Auburn Tigers: Montravius Adams

Now that we've taken a look at five potential breakout players this spring from the SEC Eastern Division, it's time to check out the West (again in alphabetical order):

  • Montravius Adams, DT, Auburn: With Dee Ford and Nosa Eguae gone, the Tigers are looking for help along the defensive line. Senior Gabe Wright could be a threat for them inside, and so could Adams, who is coming off a solid freshman season. He had 20 tackles and a sack last season and could be in for a solid spring on the Plains. Adams can clog the middle with his 6-foot-4, 304-pound frame, but he's also a good pass rusher from the middle. Adams has a chance to take a huge step this spring and appears to be on the right track already.
  • [+] EnlargeDural
    AP Photo/Bill HaberLSU receiver Travin Dural's touchdown catch against Arkansas last season could be a sign of things to come in 2014.
    Travin Dural, WR, LSU: The Tigers are trying to replace two future NFL receivers and are breaking in a new, young quarterback. That means they need a new go-to guy to feed this spring. Keep an eye on Dural, who caught that game-winning touchdown pass against Arkansas last fall from Anthony Jennings. LSU is hoping Jennings and Dural have increased chemistry this spring. Dural is a speed demon on the field and should be an immediate deep threat for the Tigers. With the position so wide open, Dural has a shot to secure one of the starting jobs this spring.
  • O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama: He showed flashes of greatness last year but should get an even bigger role in the offense this spring as his game matures. The thing about Howard is that he's a mismatch whenever he steps on the field. He's too fast for linebackers to cover one-on-one and too big for defensive backs to consistently stay with. He needs to get the playbook down and get more comfortable on the field, but having a year under his belt should help him in both areas. Howard has a chance to be a big-time player in the SEC, and this spring should go a long way toward that.
  • Derrick Jones, CB, Ole Miss: The sophomore-to-be played in nine games last year and made three starts. He's in a fight for one of the Rebels' cornerback spots this spring, but has a chance to be a special player for Ole Miss. Senquez Golson will likely get most of the attention at corner this spring, but Jones is a player the coaches really like and he has a lot of upside after playing as a true freshman. Making Jones into a legitimate cover corner in this league is the goal coming out of spring.
  • Ricky Seals-Jones, WR, Texas A&M: We thought he'd be a breakout player last year, but a knee injury cut his season short early on. Seals-Jones has all the athleticism, talent, speed and upside to be an All-SEC player this fall. Sure, the Aggies are throwing out a new quarterback this year, but their offense is very generous to receivers and Seals-Jones is the perfect weapon for A&M to have. He has the size to be a top-flight deep threat on the outside, but he's also very capable of playing inside, which just makes him that much more versatile for the Aggies.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AUBURN, Ala. -- There have been plenty of questions surrounding Auburn’s defensive line this offseason. How do you replace a guy like Dee Ford? Who will be the leaders now that Ford and Nosa Eguae are both gone? What should be expected of the rising sophomores? Will any of the newcomers make an impact?

Here’s a bold prediction for the spring: The defensive line will be better in 2014 than it was in 2013.

How can that be when Auburn is losing a combined 20 tackles for loss and 12.5 sacks from Eguae and Ford? Three reasons -- star power, experience and depth. The line was the strength of the defense a year ago, and it’s expected be the strength again this season.

The key will be that trio of rising sophomores -- Montravius Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- who should evolve from promising young rookies to the dominant defensive linemen that Auburn fans have grown accustomed to seeing over the years.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstCarl Lawson showed he could be Auburn's next defensive star after a solid freshman season.
All three came to Auburn as highly ranked recruits, and though they had their moments last fall, it was clear they were still raw. As spring practice approaches, they have had a chance to play in the SEC, and they’ve been able to work out in a major college weight room. They’re ready, both physically and mentally, to take the next step.

Lawson, in particular, could be in line for a huge spring as he looks to replace Ford at one of the defensive end spots.

