer.

“The only thing I can say about that is everybody was good coming out of high school,” Mason said. “You can’t come in with the mindset of you’re the best. You won’t know if you’re the best until you get here. You’ve got stuff to prove. That’s the reason why everyone is here -- they were good in high school. Now it’s time to prove it at the next level.”

Still, Thomas adds yet another playmaker to a backfield full of them. As coach Gus Malzahn said, you can never have enough depth at the running back position.

The contenders
Artis-Payne (senior): It was a season full of peaks and valleys for Artis-Payne in 2013. The junior college transfer rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown in his second game, but he became somewhat of an afterthought when conference play started and Mason took over. Still, Artis-Payne showed glimpses here and there, including a nifty 21-yard touchdown run in the SEC championship game. Now it’s his turn. He was a breakout star last spring, and he could be the favorite to carry the load if he shines again this spring.

Grant (senior): When opportunity knocked last year, Grant took full advantage of it. He wasn’t your traditional running back, but he finished third on the team with 647 yards rushing and led the SEC in yards per carry (9.8). He’s a home-run threat on every play, and he forced the coaches to find ways to get the ball in his hands. It would make sense to keep him in the same role next season, but with Mason gone, why not give him a shot as the featured back? He wants to be the guy, and he’s physical enough to do it.

Peyton Barber (freshman): For a player who redshirted, Barber’s name still seemed to come up a good bit last season. The coaches raved about his talent throughout the season, and Mason echoed their sentiments, saying he’s big, fast and quick on his feet. This spring will be his first with the team, and it’s his chance to prove that he belongs in the conversation. He might not be in line to be the starter just yet, but he wants carries just like everybody else.

Johnathan Ford (sophomore): The versatile Ford might be the only player who will be in multiple position battles this spring. The coaches haven’t confirmed whether he will stay at cornerback or move back to his natural position of running back. Last fall, he had six carries for 73 yards and a touchdown in limited action.

Spring forecast
When Auburn opens the regular season, there will likely be a running-back-by-committee approach, similar to what the Tigers used early on in 2013. Artis-Payne, Grant, Barber and even Thomas could all be in line to get carries. The spring is still important, though, because it gives Grant an opportunity to prove himself as a feature back. And don’t be surprised if Barber winds up being the breakout star of the group.
Editor’s note: This is part four in a weeklong series looking at five Auburn players to watch this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s not often that a player makes a tackle and runs for a touchdown in the same game, but that’s exactly what freshman Johnathan Ford did in Auburn’s 62-3 rout over Western Carolina back in October.

When Ford arrived at Auburn, he was tabbed as a running back. That’s the position he wanted to play, and that’s where the coaches were going to put him. However, in the middle of fall camp, he was moved to cornerback because of an injury to Jonathan Jones and an overall lack of depth in the secondary.

It wasn’t a completely new position for Ford. In fact, a number of college coaches, including new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, an assistant at Alabama at the time, felt that the three-star prospect projected better as a cornerback at the next level.

They were right. Ford embraced his new role and quickly ascended up the depth chart. By the middle of the season, he was listed on the two-deep depth chart and wound up participating in 13 of Auburn’s 14 games. Two months earlier, he was looking at a possible redshirt had he stayed at running back.

The coaches didn’t forget about his former position, though. He still took reps at running back in practice, and against Western Carolina, he broke loose for a 38-yard touchdown on the second run of his career. He finished the game with two carries for 45 yards.

“I think you can see he’s a phenomenal player,” head coach Gus Malzahn said afterwards. “We moved him to corner this year, and we’ll see after the year what happens. The fact that we have three experienced backs obviously has something to do with that, but he’s a threat, no doubt.”

As Ford enters his second season, the big question is whether he stays on defense or moves back to his original position. There’s an obvious need at cornerback this spring with Chris Davis gone, and the top signees not arriving until the summer. But there’s no clear cut favorite at running back either with Tre Mason leaving early for the NFL.

The more likely scenario is that he stays at cornerback and battles Jones for the starting role opposite Jonathon Mincy, but don’t be surprised if he still takes some reps at running back this spring.

