Auburn Tigers: Patrick Miller

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Avery Young was spotted at right guard in practice this week, there was speculation and rumors running rampant across the Plains. The questions began trickling in. What did it mean for the left tackle battle? Are Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller both going to start? How about Chad Slade? Had the senior lost his job?

Not so fast.

“I want to make it very clear, we've not made any changes to our offensive line,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Thursday. “I really don't know why people think that. We're doing at offensive line the same thing we're doing at receiver, the same thing we're doing at running back and everywhere else, [we’re] mixing and matching people.

[+] EnlargeAvery Young
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAvery Young has been taking reps at guard, but that doesn't mean that he's moving there permanently.
“Avery Young may get some reps at right guard. That doesn't mean he's not playing right tackle. That doesn't mean Chad is not playing at right guard. And sometimes we may put Chad at left guard and take [Alex] Kozan out and give him a blow.

“What happens if Chad Slade goes down in the middle of the season. What are we going to do then? Or what happens if Alex Kozan goes down. What are we going to do then?”

The spring is for experimenting with players at different positions and seeing what you have. It’s meant to build depth in case of an injury or a suspension during the season, but it’s not the time for coaches to change up the depth chart. The season opener is still over four months away.

Just because junior college transfer Xavier Dampeer has been working some at center with the first group, it doesn’t mean that All-SEC center Reese Dismukes is in danger of losing his job. The staff just wants to find a quality backup and a player who can take over once Dismukes has graduated.

“It's just all about how we manage the reps,” Lashlee said. “We've done it at wideout. We've even done it at quarterback some. Jeremy Johnson needs to get some reps with the older line at times. So like I said, we're not going to make any decisions on depth chart in the middle of spring.”

There might be uncertainty on the offensive line or at spots such as running back and wide receiver, but the strength of the Auburn offense is how deep it is.

The Tigers have three capable running backs battling for the No. 1 job this spring, and two more are expected to join the fold in the summer. The wide receiver position is as deep as any on the roster with the entire corps returning and the addition of D'haquille Williams, the top juco player in the country. With Nick Marshall at quarterback and Johnson behind him, they are set at a spot where most teams still have question marks.

So no, Young’s move to right guard isn’t permanent. It doesn’t mean that he won’t start there at some point during the season, but for now the move is meant to build depth and improve an offensive line that’s already considered one of the best in the SEC.

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
Apr 7
There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
AUBURN, Ala. -- Shon Coleman knows a thing or two about battles. He was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 2010, just months after signing with Auburn. It kept him off the football field for four years, but he won that fight and returned to action last season against Arkansas State.

“It was very exciting just to get back on the field,” Coleman said Saturday. “I hadn’t been out there in a long time. It was really a dream come true to see myself get out there.”

[+] EnlargeShon Coleman
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIShon Coleman, who was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, has recovered completely and is squarely in the battle to be Auburn's starting left tackle.
The left tackle competition that he’s engaged in this spring with Patrick Miller might seem trivial in the grand scheme, but it’s anything but that to Auburn fans right now. It’s the No. 1 topic on the Plains this offseason, and it’s been highly contested through the first two weeks of spring practice.

“It’s a knock-out, drag-out fight,” fellow offensive lineman Alex Kozan said. “Both of them are great athletes, Pat and Shon. They’re both 6-foot-7, long arms, can bend, can move, have great hip explosion. Both of them are going to be great players.

“It’s like I said: Both of those guys could start for pretty much any team in college football, so we have a pretty good situation on our hands. Both of those guys are attacking every day, trying to get better, and I don’t think it’s going to be settled until fall camp.”

The reps have been split evenly to this point, and it was no different during Saturday’s scrimmage. Coleman started with the first unit, but Miller replaced him on the next series. They have been going back and forth every day.

As Kozan alluded to, a decision might not come until after spring camp is over.

“Like we’ve said, we probably won’t make a decision and may not make a decision even after spring,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Both of those guys are veteran guys, and we feel like both of them have a starter-type mentality and talent.”

Coleman is just a sophomore, but he’s been with the team since 2012 and played in seven games last fall behind starter Greg Robinson. Miller has 14 starts under his belt, but all have come at right tackle, where he started out last fall before losing his job to Avery Young midway through the season.

Coleman and Miller are similar in size, but they bring different strengths to the team, according to defensive lineman Gabe Wright, who has faced both of them at some point this spring.

“I believe Pat may be a better pass setter, but Shon is one of the tougher run setters that I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wright said. “It’s like hitting a brick wall with a helmet on. Seriously.

“We were just talking the other day that if you guys thought Greg was strong, you got another thing coming. Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg. I’m not even sure he has his playing weight back from when he was sick.”

Coleman, who is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, looks like he did before he became sick, only stronger.