“That guy is going to be a mammoth player by the time he leaves here,” Eguae said of Lawson, a former five-star recruit.

The talent and star power might be in the sophomore class, but experience cannot be taught, and Auburn has plenty of it. With defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker expected to return for a fifth season, the Tigers will feature five scholarship seniors on their defensive line.

It’s a group that includes LaDarius Owens and Gabe Wright, two starters from the BCS title game. They might not be as good as Eguae and Ford just yet, but the duo still combined for 13.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks last season. Former junior college transfer Ben Bradley is another senior to watch. He played well early in the season but faded late.

Auburn also signed six defensive linemen in 2014 to add even more depth to an already deep unit. The three most likely to contribute next year are juco teammates DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence and ESPN 300 defensive end Andrew Williams, who waited until signing day before choosing the Tigers.

“That was a strength of ours last year,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of the defensive line. “We lost some seniors, but we really feel like we filled our needs there. We got some outstanding impact players that coach [Rodney] Garner is very excited about.”

All four starting spots on the defensive line will be up for grabs, but Garner proved last season that just because a player isn’t in the starting lineup doesn’t mean he’s not going to play. Early in the year, Auburn was rotating eight or nine bodies up front. Garner and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have plenty of options to choose from as they put together the rotation for the season opener. It’s a pool of players that’s talented, experienced and deep.

Room to improve: Defensive line

February, 19, 2014
Feb 19
10:00
AM ET
Editor’s note: This is Part III in a week-long series looking at Auburn’s top five position groups with room to improve.

AUBURN, Ala. -- The defensive line wasn’t bad in 2013. In fact, it was quite the contrary. The line was considered the strength of the defense, and the rotation of players up front was one of the reasons Auburn won 12 games and made the run it did. However, when you lose two starters and arguably the two most consistent players on the line, there’s still plenty of room to improve.

It starts with defensive end Dee Ford. How do you replace a player who led the team in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (14.5)? The Tigers were without him the first two games this past season, and although they won, there was a noticeable difference when Ford returned to the lineup against Mississippi State.

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsGabe Wright (90) and Carl Lawson (55) figure to be major cogs in the defensive line rotation in 2014.
The other loss up front, Nosa Eguae, isn’t as talented as Ford, but he was just as valuable in his own way. He started the season at defensive end but moved to tackle midway through the season to help the team. Eguae might not get drafted, but the intangibles and the leadership qualities he provided will be difficult to replace.

The good thing is that defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will have plenty of options to choose from. Auburn’s defensive line is as deep, if not deeper than any other position on the field. But can they sustain success, and more importantly, can they improve on last year?

Battling for No. 1: Seniors to be Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens were both listed as starters on the depth chart for the VIZIO BCS National Championship game, so they’re obviously the favorites to crack the starting rotation in 2014. Wright led all Auburn defensive linemen with 31 tackles in the 2013 season, and Owens was right behind him with 30. Defensive tackle Angelo Blackson started 10 games as a sophomore in 2012 but lost his job this past season when Eguae moved inside. He’ll be given every opportunity to win it back this spring. Beyond that, it’s a pair of former ESPN 300 prospects who are next in line. Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams just wrapped up their freshman seasons, and they both hope to take the next step in their second seasons. Lawson, who was second on the team with four sacks, has the makings of a star.

Strength in numbers: This is where Auburn thrived last season. The coaches were able to rotate close to seven or eight players up front each game, and the line didn’t miss a beat. That not only provided valuable game experience, but it also kept the starters fresh for the fourth quarter. Junior college transfer Ben Bradley and freshman Elijah Daniel were both thrown in the mix as soon as they arrived on campus, and both responded well. Bradley, who enrolled last January, started in three games in his first season. In reality, they both belong in the above group, as they will both compete with the first group this spring. But regardless of whether or not they start, they will be counted on for depth. There’s not much depth after that. The next-most experienced player, JaBrian Niles, has played in just seven games over the last two seasons.

