Auburn Tigers: Marcus Davis

AUBURN, Ala. -- When asked about newcomer D'haquille Williams, the nation’s top junior college player, Nick Marshall said he has been very impressive to this point, but the senior quarterback was quick to point out that Auburn has a number of other great wide receivers this season, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And the more plays made, the better Auburn will be this fall.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn’s five early enrollees arrived in January, their heads were spinning. They were balancing school and studying with workouts, meetings and everything else that comes with playing football. They went from high school, or junior college in some cases, to the daily grind at an SEC program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the end of the day, the rookies are always going to make a mistake here or there. It’s that way at every school. But through the first week, Auburn’s early enrollees have not only shown potential. They’ve shown that they belong.

Room to improve: Wide receiver

February, 20, 2014
Feb 20
Editor’s note: This is part four in a weeklong series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- With Nick Marshall back, Jeremy Johnson waiting in the wings and four-star QB Sean White expected to arrive this summer, quarterback is one position that Auburn doesn’t have to worry about. If anything, it will be improved from last season as Marshall will have a chance to go through spring practice for the first time.

The key will be his development as a passer, though. He led all SEC quarterbacks in rushing last year, but if there’s an area where he can improve, it’s throwing the football.

“We will see where we’re at with the talents around him,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “We really feel like we can be effective in the passing game and we can be more balanced, but at the same time, we’re going to play to our strengths.”

The strengths last year included Tre Mason and a dominant offensive line. It didn’t include a consistent crop of wide receivers. If Marshall wants to take the next step as a quarterback, it’s on the receivers, old and new, to step up and play better.

[+] EnlargeSammie Coats
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn's Sammie Coates might not be a prototypical go-to wideout, but he will likely be Nick Marshall's top target this fall.
Battling for No. 1: It was a breakout year for Sammie Coates. The sophomore had 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns after catching just six passes the season before. He might not be your typical go-to wide receiver, but he had a connection with Marshall that can’t be taught. He’ll be leaned on heavily again this season. After Coates, there are a handful of receivers who have potential but have yet to play to their abilities. Ricardo Louis is the perfect example. He showed what he can do against Georgia, catching four passes for 131 yards and a touchdown, but the next week he had just two catches for negative yards. The talent is there, but can he put it together? The biggest surprise last year was the play of freshman Marcus Davis. He wasn’t highly touted coming out of high school, but he made some clutch catches during the season and finished third on the team in receptions (23).

Strength in numbers: With Quan Bray, Trovon Reed and Melvin Ray all back along with the three players mentioned above, there isn’t a lack of options at wide receiver for Auburn. Bray was second on the team with three touchdown receptions, and Ray caught his first touchdown on the biggest stage, the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. The Tigers also have a pair of talented freshmen -- Tony Stevens and Dominic Walker -- who hope to improve from Year 1 to Year 2. They were both ranked in the ESPN 300 when they signed last February. The biggest boost could come from the return of Jaylon Denson. The junior was starting for the Tigers until he tore his ACL in game four against LSU. Denson wasn’t known as a pass-catcher, but he was as good a downfield blocker as they had on the team.

New on the scene: It’s fair to say that Auburn’s best wide receiver hasn’t even been mentioned yet. He hasn’t played a down for the Tigers, but D'haquille Williams has the size, skill and potential to emerge as the go-to guy in a crowded group of receivers. He was the top junior college player in the country, he enrolled in January, and assistant coach Dameyune Craig tabbed him as a player who could make a Jameis Winston-like impact when he gets to the Plains. High praise for a kid who has yet to catch a pass yet, but he’s not the only newcomer who could make an early impact. ESPN 300 athlete Stanton Truitt is thought to be the fastest player in Auburn’s 2014 class, and even if he doesn’t break the rotation at wide receiver his first year, he could help the Tigers in the return game.
Editor's note: This is Part IV in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Sammie Coates served as the "go-to" wide receiver for Auburn this past season, and though he exceeded expectations at times, he’d be the first to tell you the Tigers didn’t have a true No. 1 receiver.

“It's one thing I like about our team,” Coates said. “We really don't have that go-to guy. We have so much talent that you can't really depend on one guy.”