Between the two, it’s hard not to root for Coleman, knowing what he’s been through and what he’s overcome in his life, but even he understands that the best player will win the job, and there’s a chance that it might not be him.

“Whoever the guy is, it’s going to be better for the team, so I’m all right with that,” Coleman said. “Really, it’s all about getting back to a national championship. That was the best feeling in the world, so I’m just trying to help the team as much as I can and do my part to get back.”

SEC's lunch links

March, 20, 2014
Mar 20
March Madness is here. A new Cinderella will emerge, and your bracket is bound to start falling apart. For those at work and for those who are taking off early, enjoy a full day of basketball, and for a little football, enjoy today’s lunch links.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
Mar 17
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 IV of a week-long series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn opens practice next week, there’s no doubt that the best position battle of the spring will be at left tackle. It’s one of the most important positions on the field, and depending on the winner, it could shake up the entire offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAvery Young
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter securing the right tackle job last season, Avery Young could make a move to the left side this spring.
At this point, it’s too early to predict who’s going to win the job, but don’t be surprised if the staff waits until fall camp before naming a starter.

The good news for Auburn is that there are plenty of candidates. The bad news for the fans is that the coaches will likely explore all of those options and take their time in making a decision. There will obviously be a player who starts with the first-team offense in the spring game, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the starter come August for the season opener.

Don’t forget that ESPN 300 offensive lineman Braden Smith, a highly regarded member of the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class, isn’t even on campus yet. He enrolls this summer, and though it’s unlikely he’ll start at left tackle, he could still factor into the two-deep depth chart.

“He’s very athletic, one of the strongest guys in the entire country,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of Smith. “He’ll fit in very good for us, and I think he has the ability to help us early.”

For those doubting that Smith can earn a significant role in his first year, just look at what Avery Young did two years ago as a true freshman. He also arrived in the summer, and by the season opener, was Auburn’s starting right tackle. It didn’t last as a shoulder injury forced him to miss the majority of the season, but it shows that it’s possible.

Speaking of Young, many consider him to be the best offensive tackle on the roster. His injury opened the door for Patrick Miller in 2012, but when Miller missed three games last year due to off-field issues, it was Young who stepped in and took advantage of an opportunity. He started the team’s last eight games, and now he’ll almost certainly have a starting job.

The only question is will he stay at right tackle where he’s played his whole career at Auburn or will he move over and fill the void left by Greg Robinson at left tackle?

If Young stays put, that means the competition will ultimately come down to Miller, the team’s opening day starter at right tackle a year ago, or redshirt sophomore Shon Coleman, Robinson’s primary backup last year.

“I think Coach [J.B.] Grimes is going to open it up to those two guys,” Malzahn told reporters last month. “Robert Leff will get an opportunity, Avery Young ... Spring is a great time for coaches to kind of mix and match, put people in different positions. The good thing is we have some depth up front going into this year.”

Either Malzahn is a master at not tipping his hand or he has no idea who his left tackle is going to be next season. That’s what spring is for, though. He doesn’t have to name a starter the first week. He doesn’t even have to name a starter by the last week -- not one that’s etched in stone, anyway. He just needs to find a starter by August 30 when Arkansas comes to town.

The only real prediction that can be made right now about Auburn’s left tackle competition is that it’s going to take time to find the right guy.
Editor’s note: This is part two in a week-long series looking at five position battles to watch when Auburn opens spring practice in two weeks.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson has gone from relative unknown to potential top-five draft pick in a little over four months. He wowed at the NFL combine last month by running a 4.92 40-yard dash, second among offensive linemen, and bench pressing 225 pounds an impressive 32 times.

Robinson’s colossal ascent came as a surprise to everybody except for his coach, Gus Malzahn.

There’s now talk that Robinson could go No. 1 overall in May’s NFL draft. It would be a huge accomplishment for the Auburn program, but regardless of where he goes, the Tigers still have to replace him in 2014. And while there are no early favorites to take over at left tackle, there are plenty of options.

“I think Coach [J.B.] Grimes is going to open it up,” Malzahn said last month. “Spring is a great time for coaches to kind of mix and match, put people in different positions. The good thing is we have some depth up front going into this year.”

The contenders
Shon Coleman (Sophomore): No Tiger has a better story than Coleman. The former three-star offensive tackle had high hopes when he signed with the Tigers in February 2010, but his path took a detour when he was diagnosed with leukemia shortly after he signed. He overcame the illness and returned to the field last fall where he served as the primary backup at left tackle. Now he’s next in line to take over and could be the favorite to win the job heading into spring.

Patrick Miller (Junior): Miller started nine games as a freshman at right tackle. He opened this past season as the starter, but when he was suspended for three games in the middle of the year, he lost his job to redshirt freshman Avery Young. Now he’s in the mix at left tackle where he’s hoping to learn from his mistakes and earn back a starting role.

