Auburn Tigers: Justin Garrett

AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
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.
This is Part V of a weeklong series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- There are still five months until Auburn’s season opener, but with spring practice beginning Monday, football is officially back. Spring is an opportunity for coaches to see what they have, a time when position battles are won, and undoubtedly there will be a player or two, off the radar, who makes a name for himself.

Last year, running back Cameron Artis-Payne and linebacker Justin Garrett turned heads during spring practice.

Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer who arrived in January, earned offensive MVP honors at the spring game and carved out a role in the Tigers’ backfield. Garrett, meanwhile, found a home at the Star position. His performance, highlighted by a fumble return for a touchdown in the spring game, earned him a starting role before injuries derailed his season.

Now, as Auburn heads into Year 2 under coach Gus Malzahn, here are two candidates poised to break out this spring.

Peyton Barber, RB, freshman: When you’re high school teammates with Carl Lawson, the No. 2 player in the nation, it’s sometimes hard to create your own identity. It’s even harder when you commit to the same school. But that’s the route Barber took, and despite redshirting his first season, he’s out to prove that he’s more than Lawson’s high school teammate. The 5-foot-11, 217-pound back is built similar to Artis-Payne and earned rave reviews from the coaching staff throughout his freshman season. He didn’t ever play a down, but his talent was on display every day at practice. Former running back Tre Mason described Barber as ‘big, fast and quick on his feet.’ Now, with Mason gone, there’s an opportunity for the Georgia native. If he continues to play well and impresses the coaches this spring, he could earn himself some playing time next season. And, as if he needs it, there’s extra motivation for Barber knowing that ESPN 300 running back Racean Thomas will arrive on campus this summer.

Elijah Daniel, DE, sophomore: The easy pick for the breakout player this spring would be Lawson. As mentioned above, he was a top recruit, and of the freshman defensive linemen who played last season, he showed the most promise. Most have already tabbed him as the replacement for Dee Ford at defensive end. But let’s not forget about Daniel. He finished the season with just nine tackles, but he was second on the team with 11 quarterback hurries and fourth with 2.5 sacks. The former ESPN 300 prospect seemed to play better as the season progressed, and his role increased because of it. He, too, will be in the mix to replace Ford this spring, and at the end of the day, the best player will play. It doesn’t matter how many stars you had from recruiting services -- though Daniel was pretty good in his own right -- the job will be won on the field. The best-case scenario for Auburn is that both Daniel and Lawson have breakout performances this spring, and the battle lingers on into the fall. The harder the choice, the better the team will be.

Other candidates: WR Ricardo Louis and S Derrick Moncrief

Spring position battles: Star

March, 3, 2014
Editor’s note: This is part one in a weeklong series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The Star position. What is it? A hybrid between a linebacker and a defensive back. What are its responsibilities? To help against the run, to blitz at times and to cover the slot wide receiver or tight end. Who will fill the role next season for Auburn? To be determined.

Senior-to-be Robenson Therezie would seem like the favorite. He started every game at the Star last season during Auburn’s run to the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game, led the team with four interceptions and finished sixth in tackles.

However, there’s a reason the Auburn staff pushed so hard for ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans, who was projected to come in and compete at the Star as a freshman. The local prospect ended up signing with Alabama, but it still begs the question, is Therezie the clear-cut starter heading into spring practice?

“Robenson was a corner when we finished spring [last year],” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said. “We had to move him to get some depth at Star, and Justin Garrett, probably the best playmaker we had coming out of spring ball, got injured. By the time he got back, Robenson had taken that job.”

Now everybody’s healthy, and there’s a new face in the mix.

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie could be the player to beat at Star, but he'll have some athletic competition.
The contenders

Therezie (senior): Make no mistake about it: Therezie was a playmaker last fall. After not playing much his first two years on campus, he finally got an opportunity and took advantage of it. He was known as a big hitter from his high school days, and he had the ability to cover, too. Perfect, right? The only problem was his size. At 5-foot-9, 204 pounds, he’s a tad undersized for the position.

