NCF Nation: Chad Slade

Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. Today’s matchup is between Auburn’s offensive line and Florida State’s defensive line.

Auburn’s offensive line: We’ve broken down all of the matchups this week, but as Auburn center Reese Dismukes put so eloquently Thursday, “You can have all the pretty boys you want, but whoever wins the line of scrimmage all day is usually going to be who wins the football game.” If that’s the case, the Tigers are in good shape. They feature one of the most dominant offensive lines in the country. It’s the reason they’re in Pasadena, Calif.

[+] EnlargeTimmy Jernigan
Melina Vastola/USA TODAY SportsFSU nose tackle Timmy Jernigan is a force inside, and how well the Tigers do against him could determine how well they run the ball.
Dismukes, a three-year starter, is the anchor of the group. He was a finalist for the Rimington Trophy, awarded to the top center in college football, and although it’s not an official stat, he leads the team in knockdowns. The matchup between him and Florida State nose tackle Timmy Jernigan won’t just be a battle in the trenches -- it will be a war.

From a pure talent standpoint, sophomore left tackle Greg Robinson has emerged as the best player on this Auburn offensive line. He started last year but was still relatively unknown heading into this season. He’s quickly become a star in the SEC, and he continues to improve his draft stock with every game.

Junior Chad Slade doesn’t get the notoriety, but he’s been as solid as it gets for the Tigers. He moved from right tackle to right guard and hasn’t missed a beat. The other two spots are taken by a pair of redshirt freshman, Alex Kozan and Avery Young. Kozan was named to the freshman All-SEC team for his play at left guard.

If Auburn wants to knock off No. 1 Florida State, this is the matchup it has to win. The Tigers have rushed for an average of 402 yards over the past four games, and it’s in no small part due to the play of the offensive line.

Florida State’s defensive line: This is a much different defensive front than what the Seminoles ran in three years under Mark Stoops. When Jeremy Pruitt took over at defensive coordinator this season, he had four new starters on the line and completely revamped the scheme. It’s been something of a work in progress all season, but the Seminoles believe the unit is playing its best football now.

Jernigan is a beast in the middle of the line, and he’ll be a huge challenge for an Auburn team that wants to play physical and run between the tackles. Seminoles opponents are averaging just 3.1 yards per rush between the tackles and fewer than 9 percent of runs up the middle go for 10 yards or more. Jernigan also leads FSU’s defensive linemen in sacks (4.5) and tackles for loss (10.5).

Eddie Goldman and Mario Edwards Jr. add plenty of size to the mix on the D-line, too, while Christian Jones and FSU’s safeties will be counted on to seal the edge, which is where the defense is far more vulnerable. Across the board, Auburn’s O-line figures to be as big a physical challenge as Florida State has faced all season, and with the tempo that the Tigers run, it could be tough for FSU to substitute as often as it would like.

There’s ample talent on the line for Florida State, but this figures to be as tough a matchup as the unit has faced.

Ostendorf: Edge Auburn

Hale: Slight edge for Auburn
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, considered one of the SEC’s top pass rushers with 8.5 sacks this season, has faced some of the top offensive lines in the conference, but he says there are none better than his own. And he should know. He goes against them for 20 to 25 minutes straight every day in practice.

“It’s just the way we work,” Ford said. “We push each other. I don’t think they’ve faced a defensive line as good as ours because we push each other to that limit every day. At times where you think you would lay off a little bit, we don’t. We’re still going at it, whether it’s run fits or pass rush. We go at it.”

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne, Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade
Derick E. Hingle/USA TODAY SportsReese Dismukes, left, and Chad Slade, right, have helped anchor a stellar offensive line for Auburn.
It’s that drive that has turned what many thought would be a weakness into Auburn’s biggest strength this season.

The Tigers lead the nation in rushing, averaging 335.7 yards per game. They rushed for an SEC-championship-game-record 545 yards against Missouri their last time out. Throw in the fact that they have only given up 16 sacks after allowing a league-high 37 a year ago, and it’s easy to see why they’re one of the nation’s best offensive lines.

It helps to have players like Nick Marshall and Tre Mason in the backfield, and Gus Malzahn’s system certainly plays a major role in the success. But it starts with the O-line.

“Any time you can run the football and people know you are going to run the football against the defenses we have, the offensive line deserves a lot of credit,” Malzahn said.

When the first-year head coach arrived at Auburn, he knew right away the offensive line would be one of the team’s strengths. It didn’t matter how bad the unit looked at times in 2012; the Tigers had three starters returning and plenty of depth to go around. It was up to the new coaching staff to give them their edge back.

“Auburn is blue-collar, hard-nosed, physically and mentally tough,” Malzahn said. “That is who we are and that is how we win football games here. That is how they have done it for a long time. That is the one thing we realized that we have to get back. That is what we focused on.”