Where does Ford want to play?

“It doesn’t matter,” he said this past season. “I just want to help the team as much as I can this year. That comes first. Everything else is just a bonus.”

With that kind of attitude, the coaches will find a role for him somewhere. He’s too talented and too versatile not to make an impact for the Tigers this fall.

Room to improve: Running back

February, 18, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is part two in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn led the nation in rushing this past season. Through 14 games, the Tigers averaged an astonishing 328 yards per game. Three different running backs finished among the SEC’s top-20 rushers, and Auburn had four of the top 20 if you count quarterback Nick Marshall -- who gained over 1,000 yards on the ground.

So how could the running back position possibly have any room left to improve?

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne (pictured) and Corey Grant will pick up much of the production lost when Tre Mason declared for the NFL draft.
It starts with the departure of Tre Mason. The junior star led the SEC with 1,816 yards rushing and 23 touchdowns, but he opted to leave early for the NFL draft. As good as Marshall and the offensive line were, it was Mason who carried this Auburn offense. Ultimately, it’s going to take more than just one player to fill that void.

The other major loss in the backfield won’t show up on the stat sheet, but that doesn’t mean Jay Prosch was any less important. The team’s H-back played a critical role as the lead blocker for the Tigers, and it will be difficult to find somebody who was as good as his job as he was.

With Marshall back and four of the five starters on the offensive line back, Auburn is still going to be among the SEC’s top rushing teams, but if it wants to duplicate last season's success, it has to find a way to replace both Mason and Prosch in the backfield.

Battling for No. 1: Marshall and Mason were both among the SEC’s rushing leaders last year, but people forget that junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and former Alabama transfer Corey Grant each had over 600 yards rushing in their own right. That’s more than some teams got from their leading rusher. Grant, who led the SEC with 9.8 yards per carry, provided a nice change of pace with his speed, but he also showed a physical side at times and could be in the mix as the team’s feature back this season. Artis-Payne is bigger and more physical, but he still has quick feet and a good burst that separates him from other players. The most likely scenario is that Artis-Payne and Grant will split carries, forming a dangerous duo on the Plains.

Strength in numbers: On signing day, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said one can never have enough depth at the running back position. It couldn’t be more true at Auburn, where Malzahn has been known to play two and sometimes even three running backs in a game at the same time. We’ll get to the incoming freshmen, but the Tigers have some capable backs already on campus who are just waiting their turn. The most intriguing player might be redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. His name isn’t one you’ve likely heard of yet, but the staff is very high on him and he should get plenty of carries this spring. It’s also worth watching to see if freshman cornerback Johnathan Ford moves back to running back, his natural position.

New on the scene: Want to find the next Mason? Look no further than ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas. He’s the top-ranked player in Auburn’s 2014 recruiting class, and he has that combination of speed and power that puts him in the same category as Mason. The expectations are high for a guy who hasn’t even enrolled yet, but Malzahn said he has the ability to come in immediately and make a huge impact. Expect Thomas to be eased into the rotation early in the season, but his workload should gradually increase with every game. The Tigers might also find their replacement for Prosch from the 2014 class. Tight end Jakell Mitchell signed with every intention of playing the H-back, and fellow freshman Kamryn Pettway could also get a look there. Both players will arrive this summer.

Room to improve: Secondary

February, 17, 2014
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Editor’s note: This is the first part in a weeklong series looking at Auburn's top five position groups with room to improve.

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.

[+] EnlargeJoshua Holsey
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsA healthy return by Joshua Holsey from a mid-October ACL tear would bolster the secondary.
Auburn had to face all of the quarterbacks above and allowed 7.3 yards per game in those contests. The season stats don’t do any favors to the Tigers’ defense, especially the secondary, but they made enough plays on the back end to win 12 games and play for a BCS title.

