Auburn Tigers: Patrick Miller

Who are the players that this year’s Auburn team cannot live without? This week, I’ll take a look at the five most indispensable players on each side of the ball.

Let’s begin with the offense:

WR Sammie Coates: The talk this spring has been focused on junior college transfer D'haquille Williams and how deep the Auburn receiving corps is, but where would the Tigers have been last year without Coates? The sophomore, who had just six catches the year before, finished with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. He was the lone player who kept defenses from putting everybody in the box to stop the run, and he’s fast enough that it’s almost impossible for one player to cover him. This year, he’s back and stronger than ever. The one-handed grab in the spring game might have been a glimpse into what’s to come. If Nick Marshall wants to take the next step as a passer, he has to have Coates on the field.


[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn has plenty of running backs, but Corey Grant's speed would be hard to replace.
RB Corey Grant: Auburn’s offense is predicated on speed. It’s been the selling point of the program this offseason, and for Gus Malzahn to do what he wants to do, he needs players who are fast. Who better fits the bill than Grant? He reportedly ran a sub-4.2 40 last month, and if you don’t believe it, just go back and watch his touchdown run from the spring game. He brings a different element to the offense. He might lose the starting running back job to Cameron Artis-Payne, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less important. Auburn will have two other backs on campus this fall similar to Artis-Payne, but no player can match Grant’s speed out of the backfield. He’s easily the biggest home run threat on the team.

C Reese Dismukes: There’s an argument to be made that the center is the most important player on an offense. They don’t get as much attention as the quarterback or the skill players, but every single play begins with them. In Auburn’s case, it couldn’t be truer. Dismukes, who has been the starter since 2011, has been though the bad times and the good, and he was instrumental in last year’s turnaround. The senior was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list on Monday, and it would be a shock if he’s not a finalist for the award again this year. If you’re looking for somebody to help Auburn avoid getting complacent, look no further. Dismukes will make sure this team stays hungry in its quest to repeat as SEC champions.

QB Nick Marshall: OK, now the easy one. Marshall was the key last year, and as he improved, so too did the offense. The junior college transfer finished with 1,976 yards passing, 1,068 yards rushing and 26 combined touchdowns. He still has work to do in the passing game, but by all accounts, he’s improved this spring and could be in for a huge senior season. The only argument to be made against Marshall is that quarterback is actually a deep position for Auburn. Backup Jeremy Johnson showed he was more than able last season, and ESPN 300 signal caller Sean White is set to arrive later this month. But let’s not kid ourselves. If Auburn wants to reach the first ever College Football Playoff, it needs Marshall to stay healthy.

RT Avery Young: Typically, it’s the left tackle that teams covet, and while both Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller will be vital to Auburn’s success next season, the versatility of Young on the right side makes him an even more important commodity. Young took over at right tackle midway through the year last year and never relinquished the job. He exceeded expectations as a redshirt freshman, and now he’s entrenched there as the starter. However, the AU coaches gave him some reps at right guard this spring, and his ability to play multiple positions gives Auburn a deeper, more effective offensive line.
Like any football player growing up, Shon Coleman's dream was to one day play in the NFL. It’s a nice thought, but the reality is that the majority of aspiring football players never make it to the next level. They’re either not good enough or they simply give up on their dream.

[+] EnlargeShon Coleman
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIShon Coleman has beaten cancer, and the odds, to become a key member of Auburn's offensive line.
In Coleman’s case, it wasn’t a lack of talent and it certainly wasn’t because he gave up. His dream encountered a detour when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. The disease was supposed to take away football and possibly his life, but he didn’t let it. He battled through the disease and returned to the field three years later.

On Thursday, the Auburn offensive lineman will be at Radio City Music Hall in New York City for the NFL draft. Unlike his former teammate and mentor Greg Robinson, who is expected to be a top-10 pick, Coleman won’t be hearing his name called. Instead, he’ll be the one on stage calling somebody else’s name, possibly Robinson’s.

On behalf of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and NFL PLAY 60, Coleman and his mother, DeKeisha, will join commissioner Roger Goodell to announce a pick during Thursday’s first round.

“For them to give me this opportunity is a blessing,” Coleman told AuburnTigers.com. “It’s very exciting. People are going to see my story.”

As a senior in high school, Coleman was 6-foot-6, 280 pounds and had offers from over half the teams in the SEC. He signed with Auburn in February 2010, but before he could enroll, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). He spent much of the next three years in a hospital undergoing chemotherapy.

It was hell for the once-promising offensive line prospect, but he never gave up. He kept fighting, and it paid off when the doctors cleared him to play towards the end of the 2012 season. He began practicing with the team again, and made his return to the field this past Sept. 7, when Auburn hosted Arkansas State.

“Shon was a super hard worker,” former teammate Tre Mason said. “He was driven by what he went through. He took it in his hands to make the best comeback that I’ve ever seen. I feel like it was better than our season because he pretty much beat death. He’s coming back to play football and trying to give himself a chance to support his family.