The practices changed. The drills changed. The Tigers became as physical as any team in the country, beginning last spring. They were one of the only teams to let the quarterbacks go live during fall camp. There were some injuries along the way, but now Auburn is sitting at 12-1 and headed to the VIZIO BCS National Championship.

“Any time you get to this game, you’re going to be pretty good up front with your offensive line,” Malzahn said. “In 2010, we had a veteran group, one of the strengths of our team. This year is no different.”

It comes as no surprise that the development of the offensive line has had a direct correlation to Auburn’s turnaround this season.

Left tackle Greg Robinson has emerged as a potential first-round draft pick with his play this season. Chad Slade, who moved from right tackle to right guard, has been a constant all year. Alex Kozan and Avery Young, the two newcomers to the group, have both exceeded expectations, with Kozan earning a spot on the freshman All-SEC team.

And what about center Reese Dismukes, the anchor of the group? He never doubted the offensive line, even with what transpired last season.

“I don’t think our mentality has really changed,” Dismukes said. “Our goal has always been to be the best offensive line in the country. We’ve just gotten better over time.”

Lineup changes for Auburn and MSU

September, 10, 2011
9/10/11
12:29
PM ET
AUBURN, Ala. -- Kickoff is here on the Plains and we have some lineup changes for both teams.

AUBURN
  • A.J. Greene will start at right tackle this week. Last week, redshirt freshman Chad Slade started at right tackle. Greene's return is big for the Tigers. He missed most of last season with an injury and he's viewed as one of Auburn's most athletic offensive linemen.
  • With Greene starting at right tackle, Slade will move over and start at right guard in place of John Sullen.
  • Defensive back Jermaine Whitehead will wear No. 32 instead of No. 3 today.
MISSISSIPPI STATE
  • Wide receiver Chris Smith will start for Sam Williams this week. Williams had three catches for 27 yards, including a long of 17 last week.
SOME PREGAME NOTES
  • Spirit, the eagle that flies around the stadium before the game, went a little off course this morning. It almost flew into a window and got pretty close to some fans in the stands, but when it landed at midfield this place exploded. Really cool tradition.
  • There is some bad blood between these programs because of the whole Cam Newton fiasco last year, and the Auburn fans let the Bulldogs know it when they came out of the field. Boos rained down from all directions and the Bulldogs seemed to love it as they lifted their arms, calling for more.

Exiting the spring: Auburn

April, 15, 2011
4/15/11
9:00
AM ET
Spring game: 3 p.m. ET on ESPN3.com

Questions answered: Auburn finally said so long to kicker Wes Byrum after last season. This spring, Cody Parkey did his part to somewhat ease that loss. He’s been very solid on field goals and nailed kicks of 49 and 60 yards in a scrimmage. While quarterback Cam Newton was a major factor in the Tigers’ running game in 2010, Auburn will again be well equipped in that department. Michael Dyer was tremendous as a freshman last year and doesn’t appear to be headed for a sophomore slump after a productive spring. His running buddy Onterio McCalebb is as fast as ever and will be the Tigers home run threat out of the backfield. The Tigers didn’t exactly replace receiver Darvin Adams, but junior Emory Blake, who had a team-high eight touchdown catches in 2010, looks to be the go-to-receiver.

Questions unanswered: Filling Newton’s quarterback shoes wasn’t going to happen overnight and it wasn’t going to happen after 15 spring practices. Clint Moseley and Barrett Trotter split reps with the first team, but both had a tough spring. Strides were made, but neither really separated himself. Things should get even more interesting for this duo when freshman Kiehl Frazier gets on campus this summer. Auburn also had the task of trying to replace potential top-10 pick, defensive tackle Nick Fairly. It would be hard for anyone to make a push like Fairly did, but sophomores Ken Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker have the responsibility of just that. As a whole, the Tigers will be young on defense, with only three returning starters.

Spring stars: Redshirt freshman wide receiver Travon Reed, who missed most of last season with a knee injury, has been a guy the coaches have tried to get the ball to a bunch. He’ll line up in the slot, as a wildcat quarterback and could help in the return game. He’s a dynamic athlete and has bounced back this spring. Junior receiver Quindarius Carr had a solid spring. He didn’t put up great numbers in 2010, but has really come along this spring, drawing high praise from his coaches. Defensive end Corey Lemonier has really made strides this spring as well.

Of note: Senior Neiko Thorpe moved from cornerback to safety. … There was a lot of shuffling going around on the offensive line this spring. Senior A.J. Greene is the guy at left tackle, but redshirt freshman Chad Slade, junior Donnie Riggins and senior Bobby Ingalls all spent time there as well. Senior Brandon Mosley is at right tackle. … Redshirt freshman linebacker Jawara White returned to practice this spring after suffering a severe spinal cord injury last year. … Linebacker Jessel Curry and safety Ryan Smith are dealing with personal issues and missed the latter part of spring practices. … Ladarious Phillips worked at H-back. … Offensive tackle Shon Coleman, who signed as part of the 2010 class, didn’t go through practice, but is on the roster after battling leukemia last year.

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