“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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- It was late in the first quarter. Auburn had already jumped out to a 21-0 lead over Florida Atlantic and looked well on its way to a rout. The Owls had just taken over at their own 9-yard line when Jonathan Jones blew up a screen and tackled the wide receiver behind the line of scrimmage on the first play.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Jones
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesGetting sophomore cornerback Jonathan Jones back from injury gives Auburn another man to play in a thin secondary.
Looking back it was just another tackle for loss in Auburn’s 45-10 victory, but for Jones, it was much more than that. It his first tackle in what has been a season plagued by injury.

“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.”

Five things: Auburn-Florida Atlantic

October, 26, 2013
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Auburn will play its fourth and final non-conference game this Saturday against Florida Atlantic, and based on recent history, the Tigers should feel pretty good going in. They have won 22 straight and 29 of their last 30 non-conference home games. All but four of those wins came by double figures.

Here are five things to watch during Saturday’s clash with the Owls:

Avoiding the hangover: Auburn is the far superior team Saturday. Even if the Tigers were sitting at 3-4 right now, they would still be heavy favorites against Florida Atlantic. But they’re not. They’re 6-1 and coming off a road win against a top-10 team. They’re ranked No. 11 in a season where most thought they’d be lucky to crack the top 25. How will they approach this game now? Gus Malzahn and his staff have done a good job of staying the course and not looking too far ahead, but don’t be surprised if Auburn overlooks the Owls and comes out a little flat.

Secondary shift: Starting safety Joshua Holsey missed the Texas A&M game due to injury, and it was announced Sunday that he would be out the remainder of the season with a torn ACL. Auburn shifted some players around in the secondary, moving Ryan White into the starting lineup, and it paid off against the Aggies. White made his first career interception, and fellow safety Ryan Smith also added a pick. But how will that alignment work for the rest of the season? There’s also a chance that cornerback Jonathan Jones will return to the lineup Saturday, adding yet another piece to the revolving puzzle the secondary has become.

Dueling quarterbacks: There’s no quarterback controversy on the Plains, but the staff didn’t take the redshirt off freshman signal caller Jeremy Johnson for no reason. He was 0 for 2 passing against Texas A&M, but he’s expected to play a bigger role in the future. Saturday’s game is the perfect opportunity for the former ESPN 300 recruit to gain some more experience. Nick Marshall showed why he’s still the starter against the Aggies and he’ll likely play the majority of this game, but if the Tigers get up big, they could turn the reigns over to Johnson in the second half, if not sooner.

Ford focus: If all goes well, there should be plenty of newcomers who see the field for Auburn on Saturday, not just Johnson. The one to keep an eye on is Johnathan Ford. He was a running back in high school but converted to cornerback when he arrived on campus. He played sparingly through the first six games and even scored a touchdown -- as a running back -- against Western Carolina two weeks ago. He’d love to get a chance to get in the end zone again, but the audition that matters will come on the defensive side of the ball, where he could earn more playing time in a depleted secondary.

Atmosphere at Jordan-Hare: Toomer’s Corner hadn’t seen a rolling like last Saturday since the 2010 season when Auburn won the national championship. The excitement around the program is back. Before the season, not many people circled this game on the calendar, but don’t be surprised if the atmosphere is better than expected because the fans want to support their team now more than ever. That’s what winning will do. The Tigers have yet to lose at home, and they would love nothing more to finish that way. They still have Alabama and Georgia coming to town, but it starts Saturday with Florida Atlantic.

Week 7 helmet stickers

October, 13, 2013
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AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn set a school record with 712 yards of offense Saturday as they trounced Western Carolina, 62-3, on Homecoming. Now let’s hand out some helmet stickers from the Tigers’ dominant performance.

QB Jeremy Johnson: The big storyline of the day was Johnson who received his first start in place of the injured Nick Marshall at quarterback. In fact, it was Johnson’s first ever appearance at Auburn. The freshman had yet to take a snap for the Tigers, but the coaches opted to do away with his redshirt and give the former ESPN 300 signal caller a chance. Johnson took advantage of the opportunity. He went 17 of 21 for 201 yards. He threw four touchdowns and just one interception. His fourth touchdown pass came on the opening drive of the second half before he gave way to backup quarterback Jonathan Wallace.

