SEC: Patrick Miller

SEC playoff tracker: Oct. 1

October, 1, 2014
10/01/14
10:30
AM ET
October has arrived and most teams have played a third of their regular-season schedule. One team has fallen off our playoff tracker (South Carolina) but the rest remain from last week. Let's dive in and see where the College Football Playoff contenders from the SEC stand as of today:

Alabama Crimson Tide
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 3
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Ole Miss
Reason for optimism: The bye week came at the right time for Alabama. It needed Blake Sims, Jarrick Williams and DeAndrew White healthy for Ole Miss on Saturday. And if it needed any extra motivation, Rebs safety Cody Prewitt delivered, telling reporters that, "We don't think Bama has really been as good as they have been."
Cause for concern: Survive Ole Miss and things don't get any easier. You thought that Oct. 11 trip to Arkansas would be a cake walk? Ha! You thought Texas A&M would be an easier out without Johnny Manziel? That's a good one. That schedule you thought was littered with SEC cupcakes like Tennessee now looks more like a minefield.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Mississippi State over Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs can upset Texas A&M and Auburn the next two weeks, the West might loosen up some. --Alex Scarborough

Auburn Tigers
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 5
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. LSU
Reason for optimism: Nick Marshall continues to look more and more like his old self. On Saturday, he passed for 166 yards and three touchdowns, and he also rushed for 105 yards. His new favorite target? OK, it’s still D'haquille Williams, but fellow wide receiver Quan Bray has emerged as a playmaker on both offense and special teams for the Tigers.
Cause for concern: There are a lot of question marks as to who’s going to play this Saturday against LSU. Linebackers Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are day-to-day with injuries, and starting right tackle Patrick Miller is questionable with an ankle injury. It also looks like Auburn will be without safety Jermaine Whitehead for the third straight game.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Ole Miss over Alabama --Greg Ostendorf

Texas A&M Aggies
Record:
5-0
AP rank: No. 6
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Mississippi State
Reason for optimism: The Aggies passed a big test by showing that their run defense -- while still having a lot of room for improvement -- can do just enough to help them win after being tested thoroughly against Arkansas, the best rushing team in the SEC. The offense also showed it can win when it’s not at its best and Kenny Hill responded to adversity emphatically, showing poise in fourth quarter and overtime. Health-wise, the Aggies are in relatively good shape, which is critical considering what lies ahead.
Cause for concern: The schedule gets only tougher in the next few weeks. This weekend it’s a trip to Starkville to meet undefeated Mississippi State. They return home the following week to host Ole Miss. Then on Oct. 18 they go to Tuscaloosa for a showdown with Alabama. These are all teams and places the Aggies have won before, but now they’re doing it with a team that has a lot of young players in key positions, like quarterback, free safety, defensive end and receiver. This three-week stretch is a monumental test for Texas A&M.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: LSU over Auburn. (This would help the Aggies jump Auburn in the national rankings and gain an advantage in the standings) --Sam Khan Jr.

Ole Miss Rebels
Record:
4-0
AP rank: No. 11
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Alabama
Reason for optimism: The defense ranks first in the SEC and fourth nationally, allowing 248 yards per game and has 11 takeaways on the season. QB Bo Wallace is also spreading his passes around very nicely. Even with depth an issue at receiver, the Rebels already have five players with double-digit receptions.
Cause for concern: The West is easily the toughest division in college football. There really isn’t a major weak link when it comes to teams on this side of the division, and Ole Miss still has to go through everyone. We’ll find out if Ole Miss has the depth needed to make a real SEC run.
Who they’re rooting for this week: LSU over Auburn --Edward Aschoff

Mississippi State Bulldogs
Record:
4-0
AP rank: 12
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 vs. Texas A&M
Reason for optimism: With an open date between their dismantling of LSU and this Saturday’s showdown with Texas A&M, the Bulldogs have had time to rest and scheme to face perhaps the best opponent they’ve played to date. It had to help their confidence to see A&M struggle against Arkansas the way it did, too.
Cause for concern: Mississippi State’s secondary has been one of the team’s few weaknesses, and that’s a bad weakness to have against a high-flying offense like Texas A&M’s. It also doesn’t help that veteran center Dillon Day will miss the A&M game while serving a one-game suspension for unsportsmanlike play against LSU.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Alabama over Ole Miss (because why not?) --David Ching

