NCF Nation: Gus Malzahn

Quan Bray Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsQuan Bray scored half of the Tigers' six touchdowns against Louisiana Tech.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before the season, Gus Malzahn talked to his team about the seniors and how this is their year, their last opportunity before their time at Auburn comes to an end. He asked all of his seniors to simply play the best they have ever played before.

Quan Bray took that message to heart.

"My coaches look at me as a leader," he said. "I'm a vet. I've been here a long time. Coach Malzahn said at the beginning of the year that our seniors are going to need to step up and play big. We took the challenge, and we're trying to do just that."

The senior wide receiver had a career game Saturday, finishing with three catches for 91 yards and two touchdowns in a 45-17 win over Louisiana Tech. He added a third score on a 76-yard punt return, his second return touchdown of the season, and he currently leads the nation with 36.8-yard average on his five punt returns through the first four games.

Has Bray ever had a game like that, at any level?

"Probably high school," he said. "Everybody probably had games like that in high school because you were probably the best player on your team and this and that, but from what I've been through and the things that we've been doing, the hard work is really paying off.

"It had to be my senior year, but it doesn't take nothing but a year for us to be successful."

A year is all that he has left, but Bray is making the most of it. He had as many touchdowns Saturday as he had his first three seasons at Auburn, and he's well on his way to setting a new career high for receiving yards in a season.

Nobody was happier to see him break though than this fellow seniors, who have been with him every step of the way.

"Any time a guy has a day like he did, you've just got to be excited for him," center Reese Dismukes said. "We're close with all the guys on the team, and the seniors -- we've been here for a while -- and you're happy for one of your guys you came in with."

"It's a great feeling," added running back Corey Grant. "He's been working his butt off and been though a lot. To see him come out and to see all that hard work pay off, it kind of motivates me and it just excites me."

This is a senior-laden team at Auburn. From quarterback Nick Marshall to Saturday's captains Dismukes and Gabe Wright, there are 14 seniors listed on the two-deep depth chart which didn't include safety Jermaine Whitehead.

If the Tigers want to repeat as SEC champions, it's up to them.

"It's like we got a bond," Bray said. "From when we first connected, it was like we're going to grind together, we're going to leave here together, we're going to graduate together and we're going to try to win most all of our games. We're going to try to win a national championship.

"That was our goal -- to win a national championship. We fell a little short [last year], but we still got this year to finish it off."

Auburn will need that senior leadership the rest of the way as six of its final eight games are against teams currently ranked in the top 15, beginning with Saturday's game against No. 15 LSU, a team that most of the seniors, Bray included, have never beaten.
BATON ROUGE, La. -- Les Miles allowed Brandon Harris to speak to reporters for the first time all season after Saturday's 63-7 rout of New Mexico State.

LSU's coach did it in his own oddball way. In his postgame press conference, Miles instructed a local TV anchor who requested to interview the freshman quarterback to say "pretty please" and then told the reporters in the room not to ask Harris any difficult questions. It was fitting, as he has handled the Tigers' quarterback battle in uniquely Miles fashion.

No matter what Miles says to the contrary, that battle is over. By letting Harris face the media, Miles all but admitted -- even if he refused to confirm -- Harris will start ahead of sophomore Anthony Jennings when No. 15 LSU (4-1, 0-1 SEC) visits No. 5 Auburn (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday.

"We have always done things in a measured fashion," Miles said. "We will go back, look at the film, communicate with our team and not do so through the paper. ... That's not necessarily the splash you want, but that is how we do things."

Fine. Miles is doing the respectable thing by taking Jennings' psyche into account while making the inevitable quarterback switch.

Jennings is a 19-year-old kid who seemed to say and do the right things throughout his competition with Harris, and he might not have played his last important snap as a Tiger. Jennings is also 5-1 as LSU's starting quarterback -- including wins against Iowa and Wisconsin -- so he deserves far better than the boos that rained down each time Miles sent the struggling starter back into Saturday's game before ultimately benching him in favor of Harris.

The fans who booed and chanted "We want Harris!" at Tiger Stadium were ultimately proven correct, at least in their expectations for the freshman quarterback. Harris was nothing short of phenomenal and lead LSU to seven touchdowns in seven drives and 429 yards of total offense in roughly two quarters of work.

Miles can publicly handle the situation however he sees fit, but aside from on-field experience (and nobody would describe either of them as a veteran) there is no measure that indicates Jennings is a superior option to start over Harris -- not the scoreboard, not the stat sheet and certainly not the eye test.

Mississippi State shut down the Jennings-led LSU offense for the first 56 minutes two weeks ago before Harris came on and nearly led the Tigers to what would have been a miraculous comeback win. Miles showed loyalty to his starting quarterback -- and more than a little stubbornness -- when he started Jennings for the sixth consecutive game against New Mexico State and left him in despite' three turnovers and two three-and-outs in LSU's first seven possessions.

Miles and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron have given Jennings every opportunity to claim this job, and he simply hasn't been able to get it done. Harris has, and sometimes in spectacular fashion, with the Tigers scoring points at a far greater rate with him under center.

That's perhaps the most important point to consider. The Tigers will probably need to post prodigious point totals to beat teams such as Auburn, Texas A&M, Alabama, Ole Miss and Arkansas. Their offense bogged down at times against the likes of Louisiana-Monroe and New Mexico State with Jennings under center, and it looked completely dysfunctional for most of the Mississippi State game.

A super-productive outing against a horrible New Mexico State defense and a couple of late, garbage-time touchdowns -- even the ones against Mississippi State that nearly built an LSU comeback win -- might not be enough to anoint Harris as the starting quarterback for the rest of the season, but Jennings' continued ineffectiveness is more than enough proof his backup deserves a chance.

