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  1. Auburn freshman QB Malik Willis 'has a lot of similarities' to former star Nick Marshall Tom Green | tgreen@al.com Malik Willis is unlikely to win Auburn's starting quarterback competition this offseason, but the freshman signal-caller is already making a name for himself eight practices into his first spring. During Auburn's first scrimmage Saturday inside Jordan-Hare Stadium, Willis and redshirt freshman quarterback Woody Barrett both went live against the defense, and the early enrollee from Georgia stole the show during the 100-plus play scrimmage. "He's a stud, there's no doubt about it," starting center Austin Golson said. "He's going to be really good. He kind of reminds me a lot of Nick (Marshall). He can run and make plays whenever plays might not be there. I'm really excited about his future." Willis accounted for two of the five touchdowns scored during the scrimmage -- which was closed to the media -- throwing one to quarterback-turned-receiver John Franklin III and another to redshirt sophomore receiver Darius Slayton, according to teammate Sean White. Willis took advantage of coach Gus Malzahn's plan to throw the ball 40 percent of the time Saturday, which was a sharp increase from the team's first scrimmage in years past, when Malzahn prefers an 80/20 split in favor of the run. Two quarterbacks go live in 'balanced' Auburn scrimmage Auburn held its first spring scrimmage inside Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday as the Tigers ran more than 100 plays and focused primarily on base schemes. The 6-foot-1, 185-pound dual-threat quarterback showed that he is capable of making plays with his legs. With Willis and Barrett going live, the two freshmen had an opportunity to react to defenses not just while dropping back in the passing game, but while trying to extend plays and take off running downfield. When it came to his decision-making under pressure, Willis did a good job in that aspect Saturday, Malzahn said, and he gave offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey some "good information" moving forward with his evaluation and development. "It was good," Malzahn said. "They both have the running ability. Both of them, at times, use their legs. But it was good to see how they react in the pocket, especially dropping back and feeling pressure. There's not a quick whistle like there is when you're in an orange jersey." After Saturday's performance, Golson wasn't the only one to draw up the Nick Marshall comparison for Willis, who rushed for 1,033 yards as a quarterback during his senior season at Roswell (Ga.) High. Marshall, of course, rushed for 1,866 yards and 23 touchdowns as Auburn's quarterback from 2013-14 while running Malzahn's offense with exceptional results. Willis trying to 'soak in everything' this spring Malik Willis, an early enrollee and former three-star prospect, has been splitting reps at quarterback with Jarrett Stidham and Woody Barrett early on during Auburn's spring practices. The comparison between Willis and Marshall has apparently become commonplace within Auburn's locker room, according to White. The fact that Willis wears Marshall's old number, 14, certainly plays into in. "He wears 14 out there so everybody is comparing him to Nick," White said. "He has a lot of similarities playing-wise to how Nick used to play." And like Marshall, who started his college career at Georgia as a cornerback, Willis is still getting accustomed to playing quarterback. He spent most of his sophomore and junior seasons at Atlanta's Westlake High before making a full-time move to quarterback as a senior at Roswell. So, while he has impressed teammates in just eight practices this spring, Willis is likely still just scratching the surface of his potential at the position. "I think Malik is going to be a really good player," White said. "He has a lot of potential to him. He's really athletic and has a good attitude. I really like him a lot. He's come to learn and he's a good player."
  2. Darius Slayton full-go during Auburn's 1st spring scrimmage Tom Green | tgreen@al.com Darius Slayton appears to have made a full recovery from the hernia surgery that sidelined him earlier this spring. The redshirt sophomore wide receiver was full-go during the team's first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium, according to teammate Carlton Davis. Auburn had been cautious with Slayton's progression the last several practices after he was cleared to return from the surgery. "I'm glad Darius Slayton is back, you know," Davis said. "He's one of our veteran receivers now, and it's always fun competing against him." The 6-foot-2, 191-pound Slayton is Auburn's leading returning receiver this season. He recorded 15 receptions for 292 yards and a touchdown last season, finishing second on the team in both receiving yards and yards per catch among players with at least three receptions in 2016. On Saturday morning, Slayton flashed what he brings to the receiving corps during the Tigers' 100-plus-play scrimmage. According to quarterback Sean White, who only participated in 7-on-7 drills Saturday, Slayton caught a touchdown from freshman quarterback Malik Willis during the scrimmage. "He looks fully recovered now," Davis said. "He's healthy, and like I said, I'm happy to go against him."
