Auburn Tigers: Rhett Lashlee

Schedule analysis: Auburn

June, 4, 2014
Examining Auburn's 2014 schedule:

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 record)

Sept. 6: San Jose State (6-6)
[+] EnlargeMalzahn
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesA fast start could be key for Gus Malzahn and Auburn.
Sept. 18: at Kansas State (8-5)
Sept. 27: Louisiana Tech (4-8)
Nov. 22: Samford (8-5)

SEC home games

Aug. 30: Arkansas
Oct. 4: LSU
Oct. 25: South Carolina
Nov. 8: Texas A&M

SEC road games

Oct. 11: at Mississippi State
Nov. 1: at Ole Miss
Nov. 15: at Georgia
Nov. 29: at Alabama

Gut-check time: As if the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry isn’t already physical enough, this year’s game comes on the tail end of what might be the toughest four-game stretch in college football. Auburn will face three SEC contenders in three weeks, and if the Tigers can find a way to get through that unscathed, they are rewarded with a trip to Athens to take on a gritty Georgia team. It’s going to take a special effort by the defense to try and slow down Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and the rest of the Dawgs’ backfield. And if that’s not enough, there will be a revenge factor for Georgia in the game. Don’t think they forgot what happened last year.

Trap game: There’s something about those Thursday night games on ESPN. Top 10 teams always seem to fall, and Auburn is hoping it’s not the next victim when it travels to Kansas State in September. Yes, the Wildcats lost to North Dakota State last season, but they also won six of their last seven games behind a resurgent Jake Waters at quarterback. He transferred in from junior college, and similar to Nick Marshall, he’s becoming more and more comfortable with the offense. Auburn better be prepared if it hopes to leave the Little Apple with a W.

Snoozer: When Samford comes to town in November, it will be a blast from the past for Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, who coached at Samford in 2011, but outside of that, there’s not much to talk about. The headlines will be centered around the Iron Bowl the following week, and though the coaches won’t admit it, Auburn will be preparing a little early for Alabama.

Telltale stretch: The stretch of four straight SEC games beginning Oct. 25 is brutal, but we’ll know a lot more about this Auburn team at the beginning of the month when it hosts LSU and travels to Mississippi State in back-to-back weeks. The Tigers’ lone loss in the regular season last year came to LSU, and the game with Mississippi State is always close. If Auburn can win those two games and gain some momentum, we learned last year that anything can happen.

Final analysis: Auburn’s schedule is tough. Seven of the Tigers’ eight conference games are against bowl teams, and that doesn’t include a trip to Kansas State early in the season. If Jay Jacobs was hoping for some type of reward for winning the SEC a year ago, he didn’t get it. Some argue that luck was on their side last season, and whether that’s true, they’re going to need it again this season if they want to duplicate the success of last season. It’s not because there’s a lack of talent, but rather because of the schedule. Auburn could go 11-1 and get back to Atlanta for the SEC championship game or it could just as easily go 8-4. The key will be how this team starts the season. They have a lot of confidence right now, and if they can win the first four, five, or even six games, that confidence will carry over into the rest of the season. Ultimately, the game that matters most is still the Iron Bowl, and if this year is anything like the last five, the winner will have an inside track to the College Football Playoff.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn’s spring came and went without a No. 1 running back establishing himself. Is it because Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant performed so well that deciding between the two proved too difficult for the Auburn coaches?

It’s a possibility. Artis-Payne paced the offense with 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game, while Grant provided a spark with five carries for 128 yards and a touchdown of his own.

[+] EnlargeRacean Thomas
Tom Hauck for Student SportsRacean "Roc" Thomas, the No. 5 tailback in the 2014 class, was an Alabama fan before committing to play for Auburn.
A-Day capped off what had been an impressive month for both backs, though it did little to close the gap between the two.

But there might be more to it. What if the staff was waiting on a certain ESPN 300 prospect to arrive on campus before making a final decision?

It would seem crazy for a freshman to come in and take the job away from two seniors, but if you don’t think it’s possible then you haven’t seen Racean "Roc" Thomas play. As a senior at Oxford (Ala.) High School, he rushed for 2,211 yards and 32 touchdowns. He says he’s been told by Auburn coaches that he’ll have every chance to start when he gets on campus.

“They’re just ready for me to get up there and really get me in the offense and see what I can do,” Thomas told

Growing up, Thomas was an Alabama fan. He went to games at Bryant-Denny Stadium and attended camps on the UA campus. When he received an offer from Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, it was expected that he would take his talents to Tuscaloosa. At one point, he was all set to commit there -- until the staff told him to hold on.

“I was like, ‘Well, no I’m not going to hold on. If y’all want my commitment, then y’all will let me commit right now,'" Thomas said.

Alabama didn’t take his commitment, so Thomas started taking visits to Auburn where first-year coach Gus Malzahn made him a top priority. A new bond was formed, and before Malzahn ever coached his first game, Thomas committed to Auburn in what he called a “business” decision.