Miles and Cameron don't have to make a public proclamation for this to be obvious. Auburn's coaches will surely prepare for both quarterbacks, but Gus Malzahn's staff isn't dumb enough to expect Jennings to start. Besides, what would be so difficult about adapting, even if they prepare all week for Harris and get Jennings instead?

There is no good reason for LSU to avoid pulling the trigger on this decision now. It will not be ideal to give Harris his first career start at Jordan-Hare Stadium, yet Jennings hasn't started a game in an opponent's home stadium, either. His dismal performances of late before heavily partisan crowds at Tiger Stadium shouldn't provide Miles and Cameron with any confidence he would play any better in front of 87,451 screaming East Alabamians on Saturday.

They've done right by Jennings in slow-playing this change, though with the SEC West meat grinder approaching, LSU's coaches must start worrying about winning games. Their chances to win are simply better with the more dynamic player at quarterback, even if he will almost certainly make mistakes along the way. Switching to Harris couldn't be a more obvious choice at this point.

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Baylor’s Art Briles was voted as the nation’s best offensive head coach in ESPN’s weekly college football poll of the FBS head coaches, #1QFor128.

Briles received 22 percent of the votes, edging Auburn’s Gus Malzahn (18 percent), in the poll, conducted by ESPN’s Brett McMurphy.

Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin was third (14 percent), followed by South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier (8 percent) and Oregon’s Mark Helfrich (6 percent). Rounding out the top 10: Duke’s David Cutcliffe, Washington State’s Mike Leach, Stanford’s David Shaw and Oregon State’s Mike Riley (each with 4 percent) and Washington’s Chris Petersen (3 percent).

In all, 22 coaches received votes.

The coaches from the Power 5 conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-12) actually voted Briles third with 13 percent. Malzahn was the top vote-getter among the Power 5 coaches who voted with 20 percent, followed by Sumlin at 18 percent. Cutcliffe, Helfrich and Spurrier (with 8 percent each) tied as the fourth-most popular pick among the Power 5 coaches.

The coaches from the Group of 5 conferences (American, Conference USA, Mid-American, Mountain West, Sun Belt) voted Briles first (28 percent), followed by Malzahn (17 percent), Sumlin (12 percent), Spurrier (9 percent) and Helfrich, Leach and Shaw (each with 5 percent).

Of the 128 FBS coaches, 98 participated in this week’s poll.

 

Who the Power 5 coaches voted for
Gus Malzahn, Auburn: 20 percent
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: 18 percent
Art Briles, Baylor: 13 percent
David Cutcliffe, Duke: 8 percent
Mark Helfrich, Oregon: 8 percent
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina: 8 percent
Mike Riley, Oregon State: 5 percent

Who the Group of 5 coaches voted for
Art Briles, Baylor: 28 percent
Gus Malzahn, Auburn: 17 percent
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M: 12 percent
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina: 9 percent
Mark Helfrich, Oregon: 5 percent
Mike Leach, Washington State: 5 percent
David Shaw, Stanford: 5 percent
Mike Riley, Oregon State: 3 percent
Chris Petersen, Washington: 3 percent
Like Roc-A-Fella Records, can we please acknowledge that Auburn is definitely in the building?

Four full weeks into the 2014 college football season, and we still aren't really talking about the defending SEC champions. Did I miss something? Wasn't this team 13 seconds away from winning the final BCS national title game at the end of last season?

 Despite returning a handful of starters on both sides of the ball to a team that made a fantastic run through the SEC only a year removed from being a certifiable dumpster fire on the Plains, the fifth-ranked Tigers (3-0, 1-0 SEC) entered the 2014 season ranked behind Alabama, which Auburn beat last fall -- on a miracle play, but still beat.

And even after a perfect start, which includes a 24-point win over a much-improved Arkansas team and a tough road win at No. 20 Kansas State, it's as if the Tigers are in our peripheral vision. Texas A&M (4-0, 1-0) is ranked one spot behind Auburn, yet has four first-place votes to Auburn's zero.

If you look at what Auburn has done thus far, the argument can certainly be made that it is probably the most complete team of the SEC's preseason favorites. The offense is balanced, and the defense is much improved. There's a quality veteran quarterback and a hot-shot coach running things.

You are what your record is, right?

The Tigers have done everything asked of them, and done it well. You say their six-point win over a Kansas State team that narrowly escaped what would have been an epic upset against lowly Iowa State isn't impressive enough? Well, I think you should look deeper at what the Tigers did to claw their way out of Manhattan, Kansas.

There were some mistakes on Kansas State's part that certainly helped Auburn, but one thing that really stuck out to me was how Auburn turned to its passing game to win. Kansas State's stout run defense thwarted Auburn's dynamic rushing attack, allowing just 128 rushing yards and a paltry 2.8 yards per carry (the lowest in the Gus Malzahn era). Auburn hadn't been held to under 300 rushing yards in either of its first two games, and this marked just the second time in 17 games under Malzahn that the Tigers were held below 200 rushing yards.

With the running game in a shambles, quarterback Nick Marshall was given the green light to chuck away. This is the same quarterback we've had to question multiple times when it comes to being a more consistent passer. Well, the coaches didn't question him, and he didn't disappoint, throwing for 231 yards and two touchdowns. Marshall came up with a clutch game-winning throw -- again -- in the fourth quarter when he found a wide-open D'haquille Williams for a 39-yard gain on third-and-9 with 2:06 remaining.

The Tigers also forced three turnovers without key defender Jermaine Whitehead even in the state.

But it shouldn't surprise us, how this defense has played thus far. Auburn ranks fourth in the SEC, giving up just 310.7 yards per game. Last season, the Tigers didn't hold a team under 415 yards of offense until Oct. 12 against Western Carolina.

Auburn limited Arkansas, which leads the SEC with 324.5 rushing yards per game, to just 153 yards on the ground. The Tigers, which gave up 163 rushing yards per game last year, are surrendering 86 per contest so far. And what's even more impressive is the fact that Auburn is playing without arguably its best defender, defensive end Carl Lawson, who is recovering from ACL surgery.