Georgia Bulldogs
Record:
3-1
AP rank: No. 13
Next big obstacle: Oct. 11 vs. Missouri
Reason for optimism: The SEC East is still a mess, and South Carolina’s loss to Missouri means the Bulldogs once again control their own destiny in the division. Just win, baby, and the Dawgs are headed back to Atlanta. Also, Todd Gurley seems like he’s getting better and better with each week.
Cause for concern: Passing, whether it’s by the Bulldogs or against them. Hutson Mason admitted Saturday that the chemistry between himself and his receivers isn’t where it should be, especially when it comes to throwing the deep ball. Right now, Georgia’s defense can’t stop any sort of passing over the middle of the field.
Who they’re rooting for this week: Tennessee over Florida --Edward Aschoff

LSU Tigers
Record:
4-1
AP rank: 15
Next big obstacle: Oct. 4 at Auburn
Reason for optimism: It seems unlikely that anyone in the SEC West will finish undefeated, so the Tigers can stick around in this race if they start winning. A win in Saturday’s game at Auburn could potentially jump-start LSU’s chances, especially if Brandon Harris goes off as the new starting quarterback.
Cause for concern: Auburn’s running game has to scare LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis a bit after Mississippi State had so much success against the Tigers two Saturdays ago. LSU might be able to stick around in the SEC West race with two division losses, but a playoff bid would almost be out of the question if the Tigers fall again.
Who they’ll be rooting for this week: Texas A&M over Mississippi State --David Ching
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.
Who are the players that this year’s Auburn team cannot live without? This week, I’ll take a look at the five most indispensable players on each side of the ball.

Let’s begin with the offense:

WR Sammie Coates: The talk this spring has been focused on junior college transfer D'haquille Williams and how deep the Auburn receiving corps is, but where would the Tigers have been last year without Coates? The sophomore, who had just six catches the year before, finished with 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. He was the lone player who kept defenses from putting everybody in the box to stop the run, and he’s fast enough that it’s almost impossible for one player to cover him. This year, he’s back and stronger than ever. The one-handed grab in the spring game might have been a glimpse into what’s to come. If Nick Marshall wants to take the next step as a passer, he has to have Coates on the field.


[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesAuburn has plenty of running backs, but Corey Grant's speed would be hard to replace.
RB Corey Grant: Auburn’s offense is predicated on speed. It’s been the selling point of the program this offseason, and for Gus Malzahn to do what he wants to do, he needs players who are fast. Who better fits the bill than Grant? He reportedly ran a sub-4.2 40 last month, and if you don’t believe it, just go back and watch his touchdown run from the spring game. He brings a different element to the offense. He might lose the starting running back job to Cameron Artis-Payne, but that doesn’t mean he’s any less important. Auburn will have two other backs on campus this fall similar to Artis-Payne, but no player can match Grant’s speed out of the backfield. He’s easily the biggest home run threat on the team.

C Reese Dismukes: There’s an argument to be made that the center is the most important player on an offense. They don’t get as much attention as the quarterback or the skill players, but every single play begins with them. In Auburn’s case, it couldn’t be truer. Dismukes, who has been the starter since 2011, has been though the bad times and the good, and he was instrumental in last year’s turnaround. The senior was named to the Rimington Trophy watch list on Monday, and it would be a shock if he’s not a finalist for the award again this year. If you’re looking for somebody to help Auburn avoid getting complacent, look no further. Dismukes will make sure this team stays hungry in its quest to repeat as SEC champions.

QB Nick Marshall: OK, now the easy one. Marshall was the key last year, and as he improved, so too did the offense. The junior college transfer finished with 1,976 yards passing, 1,068 yards rushing and 26 combined touchdowns. He still has work to do in the passing game, but by all accounts, he’s improved this spring and could be in for a huge senior season. The only argument to be made against Marshall is that quarterback is actually a deep position for Auburn. Backup Jeremy Johnson showed he was more than able last season, and ESPN 300 signal caller Sean White is set to arrive later this month. But let’s not kid ourselves. If Auburn wants to reach the first ever College Football Playoff, it needs Marshall to stay healthy.