New on the scene: Auburn put together one of the top defensive line classes in the country a year ago. This year’s class might not rival that, but it’s still a promising group. The two most likely to compete for early playing time are junior college transfers DaVonte Lambert and Devaroe Lawrence. Unlike Bradley, they weren’t able to enroll early, so they won’t go through spring ball, but they should still be ahead of the other signees physically. Lambert, in particular, has a real chance to make an early impact. He was the top-rated defensive tackle in ESPN Junior College 50 rankings. The Tigers also signed three ESPN 300 defensive linemen, headlined by defensive end Andrew Williams, who committed to Auburn on national signing day. The line should continue to be the strength of Auburn’s defense for years to come.
On Wednesday, RecruitingNation put out its Ultimate ESPN 300, a ranking of the best high school football prospects since 2006. It incorporated both the prospect’s grade and projection out of high school combined with his actual college impact and production.

The top six players all hail from the SEC, and Auburn was well represented with seven players on the list, including six in the top 150. Freshman defensive end Carl Lawson, ranked No. 93, was at the top of the list for the Tigers. The Peach State product was the No. 2 overall player in last year’s ESPN 300 and showed glimpses of his potential this past season.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
Jayne Kamin-Oncea/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason didn't make the ESPN 150 coming out of high school, but his ranking in the Ultimate 300 shows how big of an impact he's had at Auburn.
Lawson is joined by fellow defensive linemen Montravius Adams (121), Nick Fairley (125) and Corey Lemonier (259) on the ultimate 300. Running back Tre Mason (124) and offensive linemen Lee Ziemba (135) and Greg Robinson (150) also made the cut.

Here’s a more detailed look at Auburn’s recruiting since 2006, the year our scouts began doing evaluations.

Overachiever: Mason and Robinson are both viable candidates. Neither was ranked in the ESPN 150, but the duo was instrumental in Auburn’s turnaround this past season. Let’s go a different route, though, and look at a player who was a little more under the radar coming out of high school. When wide receiver Darvin Adams signed with the Tigers in 2008, he was ranked No. 90 at his position. It was before RecruitingNation did star rankings, but his 77 grade would have made him a three-star prospect today. After only catching three passes as a freshman, Adams blew up as a sophomore in 2009. He finished among the SEC leaders with 60 catches for 997 yards and 10 touchdowns. He nearly duplicated those numbers in 2010 with 52 catches for 963 yards and seven touchdowns. The Georgia native left school early after his junior year but went undrafted and eventually signed with the Carolina Panthers as a free agent.

Underachiever: When Trovon Reed signed with Auburn in 2010, it was a major recruiting coup for Gene Chizik and his coaching staff. The four-star athlete was ranked No. 39 overall in the ESPN 150. However, his career has been hampered by injuries, and he’s yet to make the impact everybody expected him to make when he arrived. Reed’s best season came in 2011 as a redshirt freshman when he had 21 catches for 164 yards, but he’s had just nine catches in each of the past two seasons. There was talk that he might move to defensive back for his fifth and final year on the Plains, but coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t confirmed it, calling the move “premature” when he met with the media earlier this month. The move could help Reed, who is still looking to find his niche with this Auburn team. It might just be the perfect change of scenery for the once-promising prospect.

Most important: You won’t see his name on the Ultimate 300 because he came from junior college, but nobody’s made an impact on Auburn’s football program in the last decade like Cam Newton. He was only on the Plains for one season, but in that time, he won the Heisman Trophy and led the Tigers to the 2010 BCS National Championship. He finished with 2,854 yards passing, 1,473 yards rushing and set the school record with 51 total touchdowns in a season. He was an iconic figure in college football. Before signing with Auburn, Newton took visits to Arizona, Mississippi State and Oklahoma.