Auburn ranks within the top half of the SEC in seven of the eight major offensive and defensive categories. The offensive line has surrendered one sack, the running game is just as potent this year (262.7 yards per game), and the receiving corps got a major upgrade with Williams (two 100-yard receiving games in his first three games with the Tigers) becoming the only Auburn receiver in the past 10 seasons to have multiple such games before the end of September, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Auburn isn't perfect, and the Tigers will continue to face tougher competition as they tangle with the teeth of the conference schedule, but this isn't a team that should be overlooked, and for some reason it is.

Fool me once, right?

Planning for success: Kansas State

September, 16, 2014
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There are similarities in the ways No. 5 Auburn and No. 20 Kansas State approach moving the ball on offense. But good luck replicating that in practice.

Both programs have taken option ball to new heights in recent years. That doesn't mean K-State coach Bill Snyder is feeling any more comfortable this week as his Wildcats prepare to host last season's BCS championship runner-up on Thursday night.

What's the biggest difficulty Kansas State will face against Auburn's offense this week? Good question.

“Take your pick. It’s like throwing at a dartboard,” Snyder said on the Big 12 teleconference Monday. “Probably being in the right place at the right time, being assignment-sound, execution of what you do defensively and having a reaction time to compensate for the quickness they have."

Considering what the Tigers have achieved offensively through two games, it'll take more that just precise execution. This is one of the nation's most efficient offense: Auburn is No. 1 in FBS in third-down conversions (67.9 percent), No. 1 in the SEC in red-zone efficiency (90.9 percent) and is picking up first downs or touchdowns on nearly 40 percent of its rushes.

Playing in the Big 12, K-State does see bits and pieces of the schemes that Auburn rode to a 14-2 record since coach Gus Malzahn took over. This is a copycat sport, and offenses around the country are beginning to embrace the pop pass and some of the wrinkles that the Nick Marshall-led Tigers mastered last fall.

"Everybody in the country has moved into some things Auburn does," Snyder said. "They have a lot more offense than what people might indicate. I mean, they do a lot of different things a lot of different ways, and it’s not just the zone read.

"Zone read is the major part, is starts there, and they make you have to play that first, and then you put yourself in position where you might weaken yourself against other things. It’s not the entirety of it, the entire playbook you don't see it a great deal in the conference, but pieces of it, you see every week."

Though Kansas State will have a total of 11 days to prepare for Auburn, what makes this matchup tougher in practice is the fact no program has scout-teamers who can, as Snyder put it, replicate what the Tigers bring from a speed, quickness, strength and size standpoint.

What stands out to Snyder about this deadly offense isn't just the production, but the "tremendous personnel."

"I think [Cameron] Artis-Payne has really stepped up and proven they're not going to take a step back at the running back position," Snyder said. "Marshall, as good as he was last year, he's gotten invested in his improvement, and he's [an] extremely talented young guy who is, I'm sure, more relaxed in the system because he's been around it a little longer. They have good size and range at the wide receiver position and guys who can go up and make the difficult catches. Big, physical offensive line. Take your pick."

Snyder knows the scouting report well by now. He'll have plenty of time to come up with solutions for a unit that is averaging 7.61 yards per play (seventh-best in FBS) and has allowed just one sack. And, surely, he knows what a win would mean for his perpetually under-the-radar program.

Well, he probably does. But he doesn't have time to get into that right now.

"Ask me Thursday night, and I can tell you," Snyder said. "If you're successful, it's a great thing. If you're not, it's not all it's cracked up to be."
AUBURN, Ala. -- Through the first two games, Cameron Artis-Payne has rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns. His 42 carries are twice as many carries as Corey Grant, the team's No. 2 running back. So does that mean Auburn has found its workhorse? Have the Tigers found their replacement for Tre Mason?

[+] EnlargeCameron Artis-Payne
Butch Dill/AP PhotoCameron Artis-Payne, Auburn's leading rusher through two games, is out to prove he can carry the ball, as well as the Tigers' offense.
Not quite. At least not according to head coach Gus Malzahn.

"He did a good job," Malzahn said after Saturday's game. "Corey did a good job in there, too. We utilized both those guys. Nothing's changed as far as that goes. We've got to have two of those guys. And you saw the young guys get in there -- Peyton Barber and then Roc [Thomas], too. It's good to get those guys some carries in a game-type situation."

And so we're back to square one.

Technically, Artis-Payne is Auburn's starting running back. He started the first two games, and he will likely start next Thursday's game at Kansas State. But for some reason, Malzahn has been reluctant to acknowledge that he's the guy.

To be fair, more than one back is needed in Malzahn's offense -- it's why the Tigers led the nation in rushing a season ago -- but by the beginning of SEC play last season, they settled on Mason as the featured back. That's the role Artis-Payne wants to have.

"Selfishly, yeah of course, everybody wants to keep getting the ball," Artis-Payne said after Saturday's game where he rushed for 112 yards and three touchdowns. "But at the end of the day, we have to go with the looks that they give us and what the defense is giving us.

"It's a team game. We've got a lot of really, really good running backs in the backfield."

That attitude is why Artis-Payne's position coach Tim Horton calls him "a pro before he's a pro." It basically means he's the same every day. He doesn't have bad days. He's professional in meetings, professional in work. As offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee put it, "he's all business and all work."

It's the same way when he faces the media. There's plenty of personality, but there's a certain edge to him, too, a chip on his shoulder that's likely a reminder of where he came from.

"I'm sure there are some personal aspects in his life that he draws from, but also, he didn't have any offers coming out of high school," Lashlee said. "He goes out to junior college, and he earned his way here. He didn't have the typical road that a kid playing at a big school in the SEC would have as far as recruiting goes.