Garrett (junior): He was supposed to be the ideal fit at Star in Johnson’s new 4-2-5 defense. He looked more like a linebacker, but he could cover like a defensive back. He was the MVP of the spring a year ago and listed atop the depth chart, but injuries kept him out of fall camp and opened the door for Therezie. When Garrett returned, he moved to weakside linebacker but was never fully healthy, playing in just two games before opting to take a medical redshirt. Now he’s back and hoping to duplicate the success he had last spring.

Derrick Moncrief (junior): The wild card in all this could be Moncrief, a junior college transfer who enrolled in January. He was the top-ranked juco outside linebacker and is expected to make an immediate impact either at Star or one of the safety positions. On signing day, coach Gus Malzahn called him a big, rangy guy who has very good ball skills and is a very good tackler. By the sound of it, he has all the right attributes.

Mackenro Alexander (sophomore): The plan was likely to redshirt Alexander, but injuries forced the freshman into action, and he served as Therezie’s backup for much of the season. In eight games, he finished with four tackles, including 1.5 for loss.

Spring forecast
This is still Therezie’s job to lose, but with openings at cornerback and safety -- until Josh Holsey returns from injury -- the Auburn coaches might experiment with Therezie at other positions in the secondary, allowing for both Garrett and Moncrief to receive more reps at Star. The goal is always to get the best players on the field, and that could mean moving Therezie to a new position. Unlike last season, there are plenty of options.

Room to improve: Linebacker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Midseason report: Auburn

October, 15, 2013
Of the four first-year head coaches in the SEC, Auburn’s Gus Malzahn is having the best season to this point. His Tigers are 5-1, ranked in the AP poll for the first time since 2011 and coming off a game where they set a school record with 712 yards of total offense against Western Carolina.

Auburn certainly looks to be ahead of schedule with their rebuilding efforts.

The offense has thrived under Malzahn. The Tigers lead the SEC in rushing at 287 yards per game. Their trio of running backs -- Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant -- have all rushed for over 100 yards in at least one game this season. Even quarterback Nick Marshall reached the century mark with 100 yards rushing against Ole Miss.

Meanwhile, the defense has also shown signs of improvement. Although they’ve given up plenty of yards, the Tigers are ranked in the top half of the league in scoring defense. They have been solid in the red zone, and they’re making plays in critical situations.

The road ahead is not an easy one. Three of the Tigers’ next four games are on the road, including Saturday’s matchup with No. 7 Texas A&M. They finish the year with back-to-back home games against Georgia and Alabama. However, the Tigers are just one win away from bowl eligibility, a monumental step for a team who had just three wins a season ago.

Offensive MVP: C Reese Dismukes

When you lead the SEC in both rushing yards and fewest sacks allowed, it says something about your offensive line. For Auburn, Dismukes is the leader of that group. He also claims he leads his fellow offensive linemen with over 60 knockdowns this season, the only stat they keep track of on the line, but his impact goes far beyond the numbers. Every play starts with him, so if the offense falters, it’s on him. If they execute, that’s on him, too. Through six games, it’s safe to say Dismukes has helped trigger a lot of positive plays.

Defensive MVP: DB Robenson Therezie

Therezie wasn’t even a starter coming out of fall camp. The only reason he started the season opener was because of an injury to Justin Garrett, but he took full advantage of the opportunity. Therezie finished with seven tackles and two interceptions against Washington State, earning SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors. Since that game, he’s found a permanent home at the Star position for the Tigers. He leads the team in both tackles (28) and interceptions (3), and he made a critical pick-six in Auburn’s 30-22 win over Ole Miss.
Auburn defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker will not return to the field this season and will receive a medical redshirt, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said on Tuesday.

Whitaker started the last two seasons for the Tigers and was expected to be an anchor on the defensive line this year before he underwent surgery on his right knee during fall camp. The senior was working his way back but will now wait and return in 2014.