Robert Leff (Sophomore): He has the least experience of the group, but Malzahn consistently brings up Leff’s name when asked about the left tackle position, meaning he’ll get his shot this spring just like everybody else. Even if he doesn’t win the job, he should see his name on the two-deep depth chart with a good spring.

Avery Young (Sophomore): If Coleman struggles this spring, don’t be surprised if Young gets a look over at left tackle. He took over at right tackle this past season, as mentioned above, and he’s the projected starter there heading into spring, but if he’s the team’s best offensive tackle, he might be better utilized on the left side.

Note: ESPN 300 offensive lineman Braden Smith will arrive this summer.

Spring forecast
The real battle this spring is between Coleman and Miller. Is Coleman up to the task? How will Miller fare on the left side? Those are the questions that need to be answered. The intrigue will come if neither player emerges and the coaches are forced to move Young to left tackle. As Malzahn said, spring is a time to mix and match, and there will be plenty of that going on at the two offensive tackle spots.

Players to watch: OT Avery Young

February, 26, 2014
Feb 26
Editor’s note: This is the third part in a weeklong series looking at five Auburn players to watch this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When starting right tackle Patrick Miller missed three games in the middle of the season because of off-field issues, it could have hurt the continuity on Auburn’s offensive line. It could have affected the chemistry. Instead, the line only got better and Miller never started another game, even after returning from the suspension.

Redshirt freshman Avery Young started in place of Miller on Oct. 12 against Western Carolina and never looked back. In his eight starts to close out the regular season, Auburn averaged 394 yards per game on the ground. He was given an opportunity and he took advantage of it.

[+] EnlargeAvery Young
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAvery Young's emergence at right tackle was a big reason Auburn won the SEC in 2013.
Now, with Greg Robinson leaving early for the NFL, Young is the most talented and most experienced offensive tackle on the roster. The only question mark going forward isn’t whether or not he’s going to play; it’s whether or not he can stay healthy.

A former ESPN 150 recruit, Young started for Auburn as a true freshman before a shoulder injury forced him to miss the rest of the season and take a redshirt. This season, he played through an ankle injury he suffered in his first start and broke his hand on the first play of the VIZIO BCS National Championship game. Still, he played through it.

“He’s a tough guy,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He’s a great competitor. He had a pretty bad ankle injury midway through the year and battled through that. He’s very athletic and a great kid.”

Young is expected to be fully healed by the time spring practice begins, but there are questions about where he’ll line up.

The interior of Auburn’s line is set. Veteran Reese Dismukes is back at center, and he’ll have Alex Kozan and Chad Slade returning on either side of him. However, the void left by Robinson is a big one, and there’s no clear-cut favorite to win the job. Shon Coleman, who backed up Robinson, is next in line, but Malzahn said Miller, who previously started at right tackle, and Robert Leff will also be in contention this spring.

The player to watch is Young. If he really is the best offensive tackle on the team, the coaches might give him a shot at left tackle and move Miller back to right tackle.

“We haven’t gotten there yet,” Malzahn said after the season, when asked about Young moving to left tackle. “As we get done with recruiting, we will start thinking more personnel-wise.”

Regardless of which tackle spot he occupies, Young should begin the year as a starter and will be counted on as one of the anchors of the offensive line. The unit was the key to Auburn’s success last year and will be again this year.
Editor's note: This is Part II in a weeklong series looking at the five most pressing concerns Auburn faces this offseason.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Tre Mason will be missed. The junior running back finished with 1,816 yards, breaking Bo Jackson’s all-time single-season rushing record at Auburn. After the season, he declared for the NFL draft in hopes of taking advantage of the success.

[+] EnlargeTrovon Reed, Greg Robinson
Kevin Liles/USA TODAY SportsAlthough it won't be easy to replace tackle Greg Robinson, Auburn has some candidates in mind.
However, Mason won’t be the first Auburn player to hear his name come off the board in May. He’ll likely go in the second or third round, but his teammate and fellow underclassmen Greg Robinson is a projected top-10 pick. The 6-foot-5, 320-pound offensive tackle was just as instrumental as Mason in the Tigers’ No. 1 rushing offense, and he’ll be even more difficult to replace next season.

Robinson was fairly unknown before the season. He started last year as a redshirt freshman, but nobody outside of Auburn knew his name. Now he’s considered one of the top players in the draft, and ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has him going No. 9 to the Buffalo Bills in his latest mock draft.

“Robinson has the physical tools and proven level of performance against SEC competition of a potential star at the next level,” Kiper said. “And the Bills must protect the investment they have in E.J. Manuel, who has had issues staying healthy.”

Whether Robinson is taken by the Bills remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: He won’t be blocking for Nick Marshall next season.