"So I think he's constantly out to prove himself, and he's out to prove that we don't have to miss a beat with him back there."

Even Artis-Payne admitted to having a little chip on his shoulder coming into this season.

"Yeah, ya'll saw me sitting on the bench last year," he said. "I read everything that everybody puts out, talking about how the running game is going to be. I'm here to prove that it's going to be all right."

After two games, it's been more than all right.

Auburn leads the SEC in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns. It doesn't matter that Mason is gone or that Greg Robinson left early for the NFL or that Alex Kozan is out for the season with an injury. The Tigers still feature a dominant rushing attack, and whether Malzahn wants to admit it, Artis-Payne is quickly becoming the driving force behind that.

"I'm just getting more comfortable knowing that I'm going to get in the game and not have to worry about playing time and all that type of stuff," Artis-Payne said.

So is he OK with 20+ carries a game from here on out?

"Oh yeah, I definitely enjoy that," he said. "I'd like for that to continue if it can."
AUBURN, Ala. -- Balance. That was the key word for Auburn all offseason. Second-year coach Gus Malzahn was adamant that his offense would be more balanced in 2014 after the Tigers led the nation in rushing a season ago.

"That was really probably the number one priority in the spring," Malzahn said at SEC media days. "We led the country in rushing last year. When you do that, defenses have to take some chances. We've got to do a better job this year of making them pay when they do take chances."

Don’t be fooled, though. After Saturday’s 59-13 win against San Jose State, the adage "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" comes to mind.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/Butch DillQB Nick Marshall and Auburn strive for balance, but running the ball is working just fine for now.
Auburn looked like a carbon copy of last season's team, racking up 363 yards on the ground compared to just 135 through the air. The Tigers ran on 68 percent of their plays, which was less than last season's clip but still astounding when balance was supposedly the focal point heading into this season.

Obviously a lot of factors played into the game plan during Saturday’s rout. Nick Marshall was back at quarterback, and his strength is running the zone-read. The game was never really close, meaning the offense didn’t have to throw, and towards the end, they were more concerned with running the clock out.

But if it’s going to work that well in the future, why change?

"We definitely need to throw the ball to keep balance to keep things honest, but at the end of the day, we’ve got to go with what got you there and we were a running team last year," Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said.

Artis-Payne has rushed for 289 yards and four touchdowns through the first two games.

"We just need to do what it takes to win," wide receiver Ricardo Louis added. "If that means running the ball the whole game, it’s fine with me."

Malzahn is calling the shots, though, and he still insists on the offense having more balance. If that is indeed the plan moving forward, then it comes down to Marshall and his ability to throw the ball. All offseason, we heard about how he’s improved as a passer, but through a game and a half, the results have been mixed.

On Saturday, the senior quarterback finished 10 of 19 for 101 yards and a touchdown. He started well, completing four of his first five passes, but then struggled with his consistency. At one point, he threw five straight incompletions. Of his 10 completions, only five were of 10 yards or more.

"There were a couple throws that I know I could’ve made," Marshall said. "It’s just going to take practice. We’re going to get better every game and every week and every practice."

The team’s best passer, Jeremy Johnson, is No. 2 on the depth chart behind Marshall. He didn’t see any action until the fourth quarter Saturday, but Malzahn and his staff have said that he will have a role for the Tigers this season.

So will we see Auburn throw more as the season progresses? Not if the rushing attack is working like it was against San Jose State.

But Malzahn has a plan, and there are not many coaches better at reading a game and calling plays accordingly.

"Whatever Coach Malzahn calls, we’re going to run," Artis-Payne said. "He’s a genius as far as picking apart defenses and seeing their weaknesses."
AUBURN, Ala. – Nick Marshall knew he wasn’t starting the season opener. He knew he had to sit out at least the first drive against Arkansas because of the marijuana citation he received in the offseason. As it turns out, the Auburn quarterback had to sit out the first six drives, the entire first half, and watch as backup Jeremy Johnson made big throw after big throw against the Razorbacks.

Rather than get frustrated, Marshall stayed upbeat on the sideline. He encouraged Johnson, telling him to “keep doing what you’re doing, stay focused and keep leading the team.”

Marshall finally got his chance on the first drive of the second half, and it was like he never missed a beat. He led the Tigers on a nine-play, 78-yard drive that he capped with a 19-yard touchdown run in Auburn's 45-21 victory.

After the game, the stats might have favored Johnson, who threw for 243 yards and two touchdowns, but Auburn isn’t about to make a change under center.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
AP Photo/Butch DillAuburn quarterback Jeremy Johnson filled in well for starter Nick Marshall against Arkansas.
“Nick’s still our quarterback,” head coach Gus Malzahn said. “I will tell you this, just like I’ve said before, Jeremy will have a role. We talked in the offseason about giving him more – different situations, different packages – and that’s the way we’re going about it. But Nick Marshall’s our quarterback.”

And Johnson knows that. That’s why during fall camp he all but guaranteed that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy, and that’s why he didn’t care when Marhsall replaced him at halftime despite the numbers Johnson had put up in the first half.

“No, I didn’t mind at all,” Johnson said. “I knew at a point in time he was going to come in the game anyway, so I just took advantage of my time that I had in the game and I cherished it. I had to show the world what I was capable of doing and what I can do against anybody.

“We know the team is going as far as we take them together.”

This isn’t your typical quarterback situation. Most teams don’t have a backup as talented as Johnson, and some don’t even have a starter as talented as Johnson. Auburn could score a lot of points and win a lot of games with Marshall playing every snap the rest of the way, but why not use all of your assets?

At least that’s the way Malzahn sees it after Saturday’s game.

“That [game] confirmed what we thought about Jeremy,” he said. “We’ve been saying for a long time that he’s a very talented quarterback. It was good to see him go out there and perform like that, and we were very impressed as a coaching staff.

“We said he’d have a role even before that game, and he will. Each week it could possibly be a little different.”