Coates led the Tigers with 42 catches for 902 yards and seven touchdowns, but he had five or more catches in just two games and his season-high was only six catches. He could be better described as the team’s deep threat, its home run hitter. Coates was an integral part of the offense and arguably the most important pass-catcher on Auburn’s team, but a go-to wide receiver? Not so much.

Nobody ever emerged in that role for the Tigers.

[+] EnlargeCoates
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsSammie Coates emerged as a deep threat as a sophomore and will likely assume a larger role in the Auburn offense next season.
An argument can be made that because Auburn had the nation’s No. 1 rushing offense, there was never a need for a true No. 1 receiver. Quarterback Nick Marshall was busy running all over teams, therefore he didn’t have to pass.

However, the 2014 team won’t have Tre Mason, the SEC’s leading rusher. It won’t have Jay Prosch, the league’s best blocking fullback. And it won’t have left tackle Greg Robinson, a potential top-10 draft pick who was as good a run-blocker as there was in the conference.

In Gus Malzahn’s first season, Auburn ran it on more than 70 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple-option offense in the FBS. But that hasn’t always been the case in Malzahn’s offense, and it likely won’t going forward.

“Well, this year [Auburn ran the ball more], but if you look back, we’ve had years where we’ve thrown it a lot, and we are going to get more and more balanced next year,” Malzahn said.

If Auburn plans to throw it more, the Tigers need to find a true No. 1 receiver.

Coates is better suited as a deep threat, but he could still be the guy. He went from six catches as a freshman to 42 as a sophomore. He blossomed under his position coach, Dameyune Craig, and the chemistry between Coates and Marshall seemed to grow with every game.

“Sammie can really run,” Malzahn said before the BCS title game. “Coach Craig has done a wonderful job with him. He’s improved each game. Obviously, he gives us a deep threat. Any time you’ve got a guy who can run as tall as him and can jump, that’s a threat. When his time has come and when his number has been called, he’s delivered this year.”

Another option is Ricardo Louis. He had his moments, including a four-catch, 131-yard performance against Georgia, but there was never any consistency. Still, he might be the top true playmaker on the roster.

Freshman Marcus Davis, who played beyond his years, is also a candidate, along with senior-to-be Quan Bray. Each finished with 23 catches.

Another name to watch is junior college transfer D’haquille Williams, the No. 1 player in the ESPN JC 50 rankings. He’s 6-foot-3, 210 pounds, and he gives Auburn a combination of size and talent that it lacked last year.

“He is a dynamic player that can run, catch and do all of the things it takes to be a great receiver,” Malzahn said.

Williams is already on campus as an early enrollee, and the nation will get its first glimpse of him in an Auburn jersey when spring practice begins in March. There’s no telling if he’ll live up to the hype and become a go-to wide receiver, but the Tigers need to find that guy if Marshall wants to take the next step as a passer.

Auburn to-do list: Finish strong

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
Editor's note: This is Part I in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a season to remember for Auburn. The Tigers were left out of the postseason a year ago, but under the direction of first-year coach Gus Malzahn, they went 12-1 -- winning nine straight at one point -- and made it all the way to Pasadena, Calif., for the VIZIO BCS National Championship Game.

That’s where the dream ended, though. In similar fashion to how Auburn had won so many of its games, No. 1 Florida State scored a touchdown with just 13 seconds left to knock off the Tigers and close the book on the "team of destiny."

As disappointing as the loss was, it didn’t deter Malzahn and his coaching staff.

“The next day, I got up the same time, got in the office the same time,” Malzahn said. “We’ve got recruiting. We’ve got to move on. We’ve got to keep this thing going -- not a lot of time to rest.”

The focus turned toward Auburn’s recruiting class, currently ranked No. 9 in ESPN’s class rankings. The Tigers have 21 commitments, including five prospects that have already signed and enrolled for the spring semester. But the Tigers want to use the momentum from their championship run to finish strong in the weeks leading up signing day.

So what’s the strategy?

“Just filling overall needs,” Malzahn said. “There’s not really one area that stands out. Just more of the big picture and getting the right people in here.”

Over the weekend, Auburn played host to a handful of official visitors including ESPN 300 offensive tackle Braden Smith (Olathe, Kan./Olathe South) and four-star defensive ends Andrew Williams (McDonough, Ga./Eagles Landing Christian) and Davon Godchaux (Plaquemine, La./Plaquemine), an LSU commitment. Auburn is thought to be the favorite for Williams, who tweeted a photo with Malzahn on Saturday.

