SEC: Alex Kozan

It was a sad day for the Auburn football team. A day after Will Muschamp was announced as the new defensive coordinator, the Tigers lost one of their own when freshman tight end Jakell Mitchell was shot and killed early Sunday morning.

“I’m devastated and saddened by the passing of Jakell Mitchell,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said in a statement. “My thoughts and prayers are with Jakell’s family and friends, who are suffering through this senseless tragedy.

“I know the Auburn family is hurting, especially our players and coaches, and we are going to love and support them through this difficult time. We have lost a member of our family too young, too soon.”

The loss of Mitchell, who grew up not far from Auburn’s campus, prompted several of his coaches and teammates to express their grief via Twitter on Sunday.
Even some former Alabama players, now playing in the NFL, shared their condolences to Mitchell and the Auburn family before Sunday's game.
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.

Auburn Tigers season preview

August, 6, 2014
Aug 6
10:30
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Auburn Tigers:

2013 record: 12-2, lost to Florida State in the BCS National Championship

Final grade for 2013 season: What a season it was for Gus Malzahn. He takes over in December after Auburn finished 3-9 the year before and leads the Tigers to 12 wins and an SEC championship and comes a play or two away from winning the national championship. How about that for a debut? The only reason it’s not an A-plus is because of the loss to Florida State, but an A seems more than deserving.

Key losses: RB Tre Mason, HB Jay Prosch, OT Greg Robinson, DT Nosa Eguae, DE Dee Ford, CB Chris Davis, S Ryan White

Key returnees: QB Nick Marshall, WR Sammie Coates, C Reese Dismukes, OL Avery Young, DT Gabe Wright, LB Cassanova McKinzy, CB Jonathon Mincy, S Jermaine Whitehead

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesExpect Nick Marshall to be even better this season after dazzling in his first season as Auburn's starter in 2013.
Projected 2014 starters: QB Nick Marshall, RB Cameron Artis-Payne, WR Sammie Coates, WR Ricardo Louis, WR D'haquille Williams, TE C.J. Uzomah, LT Shon Coleman, LG Chad Slade, C Reese Dismukes, RG Avery Young, RT Patrick Miller, DE LaDarius Owens, DT Gabe Wright, DT Montravius Adams, DE Elijah Daniel, MLB Cassanova McKinzy, WLB Kris Frost, Star Robenson Therezie, CB Jonathon Mincy, S Jermaine Whitehead, S Derrick Moncrief, CB Jonathan Jones

Instant-impact newcomers: RB Roc Thomas, WR D'haquille Williams, OL Braden Smith, DL DaVonte Lambert, LB Tre Williams, S Derrick Moncrief

Breakout player: If you can count on anything with Malzahn running the offense, count on him having a productive running back. He had Ben Tate when he was offensive coordinator on the Plains, and last season Mason led the SEC in rushing. Next up is Artis-Payne. The former junior college transfer hasn’t won the starting job yet, but he seems to have a leg up in the competition and showed flashes last season, rushing for 610 yards and six touchdowns. He’s a bruiser but has quick feet to complement his size.

Most important game: The easy answer is Alabama because, well, it’s the Iron Bowl. But a visit from LSU in early October could set the tone for the rest of the season. Auburn has beaten LSU only once in the past seven years, and though the Tigers still made the BCS title game after an early loss to LSU last season, this year’s team can’t afford the same result. The second half of the schedule is brutal, and it’s crucial that Auburn gets through the first half unscathed.

Biggest question mark: What’s life going to be without Alex Kozan and Carl Lawson? Kozan is expected to miss the entire season with a back injury, and Lawson could miss the majority of it recovering from ACL surgery. Both players had All-SEC potential, and their losses cannot be understated. Auburn has capable bodies to fill in on both the offensive and defensive lines, but the production will still take a hit. Can the offensive line block the way it did a year ago without one of its top interior linemen? Can the defensive line get pressure on the quarterback without its top pass rusher?

Upset special: A nonconference road trip to Manhattan, Kansas? On a Thursday night? That just screams upset. Auburn has an extra week to prepare for the game, but don’t sleep on Kansas State. The Wildcats are ranked No. 21 in the preseason coaches’ poll. They have one of the best wide receivers in the country in Tyler Lockett and a solid quarterback in Jake Waters. This is a huge test early in the season for Auburn, and did I mention it’s on a Thursday night?