Though the two quarterbacks are different in style, that didn’t seem to faze the rest of the offense against Arkansas. Sure, they might run more with Marshall in the game and pass more with Johnson in the game, but that doesn’t change the overall game plan.

“We’ve got a lot of confidence in each one,” offensive tackle Shon Coleman said. “Jeremy came in and did his thing. Nick came in and did his thing. It really doesn’t matter to the offensive line who’s back there. We’re just planning on protecting whoever’s back there.”

When Auburn hosts San Jose State on Saturday, Marshall is expected to return to the starting role – after all, this is his team – but there’s a good chance you see Johnson at some point in the game, maybe sooner rather than later.

It could be that way all season. It’s up to the coaches to manage the two quarterbacks and get the most out of them. If done right, the sky is the limit for this offense and for this team.

“We’re probably the best two-quarterback [tandem] in college football,” Johnson said. “With us together, we’re going to lead our team to a national championship.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- D’haquille Williams did not disappoint in his much-anticipated debut on Saturday. The man now known simply as “Duke” caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown in his first-ever SEC game.

It was the most yards receiving by an Auburn player since Darvin Adams (217) in the 2010 SEC championship game and the most ever by a Tiger in his first game.

[+] EnlargeD'haquille Williams
Mike Zarrilli/Getty ImagesD'haquille Williams caught nine passes for 154 yards and a touchdown in his Auburn debut on Saturday.
 “Honestly, I didn’t come in thinking I was going to have a big game like that,” Williams said. “I just kept catching the ball, catching the ball and making plays. As the game went on, the ball kept coming so I just had to make a play for my team.”

The junior-college transfer was the only one surprised by his performance. The coaches knew they had something special before he ever stepped foot on campus.

In his signing day press conference, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Williams will have a chance to be an impact player right off the bat. Before that, during the week of the BCS title game, wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said Williams could have a Jameis Winston-type impact on the program. More recently, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told ESPN’s Travis Haney that he had a “Dez Bryant,” referring to his star newcomer.

Even the high school coaches who had seen the team practice during fall camp were raving about the 6-foot-2, 216-pound wide receiver. One coach said that he was on another level from Sammie Coates, the team’s leading receiver from a year ago, while another said that this will likely be his only season at Auburn because he’ll be playing on Sundays next year.

High praise for a kid who had yet to catch a pass, but Williams delivered on those expectations Saturday in Auburn's 45-21 win over Arkansas.

“Duke had a great performance, but we knew that was coming,” Auburn running back Cameron Artis-Payne said. “We expected that. We expect big things out of him.”

 “This was nothing surprising,” added quarterback Jeremy Johnson. “That’s what we expect out of him. Duke is amazing. He’s an NFL-type player.”

The fans must have known it was coming, too. They were chanting Duke’s name during warmups, and that carried over to the game when Williams made his first catch. The stadium just about erupted when he caught his second pass and nearly took it to the house. The play gained 62 yards, and the casual observer might have thought they were booing him with the collective “Duuuuuke” heard after the play.

"It just made me feel like they love me,” Williams told reporters after the game. “I never thought I'd have a chant like that.

“When they chanted that, I caught the chills. My heart just started beating faster. I'm just like, there's no way 90,000 just chanted my name. I ran to the sidelines and just had to take a seat, put a towel on my head and start thinking, 'It's really here. Everything I worked for.'”

Four plays later, Williams finished the drive with an 18-yard touchdown grab. He caught a quick slant over the middle and carried his defender across the goal line for the score, his first as an Auburn Tiger.

After the game, Malzahn praised the newcomer’s efforts.

“He attacks the ball, there’s no doubt,” Malzahn said. “He can do some things with it after he catches the ball, too. We had a plan, if they played us a certain way, we’d attack them with him in the middle of the field. That’s kind of what happened, and he did a good job executing.”

It was certainly a debut to remember for Williams.

“This had to be the best feeling of my life,” he said after the game.

SEC viewer's guide: Week 1

August, 30, 2014
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Tennessee-Martin at Kentucky, SEC Network
Mark Stoops enters his second season at Kentucky, and he has a new starting quarterback, Patrick Towles. The third-year sophomore won the position battle in preseason training camp, and the Wildcats are looking for him to get off to a positive start. Establishing confidence early will be key, and against an FCS foe like Tennessee-Martin, that should be feasible. Stoops says Towles is “not on a short leash,” and that he has confidence in his new signal-caller. Just setting a positive tone with a convincing win would be good for the Wildcats as they continue to try to build depth, increase talent level and work their way up from the SEC cellar.

3:30 p.m. ET

[+] EnlargeMaty Mauk
Mark Zerof/USA TODAY SportsMaty Mauk will open the season as Missouri's quarterback against South Dakota State.
South Dakota State at No. 24 Missouri, ESPNU
The Maty Mauk era begins at quarterback for Missouri. The Tigers are 13-1 in season openers under Gary Pinkel with 13 consecutive wins, and they’re 13-0 all time against FCS teams. The Tigers don’t have Kony Ealy and Michael Sam but still return several standout defenders such as defensive ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who aim to continue the Tigers’ defensive line success. Missouri also has the nation’s longest active turnover streak at 44 games.

West Virginia vs. No. 2 Alabama, ABC/ESPN2
The Crimson Tide open as heavy favorites against the Mountaineers, who were 4-8 a year ago. It sounds like Blake Sims will be Alabama’s starting quarterback today, but expect Jake Coker to play also. It appears this quarterback battle will continue for the time being. Clint Trickett is West Virginia’s starter after eight appearances and five starts last season. The Mountaineers play a pace that Nick Saban isn’t a fan of, so it will be interesting to see if that gives the Crimson Tide any trouble or if they simply impose their well at the line of scrimmage -- on both sides of the ball.

