Special Teams, QB Play Focuses For Tigers

The Auburn football Tigers returned to the practice field on Thursday. This report features news, notes and quotes from Coach Gus Malzahn's team.

Auburn, Ala.--After giving his players the day off from practice on Wednesday, Coach Gus Malzahn put the football Tigers through a full pads workout at the Auburn indoor facility on Thursday with emphasis on special teams.

Malzahn and his team will have their fourth scrimmage of the preseason on Saturday and the head coach said he hopes to be ready to name a starting quarterback by Monday at the latest and said it could possibly be sooner than that.

Junior Nick Marshall, sophomore Jonathan Wallace and true freshman Jeremy Johnson are competing for the No. 1 spot with newcomers Johnson and Marshall sharing most of the first team reps this week.

"Well, you know, you want as much (information) as possible," Malzahn said about choosing the No. 1 quarterback. "Ideally, it would have been a week ago, and you get three weeks (before the opening game), but the earlier the better."

Following a two-hour practice on a rainy day that featured a motivational speech from PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner, Malzahn said the Tigers have been able to get a lot done in practices despite the constant rains that have kept the team indoors a significant portion of the time this preseason. He said that is true even with special teams although the indoor facility doesn't have enough height for normal punts.

"We are starting to figure out who is going to be at the important positions and all of that, and, of course, we feel like we've got one of the better kickers and one of the better punters in all of college football so that is good security," the head coach said. "We are starting to put the personnel together and we really feel like we are solid in that area."

Jason Dufner talks to the team

One of the reasons for the coach to feel good about special teams play is the return of senior Steven Clark, one of 10 semi-finalists last season for the Ray Guy Award, which is presented annually to college football's top punter.

Senior Cody Parkey is back as a third-year starter after making 11-14 field goals last season and having an outstanding season on kickoffs. Parkey will go into the season with a .750 field goal percentage, which ranks fourth in Auburn history. Scott Etheridge holds the record at .791 playing from 1992 to 1993.

Both players attended the Jamie Kohl Kicking Academy in Wisconsin this summer and each said they believe the experience will make them better this season. Parkey won a kickoff competition at the camp while Clark said there were 50-plus college punters there and he picked up tips that he hopes will make him more consistent this fall.

Clark noted that he has been working on how he drops the ball and making sure he makes better contact to produce more spirals, which will lead to consistently longer punts. Focusing on preventing returns last year, Clark allowed only five of his 70 punts to be run back with opponents averaging less than a yard per return.

Steven Clark became a full-time starter for the Tigers as a sophomore after punting nine times on the undefeated 2010 team.

This year the senior noted he wants to do more and said he believes he can. "I am pleased with where I am at," he said of how his preseason workouts are going.

Clark hopes to be able to kick the ball farther this fall and he said even if there are more returns that isn't necessarily a bad thing if the Tigers can keep the return yardage to a minimum and cause some turnovers in the process by stripping the football from the return men.

"Even when I go for hang time (instead of distance), I feel like I should at least get 45 yards," said Clark, who averaged 39.8 yards per punt last season. "I would hit some good ones, 45 to 50, and then I would hit a bad one. That is on me."

One of the points of emphasis in special teams play this fall is improving the punt returns. The Tigers averaged 8.9 yards per return last season with Trovon Reed averaging 12.5 yards on two attempts and Quan Bray at 6.5 yards on 16 returns.

"Punt return-wise we have got three or four guys working back there--Quan Bray, Chris Davis, Marcus Davis," Malzahn said. "Obviously, we know what Trovon can do so we are giving those guys all opportunities and there have been a few live situations that we have been able to evaluate those guys. I think they will be ready."

In other news and notes:

*Defensive Dee Ford, who suffered a knee injury in last Saturday's scrimmage, should be back in action in time for the August 31st opener vs. Washington State, Malzahn predicted on Thursday. "He didn't practice today, but we feel like it shouldn't be too long to get him back on the field," the coach said. Ford is wearing a brace on his knee, but did not have surgery.

Dee Ford

*"Star" rover Justin Garrett, who suffered a foot injury in the same scrimmage, is expected back in action this week.

*Safety Demetruce McNeal, who had been held out of most of preseason practice while recovering from an infection, looked good at Thursday's practice, the head coach said.

*A trio of walk-ons will be on scholarship when classes start on August 31st. The group includes defensive back Blake Poole, wide receiver Dimitri Reese from and running back Chandler Shakespeare. None of those three players has seen any regular playing time in game situations.

"Last night we got a chance to put three of our walk-ons on scholarship, which is very important to me being a former walk-on," Malzahn said. "Dimitri Reese, Blake Poole and Chandler Shakespeare are character guys and they represent our program well on the field and in the classroom. I was really excited to do that.

*Former Tiger golf star Jason Dufner, who was a walk-on himself, gave a motivational talk to the players at practice on Thursday. Clark, who plays golf, said he was impressed with the professional star who told the players to focus on the 2013 season and forget about the disappointments of last year when the Tigers won just three games.

"I have so much respect for him," Clark said. "I have been playing golf longer than I have been punting and I suck at it. It is so hard. It is something that really related to my craft particularly...My position is a lot more like golf than any other position."

Jason Dufner brought his PGA Championship Trophy he won on Sunday to Auburn's practice.

*Malzahn said he has been impressed with Clark this preseason. "He is very versatile, he can place the football, he has really worked hard and gotten better at length and. believe it or not, height also," the coach said.

*Malzahn said he was glad to have Dufner talk to his team about mental toughness. "What he did this last weekend was really unbelievable at one of the toughest tournaments in the world, and then to set the low record in a major, you know. They have been playing golf since 18-whatever. It's a big deal, so it was an honor for our players to have him speak. We are definitely big fans of Jason Dufner."

Dufner's Speech to the Tigers

*Thursday's schedule featured two practices. Malzahn said he liked what he saw in the full pads session. "It was a very similar situation this time last week, coming off an off-day and I could tell about half of them weren't into practice when we were warming up. I challenged them. Of course, last week after I challenged them it didn't go well. Today, they rose to the occasion. I really liked their attitude. I like the way we were flying around. We are learning to practice and I think that's a big thing."

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