Biggest miss: The losses of Cyrus Kouandjio and T.J. Yeldon, who both flipped from Auburn to Alabama during the recruiting process, were well-documented and likely hurt more because they went to an in-state rival. But let’s not forget how close the Tigers were to signing ESPN 150 running back Marcus Lattimore in 2010. It came down to Auburn and South Carolina for the Palmetto State prospect, who ultimately chose to stay in state. At the time, it was easy for AU fans to get over it because they had signed Michael Dyer, the nation’s No. 1 running back, but as good as Dyer was, he couldn’t stay out of trouble off the field. Can you imagine if Lattimore had come to Auburn and stayed healthy? He and Newton would’ve been scary in 2010.

Auburn to-do list: Finish strong

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
3:30
PM ET
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 next Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. The first matchup is between Florida State’s offensive line and Auburn’s defensive line.

Florida State’s offensive line: The five starters on the line for Florida State are all NFL prospects. The group is led by senior center Bryan Stork, a first-team AP All-America selection. Tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre' Jackson were first-team All-ACC selections.

The group excels at run-blocking, and Florida State topped 2,600 yards and 40 touchdowns on the ground for a second consecutive season. Factoring out yards lost to sacks, FSU is rushing for more yards per carry against FBS teams this season than Auburn.

The question — if there is one — for Floirida State is in its pass protection. The Seminoles have allowed a sack on 6.7 percent of passing attempts, which ranks 83rd nationally, and 13 of the 29 sacks allowed have came in the last five games.

While those numbers might be a cause for concern against an stout Auburn defensive front (28 sacks, tied for third in SEC), two factors mitigate any perceived struggles.

For one, teams have blitzed Florida State often in hopes of rattling quarterback Jameis Winston, as 36 percent of his throws come against the blitz. Occasionally they’ve gotten to him, with 12 sacks when rushing five or more defenders, according to ESPN Stats & Info. More often, however, he burns them. Winston is completing 71 percent of his passes against the blitz, with 20 TDs and three interceptions.

The second issue is Winston’s desire to complete the deep ball. The redshirt freshman won the Heisman Trophy by being aggressive, but he admits there are times he needs to check down and get rid of the ball quicker rather than asking his line to hold blocks for a few extra seconds. The payoff to the approach, however, has been an array of big plays. Winston leads the nation in yards per attempt (10.9) and only LSU’s Zach Mettenberger has a higher percentage of completions gain 15 yards or more than Winston (43 percent). Winston is tough against pressure, completing 62 percent of his throws when hit or hurried — nearly double the average for a quarterback from a BCS automatic-qualifying conference. Even getting him into third-and-long situations doesn’t help much; he’s an absurd 16-of-21 with 15 first downs on third-and-10 or longer.

Auburn’s defensive line: When Auburn last won the national championship in 2010, it had an above-average defense, but it was a defense that featured a dominant front line with All-American defensive tackle Nick Fairley and veterans Antoine Carter, Zach Clayton and Mike Blanc. The 2010 Tigers also had highly-touted freshman defensive end Corey Lemonier, who is now a rookie with the San Francisco 49ers.

[+] EnlargeCarl Lawson
AP Photo/Todd J. Van EmstAuburn freshman Carl Lawson had four sacks this season.
This year’s Auburn team is similar. The defense has struggled at times this season, but its strength is up front on the defensive line.

The star is defensive end Dee Ford, who leads the team with 8.5 sacks, 12.5 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries. A senior, Ford missed the first two games with an injury but has since recorded a sack in seven of Auburn’s last 11 games. He’s a different type of animal than Fairley, but an animal nonetheless.

The rest of the line also has its share of veterans with senior Nosa Eguae and juniors Gabe Wright, LaDarius Owens and Ben Bradley. Eguae, who moved inside to tackle midway through the season, started in the 2010 BCS title game.

And then there are the freshmen. The trio of Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel is as good a collection of young defensive linemen as there is in college football. Lawson, the nation’s No. 2 player coming out of high school in the 2013 recruiting class, leads the group with four sacks.

