SEC: Auburn Tigers

SEC morning links

August, 27, 2014
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1. The college football season is just a day away, and what better way to kick things off than with a premier matchup in the SEC between South Carolina and Texas A&M. In fact, it’s just one of many intriguing games during the first weekend. Feel blessed. In 2004, the best SEC game from the opening weekend was No. 3 LSU against a mediocre Oregon State team. Matchups like Alabama-Utah State or Georgia-Georgia Southern were more the norm. But let's get back to this season. Athlon Sports previewed the top five college football games of Week 1, and four of the five included SEC teams. LSU-Wisconsin is at the top of my list just because I have no idea what to expect from the Tigers.

2. The other major matchup this weekend takes place between the hedges where Georgia will host Clemson in a clash of Top 25 teams. The two played a shootout last year, but both starting quarterbacks have moved on to the next level. To me, one of the bigger storylines from this game will be if Deshaun Watson takes the field for Clemson, and if so, how much will the talented freshman quarterback play? Georgia expects to see Watson at some point even though Cole Stoudt will start for the Tigers. Don’t forget that it’s somewhat of a homecoming for Watson. The nation’s top dual-threat quarterback hails from Gainesville, Georgia, and Mark Richt made a strong push to flip the in-state recruit.

3. We’ve already seen Greg McElroy take center stage on the SEC Network. How about analysis from another former Alabama quarterback? John Parker Wilson gives his take on the current quarterback battle going on in Tuscaloosa as part of AL.com’s “Film Room” series. Wilson goes over some plays that might help make like easer for both Blake Sims and Jacob Coker, and if there’s anybody who would know, it’s him. He played two seasons for Nick Saban. Meanwhile, West Virginia coach Dana Holgorsen isn’t amused with the ongoing quarterback competition. Holgorsen said too much has been made about the position and that the offense won’t change much regardless of who’s under center. He’s probably right.

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Video: Auburn's Week 1 QB plan

August, 26, 2014
Aug 26
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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.

Recruiting changing in up-tempo era 

August, 25, 2014
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The SEC, a league that is known for its hard-nose, physical style of play is slowly transforming into a spread-offense, up-tempo league. It's a change that hasn't happened overnight and teams like Alabama, LSU, Georgia, with their pro-style offenses, will always have their imprint on the toughest league in all of college football.

With fast-paced offenses such as Auburn, Missouri, Ole Miss and Texas A&M having much success over the last few years, it's forcing defenses to change their philosophy on who they recruit to defend against these spread attacks.

The 6-foot-3, 245-pound middle linebackers are dwindling and replacing them are hybrid linebackers that can rush the passer and run sideline-to-sideline. There are 23 outside linebackers committed to SEC schools currently, all but one, Darrell Williams, weigh less than 220 pounds. There are only four inside linebackers committed to SEC schools.

SEC morning links

August, 25, 2014
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1. Game week is here. We are just three days away from South Carolina and Texas A&M. Steve Spurrier is ready. But there are still some question marks around the SEC, specifically at quarterback. Who does LSU go with against Wisconsin? Will Alabama ever name a starter before its first game? And how much will Nick Marshall play in Auburn’s season opener? The latter is yet to be determined, but Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Sunday that both Marshall and backup Jeremy Johnson know what to expect as the Arkansas game approaches. If you’re like me, you’re just ready for all three schools to name a starter so we can stop talking about it.

2. For those hoping to see the SEC’s next Jared Lorenzen, it might be awhile. There was talk that Jeremy Liggins, who stands at 6-foot-3, 296 pounds, would take some reps as the Wildcat quarterback for Ole Miss this season, but that’s not going to happen. Instead, it will be Anthony Alford, a Southern Miss transfer who also plays baseball in the Toronto Blue Jays farm system. Alford was taken in the third round of the 2012 MLB draft. Don’t sleep on Liggins, though. Rebels' coach Hugh Freeze says there are multiple packages where the former high school quarterback will line up at tight end. And since we brought up Lorenzen, I encourage you read this piece on the former Kentucky gunslinger and his lifelong battle with weight.