RT Avery Young: Typically, it’s the left tackle that teams covet, and while both Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller will be vital to Auburn’s success next season, the versatility of Young on the right side makes him an even more important commodity. Young took over at right tackle midway through the year last year and never relinquished the job. He exceeded expectations as a redshirt freshman, and now he’s entrenched there as the starter. However, the AU coaches gave him some reps at right guard this spring, and his ability to play multiple positions gives Auburn a deeper, more effective offensive line.
Like any football player growing up, Shon Coleman's dream was to one day play in the NFL. It’s a nice thought, but the reality is that the majority of aspiring football players never make it to the next level. They’re either not good enough or they simply give up on their dream.

[+] EnlargeShon Coleman
Charles Mitchell/Icon SMIShon Coleman has beaten cancer, and the odds, to become a key member of Auburn's offensive line.
In Coleman’s case, it wasn’t a lack of talent and it certainly wasn’t because he gave up. His dream encountered a detour when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2010. The disease was supposed to take away football and possibly his life, but he didn’t let it. He battled through the disease and returned to the field three years later.

On Thursday, the Auburn offensive lineman will be at Radio City Music Hall in New York City for the NFL draft. Unlike his former teammate and mentor Greg Robinson, who is expected to be a top-10 pick, Coleman won’t be hearing his name called. Instead, he’ll be the one on stage calling somebody else’s name, possibly Robinson’s.

On behalf of the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and NFL PLAY 60, Coleman and his mother, DeKeisha, will join commissioner Roger Goodell to announce a pick during Thursday’s first round.

“For them to give me this opportunity is a blessing,” Coleman told AuburnTigers.com. “It’s very exciting. People are going to see my story.”

As a senior in high school, Coleman was 6-foot-6, 280 pounds and had offers from over half the teams in the SEC. He signed with Auburn in February 2010, but before he could enroll, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). He spent much of the next three years in a hospital undergoing chemotherapy.

It was hell for the once-promising offensive line prospect, but he never gave up. He kept fighting, and it paid off when the doctors cleared him to play towards the end of the 2012 season. He began practicing with the team again, and made his return to the field this past Sept. 7, when Auburn hosted Arkansas State.

“Shon was a super hard worker,” former teammate Tre Mason said. “He was driven by what he went through. He took it in his hands to make the best comeback that I’ve ever seen. I feel like it was better than our season because he pretty much beat death. He’s coming back to play football and trying to give himself a chance to support his family.

“Shon will never quit. I know that if he does make it to the pros, that will be one of the best traits they’ll be receiving from Shon Coleman, that he’ll never quit.”

Coleman remains cancer-free, and he’s stronger than he’s ever been. He’s put back on all of his weight and then some. Auburn defensive lineman Gabe Wright said going against Coleman in practice is like “hitting a brick wall with a helmet on.”

“If you guys thought Greg [Robinson] was strong, you got another thing coming,” Wright said. “Shon is probably two times stronger than Greg.”

Coach Gus Malzahn arrived at Auburn about the same time the doctors cleared Coleman to play, and he has witnessed the miraculous comeback firsthand.

“This time last year, of course we had a close eye on him,” Malzahn said. “Everything he went through with his treatments and everything with that -- you could see he got better and better in the spring. And once we got to fall, you could tell he was starting to get his strength back. He did a solid job for us when he got in last year.

“Now, he's fighting for a starting position. You can see the urgency's there. He definitely looks like the guy that we recruited four years ago when he was healthy.”

Coleman is still locked in a position battle with Patrick Miller at left tackle, and while there’s a chance he might not start next season, it still beats the alternative. He has three years left to play and can once again chase down his dream, a dream that was nearly taken away from him by a cruel and unforgiving disease.

“I’ve got a dream that I work for every day, and I just work towards that goal,” Coleman told ESPN.com last month. “If I’m blessed enough to get in that position, then it will happen.”
AUBURN, Ala. -- Before spring practice, we previewed Auburn’s top five position battles. Now that spring is over and the players have had a chance to compete against each other, who has the upper hand at each position?

