SEC: Auburn Tigers
AUBURN, Ala. -- The talk on the Plains this spring has been all about Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall and how he has improved as both a passer and a leader.
Marshall exceeded expectations last year as he guided the Tigers to 12 wins and a conference championship his first year on campus, but his completions percentage was below 60 percent and he was ninth in the league in passing yards. He was known more for his running ability, leading all SEC quarterbacks with more than 1,000 yards rushing.
On Saturday, it looked like a different player out there. Marshall came out throwing, and although it took him a minute to find his rhythm, he finished 13-of-22 for 236 yards with four touchdowns and no interceptions … all in the first half. He threw for that many yards just twice last season and never came close to that many touchdowns.
“I think he did a good job with his eyes, his progression,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “He didn’t put the ball in jeopardy.
“I think the big thing is just being more comfortable. You can see him in the pocket. He’s just more under control. His balance is good. His eyes, his progression are good. So you can tell he’s really improved.”
Hold on. Before everybody gets too excited, let’s not forget who Marshall was throwing against. It was a combination of the second-team defense and scout-team players. Former walk-on Mack VanGorder was playing safety and finished second on the team in tackles. Linebacker Michael Clifton wore No. 83 because he was a tight end last year. It’s fair to say that Auburn’s starting quarterback had a stiffer test against Florida Atlantic last year.
However, there were still plenty of positives to take away from the game, beginning with wide receiver D’haquille Williams, or Duke as they call him.
Williams arrived in January as the nation’s top junior college player, and he looked every bit the part in Saturday’s spring game. He led the team with five catches for 88 yards and made a terrific grab on a 3-yard fade route for a touchdown.
“He’s a playmaker,” Malzahn said. “There’s no doubt. He can get open. He’s one of those big, long, rangy guys that wants the football and makes a pretty good target for a quarterback.”
The wide receiver corps in general looked much improved in the spring game. Last year’s breakout star Sammie Coates has put on 15 pounds since the BCS title game and made the catch of the day with a one-handed grab in the back of the end zone. Veteran Quan Bray caught two touchdown passes from Marshall, and though he had a quiet afternoon, Ricardo Louis will be counted on again this fall.
“Our group is so tight,” Coates said. “The way we’re playing right now -- we’ve got so much talent in that room -- it’s scary. There are so many players in that room that can make plays at any time. Any time you give it to them, they’re going to make a play.”
So yes, it was an inferior defense that Auburn’s first-team offense ran the score up on, but the talent at wide receiver is there and after a slow start, Marshall played more consistently and made some throws he might not have been able to make last season. For once, he looked comfortable in the pocket.
It’s a small sample size, but if Marshall in fact proves himself as a passer this coming season, there’s nothing stopping this Auburn offense.
“We’re just helping each other get better every day,” Marshall said. “There’s no telling how good we can be on the offensive side of the ball.”
Teams that turn it over consistently don't win very often, and teams that force turnovers typically find ways to win.
Looking back at the SEC in the last three seasons, it's not surprising that Alabama and LSU lead the way in turnover margin. The Tigers are plus-36 and the Crimson Tide are plus-24 during that span. They've combined to win two of the last three SEC titles and played each other for the national championship in 2011.
Alabama has been especially good at not turning the ball over. The Crimson Tide haven’t turned it over 20 or more times in a season since 2007, Nick Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa. Alabama and LSU are the only teams in the league that haven’t had a 20-turnover season at least once over the last three years. During that three-year span, Alabama has turned it over just 44 times.
By contrast, Ole Miss has turned it over 75 times during the last three seasons, which is the most in the league. Arkansas is right behind the Rebels with 74 turnovers, and the Hogs have forced the fewest turnovers in the SEC since 2011 (47). Ole Miss and Texas A&M are the only SEC teams to turn it over more than 20 times in each of the last three seasons, although Texas A&M was a member of the Big 12 in 2011.