3. We at the SEC blog looked at the most important game for every SEC team in 2014. Along those same lines, David Climer of The Tennessean put out his 14 for ’14 – the defining game of 2014 for every SEC team. Some are more obvious like Georgia going to South Carolina early in the season or Alabama making the trip to Death Valley to take on LSU. But I was surprised to see that Tennessee’s “defining game” is the season opener against Utah State. Don’t get me wrong. Utah State has one of the nation’s most productive quarterbacks in Chuckie Keeton, and the Vols can’t afford to lose that game. But the defining game? I’d make a case for the Florida game or maybe Vanderbilt at the end of the season. The Commodores have taken the last two in the rivalry. What do UT fans think?

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Who’s next? That’s the question asked by so many college football fans this time of year. Who’s the next star going to be? For some fans, they’re more excited to see the incoming freshmen for the first time rather than the players who are already on campus.

It’s no different at Auburn, where Gus Malzahn and his staff signed a top-10 recruiting class this past February in their first full year together. Now it’s time to take the field, and Malzahn believes a handful of newcomers, true freshmen included, could play when the Tigers open the season at home against Arkansas.

Over the weekend, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee echoed Malzahn’s thoughts and praised the incoming freshmen.

“Overall, we’re very pleased with our freshman class on the offensive side of the ball,” Lashlee said. “I feel like all those guys are what we thought they were or maybe even more.”

Here’s a look at five freshmen on offense who either impressed during fall camp or have a chance to play this season.

Note: This is true freshmen only, which is why junior college transfer D'haquille Williams isn’t on the list.

[+] EnlargeBraden Smith
Courtesy of IntersportBraden Smith's strength and versatility is already making an impact at Auburn.
RB Racean Thomas: Thomas was the highest-ranked recruit in Auburn’s 2014 class, and despite a crowded backfield, he has the best chance to play early. Thomas, who arrived in the summer, impressed the coaches during camp and should only get better as the year goes on. Fellow freshman running back Kamryn Pettway also had a good camp, but Thomas is the name to know. Don’t be surprised if he’s the lead back by the end of the season.

OT Braden Smith: Lashlee refers to him as the Hulk; Reese Dismukes thinks he looks more like Ivan Drago from "Rocky IV." Regardless of what you call him, Smith is a physical specimen. He might be one of the strongest players on the team, and he’s just a freshman. He’s currently taking reps behind Shon Coleman at left tackle, but he can play anywhere and provides a safety valve for the Tigers up front.

HB Jakell Mitchell: It’s been little more than a year since Mitchell tore his ACL, forcing him to miss his senior high school season, but you wouldn’t know it based on his performance in fall camp. He’s blown away the coaches with his athleticism, and though he still needs to add weight, he gives Auburn a different look at the H-back position.

WR Stanton Truitt: Unlike the other freshmen on this list, Truitt had the luxury of arriving in January and going through spring practice. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he plays a position in which Auburn is loaded. However, there’s a good chance the 5-foot-9, 175-pound dynamo still will find his way onto the field, possibly as a return man.

QB Sean White: Is White going to play this year? The coaches sure hope not. They want to redshirt him, if possible. So why is he on this list? Simple: He was one of the top freshman performers in fall camp and did enough that Malzahn named him the No. 3 quarterback behind Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson. White clearly has a bright future.
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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.”
The SEC is no stranger to losing underclassmen to the NFL draft each year, making finding true fourth-year stars harder than ever.

In the 2012 draft, the SEC saw 12 underclassmen bolt for the NFL early. That number jumped to a record 32 players -- counting dismissed LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu -- in 2013. The league then lost 28 underclassmen to this year's draft.

In the past, the SEC hasn't had a problem replacing its young stars, but things might be a little more difficult this time. The SEC didn't just lose a plethora of talent, it lost bona fide star power.

Here's a list of a few underclassmen who no longer suit up for their schools:
That's just a short list, but of the guys listed above, all but Easley, who suffered an ACL injury early last season, were first-team All-SEC members last year, and only Ealy and Mason were left out of the first round of this year's NFL draft.

That's quite the haul for the NFL, and the SEC finds itself in a bind at certain spots because of the mass exodus of experienced seniors and underclassmen. We already knew that the league would likely see its offenses take a couple of steps back with such a great quarterback class gone, but plenty of other positions have been affected.