The current class was also well-represented this weekend with the majority of Auburn’s commitments making the trip to the Plains, including in-state running back Racean Thomas (Oxford, Ala./Oxford) and rising quarterback Sean White (Fort Lauderdale, Fla./University School of Nova South).

Next weekend will be more of the same as ESPN 300 linebacker Rashaan Evans (Auburn, Ala./Auburn) is expected to be on campus. It won’t be much of a drive for the hometown prospect, but it could be a crucial visit if the Tigers want to fend off in-state rival Alabama for his services. Evans took his official visit to Tuscaloosa this past weekend.

At this time a year ago, Auburn closed as strong as anybody and finished with the No. 11 class despite coming off a tumultuous 3-9 season. Nick Marshall, Marcus Davis, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel were among those who committed to the Tigers in the final month before signing day. All four made significant contributions this season.

Before the coaches can begin searching for a replacement at left tackle or retool a defense that lost five starters, they must focus on recruiting and finishing strong. The solution might still be out there, waiting to be had.
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship Game. Today's matchup is between Auburn’s wide receivers and Florida State’s defensive backs.

Auburn’s wide receivers: If there was ever a game for Auburn to stick to the run, this would be it. Quarterback Nick Marshall has struggled at times through the air and the Tigers are in for their most challenging test yet against a Florida State secondary that leads the nation in interceptions (25).

Expect a heavy dose of Marshall and Tre Mason running the read-option together like they’ve done all season.

Florida State still has to be wary of Auburn’s big-play ability. It starts with Sammie Coates who has emerged as a go-to wide receiver for the Tigers. He’s one of the fastest players in the SEC, if not the nation, and he leads the team with 38 catches for 841 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s second nationally in yards per catch (22.1) and all seven of his scores have come from more than 35 yards. It was his 39-yard touchdown grab in the final minute against Alabama that put Auburn in position to win that game.

The problem for the Tigers is that nobody has emerged opposite Coates. Freshman Marcus Davis had his moments early in the season, making key catches in critical situations. Ricardo Louis, who hauled in the 73-yard Hail Mary touchdown pass to beat Georgia, might be the most dangerous athlete on the team. But neither has been consistent.

When Auburn plays Florida State, it’s going to need a play in the passing game from somebody other than Coates. Whether it’s Davis, Louis or even tight end C.J. Uzomah, who’s healthy again, somebody is going to have to step up and make a play when their number is called. Nothing will come easy, though, against a talented Seminoles’ secondary.

Florida State’s secondary: Only five teams threw less often this season than Auburn, which runs the ball on 72 percent of its plays. When the Tigers do throw, however, they’ve mustered some big plays -- averaging 14 yards per completion.

The recipe for Auburn is pretty simple -- run, run, run, then go deep. It’s a plan that may run into some trouble against Florida State, however. The Seminoles’ secondary is the nation’s best for the second straight season. Lamarcus Joyner leads a deep and talented group that leads the nation in fewest yards per attempt (4.9), most interceptions (25) and lowest QBR allowed (18.1). Opponents have completed just 6 of 36 passes thrown 20 yards or more against them this year, according to ESPN Stats & Info.

Coates and Louis both have good size to win some battles downfield, but Florida State can match that physicality with P.J. Williams (6-0, 190) and Ronald Darby (5-11, 190), who have both been exceptional this year. Darby has allowed just seven completions this year and allows the fifth-lowest completion percentage among AQ-conference defensive backs in the nation.

Marshall can keep some plays alive with his legs, giving his receivers a chance to get open downfield, but Florida State hasn’t been burned often this year. Sammy Watkins, Allen Hurns and Devin Street all found some success this season, which should provide a bit of optimism for Coates, but no QB has managed better than 7 yards per attempt against FSU’s secondary all year. In its last eight games, Florida State’s secondary is allowing just 4.5 yards per attempt with 6 TDs and 19 INTs.

Ostendorf: Edge Florida State

Hale: Edge Florida State

Big win validates Auburn's turnaround

October, 19, 2013
COLLEGE STATION, Texas -- It's easy to say there's a new attitude, a fresh outlook and changed ways when a new coaching staff takes over. It's often true initially, but that energy only takes you so far. Results are what matter.