Auburn returns four starters from an offensive line that many thought was the nation’s best by the end of the season, but the loss of Robinson creates a gaping hole on the left side. The search to find his replacement is just as important, if not more important, than finding a running back or group of running backs to pick up where Mason left off.

The Tigers do have options at left tackle.

Redshirt freshman Shon Coleman served as Robinson’s backup last season and is in next line to take over. He has seen his share of battles. The former cancer survivor played for the first time in nearly four years when he took the field against Arkansas State early in the season.

Though it might be Coleman’s job to lose, he’ll have plenty of competition. Head coach Gus Malzahn said both Patrick Miller and Robert Leff will have an opportunity to win the starting job at left tackle.

“We’re going to open that dude up and see who wins the job,” Malzahn said. “The good thing is that we have a little bit of depth at that [position] and have some experience.”

Miller had started 14 straight games at right tackle dating to 2012, but he lost his job to redshirt freshman Avery Young after having to sit out for off-the-field issues midway through this past season. Now he’ll try and win the starting job on the left side.

Young, an ESPN 150 recruit in his own right, is expected to start next season at right tackle, but he could be an option at left tackle.

“We haven’t gotten there yet,” Malzahn said earlier this month. “As we get done with recruiting, we will start thinking more personnel-wise.”

The answer might still be out there on the recruiting trail. ESPN 300 offensive lineman Braden Smith (Olathe, Kan./South) visited the Plains over the weekend, and Auburn is also in the mix for junior college offensive tackle Jordan Prestwood (Tampa, Fla./Arizona Western).

Whoever wins the job might hold the key to replicating last season’s success on offense.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 20, 2014
Jan 20
After this weekend, all the underclassmen who wanted to go to the NFL are officially gone. Now begins the hectic final push in the recruiting season. Nick Saban did the electric slide, Lane Kiffin sang karaoke and that's just the nonsense going on at Alabama to impress recruits. Signing day is Feb. 5, so strap in tight because things could get really weird before it's all said and done.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Don’t look now but Auburn leads the SEC in rushing. The Tigers are averaging 287 yards per game on the ground, which ranks seventh nationally.

Credit the trio of running backs -- Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Credit quarterback Nick Marshall, who led the team with 140 yards rushing against Ole Miss. And credit the offensive scheme implemented by first-year head coach Gus Malzahn.

But what about the offensive line?

“We get pretty good credit within the program,” center Reese Dismukes said. “None of us are [worried] about awards and all that stuff. That's not really a big deal with us. We're hogs and that's what we do. Without us, the [skill players] couldn't do anything.”

Dismukes is likely the only name you’ve heard of on the offensive line. He was a second team preseason All-SEC selection and was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list before the season. But he’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not just about him.

“I think we've got five guys that are 100-percent bought in and committed to do the right thing all the time,” Dismukes said. “We're really starting to gel here. We've been running the ball well and protecting the ball well, too. We're playing really good right now, and we just need to keep getting better each week.”

From left to right, it goes Greg Robinson, Alex Kozan, Dismukes, Chad Slade and Patrick Miller. On Saturday, Avery Young got the start in place of Miller at right tackle because of an off-the-field issue. It was the first change to the starting five all season.

Still, this is a unit that is not made up of five-star recruits or potential first-round draft picks, but they have been as productive as any line in the SEC. In addition to leading the conference in rushing, they’re also tops in fewest sacks allowed. The Tigers have given up just four sacks through the first six games after allowing a league-worst 37 in 2012.

"I look at it as we're just maturing,” Robinson said. “Last year, we gave up sacks, but things are different [now]. I think the offense has a big toll on that and who's in the backfield, also."

So who is the man behind the success of the ‘hogs’ up front? Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes. He brought more than 30 years of coaching experience with him when he followed Malzahn from Arkansas State to Auburn.

“I know this -- J.B. Grimes is as good a fundamental coach as there is,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He did wonders with the offensive line at Arkansas State last year. We led that league in rushing, and I think we were towards the top in fewest sacks allowed. He's done a really good with these guys.”

The players have responded well to the veteran offensive line coach, too.

“There's never a dull moment [with Grimes],” Dismukes said. “He's an old-school guy, and I like that.”

This Saturday, Auburn visits Texas A&M for a top-25 showdown in College Station. Everyone is already talking about the quarterbacks and the skill-position players, but it starts up front at the line of scrimmage.

“It’s real important,” Lashlee said. “You’re going on the road in a hostile environment in a game where we need to be able to run the football. That’s not different than every week in our league. We have leaned on them since day one.”

Now it’s up to the Auburn offensive line to deliver yet again.
The starting quarterback was named weeks ago, but Auburn released the rest of its two-deep depth chart Wednesday in preparation for Saturday’s opener against Washington State.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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