SEC: Rodney Garner

SEC lunchtime links

June, 27, 2014
Strange seeing legions of soccer fans cheering about losses and ties, but that's World Cup group play for you. Next up in the knockout rounds, they'll settle any ties with a penalty-kick shootout. Seems only slightly more fair. At least college football has the Kansas tiebreaker and not some kind of punt, pass and catch exhibition.

SEC lunchtime links

June, 17, 2014
Recuperated from yesterday's U.S.-Ghana match at the World Cup yet? Check out this snippet of video that one of my media cohorts in Baton Rouge, Ross Dellenger, shot at the Varsity Theatre shortly after the Americans scored the winning goal. LSU folks know how to celebrate ... that's for sure.

Here are today's SEC links:

Top SEC recruiters 

June, 9, 2014
It’s next to impossible to limit the list of top recruiters in the SEC to just five, but that was the assignment here. It’s no surprise to see an Alabama assistant at the top of the list with the recent run the Crimson Tide have been on, but those who follow it closely enough also know there’s some tremendous recruiters across the state at Auburn.

AUBURN, Ala. -- Gabe Wright isn’t a defensive end. At 6-foot-3 and 284 pounds, he simply doesn’t fit the bill. He’s too big, too valuable a space-eater inside at defensive tackle. Moving him to end would be like chasing a sports car with a tank. Some things just don’t make sense. Some players just aren’t built to play in space.

Yet there he is during practice this spring, lining up on the edge of the defensive line, pinning his ears back and rushing the passer. In doing his best Carl Lawson impression, Wright has gotten some fans on The Plains excited. But, as defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson cautions everyone: “I don’t foresee that being permanent.”

Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright
Shanna Lockwood/USA TODAY SportsAuburn's Gabe Wright believes he'd be an effective defensive end in certain situations after getting reps there this spring.
Sorry, folks. The so-called “Rhino Package” won’t be an every down occurrence this fall, though the imagery in itself is something to root for -- plumes of dust, the screech of fans in the distance, the target of the hunt a helpless SEC quarterback named Brandon Allen or Dak Prescott or Dylan Thompson.

Wright and fellow tackle Montravius Adams aren’t the new wave of roughly 300-pound ends, though. They’re tackles through and through. Their time spent at end this spring has been only by necessity, making up for a shortened rotation of ends as Dee Ford and Craig Sanders were lost to graduation. Auburn took another hit when LaDarius Owens broke his foot, Keymiya Harrell went down with an unspecified injury and Elijah Daniel hurt his groin, leading to one of the more perplexing out-of-context quotes of all time from Johnson: “Groins can be funny.”

When asked if Auburn was thin at end, head coach Gus Malzahn responded, "We definitely are."

On the bright side, it's making things interesting for the rest of the defensive line.

“It’s a blessing for me to get on the edge,” said Wright, who played some end in high school. “We had some guys go down, some depth issues this spring. So guys had to step up.”

The blessing, for someone like Wright, is obvious.

“Let’s see: End, you get maybe 30 percent of a double team,” he explained. “When I’m inside, I get 90 percent of a double team.”

Wright, who finished second on the team with 8.5 tackles for loss and third with three sacks a year ago, said that spending time at end has helped him work on his pass-rushing skills. No longer struggling for space to move in a double team, he can get off the line and either rush the edge, swim inside or go one-on-one and bull-rush an offensive lineman.

Versatility, though, might the biggest benefit to having both Wright and Adams at end this spring. When opposing offenses go into jumbo packages, expect to see a few more big bodies along the defensive line this season.

“I think it does nothing but help us moving forward,” Malzahn said.

Said Wright: “The fact that we can maybe go four D-tackles at one point, that just amazes me. It’s like, What do you do? We can bull-rush the tackles and we can bull-rush the ends.”

When asked point blank whether he genuinely expected to play outside, Wright hedged his bets.

“When we do have teams like Arkansas, Alabama, LSU -- and this is not what coaches have told me -- I just believe it will be a factor,” he said. “You’ve got two-, three-tight-end sets. Why not be able to put a D-tackle out there?”

Whether he's at end or tackle, one thing will remain the same: Defensive line coach Rodney Garner will be there in his ear shouting words of, say, encouragement.

“All the same,” Wright said of Garner's colorful vocabulary. “It’s all 'exciting', 'exquisite' and 'extraordinary.' ”

And expletive?

“Expletive,” he said. “Very expletive.”

SEC's lunch links

February, 10, 2014
What a historic moment from former Missouri defensive end Michael Sam. Hats off to one of the SEC's best players in 2013.
AUBURN, Ala. -- Aaron Murray isn’t about to face his former team. He didn’t rush for 214 yards and two touchdowns last week, earning SEC player of the week honors. He’s not Nick Marshall.

