Offense Making Strides Halfway Through Drills

The Auburn football team hit the midway point of spring training on Thursday as the offense, and the receivers in particular, continue to make progress.

Auburn, Ala.--As Auburn reached the halfway mark of spring training on Thursday the general theme for Coach Gus Malzahn's football squad, both offensively and defensively, is that the Tigers are a better team than they were at this time last year.

In the case of the offense that is particularly interesting because it was Auburn's play on that side of the line of scrimmage that led the Tigers to the 2013 SEC championship.

If the offense turns out to be as good or better than last year's group the Tigers will be well equipped for their league title defense that begins with a conference game in the season opener on August 30th when the Arkansas Razorbacks visit Jordan-Hare Stadium.

Highlights of the spring on offense include improvement in the wide receiver corps with returning players getting better plus two newcomers adding talent and depth to the group. At Thursday's practice the receivers continued their strong play, another indication that the SEC's top rushing team last season will be more dangerous throwing the football this fall.

One of the new receivers, juco transfer D'haquille Williams, is not only making a push to be a starter. The way he has performed in practice Williams is making a case that the football needs to be thrown in his direction early and often this season.

The other mid-term transfer receiver, early high school graduate Stanton Truitt, is also off to a good start working at the slot where Marcus Davis is the returning starter after a strong performance last fall as a true freshman.

Sophomore receiver Tony Stevens noted the two new receivers have gotten the attention of their teammates and coaches. "They are outstanding," he said. "Truitt, he is very fast. He has got speed like Sammie (Coates) and Ricardo Louis, and he is just out there getting it in every day mentally and sometimes in there physically.

"Duke (Williams), he's a big body," said Stevens, who caught at touchdown pass in Auburn's first scrimmage. "You just give it to him and he is going to go up there and get it. That is what we need in this offense--playmakers."

Fifteen Tigers caught passes for the Tigers last season and the only players from that group who are not back for 2014 are running backs Tre Mason and Jay Prosch although Trovon Reed has moved to cornerback. The top four return led by Sammie Coates, who had 42 receptions for 902 yards and seven touchdowns. Also back are Ricardo Louis (28 catches for 325 yards), Davis (23 catches for 217 yards) and Quan Bray (23 catches for 195 yards).

Last spring new wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig was working with a less than accomplished group, something Malzahn mentioned as an area of concern when spring drills opened. This year the expectations for the wideouts are much higher.

"Coach Craig is really working hard to make us become the best receiving corps in the nation," said Louis, who noted there is a "lot more competition" for playing time this year. "We have got a lot more developed receivers out there and that just helps the whole receiving corps become better. We learn from each other."

Another highlight of spring so far has been the improved play of the quarterbacks. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee noted that starter Nick Marshall and his top backup, Jeremy Johnson are improving. Marshall threw for 1,976 yards with 14 touchdowns and six interceptions last season. He completed 59.4 percent in the process. Raising that average is something Lashlee, who doubles as coach of the quarterbacks, is working on this spring.

Stevens noted that Marshall has stepped up his performance level and it is showing this spring with how he has command of the offense. "His leadership is very strong," Stevens said. "Last year he wouldn't do the things that he does now like go up to the line and tell them, ‘hurry up, hurry up.'

"Now I can see that he is very settled in the offense," the sophomore added. "He can just tell everybody what to do now, like how flat he wants us to go on routes, or how deep we should go. He is really very comfortable."

Jeremy Johnson is going through his first collegiate spring practice session.

Johnson played in six games last year, five as a backup and once as a starter vs. Western Carolina while Marshall was recovering from an injury. Johnson completed 29-41 passes for 422 yards with six touchdowns and two interceptions. As a true freshman he completed 70.7 percent of his passes.

As long as he stays healthy, Marshall looks like he will retain his starting role. The Tigers should be in good shape at the position with Johnson and Jonathan Wallace in reserve. Wallace, who finished the 2012 season as a starter, is having a good spring, too, and threw the ball well in Auburn's scrimmage last Saturday.

Two of the most interesting battles for playing time are on offense. Seniors Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne along with redshirt freshman Peyton Barber are off to good starts in their quests to replace 2013 SEC Offensive Player of the Year Tre Mason as Auburn's featured running back. In scrimmage one the trio shared reps and that will likely continue in the coming weeks. Halfway through spring drills the battle to be No. 1 looks to be wide open.

The vacant left tackle spot is where another good competition is taking place between Patrick Miller, a true junior with starting experience at right tackle, and redshirt sophomore Shon Coleman to take over for two-year starter Greg Robinson.

Shon Coleman (72), who also played tight end at times last year, has been concentrating on left tackle this spring under the direction of Coach J.B. Grimes (left).

Lashlee and Malzahn have praised Coleman and Miller while players like sophomore left guard Alex Kozan, a 2013 Freshman All-SEC selection, predict the Tigers will be in good shape at left tackle again this year.

"I think we're very confident with both of them," Kozan said. "Each can do maybe a little bit different thing, but pretty much a left tackle is a left tackle and because of the way Coach (J.B.) Grimes teaches it do pretty much similar things. I have confidence in both of them. Sometimes I don't even know who is playing next to me just because you're locked and focused on your job."

The Tigers went through the eighth of their 15 spring practices on Thursday and will wrap up week three of drills with a scrimmage on Saturday. Before that happens the coaching staff will be hosts for the annual Auburn coaching clinic that runs Thursday night through Friday night.

Auburn's annual A-Day spring game is set for 2 p.m. CDT on Saturday, April 19th.

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