Coordinators Talk Preseason Practice

Auburn coordinators Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson talk about the first four days of practice for the Tigers and some of the early standouts.

Auburn, Ala.--It's hard to imagine more competition at one position than the Auburn Tigers have this preseason at quarterback. In a new offense with no proven starter returning, Coach Rhett Lashlee has four possibilities at the position four days into camp.

With Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace back with some experience and talented newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson fighting for the job as well, Lashlee said the competition is really getting ready to heat up once the pads go on starting Tuesday.

"I think we have gathered some good information over the four days," Lashlee said. "We're nowhere near trying to make any decisions at this point. The hardest thing is when you've got four guys and you're really trying to evaluate all four of them to give them the right amount of looks where we can evaluate them and give them those fair shots.

"I think we have been able to do that though. We have thrown a lot of balls in the last four days. You can tell there is great carryover from the older two guys that were here in the spring and the younger two guys are real eager.

"I think we have learned a lot more in the last two days when we at least had shoulder pads on," he added. "Tomorrow we go in full pads and you get to start tackling. We've got a scrimmage coming up. Probably the next four or five days, which is going to be about six or seven practices, I think a lot of information could come our way then and that will be big."

One of the keys for Auburn's offense this season is the development at wide receiver. Needing some go-to receivers to step up between now and the season opener on Aug. 31 against Washington State, Lashlee said that one of the veterans has really improved his game and is taking on the role as a leader on offense.

"A little bit of inconsistency, but I do see improvement," Lashlee said of the wide receivers. "We've got guys that are playmakers. Now it's just a matter of those guys deciding they want to be playmakers every day. One guy that does come to mind that I think has been consistent from Day 1 is Quan Bray. Talk about leading by example and making plays, coming to work every day, I've been really proud of him. He's really been leading the way for that group."

Quan Bray catches a punt during Monday's practice.

At running back Tre Mason returns along with Corey Grant while junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne has impressed since arriving on campus for spring practice. Lashlee said because they trust all three guys to get the job done it may mean sharing the load to get the job done.

"I do think Tre's durable enough for 20 carries a game, but I think we've got three guys that are all capable of doing the same thing," Lashlee said. "I don't know. It may be a running back by committee deal or one guy may kind of raise his level a bit above the others. Either way is fine with me. I feel like those three guys are competing hard."

Defensively, the tone of camp so far has been on picking up where the Tigers left off in spring practice while also getting the newcomers up to speed. With plenty of veterans to help along the younger players, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said so far the players have done a good job of moving forward.

"It's been pretty good," Johnson said. "We didn't get into a lot in the spring, but what we did get into we retained it pretty well. We had the volunteer workouts over the summer and were hoping that would really help the young players. I thought was kind of a B-, C+. It's very hard for them to pick things up without coaches, but they were at least not totally blind when they came in."

In addition to his job as defensive coordinator, Johnson spends much of his practice time working with Auburn's linebackers. A group that has struggled to make plays the last two seasons without getting much help from the defensive line in front, Johnson said he's seen some positives out of several of the younger players as they continue to fight for a spot in the playing rotation.

"Depth chart-wise, I feel like there's a few guys that have an edge on other guys, but it's certainly too early to say that a player has not played his way into contention or doesn't have a chance," Johnson said. "We haven't done enough at this point for me to tell you if a guy can play linebacker or not. I know which ones can run around in pass skell. I know which ones can do drills and things, but until we put them in good live situations, sometimes a player that doesn't look real cute in a drill, he's just a good natural player.

"Sometimes a player that can do all the things when you walk through the barrels and go out and run it five minutes later and he's good, but when you run it five days later he can't remember. We'll just have to see who surfaces. I think Kris Frost is having a good camp so far. (Cassanova) McKinzy is having a much better camp than he did spring, which is a plus. Anthony Swain has improved. Swain has moved into the mike linebacker and LaDarius Owens has moved out to the will. That took them a couple of days. They were a little out of sorts, but they've started to pick things up."

At linebacker Jake Holland is working at both positions with the first group while Frost and McKinzy are remaining put in the middle and on the weak side, respectively. A physical player who played some last season for the Tigers as a true freshman, Johnson said McKinzy has come back in better shape this preseason and looks good so far.

"He's lost some weight and his change of direction -- redirect on counters, coming out of your break when you drop in zone and those types of things, just acceleration and explosion to the point of attack," Johnson said. "He's gotten better and he can practice longer at a high tempo. He would not finish a practice and I felt like he was too heavy and out of shape. He did a good job of dropping some pounds and I think it really shows."

One of the biggest question marks coming out of spring practice for Auburn's defense was rushing the passer. With Dee Ford the only real threat because of his speed off the edge. it has been a constant talking point for Johnson and Rodney Garner since the spring. With newcomers Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel showing the explosion early that is needed to make some noise, Johnson said it's going to be interesting to see what they can do once the pads are on.

"We're going to have to find some guys who can bring that to the table," Johnson said. "I think our older guys have improved, but I think those two young guys are bringing some natural abilities that can make them better, but I don't know if they're ready. There's an element other than physical skill to being an SEC football player on game film, and we'll have to see whether they're ready to take that role."

Elijah Daniel is one of the impressive newcomers for the Auburn defense

Mason Out To Prove Doubters Wrong

Mason said he uses it as fuel when he hears people question his ability to be a 20-carry back for the Tigers. Only getting that opportunity three times last year and still running for over 1,000 yards, Mason said his goal is 1,500 yards this season but he understands that in Malzahn's offense is going to be about team production first and he's fine with that.

"Of course I want to be that back," Mason said. "But Coach Lashlee, Coach Malzahn have a plan. We're going to roll with that because they know exactly what they're doing.

"You can't really go against what a coach is doing," he adds. "At the end of the day it's his call so you got to use it as motivation. When you do get that opportunity you got to show out and do what you're supposed to do with the ball."

Tiger Ticket Notes

Auburn senior safety Demetruce McNeal missed his fourth practice of the preseason with Johnson saying he's recovering from minor surgery because of an infection. He said McNeal should be back in plenty of time to be ready for the first game. Without him Josh Holsey continues to work with the first team at safety along with Jermaine Whitehead.

Artis-Payne said that he has gained 10 pounds since the spring and is now weighing in at 216. Even with the added weight he claimed he's still in the 4.4 range in the 40-yard dash thanks to Coach Ryan Russell's conditioning program. A confident player, Artis-Payne said that he's prepared for the physical play in the league, but is still working on pre-snap reads and picking up blitzes.

Auburn will put on the full pads for the first time on Tuesday with the first scrimmage tentatively scheduled for Wednesday at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Malzahn said he's looking forward to both days to see how his team responds to live action and situations under fire.

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