  3. Two quarterbacks go live in 'balanced' Auburn scrimmage Wesley Sinor | wsinor@al.com Auburn held its first spring scrimmage inside Jordan-Hare Stadium Saturday as the Tigers ran more than 100 plays and focused primarily on base schemes. Head coach Gus Malzahn said the first-team offense went against the first-team defense for 54 plays while the second-team offense and defense squared off for 57 plays. The scrimmage was closed to the media. "Overall, it was a solid day," Malzahn said. "Defense did some good things, offense did some good things. It was good for us as coaches and players. For the players, kind of see where we're at. There's nothing like live football. You can simulate all you want during practice, thudding up and all that. There are a couple of guys that anytime you go live, they respond in a different way." Transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham and returning starter Sean White did not go live, but redshirt freshman Woody Barrett and true freshman Malik Willis did. White, who remains limited with the arm injury he suffered in the Sugar Bowl in January, was a 7-on-7 participant but did not scrimmage. White competing with plate in forearm Auburn quarterback Sean White confirmed Saturday he underwent surgery to repair the broken forearm he sustained against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 2. "Any time you go live, you can find out a lot of information," Malzahn said. "That was Woody and Malik. It was good to see those guys out there. It was also good for the defense, alright, to have to play a live quarterback." Malzahn felt his offense and defense performed evenly and didn't give an edge to either group. He said the Tigers were "balanced" by running 60 percent of the time and throwing 40 percent, a far cry from first spring scrimmages in the past when Malzahn estimated the balance was closer to 80 percent run and 20 percent pass. There were also handful of deep vertical throws -- Malzahn remembered "eight to 10" off the top of his head. "It was a lot of fun," Stidham said when asked about the longer throws. "Those receivers, they worked their butts off today. Granted our defense is really, really good so it only makes us better each practice, but it's good to go out there and sling it around a little bit." Watch Stidham's 1st Auburn interview Check out what Stidham had to say about his transition to the Plains, the quarterback race, the future and more According to an Auburn spokesman, five total touchdowns were scored Saturday. Willis threw two touchdowns and Stidham threw one to Darius Slayton, though Stidham did not recall the play when asked. Running back Malik Miller scored twice on the ground, the spokesman said. Malzahn said offensive line coach Herb Hand "mixed and matched" his unit while "most" of the running backs received carries. The bulk went to Miller and Kam Martin. "I thought both of them did a solid job," Malzahn said. "I don't think either one of them put the ball on the ground. Obviously, that's what you think about that first scrimmage, have a chance to hold onto the football." In the middle of the scrimmage the Tigers ran live punts and punt returns with Eli Stove, Ryan Davis and John Franklin III. As for the defense, cornerback Javaris Davis said walk-on defensive back Michael Sherwood caught one interception. "We should have some more, but one," Davis said. "Coach always preaches turnovers but we didn't really do that today. We just have to watch the film like I said and see what we can do better." Malzahn was impressed with what he saw from both the first and second team defensive units. "The first group's flying around," he said. "There's no doubt. And the second group, especially, on both sides. That's when you really learn a lot about your guys. We've got a lot of veteran guys who have played on defense and played well. It was pretty much what you would think." Malzahn said there were no major injuries Saturday. Auburn's second scrimmage will be held next Saturday inside Jordan-Hare Stadium.
  4. John Franklin III stands out at receiver, catches touchdown in Auburn's 1st spring scrimmage Tom Green | tgreen@al.com Auburn's newest receiver is making himself right at home this spring. Former quarterback John Franklin III, who made the full-time move to receiver when Auburn returned to practice from spring break on Tuesday, stepped up as a playmaker during the Tigers' first scrimmage of the spring on Saturday morning inside Jordan-Hare Stadium. The 6-foot-1, 183-pounder made multiple catches, according to coach Gus Malzahn and teammates, including a touchdown. "John is really good," quarterback Sean White said. "He's working hard to make the transition. He looks good. He caught a touchdown today I saw. He caught a couple more passes. I think he's going to be really good." Franklin, who began working at receiver during Auburn's third practice on March 4, caught a touchdown from true freshman quarterback Malik Willis during Saturday's 100-plus play scrimmage. It was one of two touchdowns thrown by Willis on the day. Franklin's performance at receiver on Saturday caught Malzahn's eye, the coach said afterward. Franklin has seemingly embraced the position change after spending his entire career at quarterback, first as a backup at FSU, then while splitting time at East Mississippi Community College in 2015 before serving as White's backup last season. The redshirt senior spent his spring break working out in South Florida and releasing a series of hype videos showcasing drills he worked on to improve his skillset at the position. "He's a speedy guy," defensive back Carlton Davis said. "He has dangerous speed, so you always want to respect that from your receiver, and he has good hands. Just from being a quarterback and now converting to receiver, he has a lot of ability over there, and he has a bright future at receiver." Along with making plays at receiver on Saturday, Franklin also got an opportunity to return one of three live punts during the scrimmage. Previously this spring, during media viewing periods, Franklin worked on special teams as a gunner on punt returns. However, given his playmaking ability, Malzahn wants to make an effort to get the ball in Franklin's hands in the open field in multiple ways. "We're just trying to get the ball in his hands," Malzahn said. "He did some good things. Still learning the position, but he's a veteran guy. The fact that he played quarterback, he understands the splits and the depth and the timing and everything that goes with that. "I thought he did some good things. Each practice, you see him getting more and more comfortable. He can flat-out run."
