Auburn, Ala.--The Auburn football Tigers ramped up the intensity of practice on Sunday with a 2 1/2-hour workout that featured contact for the first time this month.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he liked what he saw in the session that was conducted in shoulder pads and shorts.
“I thought it was pretty good,” Johnson said of Sunday’s workout. “All three practices we have got an excellent retention and carryover from our system in the spring and obviously in the fall.
“I thought the first practice we had a couple of periods of lackadaisical focus. We call it loafing, but I don’t think that was the intensity we are going to expect around here. In the last two practices I think players understood that wasn’t Auburn’s standard. It’s been really good since then.
“We are still making a few little mistakes, but it is just amazing how far ahead we are from where we were about the same time last year as far as getting things done, not having repeated mistakes, and just kind of knowing how things fit together. We have been really pleased with that part of it.
“Now, we put the pads on up here today and got a little contact, but it’s still very much, if you will, a pro, NFL type of practice, stay off the ground, learn how to practice, learn how to compete, make your buddy better, but take care of him so we didn’t tackle live or anything like that. But, it obviously helps you to have uppers so you can have live blocking in the line of scrimmage, and you can have a little more physical confrontation out on the flanks with the start blocks and the receivers and the DBs so I'm anxious to really get some full-speed tackling practice as soon as we can because,obviously, that is very important. It is that stage where we can’t work on that part of it, but overall it was better.”
Johnson coaches the linebackers. Last year the depth at that position wasn’t what he wanted to see, but said the Tigers have made progress in that area. “I have got more bodies than I had last year, but I think there is a big difference in the word ‘pleased’ and ‘satisfied.’ I have very seldom been displeased in our kids because they have given great effort, and it's important to them, but I am not satisfied right now with where we are after our first two linebackers. We've got a lot of work to do.”
Cassanova McKinzy is running with the ones in the middle while fellow junior Kris Frost is No. 1 at weakside linebacker. The coach said it is “pretty much wide open” who the backup linebackers will be. Candidates include Kenny Flowers, Khari Harding, Javiie Mitchell, Anthony Swain along with redshirt freshman Cameron Toney plus true freshmen Tre Williams and DeShaun Davis.
“Kenny Flowers had a good spring, Khari Harding only had about five, six practices and Javiie missed spring,” Johnson pointed out. “Anthony missed spring and then Cameron, he is a redshirt freshman that’s coming also so that, for different reasons, that is kind of a mad scramble right now.
“I like the way they are competing, and I think we will be fine,” Johnson said. “We will find some depth in there. The two true freshmen are going really well, they are picking up things a little quicker than I thought they would mentally. They don’t look like they are going to have any problem mixing it up physically. I’m not going to be surprised if one of them ends up in the mix.
“So, right now, the only problem I have is I can’t get them all enough repetitions to really make a decision. It is going to have to be a scrimmage, maybe two, before I know who those other two guys are behind Frost and McKinzy.”
Cassanova McKinzy is up to 250 pounds for his junior season.
After practice on Sunday evening McKinzy said the Tigers got physical for a shells session. “We were a lot more aggressive than we were last year,” he said. “Today was the first day in pads and I was real shocked. We were hitting. We were all over the field running everywhere. I feel like we were more aggressive and very smart on the back end from linebacker and DB. We’re very solid up front. I feel like it’s going to be a whole different year by these first couple of practices.”
One of the returning players who practiced at weakside linebacker last year, Justin Garrett, is a full-time “star” rover now, Johnson said. “He played better out there in the first place,” the coach said. “We moved him (to linebacker) last year when he came off that foot injury because we did have a depth issue in there and then he got hurt again.
“His play in there was very average, but he didn’t have much time to learn, but I think he is a better space player. He is a great blitzer off the edge, he has improved his cover skills out there tremendously and he has made a lot of plays for us in space during the spring. He had a great spring the year before.
“The injuries, unfortunately, have always kept him from having a really stellar season, and I hope good luck follows us this year. If that kid could have a full season of practice and games, I still think he'd be one of our most dynamic playmakers. he has done a really good job out there so far.”
Senior wide receiver Quan Bray agreed with Ellis Johnson that the Tigers can take their practice intensity to a higher level. “They have been alright,” he said. “They have not been that great. Each day I have seen we have gotten more back into the groove of playing Auburn football. I say by the end of camp we will be back on top where we are supposed to be.”
One of the early points of emphasis on offense has been getting the guards, tackles and centers comfortable working together as a smoothly function unit.
With 2013 starting left guard Alex Kozan out for the season due to having back surgery, Chad Slade has moved into that spot after starting at right guard last year. Avery Young has moved to right guard from right tackle, where he started last season. Shon Coleman is running with the first team at left tackle where Greg Robinson started in 2013 and Patrick Miller is with the ones at right tackle.
“It is something I have to get used to because I played there (left guard) my freshman year,” said Slade. “It kind of hurts not seeing Kozan over there and me not at right guard, but it is just something we have to get over.”
Slade pointed out it will be important for the current guys working together to “bond” in time for the season opener on August 30th vs. Arkansas.
The senior noted that he is encouraged about the offense as a whole and how he can fit in this year. “I am feeling real good,” he said. “I just have to get back used to playing left guard again. It is something that is going to take time for me getting used to working with Shon at tackle and working with Reese on the (right) side.”
One of the ways to make that happen is extra time in the video room and staying after practice and working with the other offensive linemen, which the senior said is something the group does on a regular basis.
Slade was selected to the Preseason All-SEC Third Team at SEC Media Days in July. He noted that he believes he is ready to have his best season. “I am feeling good from the good summer I have had so far,” he said.
*The Tigers will return to action on Monday afternoon for their fourth preseason practice. The Tigers will have their first practice in full pads on Tuesday.