Photo by Jason Caldwell

Tigers Changing Focus at Football Practice

Auburn is back to work as the football Tigers begin to turn their attention to their opening night opponent.

Jeff Holland (above) is a sophomore defensive end for the Tigers.

Auburn, Ala.--With opening night 17 days away the Auburn football team returned to the practice field on Wednesday evening and began shifting its focus to preparing for its visitors from the ACC--the Clemson Tigers.

Auburn worked out for more than two hours in full pads, the first session since Monday morning when the Tigers wrapped up the camp portion of preseason drills prior to the start of fall semester classes that began on Tuesday.

The Wednesday practice was also the first one in which the coaching staff began training the scout teams ready to give the offense and defense the looks they are expected to see from Clemson on Sept. 3rd.

If the Tigers are going to have a chance to upset No. 2 ranked Clemson, a team that features outstanding quarterback DeShaun Watson, they will likely need a lot of help from the defensive front four coached by Rodney Garner.

Last season the Tigers finished the year with just 19 sacks, which ranked next to last in the SEC, just two ahead of Kentucky. A player who might be able to help the Tigers get after opposing quarterbacks is sophomore end Jeff Holland.

“He has that moxie, that tenacity and he loves football,” Garner said of the 6-2, 250-pound sophomore. “He is a lot like Carl (Carl Lawson) from that standpoint. He isn’t as powerful, nor as quick-twitch as Carl, but I think he will continue to get better because it is important to him.”

Lawson, who was injured in the 2015 season opener vs. Louisville at the Georgia Dome, missed six games and never got back to full speed last year although he returned to the starting lineup for game eight vs. Ole Miss.

Holland, who is from Jacksonville, Fla., is the nephew of former Auburn basketball forward Carey Holland, who played on teams coached by Sonny Smith.

Another key to upsetting Clemson will be to get more production out of the running attack. Tim Horton, who is entering his fourth season as an AU assistant coach, must replace a trio of backs (Peyton Barber, Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas) who rushed for 1,917 yards, which is 75.1 percent of the team’s season total of 2,553 rushing yards. That trio accounted for 89.2 percent of the yardage gained by the 2015 running backs group.

If Horton is seriously concerned about the situation at running back he isn’t admitting it.

“I really think at the end of the day this is going to be an outstanding group of running backs,” ?he predicted. “I am really excited about the young men we have and I think a great season is ahead for them because we have good players. Hopefully, if I can do a good job of coaching them up, we are going to have a really strong group.”

The top returning rusher, Kerryon Johnson, gained 208 yards while averaging 4.0 yards per carry last season as a freshman. Up nearly 20 pounds and fully healthy after playing with a shoulder problem last fall, he is 6-0, 211 and is competing with 6-0, 240-pound redshirt sophomore Kamryn Pettway for a starting spot. 

Other backs in the mix for playing time include true freshmen Kameron Martin and Malik Miller along with sophomore Chandler Cox, who like Pettway can also play fullback/H-back.

Horton said he is expecting Johnson, a former Alabama Mr. Football, to have a productive sophomore season. “Kerryon has such good ball skills,”?the coach said. “He is a very good perimeter runner and he has really improved between the tackles.”

Commenting on Pettway, the running back coach said, “He is a big, strong, physical kid who is going to be a one-cut runner. He kind of has his own style that I think will be good for the Auburn Tigers. He enjoys the contact part of it. He runs with a good pad level. There is not going to be a whole lot of juking--he is going to go one direction.”

Horton said what Pettway and Johnson have in common is their ability to do a good job as receivers and a willingness to block.

A potential change of pace runner for the offense, Martin has won praise from Head Coach Gus Malzahn as well as Offensive Coordinator Rhett Lashlee. Horton noted that the freshman has potential.

“He is not real big, he is the smallest of the five guys we are working with, and he only weighs around 180 pounds, but he has great quickness and acceleration,”? Horton said. “He has got good ball skills so I think he has learned things very well up to this point so I think in terms of being able to come in and contribute early, he has a chance to.

“I am really pleased with how well he has picked things up,”?Horton added about the four-star recruit from Port Arthur, Tex. “I am really pleased with how he has adjusted to the speed of the game, which is something freshmen can struggle with. I don’t think there is any question he will play, contribute and have an important role on our team.”

Photo by Jason Caldwell

Malik Miller was a key performer on three state championships in high school.

Miller, the other freshman running back, arrived in January as an early graduate of Madison Academy, where he played with Johnson. Miller, who was trying to bounce back from a senior season injury in spring training, has made progress in preseason. “He is a better player now than he was in the spring,” Horton said. “I am really pleased with Malik.”

The Tigers will return to the field for a Thursday evening workout and are scheduled to have one practice daily the rest of the week.

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