"Jeff has been playing banged up the last year or so anyway," Malzahn said. "I think it will be good for him to be healthy. That is our goal -- to get him healthy for next year and have a chance to have his best season."

In 35 appearances with Auburn, Whitaker had 44 tackles, three for a loss, and a forced fumble.

The staff recently moved Nosa Eguae from defensive end to defensive tackle, and he joins a rotation that includes two-year starter Gabe Wright, junior college transfer Ben Bradley and true freshman Montravius Adams.

Malzahn also announced on Tuesday that linebacker Justin Garrett will not play this weekend because of a foot injury. He has already missed three games this season, and the Auburn coach said Garrett will be "week-to-week" going forward.

On a more positive note, linebacker Cassanova McKinzy returned to practice Tuesday after suffering a neck injury over the weekend. He had to be carted off the field.

"That was a scary deal, and it looks like it is going to turn out good," Malzahn said.

The Tigers will host Western Carolina on Saturday at 1 p.m. CT.

Auburn uses open week to get healthy

September, 26, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn has played four games under new coach Gus Malzahn, and although the Tigers are coming off a loss to LSU, the results have been fairly positive. They started 3-0, won their first conference game in nearly two years and stayed competitive in Death Valley.

With no game this weekend, the Tigers are planning for the future.

“The open date comes at a very good time for our team,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got four games under our belt for our coaches to evaluate our personnel, see where we’re at as a team and plan moving forward for the rest of the year to put our guys in the best place to be successful.”

[+] EnlargeDee Ford
AP Photo/Dave MartinDee Ford is slowly rounding back into form after recovering from an MCL injury.
But more importantly, the week off gives Auburn a chance to get healthy.

“I don’t think I’ve been around a team that had that many (injuries) this early and to main impact players,” Malzahn said. “Defensively, we’ve been playing without a lot of our impact players, and even when we get them back, they’re not quite 100 percent yet. But they’re getting there.”

Both Dee Ford and Justin Garrett missed the first two games due to injury but returned against Mississippi State. Ford, the team’s top pass rusher, sprained his MCL in fall camp but is slowly working his way back. Garrett sprained his foot in camp and has since moved positions from the Star to weakside linebacker.

Against LSU, Auburn was without cornerback Chris Davis and defensive end Craig Sanders as both players suffered ankle injuries prior to the game. Davis led the Tigers with 10 tackles against Arkansas State in week two and also serves as the team’s primary punt returner.

Additionally, running back Corey Grant, defensive back Robenson Therezie and linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy all missed time or were limited against LSU.

Needless to say, the bye week couldn’t have come at a better time for Auburn.

“That may be the biggest blessing of the off week that we have a chance to get some of our guys healed up,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got guys that weren’t 100 percent that played anyway last week, so hopefully this week will help them get back to 100 percent. And the guys that haven’t played, we’ll have a chance to have two weeks before our next game and have a chance to get one of those guys back on the field.”

Defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker is among those who have yet to play this season, but his status is a little more in question. The two-year starter suffered a knee injury in fall camp that required surgery, and the coaching staff said they plan to make a decision on his future in the coming weeks.

The team also confirmed this week that wide receiver Jaylon Denson would miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury.

“To lose a guy like Jaylon Denson is a huge blow, but it creates opportunities for other people,” Malzahn said. “The good thing is for the future we’re playing a whole bunch of young guys. That will do nothing but helps us for the future.”

Next up for Auburn is a home game with Ole Miss on Saturday, Oct. 5.

Helmet stickers: Week 3

September, 15, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- It wasn’t easy, but Auburn found a way to win Saturday. The Tigers rallied in the final minutes to beat Mississippi State 24-20 and win its SEC opener. Now let’s hand out some helmet stickers from the game.

QB Nick Marshall: He deserves a helmet sticker for his performance on the last drive alone. He led Auburn on a 12-play, 88-yard drive in the final minutes and threw the game-winning touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah with 10 seconds left. He didn’t look like a quarterback who was playing in his first SEC game -- he looked like a seasoned veteran. For the game, he finished 24 of 32 for 339 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He’s the first Auburn signal caller to throw for over 300 yards in a game since Cam Newton did it against South Carolina in the 2010 SEC Championship game.

