Auburn, Ala.--With the second scrimmage of spring training scheduled for Saturday, the Auburn football team was back on the field for a two-hour session on Thursday for the 10th of its 15 allotted spring practice dates.
Several hundred high school coaches who are in town for Auburn’s annual coaching clinic also attended the practice prior to having a fish fry with Coach Gus Malzahn and his assistants. The high school coaches will also participate in seminars with the AU staff and with Baylor Coach Art Briles, the featured speaker for the event on Thursday night.
The defense held the upper hand in scrimmage one last Saturday, the first practice of the spring at Jordan-Hare Stadium. One of the coaches on that side of the ball, Rodney Garner, noted that he has been pleased with what he is seeing from his guys at the tackle and end positions.
“I think they are working hard,” said Garner, whose players are splitting time between lining up in 4-3 and 3-4 looks under the direction of new coordinator Will Muschamp.
“The first five practices we focused strictly on four down (linemen),” Garner pointed out. “We came back from spring break and we went all three down. On Tuesday we went back to four down and it was like the first day again.”
Garner noted that he will be watching carefully down the stretch run of spring drills to see how well the linemen execute their assignments in both fronts.
“It’s different teaching,” noted the coach, who had high praise for how redshirt freshman tackle Dontavius Russell has been performing in both fronts. “When you are in the three-down world we are teaching two-gap. That is a totally different teaching concept than when you are playing one gap.
“Overall, I think the guys have worked hard and really have great attitudes,” Garner said. “They have bought into it. They are trying to please us. We are a work in progress. Every day our goals are to get a little bit better.”
While the defense is looking for ways to again out-perform the offense for this week’s scrimmage, the players on the other side of the ball will be trying to raise their production level. Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said the coaches will keep a close watch on how each of their guys competes in game-type situations, particularly the quarterbacks.
Sean White, who redshirted last year as a true freshman QB, is looking to pull off the big upset and move to the top of the depth chart ahead of Jeremy Johnson, a player Auburn’s head coach, Gus Malzahn, says possesses NFL type arm strength.
“I feel like people underestimated my arm because of my height,” White said. “I am really not the tallest quarterback so they just assume I don’t have a strong arm, but I feel like I have a really strong arm. I think I can make any throw on the field.”
Johnson has two college starts under his belt. The first was as a true freshman in a rout of Western Carolina when Nick Marshall was injured. He opened the 2014 season vs. Arkansas and performed very well in place of Marshall, who had to sit out the first half of that game as punishment from Malzahn after the QB was arrested while driving on his way home last summer. He was charged with possession of marijuana and having illegally tinted car windows.
Marshall returned to the field in the third quarter vs. the Razorbacks. He started the rest of the games and had a strong senior season.
Sean White is a redshirt freshman quarterback.
“The biggest thing I learned from Nick was his mental composure,” White said of his time with the team last fall as a practice player. “Whether it was the end of the game, whether it was a hostile crowd or anything like that, he always had a calm mind and was focused on what he had to do, not on all the distractions.”
Johnson, who has been a very accurate passer in his limited game opportunities the past two seasons, noted his focus this week is to help the offense be energized about competing vs. a defense that is playing with a lot of enthusiasm. “I am working on trying to get the team going by bringing a lot of excitement to practice because if they see me excited the team is going to be excited,” the junior said.
The six-foot-five quarterback noted the offense is looking for a strong finish to spring drills. “We are focused on executing at a high level,” he said. “We want to be consistent on a daily basis. In the first scrimmage we were up and down.”
With Cameron Artis-Payne gone the Tigers are trying to identify who will be the team’s No. 1 running back this season from a group that includes returnees Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber plus juco transfer Jovon Robinson.
Running backs coach Tim Horton noted that all three players are staying healthy and having solid springs. “The best way to get better is to stay on the practice field,” said Horton, who pointed out that the backs have not missed any practices this spring.
Roc Thomas is up to 203 pounds, up almost 20 pounds since he arrived on campus last summer.
Asked if there is any separation yet, Horton said, “There are some days that I will leave the field and say, ‘Boy, ol’ so-and-so, he jumped to the top today.’ And then the next day it will be another one so there really hasn’t been.
“They are all three good players,” Horton said of the running backs. “They have all got a lot of talent so there is not one that has really jumped to the top yet.”
Commenting on Robinson, Horton noted that the newcomer is doing a good job of learning a different offense after playing at Georgia Military College the past two seasons.
“Jovon has got some deceptive speed to be as big as he is and to run as fast he does,” Horton said. “He can catch you off guard a little bit. Jovon is a hard guy to tackle. He runs with a good pad level. He has got some great skills running the ball. He has been good so far. We just have got to continue getting him experience and I think he will be okay.”
After Saturday’s scrimmage the Tigers will head into the stretch run of spring drills that features the A-Day Game at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 18th.