Auburn's 45-41 victory over No. 7 Texas A&M on Saturday at Kyle Field very well could be something coach Gus Malzahn and the Tigers point to as a seminal moment should Auburn ride this wave to something much bigger. This program isn't a stranger to success, having won a BCS championship in 2010, but it was a wounded one last year, stumbling through a 3-9 season that included some downright embarrassing losses and a winless SEC campaign.

The No. 24 Tigers (6-1, 3-1 SEC) have their swagger back, and a road win over a top-10 team and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner to show for it.

"This win means a lot for our confidence," Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. "We're fighting for different things now."

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason shredded the A&M defense for 178 yards rushing as the Tigers rolled up 615 total yards.
Make no mistake, Saturday wasn't a fluke. The Tigers are a good football team and showed it. Offensively, they ran up and down the field on the Aggies (5-2, 2-2), whose defense did little to stop them in crunch time. They finished with 379 rushing yards (178 for Tre Mason, 100 for quarterback Nick Marshall), and they threw it all right, too. Marshall, a transfer from Garden City (Kan.) Community College, was masterful with the read option and made some big-time throws (236 passing yards, two touchdowns).

Defensively, they conceded quite a bit, as teams that play Johnny Manziel and the Aggies tend to do. That's the price of admission when playing Texas A&M. But the Tigers took advantage of opportunities when afforded them and created some of their own. They turned two first-half interceptions of Manziel into 10 valuable points. They sacked Manziel three times -- twice to help seal the victory on the Aggies' final drive -- and while he still got his, statistically, they pressured him and made him feel uncomfortable just enough.

"You have to try to bottle up the guy," Malzahn said. "He's phenomenal when things break down. In the fourth quarter, when he came back, I thought we were a little bit fresher there, and we made the two big plays toward the end."

The Tigers showed significant growth from their last tough road test at LSU on Sept. 21, which was their only loss of the year. Perhaps most encouraging, when Auburn needed a score late in the fourth quarter, it earned it. Marshall engineered a 13-play, 75-yard drive that ate up 3:46. The Tigers had three third downs and converted every one of them on the drive. There was no panic, no hesitation. Mason and Marshall set the tone with the running game, and when Marshall had to make a critical throw, he did, finding Marcus Davis for 27 yards to get the Tigers to the A&M 12.

It's the second game-winning drive engineered by Marshall, who also did it in a 24-20 win over Mississippi State last month.

"We were very confident going into that last drive," Marshall said. "We knew we had to get into the end zone to win this big game. That was our mindset, and we were able to execute."

[+] EnlargeMike Evans
Thomas B. Shea/Getty ImagesMike Evans finished with 11 catches for 287 yards and four touchdowns, season highs in all three.
For Texas A&M, it was another magnificent performance for two of its stars -- Manziel and Mike Evans -- but their magic made up for a lot of flaws. The defense is still poor. Only Western Carolina allowed Auburn to gain more yardage (615) than the Aggies surrendered Saturday. The 379 rushing yards allowed was a season high, far eclipsing the 306 the Aggies allowed to Rice in the season opener, when six key players missed all or parts of that game as a result of suspensions.

In their last two games, when the Aggies needed a late stop, they got it against both Arkansas and Ole Miss. Saturday they didn't.

"Towards the end of the game, they put their big-boy pads on, and we couldn't slow them down," Aggies defensive coordinator Mark Snyder said. "They took the game and the clock from us, and we couldn't get off the field."

While the defense continues to struggle and needs work, there were other areas the Aggies made mistakes, too. Manziel's first interception went off the hands of tight end Nehemiah Hicks, the second one was simply forced by Manziel after he peformed a magic escape. The Aggies also were called for illegal formation in the second quarter, a penalty that nullified a third-down conversion in the red zone, which eventually forced a field-goal try rather than having a first-and-goal at the Auburn 7.

Texas A&M wasn't where it normally is on third-down conversions either, converting 5-of-13 (the Aggies came into Saturday's game converting 57 percent). And when the defense strung together four stops late in the second quarter and early in the third, the Aggies were able to put up only 10 points. But as Snyder said afterward, "When you score 41 points, you should win. End of story."