4 p.m. ET

Arkansas at No. 6 Auburn, SEC Network
A meeting of two coaches who are quite fond of each other, Bret Bielema and Gus Malzahn. All kidding aside, this is a contrast of styles (smashmouth football versus hurry-up no-huddle) and a matchup of two teams on the opposite ends of the spectrum last season, with Arkansas last in the SEC West and Auburn winning the SEC. The Tigers are looking to take the division title again while the Razorbacks hope for improvement. This is the start to a tough schedule for Arkansas (the nation’s toughest, according to the NCAA). Jeremy Johnson will start at quarterback for Auburn, but Nick Marshall will eventually see the field. When is unknown, as Malzahn has kept that to himself.

5:30 p.m. ET

No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, ESPN
This was an entertaining affair last season, one that Clemson won 38-35. It should be another compelling game this time. After South Carolina’s thrashing at the hands of Texas A&M on Thursday, this would be a good opportunity for Georgia to flex its muscle, since many might now look toward the Bulldogs as the SEC East favorite. Both teams have quarterbacks with big shoes to fill (Cole Stoudt for Clemson; Hutson Mason for Georgia), and this could also be a chance to make an early Heisman statement for Georgia running back Todd Gurley.

7 p.m. ET

Idaho at Florida, ESPNU
Florida trots out its new offense under new coordinator Kurt Roper, and quarterback Jeff Driskel makes his return to the lineup for the first time since a season-ending leg injury suffered against Tennessee last season. The Gators are eagerly looking to start this season and put the past behind them; last season’s disastrous 4-8 campaign was unacceptable. Idaho is coming off a 1-11 year in 2013, so this is a game Florida should look to dominate early and build confidence.

7:30 p.m. ET

Southern Miss at Mississippi State, SEC Network
Mississippi State is looking to take a big step forward this season and returns 83 percent of its letter-winners from 2013 (57 total), which is the third-highest percentage in the nation. That includes quarterback Dak Prescott, linebacker Benardrick McKinney and defensive lineman Chris Jones, all of whom are poised for big seasons. Southern Miss is coming off a 1-11 season, and Mississippi State is looking for its 12th straight home win against a non-SEC team.

9 p.m. ET

No. 14 Wisconsin at No. 13 LSU, ESPN
This is a huge early-season battle between two squads that are strikingly similar. Both have experienced offensive lines and good running games going against inexperienced defensive fronts, and both have been mostly mum on their quarterback situations (though reports have Tanner McEvoy starting for Wisconsin, and Les Miles admitted both Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings will play for LSU). The running backs will probably be the focus, though. Wisconsin’s Melvin Gordon is getting early Heisman publicity, and LSU true freshman Leonard Fournette, the No. 1 player in the 2014 class, is someone everyone is waiting to see.

Sunday, 7 p.m. ET

Utah State at Tennessee, SEC Network
This is one of the most intriguing games of the week, even though it doesn't involved a ranked team. Tennessee begins Butch Jones' second season, and there will be plenty of fresh faces on the field. Jones said Wednesday that between 28-30 freshmen could play on Sunday night. This Utah State team is a good one led by a dynamite quarterback, Chuckie Keeton, who threw for 18 touchdowns before a knee injury robbed him of his final eight games. Tennessee's starter, Justin Worley, earned the job this month and has 10 career starts. The Vols are hoping he can take a step forward, and he has some talented weapons around him to use.

Top Week 1 stories:

Video: Auburn's Week 1 QB plan

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
5:00
PM ET

ESPN.com reporters Alex Scarborough and Greg Ostendorf discuss Auburn's quarterback plan for Week 1.
AUBURN, Ala. -- If you don't follow Auburn football or if you didn't happen to catch the Tigers in action against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic last season, then there's a chance you don't know who Jeremy Johnson is. That's OK. You will.

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
Brynn Anderson/AP PhotoAuburn QB Jeremy Johnson says he's ready to play football -- whether he's starting or not.
Johnson is currently the Tigers' backup quarterback behind Nick Marshall. The sophomore will be introduced to the SEC on Saturday when he will start -- or is expected to start -- the season opener against Arkansas in lieu of Marshall's marijuana citation this offseason. Both quarterbacks are expected to play, but it will easily be the biggest start of Johnson's life.

Nervous? Not Johnson.

"Football is football, and I'm a football player," he said. "That's why I'm here.”

The Auburn coaches aren't worried either. Although he hasn't officially named Johnson the starter for Saturday, head coach Gus Malzahn said at SEC media days that his backup quarterback could start for the majority of teams in college football. There are a few schools in the SEC who would love to have the 6-foot-5, 230-pound signal-caller right now.

In some areas, he's as good if not better than Marshall.

"Jeremy has a great upside,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. "He has a big arm, lots of talent, throws a great ball. He's pretty athletic. He's big. He's got a lot of positives.”

But just because Johnson should be starting the season opener Saturday, it doesn't mean that he's going to take the quarterback job and run with it. This is still Marshall's team, and he knows that. That's why when he was facing the media during fall camp, he all but guaranteed his teammate and direct competitor would win the Heisman Trophy. After all, he had a front-row seat last season as Marshall led Auburn to the BCS title game.

"He led us to the national championship, and we were 13 seconds away,” Johnson said. "This year he better at passing, better at running, better at making reads. He's become a leader on this team, and I've never seen him so amped at practice every day the way he is, the way he comes out. So I know for a fact he'll win the Heisman."

Don't forget Johnson's name, though, because his time is coming. At this time next season, Marshall will have graduated and the starting quarterback job will be Johnson's for the taking.

The former ESPN 300 recruit gained some experience last season when he started two games as a true freshman and threw for 422 yards and six touchdowns, but the next step in his development process will be to start and play against SEC competition.

Due to some unforeseen circumstances, that opportunity will likely come Saturday.