Shortly after Lane Kiffin was hired as Alabama’s offensive coordinator, the Crimson Tide made one last push to sign Thomas, but it proved too little too late. Thomas stayed true to his word and signed with the Tigers in February.

“I think a lot of people were surprised,” Thomas said. “And [at the same time], I think a lot of them really kind of knew that’s where I was going to go. I guess it’s just stuff that happened over time.”

With the recruiting saga behind fully him, Thomas appears more confident and at ease than he ever did in the months leading up to signing day. There are no more phone calls from coaches or media. No more criticism from Alabama fans who were upset he signed with their bitter rival. He’s just living his life.

“[It’s] just working out, track, keeping in touch with the coaches,” Thomas said. “We’re probably going to start soon where they’ll start showing me some plays and trying to get me in the mix of how they do things up there play-wise.

“I’m just really trying to keep a solid schedule -- working out, eating right and just really trying to stay healthy.”

The plan is for Thomas to arrive at Auburn this summer and immediately begin working out with the team. The coaches have high expectations for the Mr. Football Award winner. When Thomas said he’ll be given every chance to start his first season, he wasn’t lying.

Even though Artis-Payne and Grant battled dutifully for the starting job this spring, it’s possible that Auburn’s No. 1 running back is still on his way.

“We're going to play the best player at every position,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said this spring. “I don't care if you're a senior, I don't care if you're a true freshman. Those guys are going to get opportunities.”

Lashlee was careful to peel back the layers on the pending competition, however.

“The difference for them, these guys (on campus now) are light years ahead,” he said. “Obviously Cam and Corey have played, Peyton [Barber] has had a year plus the spring, so it's just going to matter with Roc and Kam [Kamryn Pettway] in that situation, how quick do they pick things up, how fast can they grasp everything and have the game slow down for them.

“We've had it both ways. We've had guys like Peyton Barber who either because we had guys in front of him or he just needed a redshirt year -- we still think Peyton's going to be a great player. And then we've had other guys in the past that as a true freshman were ready, and we kind of eased them into it. Sometimes earlier in the year they got more or as the year went on they got more or their workload increased.

“We'll have to see how that goes when those two get here and see how they respond, but we're counting on them to come in and compete, want to play and want to play now.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Cameron Artis-Payne addressed the media last week, he didn’t look like a player who was in the midst of a heated position battle. He looked at ease and confident of where he stood. And why wouldn’t he be? Spring has been kind to the second-year running back. It was when he emerged last year, and he hopes it will be when he solidifies a starting role for this fall.

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsCameron Artis-Payne is ready to carry the load in Auburn's backfield this fall.
“Who me?” Artis-Payne joked when asked about winning offensive MVP honors for the second year in a row. “I definitely got a shot at that ... I don’t think I’m going to need as many as touches as I did last year.”

Artis-Payne had 20 touches in last year’s spring game and finished with 164 yards of offense and a touchdown. It was a breakout performance that capped what was an impressive spring for the junior college transfer, and it ultimately landed him a contributing role in Auburn’s backfield this past season.

Although he gave way to Tre Mason once SEC play began, Artis-Payne still finished with 610 yards and six touchdowns in his debut on the Plains.

With Mason leaving early for the NFL, Artis-Payne is now battling fellow senior Corey Grant for the featured back role this spring, and although they are looked at as very different runners -- Artis-Payne known for his power and Grant for his speed -- there’s more than what meets the eye.

“It’s funny that we get that label,” Artis-Payne said. “A lot of people say I'm a power back, but I can run in the low 4.4 range. And Corey is one of the strongest guys on the team.”

Both players have shown they’re more than capable of carrying the load, but regardless of who wins the job, they’re both going to play in 2014 and play to their strengths.

“We complement each other very well,” Artis-Payne added. “It's something that just happens naturally. Out there on the field, it's just a change of pace with a guy like Corey. He's literally a home-run threat every time he touches the ball. And then you've got a guy like me that grinds away the defense. It's just a good thing to have.”

Earlier this spring, Artis-Payne admitted that he was eager for a resolution and wanted to know who the starter would be, but there has been no indication to this point as to who will win the job or when it will be announced. That’s up to head coach Gus Malzahn and his staff.

“Everybody wants to be the guy, so from that aspect of course [I want to know],” Artis Payne said. “But at the end of the day, that's out of my hands. We just need to go out there and keep working, and when he feels like it's time for a decision to be made, he'll make it.”

The uncertainty certainly hasn’t affected Artis-Payne this spring. He has practiced with that same confidence he had last spring and the same confidence that carried over into the season. He’s not concerned with what’s going on around him. He’s just putting in the work.

“Love it,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said of Artis-Payne’s confidence this spring. “Cam's a pro. Cam was a pro last year. He practices like a pro. What that means is he comes to meetings every day. He's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's always attentive. He's always trying to get better.

“I've got a lot of confidence that Cam will do everything we ask him to do -- carrying the ball, protections -- and really do a good job.”