Position battle No. 1: Star

[+] EnlargeRobenson Therezie
Richard Mackson/USA TODAY SportsRobenson Therezie looks like he'll be the starter at the Star position when the season starts.
This was Robenson Therezie’s job before spring practice, and it’s still Therezie’s job. The senior defensive back played through a broken bone in his hand, an injury he suffered the first week, and although he didn’t wow anybody, he also didn’t do anything to give the job away either. Justin Garrett and Mackenro Alexander will continue to push for playing time behind him, and there’s been talk that safety Joshua Holsey might get a look there in fall camp when he returns from injury, but the coaches feel confident with Therezie. He’s still improving against the run and in man-to-man coverage, but he’s a spark plug for this Auburn defense. Time and time again last year, he came up with a big play in a key situation.

Position battle No. 2: Left tackle

The battle at left tackle is ongoing. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller took turns taking reps with the first-team offense throughout the spring, and though neither has emerged as the starter, both had strong springs. Coleman, a natural at left tackle, came out with the first group for the opening drive of the spring game. He’s stronger than his counterpart and a better run blocker. However, Miller has the advantage in pass protection and has more game experience, making 14 starts at right tackle the past two years. The good news is that Auburn has two capable candidates that could start for the majority of teams in college football. The bad news is that we won’t know a decision until fall camp at the earliest.

Position battle No. 3: Defensive end

If Auburn’s season opener was last month, there’s a strong possibility that Gabe Wright would have been the starter at defensive end -- the same 284-pound Wright who played all of last year at defensive tackle. That’s how depleted the position was this spring. Returning starter LaDarius Owens missed all of spring practice with a foot injury while sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel, the favorites to take over for Dee Ford on the other side, also sat out at some point due to injury. Still, there was progress made. By all accounts, Lawson had a terrific spring despite missing the spring game and improved his all-around game. Daniel played in the spring game and finished with three tackles, 2.5 for loss and one sack. Wright might see some time at end next fall, but it’s more likely he stays inside once everybody is healthy.

[+] EnlargeCorey Grant
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCorey Grant showed his big-play abilities this spring.
Position battle No. 4: Running back

Tre Mason might be gone, but Auburn showed this spring that it has plenty of talent returning at the position. No, a starter wasn’t named, and if it’s anything like last year, the team’s go-to back might not emerge until three or four games into the season. But Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant proved that they are each more than able to take over for the former Heisman Trophy finalist. Artis-Payne had 12 carries for 97 yards and a touchdown in the spring game while Grant flashed his big-play ability with 128 yards and a touchdown on just five carries. Throw in redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and ESPN 300 star Racean Thomas, who is scheduled to arrive later this month, and it’s once again a position of strength for the Tigers.

Position battle No. 5: Cornerback

The spring game has not been kind to Jonathon Mincy recently. He was ejected from last year’s game for targeting, and he didn’t play at all in this year’s game. Fortunately, that doesn’t affect his status as the team’s No. 1 cornerback. As long as he’s healthy, he’s expected to move over and replace Chris Davis as the boundary corner. On the other side, Jonathan Jones still looks to be the favorite, but Trovon Reed turned heads with his performance this spring. The former wide receiver had three tackles, one for a loss and two pass breakups in the spring game. Expect even more competition in fall camp when Holsey returns from injury and when incoming freshmen Kalvaraz Bessent and Nicholas Ruffin arrive on campus.
Before the beginning of spring practice, we made five predictions about the defending SEC champs. Some made us look smart. Others, not so much. Let’s take a look back:

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesCan Nick Marshall get Auburn going even faster?
Prediction No. 1: No slowing down

Gus Malzahn’s offense is no longer fast. It’s #Auburnfast. The coaches have begun using the hashtag on Twitter for everything from players’ 40-yard-dash times to their recruiting routes in New York City (see @rhettlashlee). Either way, it was evident from the first practice of spring that Auburn wanted to go even faster than last season. The entire second period was dedicated to pace, and the first, second and third-team units all worked on running the hurry-up, no-huddle offense. The key will be quarterback Nick Marshall and his comfort level with the offense. On Wednesday, Malzahn said Marshall was a lot more reactive this spring and that it was coming more natural to him. That’s a good sign for Auburn and a bad sign for SEC defenses.