"It's going to really help him,” Johnson's high school coach Billy Gresham said. "Any time you get a chance to get your second-team quarterback in versus an SEC opponent is always good. He had some good, polished reps last year, but it wasn't the level that Auburn and the SEC are going to play week in, week out.

"Now he gets to test his skills, his knowledge and not only just play well, but manage the offense and the lead the offense on drives. It will be a great test for him.”

After Saturday, Johnson will be better prepared to step in if needed this season, and it will only make him a better quarterback for when it's his turn next year.

"Everybody has their time come, and I'm just waiting on my time,” he said.
video 

AUBURN, Ala. -- Who will the SEC’s next star be? It was the underlying theme at SEC media days as the coaches stole the spotlight, rather than the players, and there’s no doubt the conference lost some serious star power after last year, including one "Johnny Football." But to find the league’s next star, you must first ask yourself: What does it take to be a star?

Is it simply putting up big numbers in a conference loaded with talent? Do wins and losses matter? And how much does a player’s personality and charisma factor into his appeal?

If recent history is any indication, the latter plays a major role.

What do Johnny Manziel, Cam Newton and Tim Tebow have in common? They all won the Heisman Trophy, and they all had plenty of personality. Even Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston, last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, had a certain aura about him, a presence that captivated audiences nationwide.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
AP Photo/John BazemoreNick Marshall said winning games -- not the Heisman Trophy -- is his focus at Auburn.
The SEC’s next star doesn’t have that trait. He doesn’t have a money celebration or a Superman pose after he scores a touchdown. He’s not about to launch his Heisman campaign. He doesn’t even want to be in front of the camera. The only thing Auburn QB Nick Marshall wants to do is play football and win games.

“He’s not big on the spotlight,” Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He doesn't have to have the attention. He doesn't crave it, not that that's a bad thing, but he just likes to lay low, go about his business and do his thing. When it's game time, he likes to let it loose, let it rip and compete.”

It’s always been that way for Marshall. He didn’t grow up in the state of Texas or in a metropolis like Atlanta. As his high school coach, Mark Ledford, put it, “He grew up in a town [Pineview, Georgia] that’s got one caution light, and I’m not sure, really, it needs it.”

In high school, Marshall had a game where he threw six touchdowns to six different wide receivers, and he was happier for them than he was with what he did.

“That’s Nick,” Ledford said. “He’s never been one to reap all the glory.”

When Marshall arrived at Auburn last summer, he was a junior college quarterback with high expectations, but nobody knew anything about him other than his checkered past (in February 2012, he was dismissed by Georgia for violating team rules). In 2014, the expectations are even higher, yet Marshall himself is still a mystery.

“He’s not going to take the podium with a microphone stuck in his face and go try to be something that he’s not,” Ledford said. “What you’ve been getting with Nick, that’s about what you’re going to get.”

Auburn had planned to bring Marshall to media days, an opportunity to put their quarterback in the spotlight, but that fell through when he was pulled over just days before and given a citation for possession of marijuana.

An opportunity wasted. Instead of peeling layers back this offseason, more layers were added.

Now, as the 2014 season approaches, the usual suspects have already been mentioned for the Heisman Trophy -- names like Winston, Marcus Mariota and Bryce Petty. Some pundits have included Marshall’s name, but his odds are higher. He’s more of a dark horse candidate than a front-runner.

“It’s a matter of opinion,” Auburn assistant coach Dameyune Craig said. “You can look at what Jameis did last year as a [redshirt] freshman; he won a national championship. You can look at Nick Marshall and say this kid was a first-year starting quarterback that played defensive back and he took us to the national championship game in the toughest conference in the nation.

“So I don’t see why he wouldn’t be in that category, based on what he did and his production. He put up over 3,000 yards of total offense, accounted for a lot of touchdowns."

Added Auburn coach Gus Malzahn: “You look at the people in the Heisman race, and they’re on winning teams. Nick just needs to lead us and keep winning. If he can do that, he’ll be in the mix.”

Marshall is not Newton, Tebow or Manziel. Marshall doesn’t embrace the spotlight as so many others before him, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be the next star in the SEC. He might even be the next Heisman Trophy winner, but don’t ask him about it. That’s not his style.

“I'm not too worried about the Heisman,” Marshall told reporters earlier this month. “I'm trying to gain the trust of my teammates and my coaches, and then I'm just trying to go out there and win games.”
AUBURN, Ala. – The good news heading into the 2014 season was that Auburn returned four starters from an offensive line that served as the anchor for the top rushing team in college football a year ago. The Tigers averaged an impressive 328 yards per game on the ground.

The bad news, though, was that left tackle Greg Robinson, arguably the team’s best run blocker, was the one not returning. He left school early for the NFL.

Not to worry. Auburn had veterans Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller battling to replace Robinson this spring, and the potential drop-off seemed to be minimal. That was until head coach Gus Malzahn announced that All-SEC freshman guard Alex Kozan would miss the entire season with a back injury, an injury he suffered over the summer.

Now what? The offensive line was supposed to be the strength of the team. All of a sudden, it was an area where coaches were moving bodies, scrambling to find the right combination, and there was little depth to work with.

Auburn isn't worried, and this is why.

The rock

Robinson might have been the strongest and most talented offensive lineman from last year. Kozan made a compelling case as the smartest. But nobody meant more to that line than its center, Reese Dismukes.

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIReese Dismukes is the experienced anchor of the Auburn offensive line at center.
Every play began with the ball in his hands. Whether it was calling out signals, pushing back opposing defensive tackles or simply snapping the ball, Dismukes was the epitome of dependable. He’s started 37 games in the past three seasons, and he returns as the centerpiece, responsible for holding the line together.

“The continuity has really improved there,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee told reporters Sunday. “And having your rock at center helps because he makes all the calls; he kind of makes things go. So having Reese there, I think, helped keep that glue there as well.”