WR Marcus Davis: It was Uzomah who caught the last touchdown, but the Tigers would’ve never been in that position had it not been for Davis. The freshman wide receiver caught four passes for 38 yards on that final drive. Auburn had been looking for a go-to player at the position, and Davis stepped up against Mississippi State. If nothing else, he proved he was reliable. He finished the game with six total catches, tripling the amount he had through the first two games combined. More importantly, when the game was on the line, Marshall trusted the freshman to make plays, and Davis delivered.

DE Dee Ford:It was his first game back from injury, but Ford made a significant impact down the stretch. He recorded five of his six tackles in the fourth quarter when Mississippi State was trying to put the game away. He and Robenson Therezie combined to tackle quarterback Dak Prescott short of a first down on a critical 3rd-and-4 play late in the contest. If the Bulldogs convert there, the game is likely over. It was also a boost for the defense just to have the senior defensive end back on the field. The unit also welcomed back linebacker Justin Garrett, who played for the first time all season.

Honorable mention: CB Ryan White

Planning for success: Auburn Tigers

September, 5, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Arkansas State comes to Auburn on Saturday, it will bring a nine-game winning streak, second longest in college football. The Red Wolves will bring an offense that’s very similar to what Auburn runs, but it’s the complete opposite of what the Tigers faced last week with Washington State.

Arkansas State opened the season with a 62-11 victory over Arkansas-Pine Bluff. Although it was an inferior opponent, the Red Wolves still rushed for over 500 yards in the game and had four different players reach the 100-yard mark.

“Five-hundred yards rushing is a lot against anybody,” Auburn defensive end LaDarius Owens said. “I don’t care who they played. That’s a big statement, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to come in here and try to establish the run.

“[Washington State] threw it all day, and I’m pretty sure they’re going to run it all day. They ran the ball like 55 times, so we’re going to see a lot of that.”

So while it was the Auburn secondary that was tested in Week 1, it will be the front seven, in particular the defensive line, that will need to step up this week.

Working to Auburn’s advantage will be the fact that head coach Gus Malzahn was at Arkansas State last season. He knows the opponent’s personnel, and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is using that to his advantage. Malzahn has been in the film room all week with the defense.

“We have seven coaches here who coached those guys last year, so they’re very familiar with the personnel and that helps,” Johnson said.

The defense is hopeful that both defensive Dee Ford and linebacker Justin Garrett will return this week after missing the opener due to injury. Despite Robenson Therezie’s performance at the Star in Week 1, Garrett might play more, if healthy, against Arkansas State. He’s the better of the two in run support.

On offense, it starts with quarterback Nick Marshall. In his first start for Auburn, he played conservatively, finishing 10 of 19 for 99 yards through the air. The coaches are hopeful Marshall can take the next step on Saturday.

“We are learning Nick as we go, too,” Malzahn said. “We’re learning what he’s comfortable with, what he’s not comfortable with, how he reacts to certain situations. Each game, our comfort zone will get better and better.”

If the Tigers want to beat Arkansas State and end the winning streak, Marshall and the entire offense are going to have to play better. Arkansas State isn't a typical Sun Belt opponent, and Malzahn knows that.

“They are one of the hottest teams in college football,” he said. “They know how to win, and they expect to win.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a mixed bag for Gus Malzahn in his debut as Auburn head coach Saturday. The Tigers won, defeating Washington State 31-24, but the victory didn’t come easy. There were plenty of miscues made by Malzahn’s team in its first game.

“First of all, I’m very proud of our team,” Malzahn said. “They found a way to win. I really felt like there was a lot of adversity out there -- we made a lot of mistakes, some of them critical -- but our guys found a way to overcome them.”

First, there was the good.