“Shon will never quit. I know that if he does make it to the pros, that will be one of the best traits they’ll be receiving from Shon Coleman, that he’ll never quit.”

Coleman remains cancer-free, and he’s stronger than he’s ever been. He’s put back on all of his weight and then some. Auburn defensive lineman Gabe Wright said going against Coleman in practice is like “hitting a brick wall with a helmet on.”

“If you guys thought Greg [Robinson] was strong, you got another thing coming,” Wright said. “Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg.”

Coach Gus Malzahn arrived at Auburn about the same time the doctors cleared Coleman to play, and he has witnessed the miraculous comeback firsthand.

“This time last year, of course we had a close eye on him,” Malzahn said. “Everything he went through with his treatments and everything with that -- you could see he got better and better in the spring. And once we got to fall, you could tell he was starting to get his strength back. He did a solid job for us when he got in last year.

“Now, he's fighting for a starting position. You can see the urgency's there. He definitely looks like the guy that we recruited four years ago when he was healthy.”

Coleman is still locked in a position battle with Patrick Miller at left tackle, and while there’s a chance he might not start next season, it still beats the alternative. He has three years left to play and can once again chase down his dream, a dream that was nearly taken away from him by a cruel and unforgiving disease.

“I’ve got a dream that I work for every day, and I just work towards that goal,” Coleman told ESPN.com last month. “If I’m blessed enough to get in that position, then it will happen.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

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

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

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

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

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

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

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

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

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

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesCan Nick Marshall get Auburn going even faster?
Prediction No. 1: No slowing down

Gus Malzahn’s offense is no longer fast. It’s #Auburnfast. The coaches have begun using the hashtag on Twitter for everything from players’ 40-yard-dash times to their recruiting routes in New York City (see @rhettlashlee). Either way, it was evident from the first practice of spring that Auburn wanted to go even faster than last season. The entire second period was dedicated to pace, and the first, second and third-team units all worked on running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. The key will be quarterback Nick Marshall and his comfort level with the offense. On Wednesday, Malzahn said Marshall was a lot more reactive this spring and that it was coming more natural to him. That’s a good sign for Auburn and a bad sign for SEC defenses.

Prediction No. 2: No Ford, no problem

It’s still a little early to say the defensive line will be better in 2014 without sack leader Dee Ford, but that’s only because we never got a chance to see a healthy group up front during spring practice. Injuries riddled the defensive line, forcing players such as Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright to move from tackle to end. Rising sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel both missed time while defensive end LaDarius Owens, a starter last season, missed the entire spring with a foot injury. When everybody is healthy and when the six 2014 signees on the defensive line arrive this summer, it will be a deeper, more talented group than what Auburn had a year ago.

Prediction No. 3: More balance on offense

This one depends solely on Marshall’s progression as a passer, but if the spring game was any indication, Malzahn intends to throw it quite a bit more this season. Marshall went 13-of-22 for 236 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, and afterwards, Malzahn said the emphasis was obviously on throwing the football as it had been throughout the spring. Junior college transfer D’haquille Williams looked as good as advertised in the spring game, catching five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. He adds another target to what was already a deep stable of wide receivers. Auburn will still be a run-first football team. That’s who it is, and that’s what Malzahn wants to do. But it’s not crazy to think that Marshall will average 10 or more passing attempts per game this season than he did last season.

Prediction No. 4: Open audition at LT

The prediction was that Auburn would wait until the fall to name a starter at left tackle, and to nobody’s surprise, it held true. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller are veteran guys. They don’t need to know who the starter is going to be until the week before the first game. They’re going to keep plugging away like they always do. The only real takeaway from the spring that was that Auburn has two left tackles good enough to start, and if they can start on that offensive line, they’re likely good enough to start for the majority of teams in college football. There was also a thought that Avery Young would see time at left tackle, but he stayed on the right side for the duration of spring practice.

Prediction No. 5: Breakout candidates

Did we hit a home run with Daniel and Peyton Barber as our breakout candidates? No. But we didn’t strike out either. Daniel missed part of spring with a groin injury, but he returned and quietly had a strong spring game. The sophomore defensive end finished with three tackles, 2.5 for a loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry. Barber earned rave reviews from his coaches and teammates throughout the spring, but he injured his ankle on his first carry of A-Day and missed the rest of the game. He went 10 yards on his lone carry, showing good feet and a good burst, but also fumbled at the end of the run. Looking back, the breakout player of the spring had to be junior college safety Derrick Moncrief, who took advantage of an opportunity and carved out a role in the secondary.

Auburn spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
Apr 30
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Three things we learned in the spring about the Auburn Tigers:

1. The offense is scary good: Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense made quite a splash in his first season as head coach at Auburn, and although star running back Tre Mason is gone, the offense could be even better in Year 2. Quarterback Nick Marshall is back and looks more confident running the show. He has a deeper and more talented group of skill players at his disposal, and the offensive line returns four starters. SEC defenses beware.