  5. oanow.com Linebacker Chandler Wooten 'don't look like a freshman’ in first spring at Auburn Josh Vitale | AU Writer Follow on Twitter Like on Facebook Auburn linebacker Chandler Wooten during spring practice on Tuesday, March 21, 2017, in Auburn, Ala. Travis Williams tries his best not to look at stars. The number of stars next to a high school recruit’s name is a representation of what other talent evaluators see. Williams would rather form his own opinions. So when the Auburn linebackers coach first saw Chandler Wooten at a Junior Day workout on campus, he didn’t see a three-star recruit or the No. 21-ranked linebacker in the Class of 2017. Williams saw a kid he knew almost immediately that he wanted to sign. “I said, 'You know what, I like this kid,’” Williams said on Auburn’s in-house National Signing Day broadcast on Feb. 1. “I penciled him in and he was the guy I wanted. I wanted Chandler Wooten.” Williams got him. Wooten committed to Auburn in May, signed in December and enrolled in January. He’s now about halfway through his first spring on the Plains. And Wooten — who has been working at the outside linebacker spots on the second-team defense — has wasted little time showing the rest of the Tigers what Williams saw in him on that Junior Day all those months ago. “He made some plays the first two days that don’t look like a freshman getting ready for his prom,” defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said of the linebacker who totaled 124 tackles and 15 tackles for loss as a senior at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia. “I’m very impressed, because he’s still supposed to be in high school. The things he’s doing and learning, picking up on, are very good,” junior linebacker Darrell Williams said. “I kind of think he’s doing better than what I did as a freshman.” Auburn might be as deep at linebacker as it is anywhere on the field. Tre’ Williams, Deshaun Davis and Darrell Williams return as the top three starters, Montavious Atkinson and Richard McBryde are back as the top reserves, and a there is a talented group of freshmen ready to join them. But with fellow early enrollee K.J. Britt sidelined this spring due to a leg procedure and heralded recruit T.D. Moultry not arriving until the fall, the 6-foot-2, 225-pound Wooten has gotten the first chance to make a push for playing time as a true freshman. Steele has enjoyed seeing it as much as anyone. “We’re creating some competition that should make us better,” he said. “He’s a really good linebacker,” Davis said of Wooten. “He’s really just learning the system but I think he’s really getting the hang of it. He’s out there communicating and everything now. You don’t really see a young guy coming in at linebacker and making calls and checks already. “You can tell he wants to be a student of the game because he’s always around T-Will and in his office. He’s not in the game room. At practice he’s walking beside T-Will or with me and Tre’. I think he has a really high ceiling.” Just as Travis Williams expected. “He was a guy I really trusted the evaluation on and off the field,” he said. “Great kid, great family. He's a kid that was raised right. I don't have to chase him to class. He loves football and he's a really, really good football player.”
  6. cbssports.com The real differences between Chip Lindsey, Gus Malzahn Brandon Marcello AUBURN, Ala. — Gus Malzahn set out to find an offensive coordinator to challenge him and shake things up. He wanted a play-caller who would implement new plays and inject a portion of their philosophy into his hurry-up, no-huddle system. He also searched for a coach with a proven track record of developing quarterbacks. In the end, he landed Arizona State offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, a familiar face in the state of Alabama after a decade-plus of coaching high school football in the region. While Auburn will look to spice up its passing game, it will do so with a familiar — but underutilized — approach: run-pass option plays. “We’re traditionally one of the best rushing teams in our league and to be able to hurt defenses when they roll an extra guy down and cheat the box, that’s something he’s got a little expertise in.” Malzahn said. “That’s part of it.” Run-pass option plays are relatively simple but difficult to defend because the play is not predetermined from the sideline, leaving the decision whether to run or throw the football to the quarterback. Offensive linemen always block as if it is a run play in an attempt to confuse the defense (and simplify the play for the offense). Still, there’s always an option to run or throw, sometimes with several directions to choose from in a split second. Auburn fans have seen plays out of this concept before: the Tigers’ game-tying touchdown throw from Nick Marshall to Sammie Coates in the final minute of the 2013 Iron Bowl was a run-pass option. Still, it appeared at the time (and in the seasons since) these plays were pre-determined from the sideline, leaving the decision making out of the quarterback’s hands. “We used some non-traditional RPOs,” Malzahn said. Lindsey emerged from the Air Raid offensive tree. He loved to throw the football as a high school coach but that changed through the years. He sides more with RPO plays with a run, play-action philosophy. In other words, it’s similar to Malzahn’s system, but with a few extra flairs and one noticeable difference: a reliance on the quarterback to make decisions. “If you watch his teams now they want to be able to run the football, whether it’s zone read, post-mesh bubbles, throwing the bubble screens and the quick screens and all those kind of things, trying to get the ball out on the perimeter, but also at the same time it’s evolved into a lot of RPOs, so whether it’s pre-snap or post-snap or during the play, I think he’s involved into some of that also,” said Hoover High coach Josh Niblett, who coached against Lindsey. “I think there will be some things Gus will want because Gus is going to want to run the football but also at the same time Chip is a guy — wherever he’s been, he’s been really good offensively. He’s always done a good job of changing with the times and reinventing himself every year and I think guys that do that are guys who stay on top of their profession.” The question is whether Malzahn hands the offense over to Lindsey to allow him to fully implement these ideas and tweak the system. The differences between this spring (and the coaches) is noticeable, players say. “Putting in a lot of passing plays, I guess you can say,” receiver Eli Stove said. “We’re going to be throwing it around a lot.” Lindsey is also developing a more detailed route tree for running backs, which has placed emphasis on the tailbacks in the passing game. Malzahn has maintained throughout the spring he will provide space for Lindsey to operate, and the coordinator has had no problem running the show. “I’ve got a lot of autonomy,” Lindsey said. “I’m glad he’s saying that. that’s good. He’s one of the best that’s ever done it so he’s a guy that I’m going to lean on for sure, but he’s been great with me. We’re doing things the way we want to do it, the way it fits Auburn. The way our offensive staff is doing things, obviously he knows what we’re doing and how we’re doing it and there are a lot of things he really likes. I think we’re just trying to find the right mix of what we want to do.” Not only is Malzahn relinquishing full control of his offense for the first time, he's also letting go of micro-managing the quarterbacks on the field. Whether more freedom means more success remains to be seen. Malzahn's approach worked amazingly well in 2013, when the Tigers led the nation in rushing and advanced to the BCS National Championship.