Fairley was dominant in the 2010 game as Auburn’s defensive line controlled the line against a smaller, quicker Oregon team. That likely won’t be the case this time around against a Florida State offensive line that’s much stronger and much more impressive, but the key to stopping the Seminoles will still begin and end with the front four. Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will rely on his line to get pressure on Winston, knowing how good the Heisman Trophy winner has been against the blitz this season.

Hale: Edge to Florida State

Ostendorf: Toss-up

How Missouri and Auburn were built 

December, 4, 2013
12/04/13
10:00
AM ET
After losing 16 games combined last season, Missouri and Auburn have come a long ways as they prepare to face off Saturday in the SEC championship game. How, exactly, did both of these schools get here?

Their success on the field this season -- just two losses combined -- is more impressive considering Auburn is in Gus Malzahn's first season as coach and Missouri moved over from the Big 12 to the SEC before last season. Recruiting is tough enough as it is, but going through such a major transition for both programs can be detrimental to a school's recruiting class.

[+] EnlargeDorial Green-Beckham
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsFormer No. 1 overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham has caught 49 passes for 686 yards and 10 touchdowns this season.
If games were determined by recruiting rankings, Missouri would be at a big disadvantage. Over the past five years, Missouri has never finished inside the top 25 in the team recruiting rankings. In that same time period, the Tigers have landed only five recruits ranked in the ESPN 300.

To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

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.”

Planning for success: Auburn

October, 10, 2013
10/10/13
8:00
AM ET
AUBURN, Ala. -- It’s Homecoming week which means a lesser opponent for Auburn on Saturday, but that doesn’t change anything for the Tigers. They’re treating Western Carolina like any other team, even with Texas A&M looming.

“There's a lot of different philosophies,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “Some people want to spend a week and just work on the next opponent and some people don't.

[+] EnlargeJonathan Wallace
John Reed/US PRESSWIRECould backup quarterback Jonathan Wallace see some action for the Tigers vs. Western Carolina?
“We're more of the mind-set that we want to treat it (like a regular game). We want to try to keep things consistent for our guys. So for the most part, it's going to be a normal game week. We’re preparing for one opponent, and we’re not really going to work ahead at all.”

Auburn is 2-0 against Western Carolina, including a 56-0 win over the Catamounts in 2002, their most recent meeting.

What Auburn needs to do to win: It’s safe to say Auburn will likely win the game, but it’s not as much about the outcome or the final score as it is about the team playing well and improving. The Tigers are currently riding a wave of momentum, and they want to continue that through this weekend and into the Texas A&M game. Western Carolina has given up more than 40 points in four games this season, so the offense should have no trouble moving the ball. It would be a victory for the defense, which has given up their fair share of yards, to keep the Catamounts out of the end zone or off the scoreboard altogether.

Players to watch

Auburn QB Jonathan Wallace: Starting quarterback Nick Marshall suffered a minor knee injury against Ole Miss, and although it’s likely he’ll play, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn hasn’t ruled one way or the other yet. If Marshall can’t go, Wallace is next in line to get the start. He started four games for the Tigers a year ago.

Auburn DT Montravius Adams: How much will he play? Adams suffered a leg bruise which kept him out of the second half against Ole Miss. The coaches say he’s fine, but it will be interesting to see how much he actually plays Saturday. If he does suit up, he’ll be hungry to match the performance fellow freshman Carl Lawson had last weekend.

Quotable
“Whenever you have one of your players carted off, that is one of the worse feelings you can have as a coach. I looked up and saw him back on the sidelines standing up and moving with a smile on his face. That gave me a lift, and I am sure it gave the rest of our coaches and players a lift, too.” -- Gus Malzahn on Cassanova McKinzy’s neck injury from Saturday
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.

Top SEC recruiting rivalries 

October, 1, 2013
10/01/13
8:00
AM ET

From year-to-year the Southeastern Conference is full of recruiting battles. This year it appears that Alabama and LSU could have some of the best recruiting battles we've seen in a while. Here's a closer look at the five top recruiting rivalries in the SEC.