Key stat: If Jeremy Johnson starts against Arkansas, he will become the eighth different quarterback to start the season opener for Auburn in as many seasons. The last Auburn quarterback to start back-to-back season openers was Brandon Cox in 2006 and 2007.

They said it: “Last year, we snuck [up] on some people. This year, we’re going to be circled, and we told our players that. We’re going to have to be better in every phase, especially early in the season. We’re going to get everybody’s best shot. Really, that’s where you want your program to be. Last year at this time, we were just trying to get it back to that point, and we did that. Obviously, we’re disappointed we came up 13 seconds short of winning the whole thing, but we’re extremely motivated from a players’ standpoint and from a coaches’ standpoint moving forward.” -- Head coach Gus Malzahn, at SEC media days in July.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Information: 9.2 wins

Bovada over/under: 9

Our take: Despite losing two first-round draft picks and the SEC’s leading rusher, this season's Auburn team might actually be more talented than last year’s squad. Marshall is back at quarterback, Malzahn said this might be the most talented group of wide receivers he’s ever had on the Plains, and the defense is deeper than it was a year ago. The problem is the schedule. The Tigers travel to both Georgia and Alabama, and there’s a four-game stretch beginning the last weekend in October that’s as rigorous as you’ll see in college football. Auburn would love to duplicate what it did last season, but don’t be surprised if the Tigers have two losses heading into the Iron Bowl. Nine wins seems about right for this team.
The target was already on Auburn entering this season after it rose from the ashes a year ago to win the SEC championship and come within an eyelash of winning the national title.

Now the Tigers have a few more obstacles to overcome.

Coach Gus Malzahn announced Friday to open practice that quarterback Nick Marshall and cornerback Jonathon Mincy would not start the opener against Arkansas after both encountered marijuana-related legal trouble this offseason. Both will play in the game, and it was a given that they were going to face some type of punishment.

The bigger blow Friday came with the news that starting left guard Alex Kozan, a preseason All-SEC selection, would miss the entire season after suffering a back injury while lifting weights this summer.

The Tigers have some depth in their offensive line, and the plan is to move Chad Slade from right guard to left guard and Avery Young into the starting lineup at right guard. Young started the last nine games a year ago at right tackle after stepping in for Patrick Miller.

So, obviously, there's no reason to panic at this point, but another injury in the offensive line would be real cause for alarm.

The last place any team wants to be losing starters, particularly all-conference performers, is the line of scrimmage. And that's a pair Auburn has lost now, including defensive end Carl Lawson before the start of preseason camp. Lawson underwent ACL surgery and is expected to miss most, if not all, of the season.

One of the keys to winning a championship is avoiding injuries. Equally important is having enough depth to overcome those injuries.

It's never ideal to have off-the-field issues, either, although Auburn has enough veteran leaders on this team to remain focused and not get sidetracked. And you know this offense is going to be explosive.

Still, the landscape has changed. The Tigers won't sneak up on anybody this season, and the schedule is more treacherous than it was a year ago. The Western Division will be as rugged as it's ever been.

The ball bounced just right a couple of different times last season for Auburn, and that's not to diminish what a special season it was on the Plains.

But with preseason camp only 1 day old, there are warning signs that Year No. 2 under Malzahn could get tricky.

Video: Auburn OL Alex Kozan

April, 1, 2014
Apr 1
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Auburn offensive lineman Alex Kozan talks to ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf about the team's mindset this spring, the ongoing position battle at left tackle and the progression of quarterback Nick Marshall.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Shon Coleman knows a thing or two about battles. He was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 2010, just months after signing with Auburn. It kept him off the football field for four years, but he won that fight and returned to action last season against Arkansas State.

“It was very exciting just to get back on the field,” Coleman said Saturday. “I hadn’t been out there in a long time. It was really a dream come true to see myself get out there.”

[+] EnlargeShon Coleman
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIShon Coleman, who was diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, has recovered completely and is squarely in the battle to be Auburn's starting left tackle.
The left tackle competition that he’s engaged in this spring with Patrick Miller might seem trivial in the grand scheme, but it’s anything but that to Auburn fans right now. It’s the No. 1 topic on the Plains this offseason, and it’s been highly contested through the first two weeks of spring practice.

“It’s a knock-out, drag-out fight,” fellow offensive lineman Alex Kozan said. “Both of them are great athletes, Pat and Shon. They’re both 6-foot-7, long arms, can bend, can move, have great hip explosion. Both of them are going to be great players.