In the last three seasons, South Carolina's defense has led the way when it comes to creating turnovers. The Gamecocks have forced 86 turnovers. LSU is second with 82. The Gamecocks have intercepted an SEC-high 52 passes in the last three seasons. Vanderbilt is second with 48 picks during that span.
Ole Miss has thrown the most interceptions (44) in the last three seasons, just one more than Tennessee (43). Alabama has thrown the fewest picks (18).
Below is the turnover margin for all 14 SEC schools in the last three seasons. Missouri and Texas A&M were in the Big 12 in 2011.
1. LSU: 82 gained, 46 lost -- plus-36
2. Alabama: 68 gained, 44 lost -- plus-24
3. Mississippi State: 78 gained, 55 lost -- plus-23
4. South Carolina: 86 gained, 64 lost -- plus-22
5. Missouri: 77 gained, 57 lost -- plus-20
6. Georgia: 77 gained, 66 lost -- plus-11
7. Vanderbilt: 77 gained, 69 lost -- plus-8
8. Florida: 62 gained, 61 lost -- plus-1
9. Kentucky: 52 gained, 55 lost -- minus-3
10. Tennessee: 60 gained, 64 lost -- minus-4
11. Ole Miss: 67 gained, 75 lost -- minus-8
12. Auburn: 55 gained, 65 lost -- minus-10
13. Texas A&M: 53 gained, 66 lost -- minus-13
14. Arkansas: 47 gained, 74 lost -- minus-27
“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):
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.
- Ranking the SEC quarterbacks for 2014: Auburn’s Nick Marshall takes the No. 1 spot.
- Alabama running backs Kenyan Drake and Altee Tenpenny spent Thursday’s practice at the study table, a requirement if either wants to participate in the spring game.
- True freshman quarterback Rafe Peavey is climbing the depth chart at Arkansas in his first spring.
- After Thursday’s practice, the Auburn football team hosted a group of pediatric cancer patients and their families.
- Will Muschamp’s post-spring speaking tour has been part apology for last season and part promise that things will be better for his Florida team in 2014.
- Georgia wrapped up spring practice on Thursday, and the question marks on defense are as abundant as when the Bulldogs started.
- Former Kentucky quarterback Jalen Whitlow opted to transfer earlier this week. His father knows just how painful the decision was to make.
- Missouri spring game storylines: What to watch when the Tigers take the field on Saturday.
- A day after his transfer from Texas A&M was confirmed, former Aggies quarterback Matt Joeckel found a new home at TCU.
- At Tennessee, did any of the quarterbacks emerge from the pack this spring? What impact would the newcomers make? These questions answered and more.
What doesn't change, at least if you want to be good, is that you have to be able to run the ball on offense and stop the run on defense.
To the latter, I went back and looked at the recent SEC champions.
Last season, Auburn was 62nd nationally in rushing defense, the lowest any SEC champion has finished in rushing defense in the SEC championship game era. Nine of the previous 10 SEC champs had finished in the top-15 nationally in rushing defense, and six had finished in the top 10.
So, clearly, Auburn was the exception a season ago. The Tigers allowed an average of 162.1 rushing yards per game last season, the most by an SEC champion since the advent of the SEC championship game in 1992. Only three other SEC champions during the championship game era have averaged giving up more than 120 yards per game on the ground.
Prior to last season, the last seven SEC champs averaged giving up just 91.1 yards per game rushing.