But amidst all the injuries, Murray has remained the one constant for this Georgia football team.

Despite losing multiple weapons on offense, Murray is still third in the SEC with 2,477 yards passing and tied for second with 20 touchdowns. On Saturday, the senior threw his 115th career touchdown pass to become the league’s all-time leader.

“He’s good at everything does,” Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. “He can hurt you in the pass game. He’s a veteran guy. He’s pretty fast when he takes off, and he knows how to run an offense. He’s one of the better quarterback to ever play in this league, and I think that says it all.”

But Auburn has an ace up its sleeve when Murray comes to town this weekend. First-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has been around the SEC, and he faced the Georgia quarterback twice while he was running the defense for South Carolina.

As a freshman, Murray finished 14-of-21 for 192 yards against the Gamecocks with no touchdowns and no interceptions. He was sacked three times. The next year, he fared better, throwing for 248 yards and four touchdowns, but Georgia still lost. He’s won a lot of games in his career, but he’s yet to beat Johnson.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
Kim Klement/USA TODAY SportsAaron Murray's experience will help against Auburn, but he'll face a defense that can lean on its defensive coordinator's experience.
“He's gotten better each year,” Johnson said. “You could tell he was a winner and he was a playmaker in his early years, but I've noticed how much better he feels when he needs to move in the pocket. He knows when he can extend the play, and he's doing some things that a veteran, if you will, knows how to do.”

Johnson will have his unit prepared and Auburn has improved dramatically under Johnson.

The Tigers are up 44 spots from last year in scoring defense (66th to 22nd). They have allowed 204 points through the first 10 games, the fewest points Auburn has allowed through 10 games since 2008. They’re also second in the SEC in red zone defense.

“He's outstanding,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “There's a reason why Auburn is playing so much better on defense. He's got a long history of going to different places, and within the very first season, turning that thing around statistically in a big way. He's done it again here at Auburn.

“As much as running the football has been big for Auburn and Nick Marshall playing great has been big, the defense has been a big part of this turnaround as well.”

Johnson isn’t the only one who knows the Bulldogs well. First-year defensive line coach Rodney Garner spent 15 seasons in Athens, Ga., before accepting the same role with Auburn in the offseason. He knows this Georgia team inside and out.

But familiarity with a team only goes so far.

“I think people know what we're going to do,” Richt said. “So can they out-execute us? Same thing with us, can we out-execute them? After a while, there's really not many secrets. The reality is we all get each other's film. We get every single game film that we want, so you can't really hide what you do.”

There’s a lot at stake for both teams Saturday. Murray is hoping to keep Georgia alive in the SEC East, but it’s up to Johnson and this Auburn defense to stop him. The Tigers are just two wins away from a trip to Atlanta for the conference title game.

Lunchtime links

July, 9, 2013
Getting through another tough work day with some delightful SEC links to spice up that boring brown-bag sandwich.

SEC lunch links

June, 28, 2013
It's Friday, and we'll check in on what's making news in the SEC before diving into the weekend:

Lunchtime links

June, 27, 2013
Making the SEC rounds on a Thursday with some links.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt had no connection to the SEC when he became Georgia’s head coach in 2001, but he knew better than to let the same be said of his coaching staff. Nearly half of Richt’s first staff had SEC experience -- and Richt readily admits that was by design.

In defensive line coach Rodney Garner, he had not only a former All-SEC player and coach at Auburn and Tennessee, he had a well-connected recruiting coordinator who helped keep Richt’s first signing class intact.

In Neil Callaway, he hired a hard-nosed offensive line coach who played under Bear Bryant at Alabama and coached under Pat Dye at multiple stops, including Auburn.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray and Mike Bobo
Paul Abell/US PresswireOffensive coordinator Mike Bobo (right) was one of many people Mark Richt has hired that had SEC ties.
In Mike Bobo, he added a young former Georgia quarterback whose father built a decades-long reputation as a football coach within the state.

And in Jon Fabris, he had a live wire who brought intensity to each practice after playing in the league at Ole Miss and coaching at multiple stops, including South Carolina.

Over the past 13 years, Richt has developed plenty of experience in the league, leading the Bulldogs to two SEC titles and five Eastern Division crowns. Throughout that time, however, the SEC presence has remained on his staff.

Bobo is the lone holdover from Richt’s first batch of hirings, but he now has company from another former Georgia player, running backs coach Bryan McClendon, and a number of other assistants who have played and coached in the league.

Offensive line coach Will Friend was an All-SEC performer at Alabama and once served as a UGA graduate assistant under Richt. New defensive line coach Chris Wilson came to Georgia in the offseason after a stint as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State. And while he never coached in the SEC prior to becoming the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator in 2010, Todd Grantham worked under the league’s current kingpin, Nick Saban, as an assistant at Michigan State.