Prediction No. 2: No Ford, no problem

It’s still a little early to say the defensive line will be better in 2014 without sack leader Dee Ford, but that’s only because we never got a chance to see a healthy group up front during spring practice. Injuries riddled the defensive line, forcing players such as Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright to move from tackle to end. Rising sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel both missed time while defensive end LaDarius Owens, a starter last season, missed the entire spring with a foot injury. When everybody is healthy and when the six 2014 signees on the defensive line arrive this summer, it will be a deeper, more talented group than what Auburn had a year ago.

Prediction No. 3: More balance on offense

This one depends solely on Marshall’s progression as a passer, but if the spring game was any indication, Malzahn intends to throw it quite a bit more this season. Marshall went 13-of-22 for 236 yards and four touchdowns in the first half, and afterwards, Malzahn said the emphasis was obviously on throwing the football as it had been throughout the spring. Junior college transfer D’haquille Williams looked as good as advertised in the spring game, catching five passes for 88 yards and a touchdown. He adds another target to what was already a deep stable of wide receivers. Auburn will still be a run-first football team. That’s who it is, and that’s what Malzahn wants to do. But it’s not crazy to think that Marshall will average 10 or more passing attempts per game this season than he did last season.

Prediction No. 4: Open audition at LT

The prediction was that Auburn would wait until the fall to name a starter at left tackle, and to nobody’s surprise, it held true. Shon Coleman and Patrick Miller are veteran guys. They don’t need to know who the starter is going to be until the week before the first game. They’re going to keep plugging away like they always do. The only real takeaway from the spring that was that Auburn has two left tackles good enough to start, and if they can start on that offensive line, they’re likely good enough to start for the majority of teams in college football. There was also a thought that Avery Young would see time at left tackle, but he stayed on the right side for the duration of spring practice.

Prediction No. 5: Breakout candidates

Did we hit a home run with Daniel and Peyton Barber as our breakout candidates? No. But we didn’t strike out either. Daniel missed part of spring with a groin injury, but he returned and quietly had a strong spring game. The sophomore defensive end finished with three tackles, 2.5 for a loss, one sack and one quarterback hurry. Barber earned rave reviews from his coaches and teammates throughout the spring, but he injured his ankle on his first carry of A-Day and missed the rest of the game. He went 10 yards on his lone carry, showing good feet and a good burst, but also fumbled at the end of the run. Looking back, the breakout player of the spring had to be junior college safety Derrick Moncrief, who took advantage of an opportunity and carved out a role in the secondary.

Auburn spring wrap

April, 30, 2014
4/30/14
10:00
AM ET
Three things we learned in the spring about the Auburn Tigers:

1. The offense is scary good: Gus Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense made quite a splash in his first season as head coach at Auburn, and although star running back Tre Mason is gone, the offense could be even better in Year 2. Quarterback Nick Marshall is back and looks more confident running the show. He has a deeper and more talented group of skill players at his disposal, and the offensive line returns four starters. SEC defenses beware.

2. D’haquille is the real deal: The expectations were high for D'haquille Williams, the No. 1 junior college player in the country in the Class of 2014, but he not only met those expectations, he exceeded them. The coaches say he’s further along than they thought he would be at this point, and it was evident during the spring game as he had five catches for 88 yards and a touchdown.

3. Depth remains a concern: Injuries took their toll on Auburn during spring practice, and while it might have created opportunities for some, it also showed what little depth the Tigers have at certain spots. Players had to play out of position in some cases, and the second-team offense and defense looked completely outmatched in what turned into a lopsided spring game.

Three questions for the fall:

[+] EnlargeAuburn's Nick Marshall
AP Photo/Dave MartinAuburn signal-caller Nick Marshall will have several talented playmakers around him in 2014.
1. How good is the defense?: At this point, we have no idea. It was a question mark heading into the spring, and it remains a question mark. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he probably had close to a dozen players on defense who missed a good chunk of spring practice, making it nearly impossible to see how all the pieces fit. Not to mention, the coaches expect part of the 2014 class to make an impact, specifically on defense.

2. Who will be the starting left tackle?: It was clear early on that the staff would wait until the fall to make a decision on who would replace Greg Robinson. After the spring, Shon Coleman seems to be in the driver’s seat, but Patrick Miller is still in the mix, and there’s also the theory that he moves to right tackle and Avery Young moves to guard.