The running back battle could go the way of the left tackle battle and spill over into the fall, but Artis-Payne is hoping -- no, confident -- he will put an end to it Saturday with another MVP-caliber performance in the spring game.
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.
AUBURN, Ala. -- When Nick Marshall sat in the film room and watched last year’s tape with offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, he saw all of his flaws. He wasn’t making the right reads. He was handing the ball off when he should’ve kept it. He was overthrowing his wide receivers or throwing it behind them. He was tentative at times, afraid to make a mistake.

He didn’t look ready.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Soobum Im/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's coaches are looking for significant improvement in Nick Marshall's completion percentage.
To his defense, Marshall showed up at Auburn over the summer and had very little time to learn the offense. He had his natural abilities, but playing for Gus Malzahn in the SEC was a far cry from his days of playing in junior college.

“If somebody could go out there and try to play quarterback for us I think it would blow their mind,” Malzahn said. “Just pre-snap what they have to do, communication, get everything straight before they even look at the defense. There’s a lot to it.”

After watching tape from earlier games against LSU and Texas A&M, Lashlee fast forwarded to the Tennessee game. It was like night and day. Marshall completed his first two passes, and midway through the first quarter, he dropped back, went through his progressions, looked off a safety and threw a gorgeous touchdown pass to C.J. Uzomah.

Those turned out to be his only three completions in the game, but you could see the poise, the moxie. He was confident again and in control of the offense.

Two months later, Marshall had maybe his best game passing of the season when Auburn played Florida State in the BCS title game. He went 14-of-27 for 217 yards with two touchdowns and one interception in a 34-31 loss to Seminoles. The quarterback who showed up that game looked completely different than the one who was missing throws early in the season.

Fast forward again. Spring practice has started for the Tigers, and the quarterback who sits in the film room with Lashlee is even further along than the one who lost in Pasadena. It’s only been a week, but Marshall already looks like he’s in midseason form.

“It's just the way he's carrying himself,” Malzahn said. “You can tell he's getting more comfortable, and the game's a lot slower for him. He’s had a solid first week.”

As the game slows down, Marshall’s passing picks up. He missed his fair share of deep balls last season, but according to his receivers, he’s been putting them on the money this spring. He’s also been crisper on the short routes and looks more comfortable in the pocket.

“I’m seeing an NFL-caliber quarterback right now, and it’s just the spring,” senior receiver Quan Bray said. “He’s making throws that he wasn’t making last year.”

“Nick’s throwing the ball real good,” fellow target Sammie Coates added. “It’s going to be a shock to the world what he’s going to do when he puts it all together.”

It’s not like running the ball didn’t work for Auburn last year. The Tigers led the nation in rushing, and their offense carried them all the way to the national championship game. However, with an experienced Marshall and a talented group of skill players around him, Malzahn expects his quarterback to throw it more this fall.

“Nick's a very talented player, not just running, he can really throw it,” Malzahn said. “I know I said that a lot during the fall, but now that he's got a spring, he'll be more comfortable, more reactive and we feel very good about him throwing the football."

Just because Marshall was known more for his rushing abilities last season doesn’t mean he doesn’t enjoy throwing it. He threw for 3,142 yards the year before while in junior college.

But the goal is not just to have Marshall throw it more. The goal is to have him throw it more and throw it at a higher completion rate. Last week, Lashlee said he wants his quarterback to complete between 65 and 70 percent of his throws. That would be a significant improvement from a year ago when Marshall had a 59.4 completion percentage.

“It’s a goal,” Marshall said. “It should be a goal. The expectations for us are high this year. I’m just going to do what the [coaches] tell me and complete the passes like they want me to. I’ll go through all my progressions and not turn the ball over.”

The expectations are high for Auburn this year, and its success rides on both the legs and the arm of its quarterback. The Tigers will go where Marshall takes them.

SEC's lunch links

March, 24, 2014
The talk around the SEC today is how three teams from the conference -- Florida, Kentucky and Tennesse -- reached the round of 16 in the NCAA men's basketball tournament. And this was supposed to be a down year for the league.

But we're here to discuss football. Let's take a look at what's happening around the league:

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee says Tigers quarterback Nick Marshall is talented enough to play the position in the NFL.

LSU linebacker Kendell Beckwith is relishing his new role after playing defensive end as a freshman.

Now healthy, quarterback Brandon Allen is preparing for a position battle at Arkansas.

Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell -- attempting to return from a torn ACL from last season -- suffered another injury last week, although the Bulldogs' medical staff says he'll be back in time for August practices.

South Carolina offensive lineman Na'Ty Rodgers could face suspension after his alcohol-related arrest from early Sunday.

The defense had the edge in Vanderbilt's spring scrimmage on Saturday.

Alabama's players like what new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin is teaching thus far.

Jeff Driskel looked sharp working with the first-team offense in Florida's practice on Saturday, according to the Gainesville Sun's Robbie Andreu.

With Missouri's team on spring break, here is a spring practice reset from the Columbia Daily Tribune.
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Auburn running back Tre Mason nearly quit football as a kid. In fact, the Tigers' Heisman Trophy finalist didn't play his freshman year of high school.

He had his heart set on a basketball career.