Still, Manziel and Evans were fantastic. Manziel came back from what appeared to be a right shoulder injury to try to lead the Aggies back and finished with 454 yards and four touchdowns passing plus a rushing touchdown. Evans continues to make his case as college football's best receiver, catching 11 pass for 287 yards and four touchdowns.

The Aggies would have needed help by way of a loss or two by No. 1 Alabama to have a shot at their primary goal, getting to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. This pretty much takes that off the table. How will they respond moving forward?

"What's important now is not what has just happened," Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin said. "At this time of year, teams go a couple different directions. We've got to get back in here Monday, be honest with ourselves, make sure that what we can fix, we're going to fix as coaches and players and move on."

But this was Auburn's day. They got a huge win, one that should be a big boost to Malzahn and his efforts to lead Auburn back to among the nation's elite. No more looking back for the Tigers, only forward.

"I was almost in tears after the game," Ford said. "Definitely seeing guys, especially younger guys, who didn't have a clue of what was going on last year -- and that was a tough time for them, and I had to kind of guide them through that process -- and to see the looks on their faces after the game, the hard work that we put in, and how we said, 'We're not going to look back, just keep moving forward,' it's definitely a powerful message that we've sent to the world."
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.”

Five things: Auburn-Ole Miss

October, 5, 2013
Historically, Ole Miss has struggled when it plays at Auburn. Its last win on the Plains came in 2003, when Eli Manning was still the quarterback. On Saturday, the Rebels will look to end the losing streak against a hungry Auburn team who has upset on its mind.

Track meet: The relationship between Hugh Freeze and Gus Malzahn has been well documented this week. They’re close friends who both started out coaching high school football, and they like to go fast. Don’t expect a lot of huddles when the two get together Saturday. Freeze once ran 117 plays when he was a head coach at Lambuth University, while Malzahn has nearly reached the century mark twice during his FBS coaching career. It will no doubt be a fun game to watch and a difficult one to keep up with. Conditioning could play a major factor for both teams, especially towards the end of the game.

Wallace watch: Which Bo Wallace will show up this Saturday? The one who led Ole Miss past Vanderbilt and Texas, using both his arm and his feet, or the one who struggled against Alabama after predicting they would score on the Crimson Tide like it was nothing? Ole Miss fans hope it’s the player they saw in the first three games. Wallace is still one of just two FBS quarterbacks with at least 115 pass attempts who has yet to throw an interception. He’s thrown for 807 yards with four touchdowns and no picks, while rushing for 125 yards and three scores. The Rebels need to him to bounce back from last week’s game and play well against Auburn.

Stopping the run: The quarterbacks will play a role Saturday, but when both Auburn and Ole Miss have had success this season, they have been able to run the football. When the Rebels won on the road at Vanderbilt and at Texas, Jeff Scott rushed for over 100 yards and a touchdown. The Tigers, led by running backs Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, rushed for right around 300 yards in wins over Washington State and Arkansas State to open the season. Both teams will try and establish the rushing attack early on, and neither defense has shown the ability to slow down the run yet this season.

Fresh faces: During his weekly press conference, Malzahn made light of the Ole Miss freshmen and said both he and Freeze are not afraid to play freshmen right away if they’re talented enough. The Tigers haven’t seen as many significant contributors, but they’re hoping that first-year wide receivers Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens will step in the absence of Jaylon Denson, who was lost for the season with a knee injury. The most intriguing matchup will be between Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and Auburn defensive end Carl Lawson. They were ranked No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, in the 2013 ESPN 300.

Karen effect: Tropical Storm Karen is expected to hit the Gulf Coast and the state of Alabama sometime Saturday, and the precipitation could make its way up to Auburn for the game. There’s no telling what either team is in store for, but both teams practiced using wet balls this week just in case. It will likely slow down the tempo and put a premium on ball security. Auburn dealt with rain the last time out when they played at LSU, and it resulted in three turnovers in the first half alone. The Tigers will be playing in a much more conducive atmosphere this time around, but they have to be able to hang on to the ball if Karen hits during the game.

SEC lunchtime links

October, 1, 2013
From defensive struggles to quarterback quandaries to head coach hot-stove talk to even nature walks, there's plenty going on in SEC football this week. Here's a sampling of discussion points from around the league:

Auburn loses WR Denson for the season

September, 25, 2013
Auburn’s search for a go-to wide receiver took a hit on Wednesday when it learned that starter Jaylon Denson will miss the remainder of the season. Denson had three catches for 45 yards prior to injuring his knee in the first half against LSU last week.