“It’s like I said: Both of those guys could start for pretty much any team in college football, so we have a pretty good situation on our hands. Both of those guys are attacking every day, trying to get better, and I don’t think it’s going to be settled until fall camp.”

The reps have been split evenly to this point, and it was no different during Saturday’s scrimmage. Coleman started with the first unit, but Miller replaced him on the next series. They have been going back and forth every day.

As Kozan alluded to, a decision might not come until after spring camp is over.

“Like we’ve said, we probably won’t make a decision and may not make a decision even after spring,” coach Gus Malzahn said. “Both of those guys are veteran guys, and we feel like both of them have a starter-type mentality and talent.”

Coleman is just a sophomore, but he’s been with the team since 2012 and played in seven games last fall behind starter Greg Robinson. Miller has 14 starts under his belt, but all have come at right tackle, where he started out last fall before losing his job to Avery Young midway through the season.

Coleman and Miller are similar in size, but they bring different strengths to the team, according to defensive lineman Gabe Wright, who has faced both of them at some point this spring.

“I believe Pat may be a better pass setter, but Shon is one of the tougher run setters that I’ve ever seen in my life,” Wright said. “It’s like hitting a brick wall with a helmet on. Seriously.

“We were just talking the other day that if you guys thought Greg was strong, you got another thing coming. Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg. I’m not even sure he has his playing weight back from when he was sick.”

Coleman, who is currently listed at 6-foot-6 and 310 pounds, looks like he did before he became sick, only stronger.

Between the two, it’s hard not to root for Coleman, knowing what he’s been through and what he’s overcome in his life, but even he understands that the best player will win the job, and there’s a chance that it might not be him.

“Whoever the guy is, it’s going to be better for the team, so I’m all right with that,” Coleman said. “Really, it’s all about getting back to a national championship. That was the best feeling in the world, so I’m just trying to help the team as much as I can and do my part to get back.”
Editor’s note: Each day this week Florida State reporter David M. Hale and Auburn reporter Greg Ostendorf will preview a position battle in Monday’s VIZIO BCS National Championship. Today’s matchup is between Auburn’s offensive line and Florida State’s defensive line.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ostendorf: Edge Auburn

Hale: Slight edge for Auburn
AUBURN, Ala. -- It's been a carnival atmosphere at Auburn this season as coach Gus Malzahn has brought confidence back to a program that went 3-9 in 2012. His wide-open offense has recharged players and fans alike, creating stars where there previously were none: the reluctant celebrity, Nick Marshall; the athletic speedster, Sammie Coates; the miracle makers, Chris Davis and Ricardo Louis; the smooth son of De La Soul, Tre Mason.

But while many of Auburn's players have found fame on the road to the Vizio BCS National Championship, the heart of the Tigers' offense remains with the unsexiest of position players: junior center Reese Dismukes. He's not flashy, he doesn't dance and he's far more blue collar than gold chain.

[+] EnlargeReese Dismukes
Greg McWilliams/Icon SMIReese Dismukes isn't flashy, but the center is one of the biggest reasons the Tigers are playing in the national championship game.
"He’s an extension of his coaches; he demands that the other offensive players practice at a high level, and that is what it takes," Malzahn said. "To have a championship-type team, you’ve got to have leaders that really raise the bar for the rest of their teammates."

Bryant Vincent, who coached Dismukes at Spanish Fort (Ala.) High, has seen that leadership since he was a freshman guard barking out protection schemes to the offensive line in practice, ordering around teammates two and three years older than him.

It's just who he is, Vincent explained, calling him a "country boy who wants to sit around the fire."

"On the field, he's mean. He's kind of like a cage fighter. Off the field, he's happy-go-lucky and wants to be in the woods hunting or on his boat fishing."

Dismukes has always been athletic, though. When Vincent had his team run gassers after practice, Dismukes would routinely beat the running backs and wide receivers to the finish line. And when he wasn't playing football, he was the best player on the tennis and golf teams.

But when he'd go home, it was back to work. Vincent would drop by the Dismukes' home after practice and find Reese working with his father, Ed, until sundown.

"We had just put him through the ringer with a three-hour, grueling workout," Vincent recalled, "and he was outside 30 minutes later just laying pipe. It was just amazing. I looked at him and said, 'Dang son, I know you've got to be tired,' and he said, 'Look, this is what I do every day. I have no choice.'"

He was "as tough as they come," according to Vincent, who said Dismukes played most of his junior year with a hairline fracture in his back.