In the first half, Auburn had plenty of fireworks. Tre Mason housed a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown in the second quarter, and just minutes later, third-string running back Corey Grant followed it with a 75-yard touchdown run of his own.

Corey Grant
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesAuburn RB Corey Grant broke off a 75-yard TD run and finished with 146 yards on nine carries.
The Tigers might have found lightning in a bottle with Grant, an Alabama transfer. He wasn’t even listed on the roster prior to the game, but he rushed for a team-high 146 yards on just nine carries. Led by Grant, Mason and junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne, the Tigers racked up 297 yards on the ground.

“It was a great opportunity that coach gave me,” Grant said. “I just tried to take advantage of it and contribute to the team as much as I could. It’s great with the three backs. In the SEC, you never really have one featured back. You have to keep everybody fresh.”

The AU defense also had its moments. Despite giving up over 450 total yards to Washington State’s air-raid attack, it finished with three interceptions, one more than they had all of last season, and made key stops when they needed to late in the game.

Similar to Grant, Robenson Therezie emerged as the playmaker for the defense. The junior defensive back filled in for the injured Justin Garrett at the Star position and pulled down two interceptions, including one in the final five minutes to prevent a potential touchdown.

“I had to make a big play there,” Therezie said. “We knew as a defense they were going for the end zone right there. We communicated the right read, and I made a play.”

With the good, though, came the bad.

As good as Therezie was for Auburn, the secondary let Washington State quarterback Connor Halliday pick it apart for the majority of the game. Halliday finished 35 of 65 for 344 yards and a touchdown. As a whole, the defense missed tackles, looked out of place at times and surrendered big chunks of yards on numerous occasions.

“I think our execution [on defense] was average at best,” Malzahn said. “You’ve got to give them credit. They had a good scheme and they’ve got some good players, but our execution was average at best.”

Then there’s the case of new quarterback Nick Marshall. It was his first start since coming from junior college, and the nerves were evident early on. He was just 2 of 8 for 20 yards in the first half and looked out of sync with the offense. However, he settled down at halftime and finished the game 10 of 19 for 99 yards. He added 27 yards on the ground.

It wasn’t the debut Auburn fans were hoping for, but he showed flashes of his potential and more importantly, he didn’t turn the ball over.

“They were showing him a lot of different looks and trying to disguise some things, but he protected the football,” Malzahn said. “I think we had some drops early that probably didn’t help either, but he settled down and I think the game settled down for him.”

At the end of the day, Auburn is 1-0. It wasn’t perfect. There were plenty of mistakes. But the Tigers found a way to win and start the season off right for their new head coach.

“Overall, I’m very pleased with our team,” Malzahn said. “They found a way to win. We talked about our goals of getting better each practice and getting better each game. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’re committed to doing that.”

Instant analysis: Auburn 31, WSU 24

September, 1, 2013

AUBURN, Ala. -- It wasn't easy, but Auburn used big plays in the first half and key stops in the second half to earn a victory over Washington State in Gus Malzahn's debut as head coach Saturday.

It was over when: Washington State had a chance in the final minutes to tie the game, but on fourth-and-5 from the Auburn 25, Connor Halliday's pass fell incomplete. The Tigers got the ball back, picked up a first down and put the game away.

Game ball goes to: In an unexpected lineup change, Robenson Therezie filled in at the star position for Justin Garrett. He turned out to be the star of the game, literally. Therezie pulled down two interceptions, including one late that killed a Washington State drive.

Stat of the game: Last year, Auburn finished the season with two interceptions. The Tigers matched that number in the first quarter alone. Add the late pick by Therezie, and they finished with three interceptions in the game.

Unsung hero: Running back Corey Grant wasn't even listed on the depth chart before Saturday's game. That likely will change. The former Alabama transfer ran wild against Washington State, finishing with 146 yards on nine carries and a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

What it means for Auburn: It might not have been as convincing as the fans would've liked, but a win is a win, and Auburn already is off to a better start than last year. There were a lot of positives to take away, but there also were a lot of needs to address going forward. Either way, the Tigers are 1-0 under Gus Malzahn.