To continue reading this article you must be an Insider

AUBURN, Ala. -- It will be a strange feeling for Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn when he looks across the field Saturday and sees his former team. Malzahn coached at Arkansas State last year, and this weekend, the Red Wolves will visit the Plains for a nonconference showdown with the Tigers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Storylines

What to expect from Nick Marshall, part two?

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

Will Auburn’s linebackers step up to the challenge?

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

Who will be the playmaker for the Tigers?

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

Players to Watch

Auburn player to watch: DT Montravius Adams

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

Arkansas State player to watch: RB David Oku

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

Quotable

“They've got a lot of weapons back on offense, and I know they've got some really good players back on defense. It's going to take a much better effort from us this week. We're going to have to see that Week 1-to-Week 2 improvement if we want to win the game.” -- Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, on Arkansas State
AUBURN, Ala. -- In 2012, the Auburn defense gave up 35 or more points in four of their last five SEC games. The Tigers were in the bottom half of the conference in most statistical categories, including total defense, sacks and interceptions. There was clearly a need for change, and the Tigers turned to some new faces, including renowned defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, to fix it.

Through two quarters Saturday, however, it looked as if Auburn’s defense still had its issues. Washington State racked up 264 yards through the air and 21 points.

[+] EnlargeMontravius Adams, Craig Sanders
AP Photo/Butch DillFreshman Montravius Adams (right) provided a spark for Auburn's defense against Washington State.
But after halftime, the AU defense clamped down. They still gave up yards to the Cougars, but they made stops when they had to, including a late interception from Robenson Therezie, and they held the potent air-raid offense to just three points. The end result was a much-needed victory, specifically for the players who were on the team last year.

“It felt great,” defensive end LaDarius Owens said. “It's been feeling great ever since the new coaching staff came in. It kind of gave us a new spirit, a new life. It felt good to see that produce us a win. It made us feel like, 'Alright, we're going at it the right way." It is something that we needed.”

Johnson knows as much as anybody how important a win like that can be to start the season. He was 0-12 last year as head coach at Southern Miss. What if Auburn had made a mistake here or there and lost the game? Would this defense revert back to old form?

“That was the most important thing that happened, in my opinion the whole night, is that when we had a chance to slip, we didn't,” Johnson said. “They stood right in there, played hard, finished the game and got it done. Obviously, they've had a problem doing that in the past.”

On Monday, Therezie was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week, an honor he earned with an outstanding performance, but when the Tigers needed a spark in the second quarter, they turned to true freshman Montravius Adams, the No. 2 defensive tackle in the country coming out of high school.

On the first play of his college career, Adams burst into the backfield and sacked the quarterback.

“I was very excited,” Adams said. “I wanted to get the team together, so me making that big play helped the team. We all came together, and I think we started clicking a lot better.”

Before the sack, Washington State had scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives, but after the play, they never reached the end zone again.

Adams wasn’t the only freshman to make an impact for Auburn’s defense on Saturday. Johnson said there were times where he saw five freshmen on the field at the same time. The most notable were the three on the defensive line -- Adams, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson -- who rotated in throughout the game.

The trio struggled at times with various assignments, but physically looked the part.

“When they get on the field, they look like they belong on the field,” Johnson said. “They're 18-year-old freshmen playing in the SEC, but they look like they fit right in. As time goes on, they get more comfortable in our scheme and start eliminating the mental errors, I think they'll really be a lot better and be more of a contribution.”

One of the keys for the freshmen is that they weren’t at Auburn last year. They didn’t have to go through a difficult and trying season without an SEC victory. They’re all used to winning games at the high school level, so it was no different when they won this past Saturday.

“We sang the fight song when all got to the locker room,” Adams said. “Everybody was just happy. It was a great way to kick off the season and set the tone for next week.”

But for the players who were on last year’s team, the win meant even more. The freshman might have been the spark, but now the rest of the unit has more confidence going into the rest of the season.

“A win, regardless of when it comes or how you get it, it always gives you confidence and faith for the future,” Owens said.