Here's a look at the rush defensive numbers for all of the SEC champions going back to the first SEC championship game in 1992. Their national rank is in parentheses:
- 2013 -- Auburn (62nd) -- 162.1 yards
- 2012 -- Alabama (1st) – 76.4 yards
- 2011 -- LSU (5th) – 90.1 yards
- 2010 -- Auburn (9th) – 109.1 yards
- 2009 -- Alabama (2nd) – 78.1 yards
- 2008 -- Florida (15th) – 105.4 yards
- 2007 -- LSU (12th) – 106.1 yards
- 2006 -- Florida (5th) – 72.5 yards
- 2005 -- Georgia (52nd) 143.8 yards
- 2004 -- Auburn (12th) 104.2 yards
- 2003 -- LSU (3rd) – 67 yards
- 2002 – Georgia (19th) 114 yards
- 2001 – LSU (21st) 116.7 yards
- 2000 – Florida (39th) 133.1 yards
- 1999 – Alabama (2nd) 75.3 yards
- 1998 – Tennessee (6th) – 93.9 yards
- 1997 – Tennessee (8th) – 93.3 yards
- 1996 – Florida (18th) – 108.6 yards
- 1995 – Florida (25th) – 130.2 yards
- 1994 – Florida (5th) – 84.6 yards
- 1993 – Florida (9th) – 111.2 yards
- 1992 – Alabama (1st) – 55 yards
- After a frustrating 2013, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black is embracing his changing role under Lane Kiffin.
- Arkansas' secondary is moving on from last fall's struggles.
- Auburn coach Gus Malzahn wraps up the Tigers' final scrimmage and previews Saturday's A-Day.
- Florida defensive end/linebacker Dante Fowler Jr. is searching for consistency in 2014.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was pleased with his pro day workout.
- Quarterback Jalen Whitlow decided to transfer from Kentucky after being asked if he had any interest in moving to wide receiver.
- Missouri's trip to the AT&T Cotton Bowl last season cost $1.83 million.
- Former South Carolina cornerback Victor Hampton was arrested earlier this month for an alleged dispute with his sister.
- Athlon Sports wonders how many SEC games Texas A&M will win in 2014.
- Running backs and linebackers will be key to Vanderbilt's success this fall.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Shortly after a string of grueling 6 a.m. offseason workouts and just before spring practice began on the Plains, Auburn’s offensive players gathered together. Around the same time, the defense locked itself away, too.
There was no discussion of mutiny or complaining about the harsh offseason that was. These meetings were strictly business and about progress.
Offensive players anonymously wrote down their ideas on what it was going to take to push forward and what would hinder their growth, while defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson preached to his unit that it was much easier to build on losses than success.
“We’ve not arrived,” Tigers coach Gus Malzahn told ESPN.com in early April. “We had a really good season and we came a long way. We were 13 seconds away from winning the whole thing, and we’re trying to use all of that in a positive way moving forward and not let any of the things that come with success seep in. We have a heightened alert of it.”
More than a year removed from the dark stain that was 2012, the Tigers embark on a season in which they’ll be viewed as favorites more often than not, but they’re looking to evolve. Last year has vanished, and while it was a special season, everyone on the Plains feels something was left out in California with the loss to FSU.
Complacency isn’t an option for this year’s Auburn Tigers.
“Getting to the national championship was one of the hardest things to do,” senior defensive lineman Gabe Wright said, “but let’s face it: Getting there and then not winning it probably puts more fire in you than getting there and winning it. I know this team is highly motivated, highly driven, and that’s not coach-talk -- that’s talk in the locker room, and that’s exactly how we feel.”
Beyond hunger, this team has talent. Important pieces such as running back Tre Mason (a school-record 1,816 rushing yards and 2,374 yards of total offense), defensive end Dee Ford (10.5 sacks), cornerback Chris Davis (15 pass breakups and the Alabama kick-six) and left tackle Greg Robinson (future first-round draft pick) are gone, but the Tigers are stockpiled with more than adequate personnel.
Auburn has an All-SEC candidate quarterback in Nick Marshall, a healthy stable of running backs, older and improved receivers, and a young, yet beastly, set of defensive linemen that could be budding stars.
This team isn’t perfect, but it isn’t learning so much this spring as it is adjusting and growing. There’s less installing. Practices have been more technical than anything, with extra wrinkles being thrown in.
There’s also a healthy nucleus of veterans and youngsters who were key to last season's success, creating a great balance of camaraderie and skill.
Going 12-2 with an SEC championship and some miraculous victories set the college football world ablaze, but it hasn’t satisfied an Auburn team looking for more.