The SEC lost four of its top five receivers from last year: Evans, Beckham, Ole Miss' Donte Moncrief and LSU's Jarvis Landry. That's 257 catches, 4,677 yards and 36 touchdowns gone. South Carolina also lost top receiving option Bruce Ellington, who led the Gamecocks with 775 yards and eight touchdowns. These losses sting even more for Texas A&M and LSU, who are breaking in new starting quarterbacks this season.

Once again, the team affected the most by the underclassmen migration was LSU. A year after losing 11 underclassmen -- including Mathieu -- to the draft, the Tigers said goodbye to seven more underclassmen, a number that led the conference.

For a team entering the season ranked 13th in the preseason AP poll, LSU has a lot of ground to make up with Beckham and Landry gone, along with beastly running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 1,401 yards and 16 touchdowns during his redshirt sophomore season in 2013. LSU also parted ways with starting defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson.

Have Alabama pegged as your early SEC champ and in the College Football Playoff? Well, think about the fact that its defense lost a chunk of experience and talent. We already knew that seniors C.J. Mosley, Ed Stinson and Deion Belue were going to be gone, but add guys like Clinton-Dix, Jeoffrey Pagan, Adrian Hubbard and Vinnie Sunseri, who surely would have been staples in this year's relatively younger defense, and Alabama has some holes that need tending to. And don't forget that All-American Cyrus Kouandjio will likely be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson.

Remember, talent isn't everything. Experience goes a long way in this league.

Think Florida's defense will continue to be elite under Will Muschamp? (It hasn't finished worse than eighth nationally in total defense during Muschamp's three years). Well, Easley was arguably Florida's best player before his season-ending knee injury, and corners Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson are both gone, leaving the Gators with an inexperienced secondary besides star cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.

The departure of Clowney and Kelcy Quarles, who led South Carolina in sacks last year, makes the Gamecocks' defensive line less formidable, and while Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin might be a quarterback whiz, asking Kenny Hill to duplicate Johnny Football's success is a tall order.

Look, the SEC has gone through this before and come out fine. Last year, Auburn and Alabama finished the regular season ranked in the top four of the BCS standings, and seven league teams were ranked in the final AP Top 25. The loss of so many underclassmen didn't scare voters this year, either, as eight teams will enter the season ranked in the preseason AP poll.

Maybe it isn't anything to worry about, but if you're looking for a problem in the SEC, it's that the underclassmen who bolted manned very important positions for SEC squads.
A year removed from the deepest and one of the most talented quarterback classes in SEC history, the landscape has changed.

Some might say dramatically.

Consider this: The player who has dotted all of the preseason All-SEC teams as the top quarterback, Auburn's Nick Marshall, began his college career as a cornerback at Georgia.

What's that really mean?

Well, Johnny Manziel was just another unproven redshirt freshman two years ago at this time. Even at Texas A&M, nobody had any idea that Manziel was on the cusp of becoming a cult hero, not to mention a game-changing quarterback.

Now, you can't turn on the television without hearing Johnny Football's name.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsLast season Nick Marshall became the fourth QB in SEC history to rush for at least 1,000 yards.
Marshall's rise to the top of the SEC's quarterback pecking order hasn't been that dramatic. Nonetheless, his second life in the SEC proved to be a rousing success last season as he led Auburn within seconds of a national championship. Even with his trouble off the field this offseason, a year of seasoning in Gus Malzahn's system should make him even more effective.

He's as explosive as they come as a runner and has become a more polished passer.

"You saw it as last season went on, that he became a much more confident passer," Malzahn said. "You'll see an even bigger jump in his overall game this season because he's much more in tune with what we're asking of him. We should be able to do more, and he should be able to do more."

Marshall, who won't start the opener against Arkansas because of the citation he received this summer for marijuana possession, just missed being a 2,000-yard passer and 1,000-yard rusher last season. He passed for 1,976 yards and rushed for 1,068 yards, becoming just the fourth quarterback in SEC history to rush for 1,000 yards.

His backup at Auburn, Jeremy Johnson, vowed this week that Marshall would win the Heisman Trophy this season. That might be a stretch, but whereas there were three SEC quarterbacks legitimately in that conversation entering last season -- Alabama's AJ McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Manziel -- it's a lot trickier to tab a big three in the SEC this season.