There’s no question that Dismukes is smart – he rivals Kozan in that area – and he’s always been quick, but as he heads into his final season with the Tigers, position coach J.B. Grimes says he’s a different player physically. He’s as strong as he’s ever been.

So while there have been changes made up front, the rock is still there.

Mr. Versatility

Losing Robinson hurt, but Auburn had two capable players ready to step in at left tackle. But when it was discovered that Kozan would miss the entire season, there wasn’t a player or players waiting in line to take over, at least none with any real experience.

Fortunately, Auburn prepared for this scenario in the spring,well before Kozan ever got hurt. The staff moved Avery Young, its projected starter at right tackle, inside and gave him some reps at guard. At the time, it was meant as a precaution. Now, Young is slotted at guard with Coleman and Miller starting at the two tackle spots.

The biggest difference between tackle and guard?

“[Avery] is now about six inches away from a guy that has to choke himself to sleep every night,” Grimes said. “When you’re a tackle, you’re a little bit further away from that dude. There’s more banging down inside than there is outside. That’s just something you’ve got to get accustomed to, and he’ll be fine.”

Dismukes, who now plays next to Young, says the 6-foot-6, 315-pound junior already is starting to be a little more physical.

Though he still has work left to do, Young's versatility has allowed for Auburn to put its best five offensive linemen on the field at the same time.

The up-and-comer

The starting five is set. It’s an experienced unit that’s played together before. The problem isn’t with that group. The problem will be if one of those five were to miss any time. With Kozan already out, the Tigers can’t afford to lose another offensive lineman.

However, the coaches can sleep easier at night knowing that it’s only a matter of time before freshman Braden Smith, a.k.a. the Hulk, is ready to play.

“He’s ultra-talented,” Malzahn said. “He’s everything we thought when we recruited him. It’s just a matter of learning the offense and little details. But if you say, ‘Block the guy in front of you,’ he’s going to block the guy in front of him.

“He’s still learning, but he’s a very smart young man. There are a lot of similarities to when Greg Robinson was a freshman.”

Smith is currently penciled behind Coleman at left tackle, where he’s worked exclusively during fall camp, but he can pretty much play anywhere up front if needed.

He’s the next big thing for Auburn, though his number might be called earlier than expected.
video Alabama has a new offensive coordinator. Texas A&M has a new guy calling plays, too. So does Florida.

Georgia, on the other hand, has a new defensive coordinator at the helm. As does Arkansas, which has a new secondary coach and defensive line coach as well.

Vanderbilt, meanwhile, has an new staff from top to bottom.

Continuity is certainly not a strong point among SEC coaching staffs. Barring another last-minute transaction, 24 coaches will hold new positions in the conference this season. All but four SEC programs made it through the spring and summer unscathed.

Auburn, somehow, was one of those fortunate four that includes Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee.

[+] EnlargeGus Malzahn
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Gus Malzahn retained his entire coaching staff from last year's SEC championship team.
It’s surprising when you consider the usual chain of events in college football, and it’s a simple formula: have success, win a bunch of games, watch as your coaching staff gets poached. Just look at Jeremy Pruitt. He won a third national championship at Alabama in 2012 and parlayed it into a job as defensive coordinator at Florida State. Then the Seminoles won the title in 2013 and he turned that into a move to Georgia.

The basic premise is this: You won something. You must be doing something different. Let’s hire you and see what exactly that is.

So how did Auburn keep offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee? As one of the architects of Gus Malzahn’s pedal-to-the-metal offense, there must have been other opportunities. But he stayed. And Dameyune Craig? The co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach has head coach written all over him. He’s worked under both Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher, and is known as one of the best recruiters in the country. But he stayed, too.

“Our motto or theme last year was ‘Together,’ and that's how we did it,” Malzahn said at SEC media days. “Players, coaches, administrators -- we did it together.”

And somehow they stayed together. Now they’re reaping the rewards.

“We have our entire staff back for the second year, which I think is huge,” Malzahn said. “Same offense, same defense, same terminology.”

As defensive backs coach Melvin Smith put it: “Continuity is everything.”

“It really means a lot,” he said. “There’s nothing like being together.”

Rodney Garner, who was the longest-tenured coach at Georgia before joining Malzahn in Auburn last season, enjoys going to practice every day knowing what he’s going to get. In fact, he said that the staff might “know each other too well.” But knowing one another’s strengths and weaknesses is a good thing, he said.

When Garner puts his defensive linemen against J.B. Grimes’ offensive line, he knows they're going to make each other better.

“We’re joined at the hip,” Garner said. “For me to be good, I have to go against J.B. He has to help me sharpen my skills.

“Kids see that, ‘Hey, this staff is together. It’s a cohesive group.’ We’re on one accord.'"

That pays off in recruiting.

As Garner explained, selling recruits 4-5 years from now is all about showing stability.

“We want to build the program on a solid foundation that’s not going to be up and down,” he said. “Hopefully, people are going to see a steady climb.”

Grimes has seen all types of staffs in his 30 years coaching college football. Every coach at this level is good at what they do, he said. But, as he put it, “When you have a revolving door of assistant coaches ... it affects you in recruiting.”

“When you have continuity, you have that same coach walking in that high school knowing where the lunch lady is; he knows where the guidance counselor is,” he said. “There aren’t bad coaches in the SEC, but when you get that revolving door in recruiting, that’s when it has a negative impact.”

Today, Auburn is solidly in the top 10 of ESPN’s class rankings with 19 commitments, seven of whom rank among the top 300 recruits in the country.

“We know what each other wants,” Grimes said. “They know what I’m looking for in an offensive lineman. I know what Rodney Garner wants in his D-line, so I’m not going to waste his time bringing him a kid to show him that I know he’s not going to like. ... I’m not going to bring Melvin Smith a 5-foot-8 corner to look at. He doesn’t want that kind of guy. I know that.”

And knowing is sometimes half the battle.

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