3. Where does Holsey play?: The emergence of junior college transfer Derrick Moncrief at safety has created a logjam in the secondary. Moncrief impressed the coaches so much this spring that they are now considering keeping him at safety and when Joshua Holsey returns from injury in the fall, they would try him at either cornerback or the Star position.

One way-too-early prediction:

If the offense is as good as advertised, then there’s no way that Marshall won’t be invited to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation. He led all quarterbacks with 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns rushing last season, and he’s made it a point to improve as a passer this offseason. In a league where most of the elite quarterbacks have moved on, Marshall has a chance to be special for Auburn this season.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Auburn might have been 3-9 in 2012, but that didn’t stop the fans from piling inside Jordan-Hare Stadium for last year’s spring game. There was a record crowd of 83,401 who were on hand to welcome new coach Gus Malzahn, not thinking that he would eventually lead the Tigers to the BCS title game nine months later.

“I think [A-Day] is for the overall program,” Malzahn said. “Like I’ve said before, we’re all in this together -- our fans, our players, our coaches. This is one of those unique opportunities. We want to make it exciting for our fans, and at the same time, we want to get better.”

The crowd could be even bigger this year with the Tigers coming off a 12-2 season and an SEC championship. Here are five things to watch in Saturday’s spring finale (ESPN, 3 p.m. ET):

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWith his confidence sky high, expect Auburn QB Nick Marshall to be even better running the Tigers' high-powered offense.
1. Faster is better: The proposed “10-second” rule never made it to a vote, and that means that Auburn’s offense is only going to get faster. It took first-year quarterback Nick Marshall nearly half the season before he became comfortable in Malzahn’s offense, and even then he wasn’t as confident as he has looked this spring. The senior is making better reads, throwing the ball better and more importantly, he’s become a leader. Expect Marshall to take the hurry-up, no-huddle offense to another gear this fall, and although the spring game won’t give much away, it will give the fans a glimpse of what’s to come.

2. Juco impact: If you ask the fans, the player they most want to see Saturday would almost certainly be wide receiver D'haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player a year ago, and there’s already talk that he could be one of the top wideouts in the SEC next season. The coaches and players alike have raved about his talent this spring, and he’ll make his debut in front of the fans this weekend. However, don’t sleep on his juco teammate Derrick Moncrief. The former Prattville (Ala.) defensive back has had as good as spring as anybody on the team and could push for a starting role in the secondary.

3. Blind side battle: Don’t expect the left tackle battle to be decided during Saturday’s spring game. The coaches have all but said they will wait until the fall before naming a starter. But that doesn’t mean it won’t be worth keeping an eye on. Sophomore Shon Coleman, who served as Greg Robinson's primary backup last year, might have a leg up in the race and will likely take the field with the first-team offense, but Patrick Miller, the more experienced of the two, will get his reps, too. In his first two seasons at Auburn, Miller started 14 games at right tackle, and he might see some time there depending on what the coaches do with Avery Young.

4. Health concerns: There could be some familiar faces not in action Saturday. It’s been a frustrating spring from a health standpoint, and while there haven’t been any serious injuries, there have been enough nagging injuries to force the coaches to get creative. Defensive tackles Montravius Adams and Gabe Wright have both worked some at end, and with LaDarius Owens out and Carl Lawson questionable, the “Rhino package” could make an appearance. Earlier this week, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson indicated that some of the starters who have been banged up might not get as many reps in the spring game.

5. The running backs: It was this time last year when Cameron Artis-Payne, a junior college transfer at the time, first made his mark on the Plains. He had 164 yards of offense and a touchdown in the spring game, which earned him offensive MVP honors. He’d like to duplicate that performance in this year’s game and claim the starting job, but Corey Grant won’t go down without a fight. Grant, who primarily ran the jet sweep last year, will show what he can do as a featured back. And don’t forget about redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, who could wind up leading the team in carries when it’s all said and done.

SEC's lunch links

April, 7, 2014
4/07/14
12:00
PM ET
There were 80 fires put out and 21 arrests in Lexington on Saturday night after Kentucky defeated Wisconsin to reach Monday night's college basketball national championship game. Whatever happened to "Act like you've been there before?"
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.”