  7. What Auburn plans to work on during its seventh spring practice James Crepea | jcrepea@al.com Auburn is nearing the midpoint of spring practice, with Thursday afternoon's practice serving as the last before the first scrimmage on Saturday. The focus of Thursday's practice, the seventh for Auburn this spring, will be similar to during the season. "It'll be red zone orientated," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn. "That'll allow us to have everything, for the most part, situational things, put in for our scrimmage on Saturday." Auburn typically focuses on third down and red zone in Thursday practices during the regular season. Malzahn was pleased with the team's effort during Tuesday's practice following an 11-day hiatus for spring break. "We just have to get back into the flow as a team," sophomore defensive end Marlon Davidson said, "and just really get back into it and just come back Thursday with a better day." Offensively, Auburn has added to its passing repertoire and the quarterback room got a bit less crowded this week. Defensively, there's a big difference from a year ago with a returning coordinator and all but one member of the staff. "Spring is going good," Davidson said. "I still have to clean up some fundamentals and things we're going to fix Thursday when we get back on the field and just take coaching better. Everybody just get together and come as one unit like we did last year."
  8. Questions follow Auburn's new president, Steven Leath, from Iowa State Posted on March 23, 2017 at 2:57 PM Iowa State University President Steven Leath is leaving behind a record of achievements that landed him the top job at Auburn University but a history of testing ethical boundaries that earned him criticism along the way. Leath, 59, is known as a prolific fundraiser and charming academic who engages students and faculty. The Alabama land-grant university announced Leath's appointment as its next president Monday, touting his experience leading a similar school that emphasizes agriculture and his research career in North Carolina. He will begin the job in July following a closed search that angered some Auburn constituents and prompted scrutiny of his 5 1/2 year Iowa State tenure. During that time, he had a penchant for mixing personal and professional interests. Among the issues were his questionable use of university airplanes, a land deal criticized as a conflict of interest, and the hiring of well-connected people without searches. One state senator called it "the old boy network in full swing." A fresh example of how the president's interests got tangled was his relationship with Belin McCormick, a prestigious Des Moines law firm that has done work for Iowa State. The firm helped Leath form a personal limited liability corporation that he used to buy a piece of land in rural central Iowa for a retirement home, from a company owned by the president of Iowa State's governing board. Months later, Leath's administration hired the firm to represent ISU in a legal matter involving popular Lego art sculptures, a dispute that would normally be handled by state lawyers. At the center of both matters is Belin partner Steve Zumbach, an Iowa State donor who is honorary co-chair of a $1.1 billion school fundraising campaign launched by Leath last year. He helped Leath organize the LLC and has billed Iowa State $585-per-hour in the Lego case. Leath has often dismissed questions about his dealings as distractions and argues the big picture shows he's leaving Iowa State better off. He cited statistics showing its enrollment rose to record levels, economic and research impacts grew, and hundreds of millions of dollars were raised. Student retention rates increased and debt declined. But the university also made decisions that appeared to show favoritism, including hiring a former lawmaker who had given Leath free flight lessons. "The process violated every requirement of equal opportunity," Quirmbach said. "The appearance was awful." An enthusiastic pilot, Leath used university planes for personal training and to attend out-of-state medical appointments. He later paid back those costs. Leath previously reimbursed ISU for flights to his North Carolina home and for repairs to a plane he damaged during a hard landing while on vacation. Auditors also found Leath didn't have required written permission to transport weapons on the planes during hunting trips with donors and business partners. A self-described archery nut, Leath occasionally took along a celebrity bowhunter. Leath vowed to pay more attention to detail last year, calling himself a workaholic trying to do the right thing. He bristled at what he called unfair attacks on his integrity. He defended his wooing of politicians, especially Republicans who controlled Iowa's executive branch and the university's board. "I'm in the relationship business, folks," he told students, defending his chummy relationship with Board of Regents President Bruce Rastetter, who's