Dismukes signed with Auburn and started all 13 games as a freshman, earning 2011 Freshman All-American honors despite playing with a dislocated elbow and a couple of broken ribs.

Being good at football came easily to Dismukes, but the game has never been a laughing matter. He learned just how serious it was in 2012.

Before the program turned into a mess and Auburn went winless in league play, Dismukes was suspended from the team after being arrested for public drunkenness by then-head coach Gene Chizik. Dismukes said he was "isolated from the team for a while" and had to work to get the trust of his teammates and coaches back. He missed the season opener against Clemson, returned to play 10 games, and never spoke with the media again that year.

"You just learn when that happens, it’s not how hard you fall, it’s about how you get up," he said. "I think that was just the big thing with that. It opened my eyes, and you’ve got to do right.

"I just had to start acting right, working hard and [answer], ‘Do I really want to do this?'"

Vincent, now the quarterbacks coach at the University of South Alabama, maintains a close relationship with Dismukes and his father. The coach called the arrest "the best thing to ever happen to him" because it brought him back to reality.

"He got the feeling of being untouchable," he said. "He got the 'I'm bigger than' syndrome, but I think there comes a time in everyone's life where something happens, whether it's a good experience or a bad experience, that gets you back on track."

Dismukes was frustrated with how last season unfolded. He'd tell Vincent "how much it sucked" for Auburn to fall so far. Chizik was fired and everyone in the program was forced to take a long, hard look in the mirror.

In April, Dismukes came back a more determined player. His focus was back on football, on being a leader, on doing the right things. He told reporters, "I walk a lot straighter line." And in doing so, he developed into a Rimington Trophy finalist.

"I probably wouldn’t be here today if it hadn’t have been for that stuff," he said a few weeks ago. "It makes you work harder."

"It’s been great to grow with him," said fellow offensive lineman Alex Kozan. "You can see it in his game. You can see it in the way he executes every week. ... It all starts with him making the calls, and we all go based off that."

Last season, 34.5 percent of Auburn's plays went for zero or negative yards (91st in the country). This season, Auburn cut that number by double digits, trailing only Navy and Army in percentage of plays at or behind the line of scrimmage. The Tigers lead the nation with 335.7 rushing yards per game heading into their Jan. 6 matchup against Florida State in Pasadena, Calif.

Marshall, Mason & Co. may get the lion's share of credit for Auburn's turnaround offensively, but Dismukes and the linemen allow Malzahn to call the shots he wants to call.

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

Dismukes may not be the face of the program, but he's a driving force.

Auburn has come a long way since 2012, and if the Tigers are going to continue playing like stars against Florida State, their unassuming center will lead the way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SEC All-Freshman team

December, 12, 2013
12/12/13
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Every SEC team has representation on the SEC All-Freshman team, which was released on Thursday.

The team was selected by the league's coaches, and coaches could not vote for players on their own team. Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina led the way with four players each on the squad. Here it is in its entirety:

Offense:
TE:
Hunter Henry, Arkansas
OL: Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss
OL: Andrew Jelks, Vanderbilt
OL: Alex Kozan, Auburn
OL: Denver Kirkland, Arkansas
C: Jon Toth, Kentucky
WR: Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
WR: Marquez North, Tennessee
QB: Maty Mauk, Missouri
RB: Alex Collins, Arkansas
RB: Kelvin Taylor, Florida
AP: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina

Defense:
DL:
Chris Jones, Mississippi State
DL: A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama
DL: Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss
DL: Darius Philon, Arkansas
LB: Darian Claiborne, Texas A&M
LB: Leonard Floyd, Georgia
LB: Skai Moore, South Carolina
DB: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida
DB: Tony Conner, Ole Miss
DB: Tre'Davious White, LSU
DB: Cameron Sutton, Tennessee

Special teams:
PK:
Elliott Fry, South Carolina
P: Johnny Townsend, Florida
RS: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
AUBURN, Ala. -- Don’t look now but Auburn leads the SEC in rushing. The Tigers are averaging 287 yards per game on the ground, which ranks seventh nationally.

Credit the trio of running backs -- Tre Mason, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Credit quarterback Nick Marshall, who led the team with 140 yards rushing against Ole Miss. And credit the offensive scheme implemented by first-year head coach Gus Malzahn.

But what about the offensive line?

“We get pretty good credit within the program,” center Reese Dismukes said. “None of us are [worried] about awards and all that stuff. That's not really a big deal with us. We're hogs and that's what we do. Without us, the [skill players] couldn't do anything.”