2. D’haquille is the real deal: The expectations were high for D'haquille Williams, the No. 1 junior college player in the country in the Class of 2014, but he not only met those expectations, he exceeded them. The coaches say he’s further along than they thought he would be at this point, and it was evident during the spring game as he had five catches for 88 yards and a touchdown.

3. Depth remains a concern: Injuries took their toll on Auburn during spring practice, and while it might have created opportunities for some, it also showed what little depth the Tigers have at certain spots. Players had to play out of position in some cases, and the second-team offense and defense looked completely outmatched in what turned into a lopsided spring game.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinAuburn signal-caller Nick Marshall will have several talented playmakers around him in 2014.
1. How good is the defense?: At this point, we have no idea. It was a question mark heading into the spring, and it remains a question mark. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he probably had close to a dozen players on defense who missed a good chunk of spring practice, making it nearly impossible to see how all the pieces fit. Not to mention, the coaches expect part of the 2014 class to make an impact, specifically on defense.

2. Who will be the starting left tackle?: It was clear early on that the staff would wait until the fall to make a decision on who would replace Greg Robinson. After the spring, Shon Coleman seems to be in the driver’s seat, but Patrick Miller is still in the mix, and there’s also the theory that he moves to right tackle and Avery Young moves to guard.

3. Where does Holsey play?: The emergence of junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief at safety has created a logjam in the secondary. Moncrief impressed the coaches so much this spring that they are now considering keeping him at safety and when Joshua Holsey returns from injury in the fall, they would try him at either cornerback or the Star position.

One way-too-early prediction:

If the offense is as good as advertised, then there’s no way that Marshall won’t be invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He led all quarterbacks with 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing last season, and he’s made it a point to improve as a passer this offseason. In a league where most of the elite quarterbacks have moved on, Marshall has a chance to be special for Auburn this season.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn might have been 3-9 in 2012, but that didn’t stop the fans from piling inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for last year’s spring game. There was a record crowd of 83,401 who were on hand to welcome new coach Gus Malzahn, not thinking that he would eventually lead the Tigers to the BCS title game nine months later.

“I think [A-Day] is for the overall program,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together -- our fans, our players, our coaches. This is one of those unique opportunities. We want to make it exciting for our fans, and at the same time, we want to get better.”

The crowd could be even bigger this year with the Tigers coming off a 12-2 season and an SEC championship. Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s spring finale (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET):

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith his confidence sky high, expect Auburn QB Nick Marshall to be even better running the Tigers' high-powered offense.
1. Faster is better: The proposed “10-second” rule never made it to a vote, and that means that Auburn’s offense is only going to get faster. It took first-year quarterback Nick Marshall nearly half the season before he became comfortable in Malzahn’s offense, and even then he wasn’t as confident as he has looked this spring. The senior is making better reads, throwing the ball better and more importantly, he’s become a leader. Expect Marshall to take the hurry-up, no-huddle offense to another gear this fall, and although the spring game won’t give much away, it will give the fans a glimpse of what’s to come.

2. Juco impact: If you ask the fans, the player they most want to see Saturday would almost certainly be wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player a year ago, and there’s already talk that he could be one of the top wideouts in the SEC next season. The coaches and players alike have raved about his talent this spring, and he’ll make his debut in front of the fans this weekend. However, don’t sleep on his juco teammate Derrick Moncrief. The former Prattville (Ala.) defensive back has had as good as spring as anybody on the team and could push for a starting role in the secondary.

3. Blind side battle: Don’t expect the left tackle battle to be decided during Saturday’s spring game. The coaches have all but said they will wait until the fall before naming a starter. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth keeping an eye on. Sophomore Shon Coleman, who served as Greg Robinson's primary backup last year, might have a leg up in the race and will likely take the field with the first-team offense, but Patrick Miller, the more experienced of the two, will get his reps, too. In his first two seasons at Auburn, Miller started 14 games at right tackle, and he might see some time there depending on what the coaches do with Avery Young.

4. Health concerns: There could be some familiar faces not in action Saturday. It’s been a frustrating spring from a health standpoint, and while there haven’t been any serious injuries, there have been enough nagging injuries to force the coaches to get creative. Defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright have both worked some at end, and with LaDarius Owens out and Carl Lawson questionable, the “Rhino package” could make an appearance. Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson indicated that some of the starters who have been banged up might not get as many reps in the spring game.

5. The running backs: It was this time last year when Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer at the time, first made his mark on the Plains. He had 164 yards of offense and a touchdown in the spring game, which earned him offensive MVP honors. He’d like to duplicate that performance in this year’s game and claim the starting job, but Corey Grant won’t go down without a fight. Grant, who primarily ran the jet sweep last year, will show what he can do as a featured back. And don’t forget about redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who could wind up leading the team in carries when it’s all said and done.
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
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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
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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
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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
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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.

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