What it means for Washington State: Even though the Cougars have to fly back home with a loss, they looked much improved from a year ago and battled right down to the end. Halliday finished 35 of 63 for 344 yards and a touchdown, and the offense as a whole racked up 464 yards against Auburn.

Instant analysis: Auburn 31, WSU 24

September, 1, 2013

AUBURN, Ala. -- It wasn't easy, but Auburn used big plays in the first half and key stops in the second half to earn a victory over Washington State in Gus Malzahn's debut as head coach Saturday.

It was over when: Washington State had a chance in the final minutes to tie the game, but on fourth-and-5 from the Auburn 25, Connor Halliday's pass fell incomplete. The Tigers got the ball back, picked up a first down and put the game away.

Game ball goes to: In an unexpected lineup change, Robenson Therezie filled in at the star position for Justin Garrett. He turned out to be the star of the game, literally. Therezie pulled down two interceptions, including one late that killed a Washington State drive.

Stat of the game: Last year, Auburn finished the season with two interceptions. The Tigers matched that number in the first quarter alone. Add the late pick by Therezie, and they finished with three interceptions in the game.

Unsung hero: Running back Corey Grant wasn't even listed on the depth chart before Saturday's game. That likely will change. The former Alabama transfer ran wild against Washington State, finishing with 146 yards on nine carries and a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.

What it means for Auburn: It might not have been as convincing as the fans would've liked, but a win is a win, and Auburn already is off to a better start than last year. There were a lot of positives to take away, but there also were a lot of needs to address going forward. Either way, the Tigers are 1-0 under Gus Malzahn.

What it means for Washington State: Even though the Cougars have to fly back home with a loss, they looked much improved from a year ago and battled right down to the end. Halliday finished 35 of 63 for 344 yards and a touchdown, and the offense as a whole racked up 464 yards against Auburn.
There will be a sense of comfort and familiarity for the Auburn players having Gus Malzahn back on the sidelines for Saturday’s opener against Washington State. He’s only a year removed from his stint as the AU offensive coordinator from which he already knows most of the team, but it won’t be the same. The players are still trying to move on from last year.

“They definitely had a very tough year last year,” Malzahn said. “They went through a storm. When you come into the program, there’s a lot of things that we had to deal with regarding those things.”

Gus Malzahn
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsGus Malzahn is back at Auburn, but everything is different this time around.
But Malzahn wasn’t around last year when Auburn finished 3-9 and failed to win an SEC game. He understands the circumstances, but he didn’t experience it. All he can do now is try and change the culture back to what it was, but it’s up to the players to buy in.

“There is some comfort in knowing what to expect seeing these guys in a game, but everything is different,” he said. “It’s completely different than it was when I was here before. It’s just kind of a new day. I just give everybody a chance to start over and show what they can do.”

The first audition for this new-look Auburn team will be Saturday. How will the offense look with new quarterback Nick Marshall under center? Will the defense bounce back under new coordinator Ellis Johnson? It should be a good barometer to see how far the Tigers have come since last year’s disappointment.


What to expect from Marshall at quarterback?
Marshall played just one season at junior college, but the numbers he put up were ridiculous and he was even more impressive on his highlight tape. He’s back at quarterback where he belongs, and at Auburn he’s in a system that looks like a perfect fit. But, it’s his first game. He’s only been on campus for two months, and growing pains are expected to come with inexperience. Malzahn wants to take it slow at first, easing Marshall into the offense, but he might have to take the reins off Saturday if it turns into a shootout.

Who will emerge as the go-to wide receiver?
When Malzahn took over as Auburn’s offensive coordinator in 2009, he asked the same question. Enter Darvin Adams. The junior receiver hauled in a school-record 60 catches for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns. Who will be that guy this year for the Tigers? The likely candidates are junior Quan Bray and sophomores Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis. Bray is the team’s returning leader in receptions with 13, but Coates had more yards and touchdowns. Auburn hopes that one of the three will emerge and become a go-to option for Marshall.