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsTre Mason has run wild this season for Auburn, but at one point in high school thought about giving up football to focus on basketball.
"I stopped playing football in eighth grade and was like, ‘I’m done. I’m going to play basketball,'" Mason said Thursday. "But I went to a game in the ninth grade and said, 'I think I could do this. I think I could dominate.'"

With 1,621 rushing yards and a school-record 22 touchdowns this season, Mason has been nothing short of dominant. He needs 166 rushing yards in Monday's VIZIO BCS National Championship against Florida State to pass Bo Jackson as Auburn's single-season record holder.

It's a good thing for the Tigers that he ditched his hoops plans.

"I was young and had this dream of playing basketball, but the reality was that I wasn’t 6-8," Mason said.

SEC Seminoles?

Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, asked Thursday if the Seminoles could have made it through the SEC this season without a loss, would have welcomed that challenge.

And for the record, he also would have liked the Seminoles' chances.

"We believe we're the No. 1 team in the country," Joyner said. "We believe that in our heart. We wouldn't come out and be disrespectful to a lot of other teams. But with the things we've accomplished this year, everything speaks for itself. So, hopefully, we would have been able to do the same thing.

"But me being a part of this Florida State organization, if we were in the SEC, I'd say we'd do what we do."

The Seminoles are looking to become only the third team since 1950 to win all of its games by at least 14 points. The last to do it was Utah in 2004. The other was national champion Nebraska in 1995.

Too close to call

How good (and how talented) is this Florida State team on defense?

Good enough that linebacker Telvin Smith thinks Florida State's defense would shut out the Florida State offense. For the record, the Seminoles enter Monday's game leading the country in both scoring offense and scoring defense.

Joyner chuckled confidently when told of Smith's claim.

"Some things, you never know," Joyner said. "It’s a good thing to be able to say that, knowing that we won’t have to. Some things you just want to leave that way. We have a lot of talent on both ends.

"Let’s just say it would probably be a national championship game if it was our defense versus our offense."

SEC ties top friendship

Even when close friends are involved, there's apparently an SEC brotherhood that's sacred.

Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt joked that Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart wasn't sharing a lot of secrets concerning Auburn. Pruitt and Smart are friends and worked together at Alabama before Pruitt took the FSU coordinator job.

"Kirby has kind of taken the stance of, 'We’re friends, but …'" Pruitt said. "They’ve still got that SEC thing going. There’s some pride there."

Ties that bind

Auburn co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach Dameyune Craig recruited Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston to Florida State. He was integral in luring the nation’s top quarterback to Tallahassee, where he spent the past three seasons as FSU’s quarterbacks coach and recruiting coordinator.

Now, Craig’s biggest recruit will be lined up against him on college football’s biggest stage.

While Craig hasn’t spoken publicly about his relationship with Winston, the personal ties to Florida State haven’t been lost on his current players.

"It means a lot to him," said Auburn tight end C.J. Uzomah. "We know it means a lot to him. We knew that he was really close with all those guys, especially Jameis. He even said something about him at the Heisman ceremony, so we know this game means a lot to him, for sure."

Better than Bama

Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Florida State’s defense is comparable to Alabama’s -- and might be even better.

"Honestly, you look at the features, and Alabama might have a little bit bigger guys up front, but not much," Lashlee said. "These guys are extremely quick and active. … Alabama was younger was in the secondary. Their corners are really good players, obviously Joyner is a difference-maker. There are a lot of similarities as far as the talent, I think they’re right there with them. Who knows? We’ll find out, they might be better."

Well, that makes sense

Pruitt spent the past three seasons as an assistant at Alabama, but he’s got no problem trying to help end the SEC’s streak of seven national titles.

"I’d like to end it for sure," he said.


"Oh, shoot, because I’m on this side and they’re on that side."
NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner knows all about Auburn wide receiver and Miami native Ricardo Louis -- the Noles recruited him. And Joyner has done his homework on sophomore receiver Sammie Coates, who is third in the country in yards per catch (22.1) and averages 54.1 yards per touchdown reception.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertWhile Auburn is known for its rushing attack, Nick Marshall is completing 60 percent of his passes and has FSU's attention.
So while the rest of the country is seemingly wrapped up in Auburn’s nation-leading ground game -- and deservedly so -- Florida State’s secondary isn’t sleeping on the Tigers' ability to throw the ball. There's no question Auburn's strength is up front and in its running game, which averages 335.7 yards per game, but to the Seminoles, the difference will be their ability to force the Tigers to throw and get them into long yardage situations.

"That's the key to the game," Joyner said. "That’s key. That front seven has been tremendous for us all season, and we need them to do one more for this last game. [The Tigers] have a lot of great talent up front themselves. Their O-line is pretty good. I see a lot of those guys playing on Sunday. And we have a lot of guys who can play on Sunday in our front seven. It’s a clash of the beasts. … We need them to do more so the pretty boys in the back in the secondary can get a little shine."

It's already glowing.

Florida State leads the FBS with 25 interceptions and ranks third with 34 takeaways. Still, they're going to have to make the most of their opportunities against Auburn.