What's more, when you throw in South Carolina's Connor Shaw and LSU's Zach Mettenberger, it was really more of a big five a year ago.

All five are currently in NFL camps, meaning the door to join Marshall in the first-class quarterback cabin is wide open.

Two of the most experienced quarterbacks are Ole Miss' Bo Wallace and South Carolina's Dylan Thompson. Wallace is entering his third season as the starter, and more important, is finally healthy after being plagued with shoulder problems last season.

"I'm throwing it as well as I ever have," Wallace said. "Even the defensive guys are coming up to me and saying, ‘Your arm is back.' So not only do I feel it, but guys are seeing a difference on the field."

Wallace passed for 3,346 yards and accounted for 24 touchdowns last season. He also cut his interceptions from 17 to 10. So by any standard, it was a very good season. But Wallace admits that he didn't really have his fastball.

"The way I've always played is that I've sort of been a gambler and not afraid to try and fit a pass in there," Wallace said. "I always thought I could make that throw, whatever throw it was. I had to change the way I played a little bit. Looking back on it now, it probably helped with my timing and anticipating the throw. And now that my shoulder is back to where it was, that's going to get me where I want to be."

Thompson, who like Wallace is a senior, finally gets his shot as the Gamecocks' starter after serving as an ace reliever any time Shaw went down over the past few years.

"Everybody wanted to label Connor as a runner, and he was," Thompson said. "But he did a really good job of managing the game. He didn't take too many risks. He just worked the ball down the field. You looked up and they were in the end zone. That was a credit to coach [G.A.] Mangus and coach [Steve] Spurrier, and that's what I want to do."

With Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason naming Patton Robinette as the Commodores' starter Thursday night, that leaves two starting jobs in the league unsettled. Alabama is trying to decide between Blake Sims and Jake Coker, and LSU is trying to sort it out between Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris.

Among those four quarterbacks, they have one career start.

In fact, other than Marshall and Wallace, the only other two quarterbacks in the SEC who have more than 10 career starts are Arkansas' Brandon Allen and Florida's Jeff Driskel. Both dealt with injuries last season, and a broken leg sidelined Driskel for all but the first three games.

"The SEC is going to be the SEC," Thompson said. "You're going to look up, and you're still probably going to have four teams in the top 10 at the end of the year. Those guys [from 2013] were also nobodies at some point. I guess that's what everybody is making it out to be. It's going to play out the way it's supposed to. That's what we're excited about, not just the quarterbacks, but all the players on this team."

SEC morning links

August, 22, 2014
Aug 22
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1. You’re up LSU. Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason named Patton Robinette as his starting quarterback on Thursday night, leaving only one starting battle -- LSU’s -- publicly open. Tennessee (Justin Worley), Kentucky (Patrick Towles), Texas A&M (Kenny Hill) and now Vanderbilt have all announced the victors in their quarterback races lately after allowing the races to extend well into preseason camp. At Vandy, Robinette, who came into August as the favorite, won out over LSU transfer Stephen Rivers and redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary. “We were just looking for the most consistent guy day in and day out. He had very few lows, a lot of highs and really just did a great job of keeping his composure,” Mason said in announcing his decision.

2. You’ve probably seen 100 lame, subjective lists where some bored columnist ranks the best SEC fan bases -- usually in a summertime column when there’s no actual news to cover. Emory University’s sports marketing analytics group tries to gauge fan support in a more scientific fashion (you can read about its methodology here) and it found that six of the top 12 fan bases are in the SEC, led by Nos. 3-6 Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Arkansas. Surely Alabama and LSU fans can find some nits to pick with this study, but take that up with the folks at Emory. As they explained, evaluating the quality of a sports brand is a complicated endeavor.

3. Let’s revise that item from this post yesterday. It turns out that the organizers of a charity fundraiser in Mobile, Alabama, don’t want infamous Crimson Tide fan Harvey Updyke to be associated with the event after all. That’s the smart move. This is an event designed to engender goodwill for a great cause, not give a jerk the dunking or pie in the face that he so richly deserves. Former Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron’s mother, Dee Dee, is involved in the event, which will be held in tribute of a 7-year-old boy who recently passed away after a battle with cancer. Here’s hoping it turns into the successful event it should have been all along before adding Updyke threatened to turn it into a sideshow act.