Week 1 trends: Three up, three down

September, 1, 2013
9/01/13
3:30
PM ET
Nick MarshallMichael Chang/Getty ImagesAuburn quarterback Nick Marshall improved in the second half and didn't turn the ball over.

After every Auburn game this season, we’ll take a look at three trends going up and three trends going down for the Tigers. On Saturday, the Tigers opened the season with a 31-24 victory over Washington State, a game that featured plenty of highs but also some lows.

Three up

1. The running backs: Nick Marshall didn’t blow anybody away in his debut at quarterback, but fortunately for Auburn, he didn’t have to. The trio of running backs carried the Tigers’ offense throughout most of the game and made big plays when they needed to. Tre Mason was solid with 15 carries for 73 yards, not to mention his 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown. Junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne was the bruiser of the group, but he also looked nimble for his size. He finished with 52 yards rushing. And the breakout star was Corey Grant, who led the team with 146 yards, including a 75-yard touchdown run in the second quarter. All three look like they’re going to play a major roles.

2. Special teams: It’s often overlooked, but Auburn’s play on special teams was a big reason why they won. The highlight came on Mason’s kickoff return, but both kicker Cody Parkey and punter Steven Clarke earned their All-SEC nominations with Saturday’s performance. Parkey missed a 50-yard field goal early in the game, but he drilled his last three attempts, which turned out to be the difference in the final score. Meanwhile, Clarke punted the ball five times for an average of 41.6 yards and put three of his kicks inside the opponent’s 20-yard kube. Chris Davis looked impressive on his lone punt return, picking up 19 yards.

3. The newcomers: Head coach Gus Malzahn said he expected the majority of the 2013 recruiting class to play against Washington State, and while that might have been a little generous, the newcomers still made their presence felt, in particular on defense. When defensive tackle Montravius Adams came into the game, he made a sack on his first play. It energized the crowd as well as his teammates. Both Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson made appearances at defensive end, and juco tackle Ben Bradley also made a key sack for a loss of eight yards.

Three down

1. The secondary: Auburn made three interceptions Saturday, one more than all of last season, but they surrendered 344 yards passing to Washington State. Granted, they won’t have to face many offenses similar to Mike Leach’s air-raid attack, but the unit still showed glimpses of last season. There were breakdowns in coverage, including one that resulted in a 53-yard reception and ultimately led to a touchdown, and too many receivers were wide open. However, it’s not all on the defensive backs. Part of the blame falls on the front seven and their ability to generate a pass rush, which looked nonexistent at times in the first half.

2. Nick Marshall’s first half: The expectations were set very high, maybe too high, for Marshall coming into the season. It was obvious he wanted to show off his arm strength and make a play early in the game. Instead, he just looked nervous and out of sync in the first half. On his first play from scrimmage, he was indecisive and took a four-yard loss when he was tackled in the backfield. He was just 2 of 8 passing for 20 yards in the first half. The good news is that Marshall settled in during the second half and looked much more comfortable. Still nobody knows what to expect from the new quarterback, but with the nerves of his first game behind him, he should only improve from here.

3. Late turnover: For three quarters, the Tigers didn’t turn the ball over once. Say what you will about Marshall, but he protected the football. However, after an interception by Robenson Therezie that looked to seal the victory, Mason coughed the ball up while going for extra yardage. The defense came up with another key stop, but the game could have just as easily gone to overtime. Malzahn showed his trust in Mason by giving him the ball on the next drive, but Auburn has to avoid turnovers, especially late in games.

SPONSORED HEADLINES

ESPN 300 Ranking Motivates Byron Cowart
After a recent rise into the top 10 overall, defensive end Byron Cowart of Armwood (Seffner, Fla.) joins ESPN's Matt Schick to discuss recruiting and the new ESPN 300.Tags: Byron Cowart, Armwood, ESPN 300, RecruitingNation, high school football recruiting, Matt Schick
VIDEO PLAYLIST video