Auburn threw it only 11 times in the SEC title game against Missouri, and only 16 times against Alabama. Quarterback Nick Marshall, who has 1,023 rushing yards this season, had seven pass attempts against Tennessee, and eight against Arkansas. Overall this season, Auburn has run on 71 percent of its plays, the highest percentage for any non-triple option offense in the FBS.

"We obviously haven't thrown as much the second half of the season as we did the first," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said, "but never was there an instance I thought it was because we couldn't or didn't want to, it was simply because you're going to go with what's working."

Not that their play-action passing game doesn’t work.

Just ask Georgia, which was stunned by Marshall’s 73-yard game-winning touchdown pass to Louis on fourth-and-18 with just 25 seconds left.

"I think Marshall has as good of arm talent as anybody in the country," FSU defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt said. "He can flat-foot throw it 80-some yards. A couple of throws he's made, especially down the stretch here, have been very accurate.

"The big thing is they've been throwing it when they want to throw it. They've been dictating to everybody else. I think it's important to get them behind the sticks early on and get them in some long yardage situations, but I'm sure that's what everybody's game plan has been, and they haven't had a whole lot of success doing it."

Florida State, obviously, hopes to change that.

Planning for success: Auburn

December, 5, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- On Monday, Gus Malzahn said Nick Marshall's name deserves to be in the mix for the Heisman Trophy, but where’s the love for Tre Mason? The Auburn running back leads the SEC with 1,317 yards rushing and 18 touchdowns. The last four players to lead the conference in rushing were all invited to New York as a finalist.

“He is a hard-nosed runner, a very physical runner,” Malzahn said. “To get the rushing yards he did against the team last week, that’s rare and he deserves a lot of credit.”

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Phil Ellsworth/ESPN ImagesTre Mason has flown under the Heisman radar despite rushing for over 1,300 yards this season.
Mason rushed for 164 yards and a touchdown against the SEC’s top rushing defense. Only two backs have rushed for more yards against Alabama in the last decade. It was an impressive performance, but one that will have to be duplicated this weekend in the SEC championship.

The Tigers face a Missouri defense that’s ranked No. 2 in the league against the run. The last player to rush for 100 yards against Missouri was Toledo running back David Fluellen back in week two, but Mason hopes to end that streak on Saturday.

“With a great running back like him, you get him started and good things are going to happen,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “That’s our challenge this week because of the way Missouri’s defensive line is -- they’re very disruptive -- we’re going to have to be as good as ever up front of staying on those down guys, giving him a chance.”

Mason has rushed for at least 100 yards in four straight games and six of Auburn’s eight SEC games this season.

What Auburn needs to do to win: The fans would appreciate it if Auburn didn’t have to resort to a long, miraculous touchdown in the final minute to win Saturday, but they will take a win any way they can get it. The obvious key on offense will be to run the football, but it’s also important to stay out of long down-and-distance situations. Missouri likes to pin its ears back and come after the quarterback. If Auburn can pick up positive yards on first and second down, it will make third down that much easier. On defense, it comes down to preventing big plays. Auburn failed to do that against Alabama, and it nearly cost it the game. Missouri has a talented group of playmakers at the wide receiver position.

Players to watch

OT Avery Young: The redshirt freshman has improved each week and solidified his spot at right tackle, but he will have his hands full on Saturday with Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Sam leads the SEC in both sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18.5).

CB Chris Davis: What could Davis possibly do for an encore? It’s doubtful he gets another chance to return a field goal this weekend, but more importantly, he’ll be asked to cover either L'Damian Washington or Dorial Green-Beckham for Missouri, a tall order.


“It’s going to be tough. We may have to put some elevator heels on them or something. What are you going to do? They’re not going to grow two inches before Saturday.” -- defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson on the challenge ahead for Auburn’s cornerbacks
OPELIKA, Ala. -- When you grow up in Alabama, it’s either Roll Tide or War Eagle. There’s no in between, and there’s certainly no love lost between the two in-state rivals. That’s what makes the Iron Bowl rivalry so unique.

“I think the Alabama-Auburn game is one of the great rivalries in college football,” Opelika High School coach Brian Blackmon said. “I think the history of the game speaks for itself, and there are very few fence riders in Alabama. Most of them are on one side or the other. You’d have a hard time finding somebody, especially this week, saying they don’t care who wins.”

Stephen Roberts
Greg Ostendorf/ESPNESPN 300 defensive back Stephen Roberts flipped his commitment from Alabama to Auburn last week.
It’s no different for the state’s top football recruits. It’s rare to see an ESPN 300 recruit from the state go anywhere but Alabama or Auburn, but it’s even more rare to see an Alabama fan commit to Auburn or vice versa.

That’s why Opelika defensive back Stephen Roberts, who is ranked No. 69 in the ESPN 300, caught a lot of people off guard when he committed to the Crimson Tide in the spring.

Sure, Alabama had just won its second consecutive national championship, and coach Nick Saban has a reputation for sending defensive backs to the next level. But Roberts grew up an Auburn fan. He lives just a hop, skip and a jump away from the AU campus.