The offensive line: When a team rushes for 511 yards, it’s hard to single out just one guy. At some point, you have to give credit to the hogs up front. Auburn’s offensive line dominated the line of scrimmage and paved the way for whomever was coming out of the backfield. The unit also provided plenty of time for Johnson to throw, which was key in his first start. The only significant change to the starting lineup was Avery Young, who got his first start at right tackle Saturday. As a group, the offensive line has quietly been one of the strengths for this Auburn football team. The Tigers are among the SEC leaders in rushing yards and fewest sacks allowed.

CB Johnathan Ford: In high school, Ford made his mark playing running back. When he arrived at Auburn, they moved him over to defensive back because of depth concerns. On Saturday, he did a little bit of everything. The freshman athlete played cornerback for most of the day, but with the game already in hand, coach Gus Malzahn tried him out on offense. He rushed twice for 45 yards, including a 38-yard touchdown run. The all-around performance earned high praise from Malzahn, and although he might not play as much in meaningful games, the future certainly looks bright for Ford.

Honorable mention: RB Cameron Artis-Payne
AUBURN, Ala. -- Every year it seems more and more freshmen are playing in college football. It’s no different in the SEC. Top programs like Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU have started or played first-year players in critical games this season.

The same holds true for Auburn, which signed the No. 11 recruiting class this past February. Head coach Gus Malzahn has said he’s not afraid to play freshmen right off the bat as long as they’re talented enough.

So what’s the secret behind the freshmen impact in the college football?

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsFreshman defensive end Carl Lawson had two sacks against Ole Miss.
“Physically, kids are coming out of programs -- they’ve got better strength programs -- they’re bigger, faster and stronger, naturally,” AU defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “They’re probably coached as good or better than they were, and I just think a lot of them are ready to play at that level, and we’re able to find a role for them to play.

“Some of them don’t have the competitiveness, some of them don’t have the temperament, some of them don’t have the fundaments, but heck, the physical talent -- you can look at some in high school and tell, these guys can play with us.”

Through the first five games, Auburn has already seen a number of freshmen contributions.

Defensive end Carl Lawson earned SEC freshmen of the week honors with his performance against Ole Miss last weekend. The five-star recruit finished with six tackles, including 3.5 for loss and two sacks.

Marcus Davis emerged as the go-to wide receiver when the Tigers trailed Mississippi State in the final minutes. He caught four passes for 38 yards on the game-winning drive and helped Auburn put an end to their SEC losing streak.

In the season opener, it was defensive tackle Montravius Adams who provided a much-needed spark for the defense when he entered the game and sacked the quarterback on his first play.

The Tigers are not yet to the halfway point of the season, but there are still plenty of freshmen waiting for their opportunity. If all goes well Saturday, there’s a strong possibility some of them might receive that chance against Western Carolina.

“First and foremost, we've got to go win the football game,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “And we've got to play well. But there are some guys like a Tony Stevens that you'd like to get more action. Marcus Davis is already playing more. I think a guy like an Avery Young, maybe try to get him more meaningful reps, too.”

On defense, the freshmen players who are most likely to see more action include the trio up front -- Adams, Lawson and Elijah Daniel -- cornerbacks Johnathan Ford and Kamryn Melton, and possibly Mackenro Alexander, a defensive back who recently moved to the Star position and played against Ole Miss.

“Mackenro got about nine reps to sub [Robenson Therezie], and I bet those reps, down the line, are going to help him,” Johnson said. “That’s the first time he’s had any true game experience. He did some good things. We hope in the future we can give him some rotation a little bit out there.”

But the freshmen who has received the most attention this week is quarterback Jeremy Johnson. The ESPN 300 recruit has yet to play a snap this season, but with starter Nick Marshall still questionable with a knee injury, there’s a chance the staff turns to Johnson on Saturday. He battled for the starting job during fall camp.

“We have not played him yet, and I know obviously it is getting to a point now where you have to do what is best for him and what is best for your team,” Malzahn said. “But he is still getting a lot of reps in practice and he is improving, there is no doubt.”

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