How will the secondary handle Washington State’s offense?
It’s no secret. Washington State likes to throw the football. Auburn was No. 47 last year against the pass, but they had no answers for the likes of Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray down the stretch. The Cougars don’t a quarterback of that caliber, but the AU secondary better come ready to play. It’s a secondary that returns four starters, but Joshua Holsey will move to safety and former linebacker Justin Garrett will debut at the Star position.

Players to watch

Auburn: RB Tre Mason
All eyes will be on Marshall in Auburn’s first game, but don’t be surprised if Mason has a huge game for the Tigers. Malzahn will want to lean on Mason and his stable of running backs early in the season to take some pressure off his new signal caller.

Washington State: WR Gabe Marks
Washington State played 17 freshmen last year in Mike Leach’s debut with the Cougars. The most notable might have been Marks who finished with 49 receptions for 560 yards and two touchdowns. He leads a talented receiving corps, key to the WSU offense.


“We're excited about the chance to play Auburn. They're a great team, great tradition and of course, they've got great players. They've had several great recruiting classes on the heels of the national championship. Any time you get to play in a stadium like that, it's a great experience.” -- Washington State coach Mike Leach
The starting quarterback was named weeks ago, but Auburn released the rest of its two-deep depth chart Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s opener against Washington State.

As expected, junior college transfer Nick Marshall was the first-team quarterback with returning starter Jonathan Wallace and true freshman Jeremy Johnson listed as the co-backups. Former quarterback Kiehl Frazier also made the depth chart, but on defense, a move he made during fall camp. He’ll serve as the No. 2 boundary safety behind Joshua Holsey.

“I think everyday he feels more comfortable,” Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn said. "It’s like anything else -- the more you do, the better you’ll get at it. He’s a competitor. He’s a smart football player. He understands offensive concepts. There’s a good chance he’ll be out on the field [Saturday].”

Returning starter Jermaine Whitehead will man the other safety position with junior Justin Garrett getting the nod at Star, a new position specific to Ellis Johnson’s defensive scheme. Chris Davis and Jonathon Mincy will start at cornerback for the Tigers.

The defensive line will be without its top pass-rusher Dee Ford for Saturday’s game, but Craig Sanders and former linebacker LaDarius Owens will fill in and start opposite of each other at defensive end. Inside, it will be Angelo Blackmon and either Jeffrey Whitaker or Gabe Wright at the two defensive tackle spots.

A trio of true freshmen defensive linemen -- Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- were all listed on the depth chart as well as juco defensive tackle Ben Bradley. Malzahn expects a majority of the freshmen to play Saturday, headlined by this group.

“Coach [Rodney] Garner, he's going to rotate a lot of guys, especially when you're playing a team that's going to throw it a lot,” Malzahn said.

In all, there were eight true freshmen who made the depth chart.

As for the offensive line, the only big unknown was at right tackle where sophomore Patrick Miller won the starting job. Miller’s backup Avery Young earned praise during fall camp, and although he won’t start, he has the ability to back up multiple spots on the line.

“Avery's an athlete,” Malzahn said. “He can play all five positions if he had to because he's very versatile and very athletic.”

Greg Robinson will start the other tackle spot opposite Miller with Alex Kozan and Chad Slade penciled in at guard. At center, it will be Reese Dismukes, who’s started there the last two seasons for the Tigers. He made the Rimington Trophy Watch List preseason.

The skill players are highlighted by running back Tre Mason, who was one of the few bright spots last season for Auburn with more than a 1,000 yards rushing. He’ll get the start, but Malzahn expects juco star Cameron Artis-Payne to make an impact.

“They're pretty much on equal ground right now going into this first game,” Malzahn said. “They've both had an outstanding fall camp. Corey Grant's a guy you could see in the mix, too. The best thing is we feel like we've got some quality depth at the running back position going in. You can never have enough of that.”

Auburn will kick off Saturday at 7 p.m ET against the Cougars.


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