effectively his boss. When Leath wanted to find a farm where he could retire, he turned to Rastetter's company, Summit Agriculture. Summit bought a 215-acre property at an auction for $1.14 million, sold about two-thirds of the land to Leath's newly-formed SLS Holdings LLC and kept the piece that Leath didn't want. Zumbach was the registered agent for the LLC. Leath has said that he understands why some called the purchase a conflict, while insisting he paid fair market value and that his creation of the LLC wasn't intended to conceal his identity. He said that he wouldn't do it again the same way. ISU later hired Belin and Zumbach to represent the university in a financial dispute involving large, nature-inspired sculptures made of thousands of Lego bricks that have been displayed at the university's public gardens. Seeking to profit off the popular sculptures, the university started a business with Brooklyn artist Sean Kenney, who built traveling exhibits of such sculptures. The university markets market them to gardens and zoos nationwide. Former ISU employee Teresa McLaughlin filed a lawsuit alleging the university refused to pay marketing commissions required by her contract. Iowa State filed a counterclaim accusing McLaughlin of working for Kenney to market competing exhibits, which she denies. Kenney claims the university unfairly cut his fees but hasn't filed suit. The university's usually represented at no cost by the attorney general's office. But Leath's administration paid the Belin firm $27,000 before receiving formal state approval to hire outside counsel, records show. Zumbach was paid for 15.5 hours of work on case at $585 an hour, and five other Belin attorneys billed between $285 and $390 per hour. The attorney general's office said Belin's hiring was justified due to its intellectual property expertise. University general counsel Michael Norton said Belin was picked because of "the quality of their work from prior matters they handled for the university." Quirmbach praised Leath for hiring faculty and building campus, but said the series of issues have taken a toll. Leath's departure, he said, "might be mutually beneficial for both sides."
  9. What Auburn is asking its sophomore wide receivers to do this spring James Crepea | jcrepea@al.com The speed of the game is what stood out to Eli Stove in his first year of college. The wide receiver was a bit of jack of all trades as a true freshman, capable of taking the top off the defense on rare deep passes and given the chance to make plays in the open field on jet sweeps. "To be honest, it was how fast everything was going," Stove said of what was the biggest adjustment for him last season. "Because in high school, it wasn't really that fast. We just took it slow in high school. Transitioning slow to fast, playing and getting set quicker, that was kind of hard for me. But I got used to it." Stove had 23 receptions for 224 yards and 11 carries for 131 yards and a touchdown last season. He'll be among the candidates to lead a core of sophomore wide receivers that are expected to see a dramatic increase in production after Auburn's passing game failed to produce a receiver with 500 yards in 2016. "I have more leadership, I feel," Stove said. "I feel like I can step up and have more confidence in the game plan." The sophomore group still has questions to answer though, and the rest of spring will be beneficial as Darius Slayton, Auburn's leading returning receiver, is back after being limited during the first two weeks of practice. Nate Craig-Myers is taking his most meaningful reps to date, due in part to the absence of Kyle Davis, who could miss the rest of spring. "I think the good thing is they're a talented group," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "They have experience now. Obviously, they made some mistakes, but all freshmen are going to make some mistakes. They got a year under their belt. "It's kind of been as a group, (wide receiver coach Kodi) Burns has just challenged them to raise their level as a group. We need to take that next step and make some plays outside the original-type offense." Junior Ryan Davis feels the receivers are progressing gradually this spring. "Each day we have a focus on -- coach Burns, he gives us a task at hand, and then we try to focus on that one task each day and try to accomplish it every day," Ryan Davis said. "That's how we know we're progressing or not. Right now, I feel like we're progressing and everyone's coming along, just as we would think." The largely unproven group is making these strides while undergoing a change in offensive coordinators and integration of two new quarterbacks in Jarrett Stidham and Malik Willis and the increased presence of Woody Barrett compared to his time on scout team. "They're playing extremely hard right now," Malzahn said. "They've got a good attitude. We're rotating a lot of quarterbacks too, but we like their attitude and they've got a chance to be a good group."