In other words, it isn’t necessary to hire a head coach with SEC ties for the coaching staff to still have the league’s distinct flavor. Richt was an up-and-coming Florida State coordinator who ran a high-scoring finesse offense when he accepted the Georgia job and yet his collection of assistants included tough coaches who cut their teeth in the SEC, helping mold differing philosophies into a winning combination.

Few programs have won more consistently than Georgia since Richt took over as the Bulldogs’ head coach, so previous SEC experience might be slightly overrated as a predictor of future success in the league. Richt’s tenure might never have gotten off the ground, however, if he hadn’t initially hired some coaches who understood the SEC’s physical demands and who already developed key recruiting contacts within the state and region.

Multiple philosophical changes that Richt instituted played some part in Georgia’s sustained success, but his tendency to hire coaches who already have a lay of the land within the nation’s most competitive football conference has been one of the most important stabilizing factors of his tenure.

Lunchtime links

May, 9, 2013
Yeah, I might have stayed up all night watching hockey. I'm proud of it.

SEC lunch links

May, 8, 2013
Our Wednesday stroll around the SEC:
Auburn defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows a little something about change.

This is his seventh defensive coordinator’s job -- his fourth in the SEC -- and the 11th time overall that he’s been starting his coaching career anew.

But it’s the first time in his 30-plus years that he’s been a part of a total coaching turnover at a school.

[+] EnlargeEllis Johnson
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesIn his seven stops as offensive coordinator, Ellis Johnson has learned a few things about bouncing back from a disappointing season.
“That was pretty hard, especially early on with recruiting and establishing relationships and everything,” said Johnson, who takes over an Auburn defense that ranked next-to-last in the SEC last season in total defense (420.5 yards per game) and gave up 38 or more points in four of its last five SEC contests.

What’s not new for Johnson is the challenge of building a championship-caliber defense in the SEC, and he’s got some familiar faces alongside him. He coached with co-defensive coordinator Charlie Harbison at Clemson, Alabama and Mississippi State. He and cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith coached together at Alabama and Mississippi State, while defensive line coach Rodney Garner has been a fixture in the SEC for the last 20 years.

“It’s a huge help,” Johnson said. “There’s over 20-something years of experience with each coach. We’ve all been in this league. We’ve recruited in this league. We’ve recruited against each other in this league and coached against each other.”

Now, they tackle together the task of helping restore the edge to an Auburn program that went belly-up last season after winning the national championship two years earlier.

Four practices into the spring, Johnson hasn’t been displeased with what he has to work with defensively. But with only two practices in pads, he’s careful not to draw too many conclusions, either.

“The good thing is that we’re pretty healthy,” Johnson said. “A lot of times, you don’t have a lot of healthy bodies in the spring. But we do, and it’s going to be a good, physical spring. That’s what we need to sort some things out.”

Nine starters return on defense, and the Tigers are especially deep at tackle. But as the losses began to mount in 2012, Auburn had a hard time stopping anybody.

“It was obviously a disappointing year, but when I look at the roster, it’s a good-looking group, probably overall better even than what we had at South Carolina,” Johnson said. “My concern is that I don’t see that one different guy, a difference-maker like a (Jadeveon) Clowney.”

That was especially apparent when Johnson went back and watched tape of last season.

“They played pretty well defensively in a number of games, but they weren’t dominant enough to turn a ballgame around or make a big-time play when they needed to,” Johnson said. “Offensively, they never got up on anybody and were constantly playing from behind. They didn’t have but two interceptions, but I don’t think anybody threw any passes in the second half.

“The thing you keep coming back to are those two or three guys that are going to make a play for you and cause a ballgame to turn around. I haven’t seen them yet, and we’ve got to find them.”

Johnson will use the same 4-2-5 defense he utilized at South Carolina, which includes two true linebackers and a hybrid linebacker/safety. The hybrid position requires a player to have the kind of speed to cover receivers, but also be able to hold up in run support.

Junior Justin Garrett, who’s played only sparingly to this point in his career, is getting a look there this spring along with redshirt freshman JaViere Mitchell. Johnson said incoming junior college transfer Brandon King would also be a strong candidate to fill that spot once he arrives this summer.

When Johnson took over as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State (in 2004) and South Carolina (in 2008), both schools were coming off disappointing seasons. The Bulldogs were facing NCAA probation and had suffered through three straight losing seasons. The Gamecocks had gone 6-6 the year before and lost their last five games.

“There were a lot of off-the-field issues to clean up at State, and the first group I inherited at South Carolina was a good group, especially in the box,” Johnson said. “In all three cases (including Auburn), you’re coming into a situation where players are looking at you with a ‘Coach me, coach, attitude, and let’s try something different.’