“For a kid like Stephen that grew up going to Auburn University and watching them play, it was really kind of a surprise in the spring when he decided he was going to Alabama,” Blackmon said.

But the Auburn coaches, specifically offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee, stayed on him. They continued to recruit the ESPN 300 target.

“They didn’t quit,” Roberts said. “Even though I was committed to Alabama, they didn’t drop my scholarship or anything. It kind of felt like I was still part of them.”

The efforts paid off. Roberts attended Auburn’s camps over the summer. He has been to every home game this season, including the Tigers' dramatic win over Georgia their last time out. He said it was the loudest he had ever heard Jordan-Hare Stadium when Ricardo Louis pulled in the game-winning touchdown grab from Nick Marshall.

Roberts has been a part of Auburn’s miraculous turnaround every step of the way, and last week, he decided he wanted to be a part of the future, too. He flipped his commitment from Alabama to Auburn, a decision that looked more and more plausible with every Tigers victory.

“I basically wanted to see what they were going to do this year,” Roberts said. “They kind of showed what they were going to do, and even though they only lost one game, they’re still rising.”

Auburn has risen all the way to No. 4 in the latest BCS standings, and whether it was Roberts’ decision to flip or the recent come-from-behind win against Georgia, the Tigers seem to have all the momentum heading into Saturday’s matchup with No. 1 Alabama. But do they have what it takes to topple the Tide?

Regardless of which side you’re on, it’s setting up to be one of the all-time great games in this series, and Auburn’s new four-star commitment will be on hand to see it. It will be his first Iron Bowl experience.

“There’s nothing like it,” Roberts said. “It’s going to be a good game between both teams because both teams play hard.

“It’s always been a big rivalry since I was little. I think I’ve been knowing about it since I first started playing football. I remember watching Trent Richardson on TV one day -- he was talking about when he came to Alabama, he didn’t know Auburn was a big rival coming from where he came from. I know it’s big. It’s always been big.”

So when it comes to picking a side Saturday, Roberts has already made his choice.

Marshall faces his past against UGA

November, 12, 2013
AUBURN, Ala. -- Nick Marshall sat in the visitor’s locker room at Tennessee after the Tigers had just dismantled the Volunteers on the road. He had rushed for a career-high 214 yards with a pair of touchdowns. And yet, he was already fielding questions about next Saturday’s showdown with Georgia.

It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, though. He knew the questions would come. And he also knew how to answer them.

“I’m not going to treat it as anything too big because it’s just another opponent,” Marshall said.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIDespite missing a game due to injury, Nick Marshall leads Auburn in passing and is second on the team in rushing.
It’s been that way all season for Marshall and this Auburn team. No opponent is bigger than another. No game is bigger than another. They are focused on improving each and every week which is part of the reason why they’re 9-1 and ranked No. 7 in the latest BCS standings.

But because of Marshall’s checkered past, Saturday’s game will be different.

Marshall signed with Georgia out of high school and played one season at defensive back with the Bulldogs before he was dismissed from the team for a violation of team rules in February 2012. Now, he’ll go head-to-head against players that used to be his teammates. He’ll also have to confront a part of his life that he’s worked so hard to put behind him.

“He has to keep the emotions as in check,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said.

“One thing Nick has done very well is stay even. When things are really good, he's level-headed. When things are bad, like the other day when we had the pick-six, two plays later he's running a 40-yard touchdown run. He does a good job of moving on and not letting things bother him.”

Marshall has been that way since high school. That’s why Wilcox County coach Mark Ledford believes his former quarterback will be more than ready to take on the Bulldogs.

“Knowing Nick, I look for him to stay the same calm, cool Nick that he’s been,” Ledford said. “I know it may be tough to do that out there on the field Saturday, but I think it’s just going to be him. The importance of this game is way more important that any personal feelings about the opposing team.”

There is indeed a lot at stake for Auburn on Saturday. With a victory, the Tigers are one step closer to winning the SEC West with just the Iron Bowl ahead. Regardless of the outcome against the Tide, Auburn is still in a favorable position for a BCS at-large berth.

But No. 25 Georgia comes first. A loss to the Bulldogs would likely knock Auburn out of the top 10, and the Iron Bowl would lose some of its luster.

That’s a lot of pressure for a 21-year-old kid. But that’s the reason Marshall chose to play at Auburn. It’s the same reason he signed with Georgia out of high school. He wanted to play in the SEC. He wanted to play in these types of games.

“He always knew what games he needed to turn it up for,” Ledford said. “He always could seem to hit another gear in some of the big ones and the rivalry games.”

Saturday’s clash with Georgia certainly qualifies. Not only is it the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry, but there’s added motivation for Marshall going against his old team. Marshall’s adrenaline might be pumping a little extra before kickoff, but the true test will come with how he manages his emotions when he is on the field.

“Warmups may be a little different for him,” Lashlee said. “He may have a little added incentive here or there, but once the game starts, it's going to be like every other game. It really is.”