  10. What's 'different' about Auburn's Byron Cowart this spring? 'He's got that swag about him now' Tom Green | tgreen@al.com A new spring has brought a new position for former five-star prospect Byron Cowart. That change has also brought on a new and, apparently, improved Byron Cowart. Let's call him Byron Cowart 2.0. "A different Byron; that's all I can say," defensive end Marlon Davidson said. "He's a different Byron. Byron has come a long way, and every day, he's taken a step forward.... He's got that swag about him now. He's looking great." Cowart made the move to defensive tackle this spring following two seasons of playing mostly defensive end for Auburn. While Auburn's official roster still lists him at 6-foot-3, 280 pounds, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said the former blue chip recruit is looking "a little bit thicker" this spring as he acclimates himself to the interior of the defensive line. Auburn's hope is that adding some weight to Cowart and moving him inside will give the Tigers more depth at the position behind Dontavius Russell and Derrick Brown, and result in more production from Cowart, who at times disappointed during his first two seasons on the Plains. Byron Cowart changing positions on Auburn's defensive line "He's got a little different mindset than he's had before," Malzahn said. "He can do it," linebacker Darrell Williams said. "He just got bigger. About 280, if not more. So, he's getting a lot bigger and a lot stronger and I feel like he can do it, definitely." In each of his first two seasons, Cowart recorded six total tackles, giving him 12 for his career -- with just one behind the line of scrimmage -- in 22 games as a reserve. He added six quarterback hurries and a forced fumble, but has not panned out as many expected after signing with Auburn as the No. 1 defensive end in the nation and No. 3 overall prospect in 2015, according to 247Sports composite rankings. Cowart at times got down on himself, despite his best efforts not to. He looked to cautionary tales of players who failed to live up to expectations, like former NFL No. 1 pick JaMarcus Russell, hoping to learn from those stories and avoid the same fate. "There's a point where every player has got down on themselves," Davidson said. "I even got down on myself. But it's just about how you respond the play, the next day, the next practice and just taking advantage of it." Then came last year's blowout win against Arkansas, when Cowart recorded his first career tackle for a loss in what he said was the best performance of his career, and one he was waiting on for "a long time." Cowart hoped to turn that confidence-boosting performance into more consistent production on the field. However, he failed to record a tackle in his next three games before missing the final three games of the year following an emergency appendectomy. After recovering from the surgery, Cowart began the transition to tackle, where he has spent most of his time this spring. While the move isn't a drastic one, there are still subtleties that Cowart has had to pick up on. "It's a transition, you know?" Davidson said. "How to take on blocks, how to do this, learning plays. Just different things, man. It's nothing that no player just can't achieve." It's a move that Cowart has embraced so far. Davidson, for one, has noticed that new "swag" the defensive lineman carries himself with, noting that he's more vocal in pushing his teammates this spring. Once Cowart fully settles into his new role, the Tigers hope he can not only provide depth at the position but also mismatches on the inside -- and, perhaps, finally achieve the breakout season many have expected from him since his arrival at Auburn. "I feel like the move he made is a good move for his career, you know?" Williams said. "Moving from end to tackle, that's going to cause a lot of mismatches in the inside. So, I feel like a lot of that playing with more swag and stuff has come from him feeling a little better, you know what I'm saying? As far as like playing on the field and action, I feel like that's where he's coming from. He feels good while he's playing."
  11. Difference in Auburn's defense 'night and day' from last spring Tom Green | tgreen@al.com Through six spring practices, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn can detect a noticeable difference in the Tigers' defense from this time last year. He can see it in the group's actions, in its play on the field and in the way the players have carried themselves this spring. "From last year this time to now, it's night and day," Malzahn said. "Just from a standpoint they know, they know who they are. They know who they are, they know how coach (Kevin) Steele, his expectations, his staff's expectations and it's just a confidence. They're off to a good start." That good start is due, primarily, to the fact that the defense hasn't had to hit the reset button in the spring for the first time since 2014. Auburn returns its defensive coordinator -- and the majority of its assistant coaches on that side of the ball -- for the first time since Ellis Johnson was entering his second season in 2014. The result: No drastic changes for the players. No having to learn a new scheme. No having to adjust to new coaches and what they expect of players in every facet of the game. "Man, it's really, really different," linebacker Deshaun Davis said. "When you come in this spring you don't have to learn new terminology and new plays and get the vibe for a new coach. It's really about time we've had the same defensive coordinator." It has made for a much more productive, and comfortable, spring as the Tigers try to build off last year's defense, which improved almost across the board in Steele's first year. While last year laid the foundation for Auburn's defense, however, the Tigers have made it clear that they are leaving 2016 behind them and starting fresh -- just with a healthy amount of experience returning and minimal changes to the defensive scheme. In Year 2, Kevin Steele trying to build Auburn's defense 'as if it hadn't existed' Kevin Steele led a dramatic defensive turnaround for Auburn in 2016 but is starting from scratch this spring despite returning several key parts. "If it ain't broke, don't fix it, you know what I'm saying," linebacker Darrell Williams said. "We of course improved a lot over the years of our defense. I mean Coach Steele had a great plan for us. Really the biggest thing is once you have a plan, everybody buys into it. And I feel like everybody bought into it and just really trying to do the same thing. It was about a year ago he told us, he like laid everything on the table when he first came in, first introduced himself. It was about that same time. "Getting all the younger guys that just came in and the guys who played scout team or redshirted last year -- getting all those guys to buy into the same plan and just build on what we already accomplished." While Auburn's defense is benefitting from having Steele back for a second year and keeping the same scheme, Steele said earlier this spring that he's approaching this spring just like he did last year's -- as if he's building the defense from scratch again. That's not an indictment of Auburn's returning defense, by any means. Steele just wants to make sure every player -- both veterans and newcomers, impact players and scout team members alike -- are on the same page and up to the standard he and the rest of the staff expect of them. The difference this time is that many of those players already understand the expectations and are looking to build upon last year's success. "Everyone is really comfortable and by the older guys already knowing what the guys expect, we said it last year that we're just trying to stack on top of things," Davis said. "Last year's defense was last year's defense, and we've already made that clear. That house has already been built and sold, as Coach Steele would say. What we're trying to do now is built our own legacy for the 2017 defense."