“It’s going to be tougher next year,” senior center Reese Dismukes said. “Now, everyone is going to have a target on us. You can’t let the little things slip ... you have to focus on everything being right.
“You can’t ever sleep. You gotta keep working hard and keep getting better because someone is always going to be coming after you.”
With a schedule that features trips to Kansas State, both Mississippi schools, Georgia and Alabama, Auburn will get all it can handle during its run to repeat as SEC champs. To attack that road, the no-longer-sneaky Tigers must make sure their defense can keep up with what should be another potent offense.
After allowing 466.6 yards and 29.6 points per game in conference play, Johnson described last season's defense as not very good. It gave up too many yards, had too many missed assignments, made too many adjustment mistakes, and allowed too many “cheap plays,” Johnson said.
But with the experience returning, instead of rebuilding and re-coaching, Johnson said he’s been able to work with a more comfortable group. Players know what they are doing now and aren't making the same silly mistakes that plagued them last spring and fall, which has made the defense "so much better" this spring, Johnson said.
“It’s a fine line sometimes between panic and recklessness,” Johnson said of his defense. “We’ve got to keep that recklessness and intensity if we’re going to have a chance. We’re still not one of the most talented teams in America, but we’re talented enough if we continue to focus like we did last year and keep trying hard and improving.”
It would be easy for the Tigers to rely on their talent and past success. But that's not the mindset. The mindset is that this team has so much more to show in 2014. The Tigers want to get comfortable with a championship lifestyle.
“Really and truly, I don’t think the confidence level could be too high," Wright said. "It’s not anything about overconfidence, it’s just that we don’t want to maintain to stay here. We know there’s another level to go.”
- Well and ready, Alabama wide receiver Chris Black has another opportunity to compete for playing time this spring.
- Auburn running back Peyton Barber was recently diagnosed with dyslexia, but he’s not letting that or his ADHD slow him down.
- The Bowden Triangle (Tuscaloosa to Auburn to Tallahassee) owns college football.
- Former Arkansas quarterback A.J. Derby has adjusted well to his new position with the Razorbacks this spring, catching a touchdown in Saturday’s scrimmage.
- Now that the spring game is over, the real offseason begins for Florida.
- With more and more up-tempo offenses in college football, new Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt wants a leaner, faster defense.
- The quarterback competition at Kentucky is beginning to take shape after the school announced Wednesday that former starter Jalen Whitlow is planning to transfer.
- The new NCAA rule allowing unlimited meals and snacks for college athletes was given a thumbs up by Missouri coach Gary Pinkel, who called it common sense.
- Dan Mullen’s job was safe regardless of the outcome against Ole Miss, but a last-second win over an in-state rival certainly made life easier in Starkville.
- Fresh off winning a Super Bowl, former Texas A&M running back Christine Michael recently attended prom with an autistic teen.
If the season opener was this Saturday, Auburn defensive back Joshua Holsey would be playing. It’s not, though. It’s only the spring game, and that’s why Holsey will be held out just like he has been for the majority of spring practice.
“We’re just erring on the side of caution,” defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said last month. “He’s doing some one-on-one and out there in a little bit of pass scale. If we were getting ready to line up and play next week against Arkansas, he’d be ready to go.
“He’s been playing here. He’s got two years under his belt, one year under our system. We know what he can do. We’re just kind of erring on the side of caution with him.”
If it were up to Holsey, he’d be out there with his teammates. Fellow defensive back Jermaine Whitehead said Holsey was sneaking in and taking reps on the first day of practice, and even when he’s not been out there, he’s still finding ways to help his secondary mates.
“He’s been one of the better guys as far as helping us with what he sees, what he thinks the offense is going to do,” Whitehead said.
Once fall camp rolls around, the question won’t be whether Holsey returns, it will be what position is he going to play when he does return?
As a sophomore, he started every game at boundary safety before the injury occurred. However, junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief has stepped in and found a home at the same position this spring. The newcomer has played so well that the coaches might look to move Holsey when he does return from injury.“We feel like with Holsey coming back that we’ve still got a wild card,” Johnson said Tuesday after practice. “We feel fine about the guys that went this spring, but in the back of your mind, you have to feel like Holsey was a legitimate starter. And who’s job is he going to take?