“What I don’t see here is that I don’t see a lot of leadership yet within the team and guys to take charge. That’s something that has to develop, and I think it will.”

Opening spring camp: Auburn

March, 27, 2013
Schedule: The Tigers opened spring practice Wednesday at 8:50 a.m. ET and will conclude the spring with their annual A-Day spring game on April 20 at 2:05 p.m. ET in Jordan-Hare Stadium. The Tigers will hold morning practices this spring.

What’s new: In a word, everything. Gus Malzahn returns to the Plains as head coach after serving as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-11. His offensive coordinator will be Rhett Lashlee, who held that same title at Arkansas State last season under Malzahn. Lashlee also worked under Malzahn at Auburn the first time as a graduate assistant in 2009 and 2010. Former Auburn quarterback Dameyune Craig is co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach. J.B. Grimes is offensive line coach, Tim Horton running backs coach and Scott Fountain tight ends/special teams coach. Ellis Johnson, who was the head coach at Southern Miss last season, is the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. Johnson has previously been the defensive coordinator at South Carolina, Mississippi State and Alabama in the SEC. Rodney Garner returns to his alma mater as assistant head coach and defensive line coach. He’s been on the Georgia staff the previous 15 seasons. Charlie Harbison is co-defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach. He was previously on the Clemson staff. Melvin Smith will coach the cornerbacks after spending the last seven seasons on the Mississippi State staff.

Attrition: Junior safety Erique Florence is no longer with the team due to personal issues. Tight end/fullback Blake Burgess has decided to graduate early and will no longer play football.

On the move: Jay Prosch will move from fullback to more of an H-back role in Malzahn’s offense. Cornerback Robenson Therezie may get some work at receiver and as a return specialist.

New faces: The Tigers brought in three junior college transfers who will be going through spring practice. Running back Carmeron Artis-Payne is expected to make an immediate impact and share the backfield duties with Tre Mason. Artis-Payne, who signed with Rutgers out of high school and failed to qualify academically, has been impressive in the offseason program. Ben Bradley adds to an already deep defensive tackle stable. His Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College teammate, Devonte Danzey, will have a chance to win one of the starting guard spots on offense. Danzey will be a sophomore and has three years of eligibility remaining.

Question marks: Finding a quarterback who can effectively run Malzahn’s offense is the most pressing priority. Jonathan Wallace, only a true freshman at the time, ended last season as the starter after Kiehl Frazier was benched. Frazier, who will be a junior, will get a second chance in Malzahn’s hurry-up, no-huddle offense. He was recruited by Malzahn to run that offense, but must improve as a passer. Malzahn said the reps would be split this spring between the two. Both guys are athletic and capable of extending the play, which is important in this offense. But the Tigers finished with just eight touchdown passes and 15 interceptions a year ago. That has to improve significantly in 2013 if the offense is going to take a big step. In keeping with the passing game theme, the Tigers also have to find some receivers they can count on now that dependable Emory Blake is gone. Sammie Coates has a chance to blossom in this offense, and is this the year that Trovon Reed stays healthy and becomes the player the Tigers thought they were getting when they signed him? It's also a big spring for Ricardo Louis and Quan Bray.

Key battle: Even though four starters return from last season on the offensive line, the Tigers will be looking for the right fit up front in Malzahn’s offense. In particular, he wants guys who can move on the interior. Sophomores Greg Robinson, Avery Young and Patrick Miller all made starts last season at tackle. Senior Chad Slade returns at one guard, and junior Reese Dismukes at center. There are several younger offensive linemen in the program who will get their shot this spring. Young is coming off shoulder surgery and could possibly move inside. Redshirt freshman Jordan Diamond could push for a starting spot at tackle.

Breaking out: Defensive tackle should be the Tigers’ strength even though the production up front wasn't what it should have been last season. They have four guys returning who’ve all started games, and Bradley should also be a factor, not to mention prized freshman signee Montravius Adams when he arrives this summer. But the player who could really blossom into an every-down force is junior Angelo Blackson, who led all Auburn defensive linemen last season with seven tackles for loss. The 6-foot-4, 312-pound Blackson showed it in flashes a year ago. Look for him to become a much more consistent player in 2013 under the tutelage of Garner.

Don’t forget about: Even though Philip Lutzenkirchen is gone, that doesn’t mean the Tigers are hurting at tight end. In fact, Lutzenkirchen himself thinks junior C.J. Uzomah is primed for a big season in Malzahn’s system. The 6-4, 253-pound Uzomah catches the ball with the skill of a receiver and should be a nightmare mismatch for opposing defenses. He can play on the line as a traditional tight end or split out wide.

Lunchtime links

February, 25, 2013
Congrats to "Argo" and "Django." Two great movies and both earned big honors last night.