  12. Auburn's Paul James III, Nick Coe 'actually balling' despite not being 100 percent Tom Green | tgreen@al.com While many will look at Auburn's Buck defensive end position this spring and see a void left to be filled following the departure of Carl Lawson, rising sophomore Marlon Davidson's sees inspiration. Auburn has turned to a quartet of players to replace Lawson's production at the position this spring, and while Jeff Holland is expected to top the depth chart, it's Nick Coe and Paul James III who have inspired Davidson through the first six practice of spring -- and not just because of the skillset either brings to the pass-rushing position. "I see Paul, man, he's coming off a knee injury, and he's fighting," Davidson said. "That makes me want to fight. That makes me want to be beside him when he's down. Nick Coe, with all the things that have been happening to him, just coming in behind him and playing like we never lost a beat. Just having fun." After transferring from Copiah-Lincoln Community College last year, James missed most of the 2016 season after sustaining a "freak" right knee injury before the LSU game on Sept. 24. In his three appearances last season, James totaled three tackles, including two against Texas A&M. Auburn has been cautious with him since the start of spring as he comes off the knee injury. Coe, meanwhile, redshirted in 2016 after his arrival at Auburn was delayed until the end of summer after he had to retake an online course to become academically eligible. The 6-foot-6, 270-pound former North Carolina state wrestling champion impressed teammates during Sugar Bowl practices and looked to parlay that into a breakthrough spring, but he has been hindered by an undisclosed lower-body injury that has limited him through the first six practices. Why Auburn believes Coe will be a 'special player' Nick Coe is redshirting this season, but the former All-American wrestler is believed to have a bright future as a pass-rusher for Auburn. Both James and Coe returned to practice on March 9, the Thursday before spring break, and were in action on Tuesday when the team reconvened. "I'm not going to say that either are 100 percent but they are out there and they're improving," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. Although they aren't at 100 percent, they have still flashed their potential so far this spring. "Impressive, man," Davidson said. "They're actually balling." Of Auburn's four options at the Buck position, Coe and James are larger than the other two, Holland and sophomore Tre' Threat. Coe checks in at 6-foot-6, 270 pounds, while James is listed at 6-foot-4, 271 pounds. Holland is 6-foot-2 and 255 pounds, and Threat is listed at 6-foot-1 and 243 pounds. While Coe and James are on the heavier side of the spectrum for the position -- Lawson played at 253 pounds last season -- defensive coordinator Kevin Steele said the additional weight could be beneficial to their success on the field come fall. "Well you know there's a reason that they fight featherweight and heavyweight," Steele said. "There's a difference in what takes place in that. Those guys in the SEC are big guys over there. So, if it's good body mass, it helps, particularly when you can move like those guys can in space."
  13. Auburn adds 'a lot of passing plays' under Chip Lindsey James Crepea | jcrepea@al.com Auburn offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey works with quarterbacks Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017, during the first day of spring football practice at the Auburn Athletics Complex in Auburn, Ala. (Julie Bennett/jbennett@al.com) The "bells and whistles" Chip Lindsey is adding to Auburn's offense includes an expanded passing game. The change is not unexpected, as Auburn's new offensive coordinator has had more productive passing attacks than the Tigers over the course of his college coaching career. Through six spring practices, Lindsey's impact on the playbook has been noticeable to at least one wide receiver. "We've put in a lot of passing plays," sophomore wide receiver Eli Stove said. "We're going to be throwing it around a lot." With Auburn coming off a 2016 season in which it ranked 112th nationally with 169.5 passing yards per game, there's virtually no place to go but up. Add Lindsey's offensive tweaks and Jarrett Stidham to the quarterback picture and there's changes coming the aerial attack. "He likes to air it out, so that will be pretty good for us, our receivers," Stove said. "And we added on John Franklin (to the receivers), so we'll be pretty good this year." How Chip Lindsey is changing Auburn's offense this spring Spring practice will be the first indicator as to how much Auburn's offense will change under new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said Tuesday's practice, Auburn's sixth of the spring, was "mostly review" and not installing more of the offense and defense. Even with a trimmed quarterback field, Malzahn said the coaches are not "throwing a whole bunch of plays" at the signal callers beyond the base offense. None of the quarterbacks have spoken publicly this spring. Earlier in the spring, Malzahn said Lindsey would "add some bells and whistles and some flair" to the offense and while the tweaks to the passing game were a given, the core identity and philosophy is not altering much thus far. "We still have the same philosophy tempo-wise -- full-speed," junior wide receiver Ryan Davis said. "It's pretty much the same thing; nothing too much has changed."