SEC's lunch links

March, 20, 2014
3/20/14
12:00
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March Madness is here. A new Cinderella will emerge, and your bracket is bound to start falling apart. For those at work and for those who are taking off early, enjoy a full day of basketball, and for a little football, enjoy today’s lunch links.

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 17, 2014
3/17/14
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Schedule: The reigning SEC champions will begin their title defense on Tuesday when they open spring practice in Auburn, Ala. They will work out every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday before wrapping up with the A-day scrimmage on Saturday, April 19 at 1 p.m. ET.

What’s new: After a complete overhaul of the coaching staff last offseason, Auburn’s current coaches will all be back for a second year on the Plains. There were rumors involving head coach Gus Malzahn (University of Texas, Cleveland Browns), as well as some of his assistants, but now that the dust has settled, they will be one of five coaching staffs in the SEC that will remain intact next season.

[+] EnlargeNick Marshall
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesCan Gus Malzahn and QB Nick Marshall improve on Auburn's successful last season?
On the move: Word out of Auburn is that there’s a strong possibility that wide receiver Trovon Reed moves to cornerback this spring. The former ESPN 300 star, who caught nine passes for 98 yards as a junior, hinted at the move in January via Instagram, but Malzahn refuted the rumor, calling it “premature.” The news will likely become official Monday when Malzahn holds his pre-spring news conference. The other name to watch is Johnathan Ford. There has been talk that the sophomore cornerback will return to his natural running back position, but the staff has also considered moving him to safety this spring.

On the mend: Safety Joshua Holsey injured his knee in practice just days before the Texas A&M game and missed the rest of the season. It was a costly blow to an already thin Auburn secondary, and with the loss of three seniors back there, his return next season is paramount. However, he’s questionable for spring and will likely not participate in any contact drills. Offensive lineman Jordan Diamond is also expected to be no-contact per Malzahn. There’s been no word on the progress of wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore his patellar tendon early in the season against LSU, but he’s considered doubtful for spring practice.

New faces: Auburn will have five early enrollees this spring but none bigger than wide receiver D’haquille Williams. He was the nation’s No. 1 junior college player, and he has the size, skill and potential to make an immediate impact for the Tigers. The next month will give him the opportunity to get acclimated, work with the quarterbacks and learn the offense. His teammate in junior college, Derrick Moncrief, is also expected to push for early playing time at either safety or the Star position. He’s the lone newcomer on defense.

Question marks: Auburn’s defense struggled at times last season, but it still improved under first-year coordinator Ellis Johnson. The stats prove it. However, Johnson will be the first to tell you that his unit needs to play better if the Tigers want to have any chance of duplicating last year’s success. It won’t be easy, though, as they need to replace five starters on defense including the team leader in sacks, Dee Ford, and the team leader in tackles, Chris Davis. With plenty of depth up front and budding stars like Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson, the defensive line shouldn’t be a problem, but the secondary is a different story. The coaches will have to mix and match back there before reinforcements arrive this summer.

Key battle: When Greg Robinson left early for the NFL, it didn’t come as a surprise -- he’s a surefire top-five pick -- but it left a gaping hole at left tackle for Auburn. Malzahn said that offensive line coach J.B. Grimes will open it up to Shon Coleman, Robinson’s backup last fall, and Patrick Miller, a former starter at right tackle. But there’s more. The second-year coach also mentioned Avery Young and Robert Leff as possibilities to win the job. Young is the one to keep an eye on. He’s entrenched as the starter at right tackle after taking over midway through the year, but there’s a good chance the staff moves him over to left tackle at some point this spring, especially if neither Coleman nor Miller emerge as the favorite.

Breaking out: On Friday, I wrote about running back Peyton Barber and defensive end Elijah Daniel (read here), who could both emerge this spring, but junior wide receiver Ricardo Louis is another player who falls in the same category. He’s more established than the other two, finishing second on the team last season with 28 receptions for 325 yards, but he has yet to live up to his potential. With Williams now on campus, along with ESPN 300 wide receiver Stanton Truitt, it might be now or never for Louis.