Dismukes is likely the only name you’ve heard of on the offensive line. He was a second team preseason All-SEC selection and was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list before the season. But he’ll be the first to tell you that it’s not just about him.

“I think we've got five guys that are 100-percent bought in and committed to do the right thing all the time,” Dismukes said. “We're really starting to gel here. We've been running the ball well and protecting the ball well, too. We're playing really good right now, and we just need to keep getting better each week.”

From left to right, it goes Greg Robinson, Alex Kozan, Dismukes, Chad Slade and Patrick Miller. On Saturday, Avery Young got the start in place of Miller at right tackle because of an off-the-field issue. It was the first change to the starting five all season.

Still, this is a unit that is not made up of five-star recruits or potential first-round draft picks, but they have been as productive as any line in the SEC. In addition to leading the conference in rushing, they’re also tops in fewest sacks allowed. The Tigers have given up just four sacks through the first six games after allowing a league-worst 37 in 2012.

"I look at it as we're just maturing,” Robinson said. “Last year, we gave up sacks, but things are different [now]. I think the offense has a big toll on that and who's in the backfield, also."

So who is the man behind the success of the ‘hogs’ up front? Auburn offensive line coach J.B. Grimes. He brought more than 30 years of coaching experience with him when he followed Malzahn from Arkansas State to Auburn.

“I know this -- J.B. Grimes is as good a fundamental coach as there is,” offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said. “He did wonders with the offensive line at Arkansas State last year. We led that league in rushing, and I think we were towards the top in fewest sacks allowed. He's done a really good with these guys.”

The players have responded well to the veteran offensive line coach, too.

“There's never a dull moment [with Grimes],” Dismukes said. “He's an old-school guy, and I like that.”

This Saturday, Auburn visits Texas A&M for a top-25 showdown in College Station. Everyone is already talking about the quarterbacks and the skill-position players, but it starts up front at the line of scrimmage.

“It’s real important,” Lashlee said. “You’re going on the road in a hostile environment in a game where we need to be able to run the football. That’s not different than every week in our league. We have leaned on them since day one.”

Now it’s up to the Auburn offensive line to deliver yet again.
The last thing Auburn needed this close to next Saturday's season opener against Clemson was an off-the-field incident.

Moreover, one of the last players Auburn could afford to lose was sophomore center Reese Dismukes, who was a freshman All-American last season and the closest to a sure thing on Auburn's inexperienced offensive line.

As fate would have it, Auburn will be without Dismukes next Saturday when it faces Clemson in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in Atlanta. Auburn coach Gene Chizik suspended Dismukes on Saturday following Dismukes' arrest early Saturday morning on a charge of public intoxication.

Chizik's statement didn't specify how long Dismukes would be suspended, but it will at least be for the opener. Auburn plays at Mississippi State the second week of the season.

That Chizik would suspend such a key player for such a key game over a relatively minor charge tells you all you need to know about where Chizik's tolerance level is for off-the-field nonsense. He's obviously sending a message to his team for the long term. After all, it hasn't been the rosiest of offseasons for the Tigers.

Props to Chizik for taking a strong stand. It takes guts to put your best offensive lineman on the bench for an opener as pivotal as this one. Then again, Clemson will be in the same boat. All-America receiver Sammy Watkins will miss the first two games following his drug-related arrest in May.

The loss of Dismukes presents a couple of different problems for Auburn, which was already lacking experience on its offensive line. Dismukes started all 13 games at center last season, and his backup, sophomore Tunde Fariyike, has never started in a game. That means Auburn could have as many as three or four offensive linemen making their first career starts against Clemson. Three freshmen are in the rotation -- redshirt freshman Greg Robinson at left tackle, true freshman Avery Young at right tackle and true freshman Alex Kozan at guard.

There's also a chance that Auburn offensive line coach Jeff Grimes could do some shuffling. Senior guard John Sullen and Kozan could be possibilities at center, and if Sullen does makes the move to center, redshirt freshman Christian Westerman would then move up the depth chart at guard.

However it shakes out, Auburn is going to open the season with a handful of guys seeing their first meaningful action in the offensive line.

The other thing to consider is that sophomore Kiehl Frazier will be making his first start at quarterback, which is unnerving enough. Now, he's going to be taking snaps from somebody other than the starting center and the center he worked the most with this preseason.

That's never an ideal combination -- a first-time starter at quarterback and a new center.

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