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Malzahn remains mum on Auburn QBs

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
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AUBURN, Ala. – The season is less than 10 days away, and Auburn has yet to name its starting quarterback for the season opener against Arkansas. In his last media availability before game week, head coach Gus Malzahn wouldn’t divulge details as to who is starting or how much of the first game Nick Marshall will miss because of his suspension.

“We’ll have a plan,” Malzahn said. “Me and Rhett [Lashlee] will get together this weekend, and we’ll go from there.”

[+] EnlargeJeremy Johnson
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesThere's no official word, but Jeremy Johnson seems to be the likely starter in Auburn's season opener.
For those wondering if Malzahn is leaving the door open for Marshall to start, he extinguished those rumors Tuesday, reiterating that Marshall will not start against the Razorbacks, a decision he announced at the beginning of fall camp following Marshall's citation for marijuana this offseason.

Malzahn also recently named true freshman Sean White the team’s third-string quarterback, which leaves sophomore Jeremy Johnson the front-runner and really only candidate to start the first game, though nothing has been made official.

On Saturday, Johnson said he hadn’t been told who the starter would be, but that he was preparing as he if were the guy.

“I still approach practice every day as the starter,” Johnson said. “I’m getting reps with both orange and blue, first team and second team, but if I’m called upon to start the first game, I’ll be ready.”

The depth chart for the first game comes out Tuesday, so Johnson shouldn’t have long to find out if in fact he is the guy. As far as Johnson’s mental psyche and the not knowing, Malzahn doesn’t believe it will affect the 6-foot-5, 230-pound quarterback.

“If I worried about anything like that, we’d already have done it,” Malzahn said. “But we don’t worry at all. We’ll have a good plan, and our guys will respond well. We know our guys pretty well.”

The uncertainty does not change the offense either.

“We’ll run our offense regardless [of who’s starting],” Malzahn added Thursday.

Johnson started two games as a freshman and finished 29 of 41 for 422 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. He was a four-star recruit coming out of high school, ranked No. 140 in the 2013 ESPN 300 and No. 6 in the state of Alabama.
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.

Preseason All-SEC team

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
9:05
AM ET
With the season exactly a week away, we're taking one last look at the best players the SEC has to offer.

We've ranked the 25 best players, every position and the top players at every position. That's a lot of rankings, but with the coaches announcing their All-SEC teams later Thursday, we thought we'd create our own 2014 preseason team. We're also releasing our ESPN.com All-American team on Thursday, so you're getting quite the gift!

The esteemed Chris Low and I put our heads together to create one team that we think won't garner any criticism. It's perfect, really:

OFFENSE

QB - Nick Marshall, Auburn: Although he started his SEC career as a cornerback at Georgia, Marshall enters the 2014 season as the most explosive quarterback in the conference. He’s also improved as a passer and should be even better now that he has an entire year in Gus Malzahn’s offense under his belt.

RB - Todd Gurley, Georgia: The only thing holding Gurley back last season was injuries. He just missed rushing for 1,000 yards for the second straight season but says he’s 100 percent healthy again. He has the perfect blend of size and speed and will be right in the mix for the Heisman Trophy.

RB - Mike Davis, South Carolina: He might have flown under the radar heading into last season, but Davis left little doubt that he was one of the premier running backs in college football. He’s built low to the ground and is tough to tackle but also has breakaway speed.

WR - Amari Cooper, Alabama: Lingering injuries a year ago kept Cooper from matching his production as a freshman, when he was virtually unstoppable down the stretch for the Crimson Tide. He’s once again healthy and poised to reclaim the mantle as the top college pass-catcher.

WR - Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss: All Treadwell did as a true freshman was lead Ole Miss in receiving with 72 catches. At 6-foot-2 and 229 pounds, he’s moving from the slot to the outside receiver position this season and has the hands, speed and size to have an even bigger season as a sophomore.

TE - O.J. Howard, Alabama: Coach Nick Saban has had some good tight ends at Alabama but nobody as talented as Howard when it comes to getting down the field and making big plays in the passing game. The 6-6, 240-pound Howard will be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses.