“The four that finished the spring -- [Jonathan] Jones, [Jonathon] Mincy, Whitehead and Moncrief -- all had good springs. And then Johnathan Ford, he and some of the other guys made great progress, and we’ve got confidence in them right now.
“[With] all that being said, I just have to believe that Josh Holsey will come back and probably get in the fight for a starting job. Is he going to be the boundary safety? Is he going to be a boundary corner? Where are we going to need him the most?
“We’ve got some question marks, but they’re not the type of question marks where we’re not sure who can do this. It’s more of who’s going to win that battle and who’s going to be that No. 1 guy and who’s going to be that No. 2 guy.”
Ultimately, that’s not a bad problem to have if you’re Auburn.
The secondary looked depleted at times last year, and it was never more evident than when Holsey went down midway through the season. The Tigers lost top cornerback Chris Davis and safeties Ryan Smith and Ryan White this past offseason, but when Holsey returns, they’re going to be better off than they were a year ago, regardless of his position.
- Missouri coach Gary Pinkel says the dismissal of wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham was about more than football.
- Success runs in the family for Mizzou linebacker Michael Scherer.
- Former Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray says he's "ready to go" as he prepares for Georgia's pro day.
- Auburn is having "ups and downs" at the H-back position this spring.
- Former LSU linebacker Tahj Jones' condition improves after he was shot in the abdomen last Friday.
- LSU quarterback Brandon Harris will head to California in May to train with former LSU quarterback Craig Nall and quarterback guru George Whitfield.
- Kentucky's defensive line gets some positive feedback.
- Florida safety Marcell Harris left his mark on the Gators this spring.
- Here are five young Texas A&M players who could make an impact for the Aggies in 2014.
- "Freaky talented" Tennessee wide receivers end spring on a high note.
- After early-spring criticism, Alabama coach Nick Saban assesses his defensive line entering the final week of spring practice.
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.
- No arrests will be made in the burglary investigation that involved Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham but that doesn't necessarily mean he will escape further discipline (he already is suspended indefinitely by Gary Pinkel) based on the details that have emerged.
- Meet the Bag Man: Stories from someone who claims to deliver cash to football recruits.
- Alabama linebacker Dillon Lee was arrested Thursday on a DUI charge and running back Altee Tenpenny could get a marijuana possession charge dropped if he can stay out of trouble for a year.
- Vanderbilt's spring football game may determine the leader in the quarterback battle between sophomore Patton Robinette and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary.
- Sophomore Brandon Greene and freshman Cameron Robinson are the two players battling for the right to replace Cyrus Kouandijo as Alabama's left tackle.
- Jay Prosch was a key member of Auburn's offense, so the Tigers are searching high and low for replacement candidates at H-back.
- Mississippi State unveiled new uniforms that it will wear for its season opener against Southern Miss on Aug. 30.
- Arkansas' receivers are making progress this spring, particularly Drew Morgan.
- There's a report that former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel scored highest among quarterbacks on his Wonderlic test.
- Some notes from Tennessee's final fully padded practice before its spring game on Saturday.
- Florida receiver Andre Debose is ready to show he has NFL potential in his sixth and final season.
- Steve Spurrier took in the Masters for a few hours before South Carolina's Thursday practice.
- A ranking of all 128 FBS coaches (spoiler: Nick Saban tops the list).
ESPN insider Todd McShay revealed his latest 2014 NFL mock draft on Thursday, his fourth of the draft season so far, and there is plenty of SEC representation.
Six of the top 10 picks in McShay's latest mock draft hail from the SEC, including the top two picks: Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina) and Greg Robinson (Auburn).
With less than a month away until the draft and prospects doing private workouts and meetings with teams across the country, there are plenty of shakeups in the Mock Draft 4.0.
See McShay's full mock draft here.