Don’t forget about: On the subject of breakout performances, who can forget what Justin Garrett did last spring? He impressed the coaches so much so that he earned a starting role on Auburn’s defense heading into the fall. The problem was that he never made a start. Multiple injuries kept him off the field and prevented him from ever truly making an impact last season. The junior accepted a medical hardship and is now eager to return this spring, finally healthy. The coaches loved his versatility at the Star position, and if he can replicate what he did last spring, he could push Robenson Therezie for playing time.

All eyes on: There are plenty of talented players and key pieces on Auburn’s 2014 roster, but the Tigers will go where Nick Marshall takes them. The senior quarterback was absent last spring after transferring from junior college and arriving in the summer, but it didn’t seem to faze him during the season. He threw for 1,976 yards, rushed for 1,068 yards and combined to score 37 touchdowns. Now he’s a legitimate Heisman candidate heading into the upcoming season. The scary part is that he’s still improving as a passer. That’s the area where the coaches want to work with him this spring, but with all of his receivers back and the additions of Williams and Truitt, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t take the next step as an all-around quarterback.
This is Part IV of a week-long series predicting what changes are ahead for Auburn this spring.

AUBURN, Ala. -- When Auburn opens practice next week, there’s no doubt that the best position battle of the spring will be at left tackle. It’s one of the most important positions on the field, and depending on the winner, it could shake up the entire offensive line.

[+] EnlargeAvery Young
Matthew Emmons/USA TODAY SportsAfter securing the right tackle job last season, Avery Young could make a move to the left side this spring.
At this point, it’s too early to predict who’s going to win the job, but don’t be surprised if the staff waits until fall camp before naming a starter.

The good news for Auburn is that there are plenty of candidates. The bad news for the fans is that the coaches will likely explore all of those options and take their time in making a decision. There will obviously be a player who starts with the first-team offense in the spring game, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to be the starter come August for the season opener.

Don’t forget that ESPN 300 offensive lineman Braden Smith, a highly regarded member of the Tigers’ 2014 recruiting class, isn’t even on campus yet. He enrolls this summer, and though it’s unlikely he’ll start at left tackle, he could still factor into the two-deep depth chart.

“He’s very athletic, one of the strongest guys in the entire country,” head coach Gus Malzahn said of Smith. “He’ll fit in very good for us, and I think he has the ability to help us early.”

For those doubting that Smith can earn a significant role in his first year, just look at what Avery Young did two years ago as a true freshman. He also arrived in the summer, and by the season opener, was Auburn’s starting right tackle. It didn’t last as a shoulder injury forced him to miss the majority of the season, but it shows that it’s possible.

Speaking of Young, many consider him to be the best offensive tackle on the roster. His injury opened the door for Patrick Miller in 2012, but when Miller missed three games last year due to off-field issues, it was Young who stepped in and took advantage of an opportunity. He started the team’s last eight games, and now he’ll almost certainly have a starting job.

The only question is will he stay at right tackle where he’s played his whole career at Auburn or will he move over and fill the void left by Greg Robinson at left tackle?

If Young stays put, that means the competition will ultimately come down to Miller, the team’s opening day starter at right tackle a year ago, or redshirt sophomore Shon Coleman, Robinson’s primary backup last year.

“I think Coach [J.B.] Grimes is going to open it up to those two guys,” Malzahn told reporters last month. “Robert Leff will get an opportunity, Avery Young ... Spring is a great time for coaches to kind of mix and match, put people in different positions. The good thing is we have some depth up front going into this year.”

Either Malzahn is a master at not tipping his hand or he has no idea who his left tackle is going to be next season. That’s what spring is for, though. He doesn’t have to name a starter the first week. He doesn’t even have to name a starter by the last week -- not one that’s etched in stone, anyway. He just needs to find a starter by August 30 when Arkansas comes to town.

The only real prediction that can be made right now about Auburn’s left tackle competition is that it’s going to take time to find the right guy.

SEC lunchtime links

January, 20, 2014
1/20/14
12:00
PM ET
After this weekend, all the underclassmen who wanted to go to the NFL are officially gone. Now begins the hectic final push in the recruiting season. Nick Saban did the electric slide, Lane Kiffin sang karaoke and that's just the nonsense going on at Alabama to impress recruits. Signing day is Feb. 5, so strap in tight because things could get really weird before it's all said and done.
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.

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