OT - Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies just keep churning out premier tackles, and like Jake Matthews and Luke Joeckel before him, the 6-5, 305-pound Ogbuehi is moving from the right side to the left side this season. Already some analysts have pegged him as the top tackle in next year's NFL draft.

OG - Vadal Alexander, LSU: Now in his third season as a starter on LSU’s offensive line, the 6-5, 340-pound Alexander is a powerful run-blocker and equally effective as a pass-protector. Of his 22 career starts, 13 have come at left guard and nine at right tackle, so he’s also versatile.

C - Reese Dismukes, Auburn: A finalist for the Rimington Trophy last season, Dismukes has been a starter since his freshman season, spanning 37 career starts. He’s the one who makes that Auburn offensive line go and a big reason the Tigers led the country in rushing last season.

OG - A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The Gamecocks’ offensive line has a chance to be one of the best in the league, in large part because Cann returns as one of the top interior offensive linemen. He’s a dominant run-blocker and a force at the point of attack.

OT - La’el Collins, LSU: Some thought the 6-5, 321-pound Collins might turn pro after last season, but he elected to return for his senior season and should be one of the top college tackles. He started his career at guard but is now protecting the blind side for the Tigers.

DEFENSE

DL - Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: The Gators' top pass-rusher, Fowler could be a monster this year as a hybrid defensive end/linebacker. Fowler covers so much ground with his speed. He can terrorize the backfield and drop back to cover running backs and tight ends.

DL - A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama: As a freshman, Robinson led Alabama with 5.5 sacks and had eight tackles for loss as both an end and tackle. Robinson is extremely disruptive up front and has barely scratched the surface with his potential.

DL - Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: He arrived in Oxford as the nation's No. 1 overall recruit, and although he only had two sacks and eight tackles for loss as a freshman, he's been the Rebels' best player this offseason. Nkemdiche has moved to his more natural position of tackle and has been nearly unstoppable in camp.

DL - Chris Jones, Mississippi State: He might not have had the hype attached to his name that Nkemdiche had as a freshman, but he made more of an overall impact for the Bulldogs. Jones can line up both inside and out and isn't just disruptive for his own sake. He creates tons of plays for his teammates.

LB - Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Quietly, McKinney enters the 2014 season with 173 tackles in the past two seasons. He's the captain of Mississippi State's defense at middle linebacker but has the speed to cover ground all over the field and can play outside if needed.

LB - Leonard Floyd, Georgia: After he led the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks last season, Floyd's hype is growing by the minute. His teammates have had trouble blocking him all offseason, and with his tremendous speed and strength, he should be an absolute terror off the edge.

LB - Ramik Wilson, Georgia: With his ability to cover so much ground and frustrate opposing backfields, Wilson has played himself into consideration for a first-round NFL draft grade for next year. During his first year as a starter with the Bulldogs in 2013, Wilson led the SEC with 134 tackles.

CB - Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida: As a freshman last season, Hargreaves became one of the nation's best cover corners. He blankets receivers and has tremendous range, and he led the Gators with three interceptions and 14 passes defended in 2013.

S - Landon Collins, Alabama: Another Alabama safety with the potential to be one of the first defenders taken when the NFL comes calling, Collins can do just about everything for the Crimson Tide. He's a true ball hawk when he drops back but is also physical enough to play deep inside the box.

S - Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss: His range and and ball skills make him a dangerous man to throw against. Prewitt was named an All-American last year after defending 13 passes and leading the SEC with six interceptions.

CB - Tre’Davious White, LSU: He's excellent in man-to-man situations and led the Tigers with nine passes defended in 2013. He had only two interceptions last season, but with the amount of ground he can cover and his nose for the ball, White should have no problem pushing past that number this fall.

K - Marshall Morgan, Georgia: After a rocky first season, Morgan connected on 22 of his 24 field goal attempts in 2013. He really improved his long game, too, making 7 of 8 kicks from 40 yards or more.

P - Drew Kaser, Texas A&M: Not only did Kaser damage a light in A&M's indoor practice facility earlier this week, he was an All-American and a Ray Guy Award finalist last year after booming 17 punts 50-plus yards, putting 17 inside the 20-yard line and averaging a school-record 47.4-yard average per punt.