Auburn has been reserved with Marshall since he arrived on campus. Marshall had to compete hard for the starting quarterback job and kept him from the media early in the season. And when he got hurt, the Tigers weren’t afraid to turn to freshman Jeremy Johnson.

But Saturday is Marshall’s game. It’s his chance in the spotlight. It will also be an opportunity to show how far he’s come and turn the page on his past.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Gus Malzahn might have been born in Texas, but he spent the majority of his life in nearby Arkansas.

[+] EnlargeMitch Mustain, Gus Malzahn
John Reed/USA TODAY SportsCurrent Auburn coach Gus Malzahn returns to Arkansas this weekend, and his Tigers have a lot at stake in this matchup.
The first-year head coach in the SEC attended Fort Smith (Ark.) Christian High School. He walked on to the University of Arkansas as a wide receiver but transferred to Henderson State after two seasons. He coached 15 years of high school football in his home state before becoming the Razorbacks’ offensive coordinator in 2006, his first college job.

After coaching stints with Tulsa and Auburn, Malzahn returned home in 2012 when he accepted the head-coaching position at Arkansas State. He led the Red Wolves to a 9-3 record and the Sun Belt championship (he did not coach their bowl win over Kent State).

It came as no surprise that Malzahn’s name came up when his alma mater was searching for a new coach after last season. He had interviewed at Arkansas once before, following Houston Nutt’s departure, but the job went to Bobby Petrino. This time, the Razorbacks passed on him in favor of Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema.

On the same day, Bielema was hired in Fayetteville, Ark., Malzahn was introduced as Auburn’s new coach.

Now, nearly 11 months later, Malzahn is 7-1 and has the Tigers in control of their own destiny in the SEC West, while Bielema has yet to win an SEC game. On Saturday, the two will meet for the first time as head coaches.

“Right now, with where are going each week, we’re trying to do everything in our power to win,” Malzahn said. “It doesn’t make any difference if we are going to Arkansas or going to [Texas] A&M or anywhere else. There’s enough to it without anything else added to it.”

But don’t think Malzahn didn’t have this game circled on the calendar when he took over on the Plains. It’s his fourth trip back to Fayetteville since leaving in 2006, and he’s yet to win as an opposing coach inside Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, losing twice at Auburn (2009 and 2011) and once at Tulsa (2008).

However, Malzahn isn’t want to let his emotions get the best of him or his team.

“Coach is old-school,” Auburn defensive end Dee Ford said. “He’s going to treat it like another game. I don’t think he’s going to worry about anything as far as personally for him. I think he’s going to treat it like an SEC game, and he knows how important this four-game stretch is. It’s just like any other SEC game to him.”

Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee knows Malzahn better than anybody. He’s been his right-hand man since the two were at Springdale (Ark.) High School together nearly a decade ago.

“Coach is pretty locked in all the time,” Lashlee said. “I would think these next several weeks are going to be pretty amped-up no matter what. Let’s be honest, it’s a place we’re from and we’ve been before. It’s a big game, but it’s a big game because we have a lot of opportunity out in front of us.

“I have known coach, and back in high school it didn’t matter who we were playing, he prepared the same way. That’s what I anticipate we’ll do.”

Malzahn and Lashlee aren’t the only two coaches who will have more friends and family in attendance than normal come Saturday. It’s also a homecoming for running backs coach Tim Horton and offensive line coach J.B. Grimes, who both coached for Arkansas at one time or another during their careers.

“I’ve been there and done it before,” Malzahn said. “Those guys, a lot of them haven’t. We hadn’t really talked about it. We’ve been focused on preparing and trying to give our guys the best chance of being successful.”

There will continue to be plenty of talk this week surrounding Malzahn’s return. Regardless of what he says, there’s going to be extra emotion leading up to the game. But come Saturday, it’s about winning the next game on the schedule.

That would make for the perfect homecoming.
After leaving Saturday’s game early with a shoulder injury, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall returned to practice Sunday and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee indicated that he “should be OK” to play this weekend at Arkansas.

“He’s sore, but he’s a tough kid,” Lashlee said. “Everything, from me knowing about him and what we know so far, tells me he should be OK.”

Marshall left the Florida Atlantic game early in the second quarter when he was sacked. However, he injured the shoulder on a prior play when he tried to throw off a defender before going out of bounds. Lashlee said the coaches had a talk with him about avoiding those types of plays in the future.

Auburn still won the game easily as backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson stepped in and played well for the Tigers. The freshman signal-caller finished 10 of 16 for 192 yards with two touchdowns and one interception. He started and made his collegiate debut two weeks ago against Western Carolina when Marshall sat out with a knee injury.

“I think it went well,” Lashlee said. “It was kind of the same plan. Jeremy was going to get into the game regardless of what happened. When he was able to step right in, I felt like we didn’t miss a beat. I felt like he played well.”

Lashlee said the team has confidence in both quarterback going forward.

Planning for success: Auburn Tigers

October, 17, 2013
When it comes to scoring, the magic number for Auburn is 30. The Tigers have won 81 consecutive games when scoring 30 or more points. Their last loss where they've scored that much came to Georgia in 1996, when they lost 56-49 in quadruple overtime.