  14. decaturdaily.com Davidson staying humble in spring Matthew Stevens For The Daily Marlon Davidson (3) goes through a drill during spring practice. Davidson started at defensive end as a freshmen and is expected to be one of the Tigers' top pass rushers in the 2017 season. [WADE RACKLEY/AUBURN ATHLETICS] AUBURN — Marlon Davidson is trying incredibly hard to ignore any pats on the back or compliments about his freshman season at Auburn. Davidson, a former Under Armour All-America selection and five-star prospect out of Greenville, was the first Auburn player to start in his first career game at defense end since at least 1985. Nearly every Southeastern Conference team attempted to recruit Davidson, so the bar was high from the moment he arrived on campus an early enrollee. In his second spring with the Tigers, the 284-pound defensive end is trying to become the dominant pass rusher they will need after suffering graduation losses of Carl Lawson and Montravious Adams. “It’s tough man, because now everybody’s seen what you can do,” Davidson said Tuesday after Auburn’s sixth spring practice. “Everybody’s looking for Marlon to make the play and everything. You just have to take that as you’re one of the impact players, like coach was telling us today to become impact players, so that’s what I’m trying to do.” Just don’t tell Davidson that he and fellow 5-star prospect Derrick Brown can be the outside-inside combination that Lawson and Adams held down for the last two seasons in Auburn’s defensive line. He made it clear Tuesday he’s not ready for that kind of comparison at all. “Because we’re still improving. We can’t get there yet,” Davidson said. “They got four years over us. We’ve only got one in the books. We’re trying to take it as today and work towards that to the future.” Davidson finished the 2016 season leading all defensive lineman with 26 tackles, six tackles for loss, 2½ sacks and six quarterback hurries. In preseason camp, defensive coordinator Kevin Steele was not interested in sugarcoating Davidson’s talents because, after 37 years of coaching at either the college or NFL level, Steele’s knows what an instant impact player looks like. “I could tell you otherwise or try to sugarcoat it or try to mask it like, 'They're not this, we've got a long way,' but the truth is guys like that are pretty talented,” Steele said last August. “There's guys that are really physical specimens, there's guys that pick it up quick, but just the wear and tear of the daily grind gets to them emotionally. It just doesn't faze him.” Davidson is consumed by winning because essentially that’s all he’s been a part of us in his football career. In the two seasons he and Alabama linebacker Mack Wilson were leading the Carver High School defense in Montgomery, they posted a 22-5 overall record. Last fall, Davidson was a key contributor to the Auburn defensive resurgence that saw the Tigers program go from a six-win season to a Sugar Bowl berth and an 8-win regular season. As he enters his second spring practice, Davidson is finding it more difficult to avoid the accolades knowing his future as a disruptive pass rusher is arguably brighter than anybody else on the Auburn roster. “I mess up a lot. I’m still a freshman. I’m still new to the game,” Davidson says with a smile. “I’m trying to take on that role, but it’s hard because you really don’t know too much about it. Right now, I’m just trying to sit back and let my seniors take control of the room now.”
  15. Auburn wide receiver 'knocking some rust off' in return to practice Tom Green | tgreen@al.com Auburn may be without one of its key receivers for the remainder of spring, but the Tigers did get some good news at the position on the first day back from spring break. Redshirt sophomore receiver Darius Slayton was back in the swing of things after being sidelined much of the first two weeks following hernia surgery earlier this spring. Slayton previously was dressed out for a couple of practices prior to spring break, but the 6-foot-2 receiver was limited until Tuesday's session. "Darius Slayton came back and had his first practice today," Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said. "We didn't just throw him in and let him go; we tried to be strategic and smart about it, but he got quite a few reps, and each practice we'll bring him a little more along." The return of Slayton was a welcome boost for a receiving corps that was thin through the first two weeks of practice, with walk-ons Will Hastings, James Owens Moss and Griffin King all on the two-deep depth chart. Slayton is Auburn's leading returning receiver this spring. Last season, Slayton caught 15 passes for 292 yards and a touchdown, second only to Tony Stevens' team-leading 487 yards receiving. "He's got the ability to kind of be one of the leaders of that group," Malzahn said. "It was good to have him back out there." Slayton is expected to be one of Auburn's starters at receiver this fall, likely at split end. First, the Tigers will have to get him up to speed in new offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey's offense and get his legs back under him. "He looked pretty good, just knocking some rust off," fellow receiver Ryan Davis said. "You know, it's his first day back; he's been sitting for a while trying to rehab.... He looked fine to me; he looked just as fast as he always did, just knocking some rust off and getting back into the field of play and getting back into the groove of everything."