KR - Christion Jones, Alabama: One of the most versatile players in the league, Jones ranked second in the SEC in kickoff returns (28.7 yards per return) and punt returns (14 YPR) and returned three kicks for touchdowns last season.

SEC morning links

August, 21, 2014
Aug 21
8:00
AM ET
1. Talk to any SEC athletic director about priorities during football season and fans’ in-game experience inevitably arises in the conversation. With so many games available now on TV – which you can watch for free, from the comfort of home, in high definition – SEC schools researched the areas of greatest concern to fans. They found that availability of concessions and restroom conditions were the top issues, and other concerns include cell service and video production. The SEC reported that 12 schools have upgraded their concessions before this season and at least eight are working on improving restroom and/or cell service. Those changes won’t necessarily be the deciding factor in whether most fans attend a game, but in this day and age, schools recognize that they must provide as many fan amenities as possible because there are so many entertainment options available.

2. This might be too much for even the most even-tempered Auburn fan to turn down. Deranged Alabama fan Harvey Updyke, who poisoned the famous Toomer’s Oaks in downtown Auburn, has agreed to appear at a Sept. 29 charity event in Mobile, Alabama, where fans can dunk him in a dunking booth or throw pies at his face. The event will help raise funds for “Roses From Linda,” which helps family members visit terminally ill patients before they die. Updyke’s wife, Elva, said he told charity organizers “they can do whatever they want to him if it will raise money for kids.” So get your pitching arms warmed up, Auburn fans. You’ve got about a month.

3. Speaking of the Iron Bowl, hey, whaddya know? The Auburn-Alabama game is college football’s hottest ticket on the secondary market, according to this story from Forbes. The median price is only $535 a pop. No big deal. Also included in the top 10 are six other games that feature SEC teams (Alabama-LSU, Florida-Alabama, Clemson-Georgia, LSU-Texas A&M, Texas A&M-Alabama and Auburn-Georgia). None of those games hold a candle to the top single-game ticket price from last preseason, however. At this time last year, Alabama-Texas A&M tickets were going for an average of $744 on the secondary market.

More from the SEC
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SEC morning links

August, 20, 2014
Aug 20
8:00
AM ET
1. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been sweeping social media and the SEC along with it. On Tuesday we posted a rundown of some of the notable challenges accepted by SEC nation, including Arkansas coach Bret Bielema, LSU coach Les Miles and Kentucky coach Mark Stoops. Later on Tuesday, two of the biggest-named coaches who hadn't yet been doused with the cold stuff took the challenges: Alabama coach Nick Saban and South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. Saban challenged Heisman Trophy winner and NFL running back Mark Ingram (an Alabama product), U.S. Senator Joe Manchin (a friend of Saban's from West Virginia), Florida coach Will Muschamp and none other than Paul Finebaum. Spurrier handed his challenges out to Saban, Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops and their respective coaching staffs. Saban had his team do the challenge with him and Spurrier had his coaching staff take the dousings with him. These challenges continue to raise a significant number of funds for the ALS Association and have provided some fun videos to boot.

2. Florida's offense is looking for a huge boost this season after a dismal season in 2013 and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is what the doctor ordered. On Tuesday, Roper reflected on his journey from his own days as a high school quarterback to being the son of a coach. After the work he did at Duke last season and his extensive time coaching in the SEC, he should be a good fit for the Gators. Making the offense more high-paced and wide-open will allow the Gators to utilize the talents of quarterback Jeff Driskel and expect them to take a significant step forward, with Roper orchestrating the attack.

3. Many of us figured that Cleveland Browns fans would want a certain SEC product to be their starting quarterback when the Browns season begins next month, but who knew that that SEC quarterback would be Connor Shaw? In a poll on Cleveland.com asking readers to vote for who they think should be the starting quarterback in the season opener against Pittsburgh, Shaw -- a South Carolina product -- is winning in a landslide over first-round pick Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M. Of course, considering the way Manziel (and Brian Hoyer) performed and the timing of the poll, some reactionary votes are to be expected. But by that wide a margin? Wow. Give Shaw credit, he was the model of toughness and a winner during his South Carolina days and no doubt there are many happy for him after he performed well on Monday night against Washington.

More from around the SEC:
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