Know Your Opponent: Auburn

Mark Murphy of Inside the Auburn Tigers, an affiliate of Scout.com, answers a few questions from Chuck Rounsaville of the Ole Miss Spirit about the Tigers. Mark also asks Chuck some questions about the Rebels.

Chuck asks Mark:

1) The Ole Miss coaches have indicated Auburn's passing game has improved since last year because of the receiving corps. Is that the common thought around the Auburn camp as well?

That observation is correct. Dameyune Craig, who coaches the wide receivers, significantly improved the group last season in his first year back at his alma mater. He inherited a position of concern and by late in the season his guys were playing at a much higher level than they did the previous year. The Tigers got a major boost this season with the addition of juco transfer Duke Williams. He is a physical wideout with excellent hands. Williams has a knack for making tough catches in traffic and has developed into a fan favorite. Last year's top receiver, speedy junior Sammie Coates, only has 13 catches this season, which has been a major disappointment. The good news for the Tigers is that he looks to be making progress recovering from the knee injury that slowed him in the first half of the season. Senior Quan Bray, who is the nation's leading punt returner, is also a threat as a receiver as is Ricardo Louis, who ran for 105 yards on three carries last week vs. South Carolina.

2) How much better is Nick Marshall this year as compared to last year and what has improved?

He has become a better all-around quarterback. The senior has become accurate on his intermediate and short routes, and is more willing to check down to shorter passes when throwing the deep ball looks risky. He is also more adept at the read zone plays than he was early last season when the Tigers and Rebels played at Auburn. He is averaging 6.8 yards per carry and has rushed for seven touchdowns and thrown for 11 more. Marshall's background, going back to his days as a football and basketball star in high school, has included the ability to perform well in pressure situations.

3) Cameron Artis-Payne, to Rebel Nation, has flown under the radar, but he has 831 yards through seven games. What type of back is he?

Known to Auburn fans as CAP, he was good last season after transferring to Auburn from a junior college in California. He rushed for 610 yards at 6.7 per carry as a backup to SEC Offensive Player of the Year Tre Mason, who is a rookie with the St. Louis Rams. Artis-Payne won a competition with fellow senior Corey Grant to be the No. 1 ball carrier this season. Not as fast as Grant, who was a high school sprint champion, Artis-Payne has been most effective running inside the tackles since arriving at Auburn. At 5-11, 210 pounds he has dropped 10 pounds since last year to improve his quickness and that has been evident in his play. He has been more effective running on the corner as a senior than he was last fall. A former high school basketball point guard, he has good hands as a receiver.

4) The Tigers have not been able to generate much pass rush this year so far. Why?

Going into the season that was a major concern and it is still the biggest issue for the 2014 Tigers. Last year's main man in the pass rush, Dee Ford, has moved on to the NFL. The guy expected to inherit that role at end, Carl Lawson, has not played this year after having knee surgery. Also in spring training the Tigers lost another good pass rushing end, Keymiya Harrell, to a season-ending knee injury. Senior LaDarius Owens, who started 12 games at end last season, has been battling nagging injuries this year and has seen limited playing time. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has been looking for other players to step up as pass rushers, but so far most of the pressure on opposing quarterbacks has come from blitzes.

5) Give us a special teams analysis of Auburn, because, as you say, it could be the deciding factor.

The Tigers were very good returning kickoffs and punts last year. Through seven games the punt returning has been excellent with the Tigers averaging 23.5 yards per attempt. However, the kickoff return team has left much to be desired. The Tigers are averaging just 20 yards per return despite having dangerous return guys in Grant, Louis and freshman Roc Thomas. In the loss to Mississippi State a fumble by Louis on a return helped derail Auburn's comeback attempt in the second half. Last week vs. South Carolina the return team allowed the Gamecocks to execute an onside kick and gave the offense poor field position with returns of 12 and 14 yards. Daniel Carlson, a redshirt freshman, has consistently been putting his kickoffs into the end zone and is 10-13 on field goals. Although he wasn't signed as a punter, Carlson has been given that duty and the results have been mixed. Although he is averaging 41.7 yards per punt, his consistency and hang time have been below average. Improving the performance on kickoffs has been a point of emphasis heading into the Ole Miss game, Coach Gus Malzahn pointed out.

Mark asks Chuck:

1) What has made the Ole Miss defense so dominant this season compared to last year?

It's not a complicated formula - more experienced players, more trusted depth and better athletes. Defensive Coordinator Dave Wommack and his staff have had some of these players for three years now and they are engrained into his system - some of them, namely All-American Free Safety Cody Prewitt, know it like the proverbial back of their hand. Prewitt is a big key because not only is he a talented players, he is like a coach on the field. Playing 10-11 guys on the front four has also been productive because in the fourth quarter of tight SEC games, they are fresh and usually the opposing offensive line is worn down. Advantage defense. It is also important that the Rebels have two experienced cornerbacks in Senquez Golson, who has eight interceptions through as many games, and Mike Hilton, who has three picks. Wommack is not afraid to put them on an island in man coverage if he wants to use more bodies for pressure or for run support.

2) How much does the threat of Bo Wallace running the football help the overall offensive production?

Bo is certainly not as dynamic as a runner as Nick Marshall, but he has been effective in helping the Rebels move the chains via his feet. As Tiger fans know, when an opposing defense has to account for a quarterback who is capable of running versus not having to account for that dimension of an offense, it's a whole new ballgame. Defensive coordinators are slow to admit it, having to account for six potential ballcarriers versus five is definitely more difficult.

3) If Saturday's game is close it could be decided by special teams play. What is your assessment of the Rebels in this phase of the game?

The punting game has been outstanding, which will make for an intriguing matchup since Auburn return ace Quan Bray leads the nation in punt returns. Freshman Will Gleason, who was tutored in Australian Rules Football, has been a weapon because of his ability to place punts away from return men and his ability to delay his kicks a second or two via the rugby style, allowing coverage to get farther downfield. The placements have been shaky, but now the Rebels have settled on freshman Gary Wunderlich, who kicks off, handled FG/PAT and occasionally punts because of his strong leg. He has not been tested in a make-it-or-else scenario yet, but he is getting more comfortable each week. The Rebels lost their top punt return man, Carlos Davis, in the preseason to a knee injury, so the duty has fallen on the shoulders of freshman WR Markell Pack. He has been steady in catching and securing the ball, but at times he has been shaky on his decision making and, to this point, he has not had many opportunities to do much damage in the return game. The kickoff return team has been steady and the kickoff coverage team has been very good.

4) Other than the quarterback, which players on offense will the Rebels need to step up and have strong performances on Saturday night?

The offensive line. When the Ole Miss offensive line is neutralizing the opposing defensive front, which it did against Alabama, the Rebel offense is dangerous. When it does not hold up, which was problematic against LSU last weekend, the Rebel offense doesn't get much opportunity to operate fluidly. Individually, TE Evan Engram needs to get more involved in the passing game than he has been lately. He is a matchup problem for most teams because he has the speed of a wide receiver and is difficult for linebackers and safeties to hang with.

5) Do you anticipate any hangover this week from a disappointing loss at LSU?

There was certainly concern about that externally in the fan base until the first playoff polls came out and still had Ole Miss in the Top four with Mississippi State, Florida State and Auburn. Internally, this team has had a very mature, even-keeled approach to whatever they have faced. With home field advantage, no hangover is anticipated. The factor of more concern is whether or not some key players who were injured against LSU in a brutally physical game will be 100% against the Tigers.


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