The 6-foot-3 junior was the team’s best downfield blocker and an integral part of the run game. The coaching staff will now have to find a replacement as they continue to look for playmakers to emerge at receiver.

“It’s going to have to be by committee from here on out,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of the wide receiver group. “It’s good that we have an off week that we can working some guys, and right now, we’re rotating a whole bunch of guys. After this week, we’ll kind of settle in on our plan moving forward.”

The primary targets through four games have been Quan Bray, Sammie Coates, Marcus Davis and Ricardo Louis. Coates leads the team with 11 catches for 306 yards and finished with a team-best 139 yards against LSU.

With Denson out, former Alabama signee Melvin Ray and true freshman Tony Stevens could also be in line for more work. Stevens, an ESPN 300 recruit coming out of high school, caught his first two career passes on Saturday.

(Read the full post here)

Marcus Davis playing beyond his years

September, 17, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- Freshman wide receiver Marcus Davis might have dropped a pass in Saturday’s win over Mississippi State -- a typical freshman mistake -- but quarterback Nick Marshall wasn’t concerned about it. He knew he was going to look his way again, and with the game on the line, he did.

On the last drive, Davis caught four passes for 38 yards to help Auburn move down the field and score the game-winning touchdown.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Davis
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesThrough three games, Auburn freshman Marcus Davis has 8 catches for 66 yards and a score.
“He developed well tonight because he came through on some of those catches,” Marshall said. “I know he had dropped one, but I told him don’t worry about it. I was going to come back to him.”

For the game, Davis led all Auburn receivers with six catches, but it was his impact on the final drive that drew rave reviews from the coaching staff.

“I was really proud of him,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “For a freshman, he came in, he made a lot of big catches, and he was smart. He caught it and got out of bounds, or he caught it and got the first down. … He responded the same way the whole offense did, ‘Hey, this is just another drive. The moment's not too big for us.’”

Through the first two games this season, he only had two catches, but when his number was called, he delivered. Nerves were never part of the equation for the young man, even with the game on the line.

“To be honest, I wasn’t even looking at it that way,” Davis said. “I was just out there playing football.”

That’s been his way since high school where he was a 5-foot-9, 175-pound quarterback as a senior. When he committed to Auburn, he knew he was going to have to switch positions, but he still had every expectation to play early and to play often. In his same recruiting class, the Tigers landed a trio of ESPN 300 wide receivers, all of whom were ranked higher than he was, but he didn’t care. He was going to play as a freshman.

“I just play with a chip on my shoulder,” Davis said. “I don’t even look into the politics or anything like that. I just play football.”

Through the first three games, two of the aforementioned receivers have yet to record a catch while the other failed to qualify academically and landed in junior college.

More importantly, Davis is emerging as the potential go-to wide receiver in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Veteran targets Quan Bray and Sammie Coates have each have hauled in a long touchdown reception early in the season, but it was Davis who looked to be Marshall’s No. 1 target down the stretch.

Part of that is what the defense gave Marshall on the last drive, but part too is the developing chemistry between the first-year quarterback and the first-year wide receiver. The two hooked up for a touchdown the week before, the first for both players.

“Each and every week, we’re growing up,” Davis said. “I just feel like it’s going to continue. We’re going to continue to grow together.”

It’s still too early to tell if Davis becomes that go-to wide receiver for Auburn, but he will have plenty of opportunities to claim the role after his performance against Mississippi State.

“Marcus is a guy that, he’s a freshman, but he’s not playing like a freshman,” Malzahn said. “He’s really stepped up and you’ll see him on the field more.”

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

Marshall shows poise to lead Auburn

September, 15, 2013

AUBURN, Ala. -- The stage was set. Auburn trailed Mississippi State by three with 1:56 to go and had one last drive to tie or win the game. The offense took over at its own 12-yard line and put the ball in the hands of first-year starting quarterback Nick Marshall. It was his time, his moment. It was up to him to direct the offense down the field and win the game.

Marshall didn’t flinch.