The offense knows it will probably have score at least 30 points Saturday if it wants to upset No. 9 Texas A&M.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsNick Marshall is expected to return from injury this weekend against Texas A&M, giving Auburn a shot in the arm.
“We know it’s a team game,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “I know Coach [Ellis] Johnson and our defense will have a great plan. We’re playing a Heisman Trophy winner and one of the best players in recent history in college football. There is no secret about that.

“We’ve got to do our part and score points and help our defense out. It goes hand-in-hand, and that’s how football is. It’s just like every week. We know we need to have our A game.”

Auburn will have quarterback Nick Marshall back directing the offense Saturday. He missed the Western Carolina due to a knee injury, but he’s expected to start against the Aggies.

What Auburn needs to do to win: It starts with the offense and its ability to control the tempo. It obviously has to score points, but more importantly, it needs to be able to string together some drives and keep the defense off the field. Auburn leads the SEC in rushing, and all three running backs will have an opportunity to pick up yards against a struggling Texas A&M defense. Meanwhile, the Auburn defense knows it’s not going to stop the Aggies, but it has to continue to create turnovers and hold up in the red zone.

Players to watch

RB Tre Mason: The return of Marshall will be intriguing, but when the first-year quarterback struggled on the road at LSU, it was Mason who carried the load. The veteran back rushed for 132 yards and two touchdowns on 26 carries. If he can deliver a similar performance Saturday against Texas A&M, it will make like much easier for Marshall.

CB Chris Davis: Despite missing two games due to injury this season, Davis has emerged as Auburn’s top cornerback. That means he’ll likely have to cover Texas A&M star Mike Evans, a matchup he says he’s looking forward to. Davis is also expected to take back his role as the team’s punt returner on Saturday.

“I would say those two are probably two of the best to ever play the game in college football. We only got a chance to see Cam Newton for one year, but this guy (Manziel) is in the same element. They are different, but they are some of the best to ever play.” -- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn on the comparison between Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel

AUBURN, Ala. -- Freshman quarterback Jeremy Johnson threw four touchdown passes on Saturday, earning SEC Freshman of the Week honors, but Auburn will turn the team back over to Nick Marshall this weekend when it visits Texas A&M, coach Gus Malzahn said.

Marshall started the first five games for the Tigers but missed the Western Carolina game due to a minor knee injury he suffered the week before.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Gerald HerbertQuarterback Nick Marshall will return to the starting lineup for the Tigers at Texas A&M.
“I want to make it clear -- Nick Marshall is our starting quarterback,” Malzahn said after the game. “When Nick is 100 percent, he will be back.”

It sounds like Marshall is back to 100 percent. When asked if he would be the guy this week, Malzahn responded with a simple, “Yes.” The dual-threat quarterback practiced Sunday with the team, and the staff has full confidence in him.

“He was locked in during practice last week,” Malzahn said. “He practice Sunday and looked good. He’s got another week of practice, and we’re past the midway point. If it was early in the season, I’d be concerned, but I’m not too concerned now.”

Through five games, Marshall had thrown for 902 yards and four touchdowns. Before he got hurt, he rushed for a career-high 140 yards and two touchdowns against Ole Miss, showing his improvement in the ability to run the read-option.

The injury doesn’t change anything, however. The game plan remains the same for Texas A&M.

“The good thing was (Sunday), he got to go out there and take every rep, take every drop, make every throw,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “If we ran a read zone or anything like that, he was able to do all those things. I would expect him to be able to get all the reps he needs this week with the specific gameplan.”

With Marshall back, where does that leave Johnson? The talented signal-caller played well Saturday, but he has lost his redshirt and h has been relegated to the sideline again. In turn, there have been plenty of questions surrounding the coaches’ decision to play Johnson.

“We just felt like it was best for our team this year, it was best best for our team in the long run, and really, it was best for Jeremy at this point, to get some game experience to be able to help us,” Lashlee said. “Not only the rest of this year, but in the future.”

Also, if Marshall were to go down this weekend at Texas A&M, the staff didn’t want Johnson’s first meaningful reps to be on the road, in a hostile environment like Kyle Field.

And just because Marshall is the quarterback, that doesn’t mean that Johnson won’t be used in some capactity going forward.

“I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of him having some roles moving forward,” Lashlee said. “It wasn’t just for one game. He’s got to be ready as the backup, and he’s also got to be ready, maybe, in other unique roles and situations.”

“We don’t want to give all of our secrets away, but he will be used from game to game,” Malzahn added. “We’ll try to have him in different packags or any way to help us be successful.”

It will be Marshall’s team on Saturday, though. He struggled in his first road game at LSU, but he’s looking for redemption against the Aggies.


Peach State: Top Tier Recruiting Ground?
California, Florida and Texas are largely considered the "Big Three" in college football recruiting. But national recruiting analyst Gerry Hamilton joins ESPN's Phil Murphy to explain why Georgia deserves to be in the top tier and has numbers to prove it.