“I told the [offense] that we were going to score a touchdown,” he said.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesNick Marshall delivered in crunch time as Auburn ended a 10-game SEC losing streak.
Through the first 58 minutes, Marshall had his ups and downs. He started 9 of 11 for 151 yards and a touchdown. He had more yards passing in the first quarter than he did in either of the first two games. But Mississippi State’s defense tightened up. Marshall proceeded to throw a pair of interceptions and failed to recover that early magic.

That was until the last drive. That’s when the light turned on. When most quarterbacks might fold under the pressure, Marshall thrived under it. He led the Tigers on a 12-play, 88-yard drive that was capped off by an 11-yard touchdown pass to tight end C.J. Uzomah. For the first time in nearly two years, Auburn had won an SEC game.

It was Marshall’s first SEC game, but he looked like he had been there before.

“He looked fairly natural there,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “I mean he was making all the reads. He was throwing good balls. I don’t know if he threw a bad ball on that drive, and he led us down the field. That was huge.”

On the final drive, Marshall was 6 of 8 for 66 yards. He also rushed three times for 19 yards including an 11-yard scramble that picked up a critical first down on third-and-long. He completed his first five pass attempts, including four to freshman wide receiver Marcus Davis.

“We just believe in the system,” Davis said. “We believe in Coach Malzahn, and Nick, he’s a confident guy. He just told us to believe, and we rallied behind him.”

The touchdown came on a double move by Uzomah where he burned the defender and caught the ball in the back of the end zone. It was a play the two had worked on multiple times in practice, but Marshall admitted that he had missed it probably 5 out of 10 times. But when the game was on the line, he connected on it.

“Nick grew up today,” Uzomah said. “Before he stepped on the field, he looked at us and said we’re going to win. He threw the ball perfectly. We executed, and we came out with a victory.”

Auburn moves to 3-0, but more importantly the Tigerts finally picked up that elusive SEC victory. It had been 10 consecutive conference losses, but the players can put the losing streak behind them once and for all.

For Marshall, it was a career-defining drive but he’s already turned his attention to next week’s game, a trip to Death Valley against No. 8 LSU.

“We are just going to come out tomorrow and focus on LSU,” he said. “We’re going to work on executing and not making as many mistakes as we did tonight.”

Helmet stickers: Week 2

September, 8, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- It was a complete game played by Auburn in its 38-9 win over Arkansas State on Saturday. The offense played well, the defense played well, and even the special teams was solid. Now it’s time to hand out some helmet stickers.

QB Nick Marshall: In his first start, Marshall looked nervous and struggled through the first half. On Saturday, there was no sign of nerves. He completed his first three passes and capped the opening drive with an 18-yard touchdown pass to freshman wide receiver Marcus Davis, his first touchdown at Auburn. He also finally connected on a long ball. Marshall threw a beautiful ball to Sammie Coates on a 68-yard touchdown pass late in the first half. The Tigers’ quarterback finished 10 of 17 for 147 yards and the two scores. He also looked better with the zone read and added 53 yards on the ground.

RB Cameron Artis-Payne: Take your pick from the three-headed monster in Auburn’s backfield. Last week, it was Corey Grant. This week, we’ll go with Cameron Artis-Payne. The junior college transfer led the team with 19 carries for 102 yards. He scored his first career touchdown on a physical 12-yard run late in the game, a run that showed both his strength and his quickness. Grant added a touchdown, as did Tre Mason, but it was Artis-Payne who took the bulk of the carries in the fourth quarter and put the game out of reach. Between all three backs, they rushed for a combined 241 yards.

DE LaDarius Owens: Before the game, it was announced that Nosa Eguae would start in place of Owens at one of the defensive end spots. The move provided extra motivation for Owens who came off the bench to lead Auburn with eight tackles, including two for a loss and one sack. He set the tone for an AU defense that was in the backfield all night, either stuffing the run or pressuring the quarterback. The Tigers finished with 13 tackles for loss and two sacks in the victory. The unit was called out after a subpar performance in Week 1, and it responded, especially the defensive line.

Honorable mention: LB Cassanova McKinzy


Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
In a conversation with ESPN's Antonietta Collins, national recruiting reporter Gerry Hamilton breaks down the recruiting momentum building at Auburn and offers predictions for where the top 10 recruits will commit.Tags: Trenton Thompson, Kerryon Johnson, Jeffery Holland, Martez Ivey, Torrance Gibson, Cece Jefferson, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Gerry Hamilton