Tre Mason

Auburn picks up where it left off, cruises past Arkansas

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The last time Auburn took the pristine field at Jordan-Hare Stadium, Chris Davis carried the ball 109 yards, past the Alabama field goal unit and into the pages of history. Nine months later, Gus Malzahn and the No. 6 Auburn Tigers picked up right where they left off, cruising past Arkansas 45-21.

Jeremy Johnson earned the start for a double-secret suspended Nick Marshall and could not have started hotter, guiding Auburn on touchdown drives of 75, 75 and 98 to open the game. The sophomore hit his first eight throws for 204 yards and two touchdowns, the first of which came on the same extended play-action that tied the Alabama game, carrying Melvin Ray 49 yards into the same end zone where Ricardo Louis stunned Georgia and where the Tigers scored the tying and winning touchdowns against Alabama. Johnson played the entire first half and did all of his damage through the air, hitting 13-of-17 passes for 243 yards and those two scores.

Marshall played the second half and got the familiar Malzahn-patented running game going. In addition to his own 19-yard scoring dash to open the second half, Marshall’s presence gave Auburn’s running backs space to do their best Tre Mason impressions. Cameron Artis-Payne rushed 26 for 178 yards and one touchdown, and Corey Grant added 10 carries for 87 yards and another score.

Arkansas matched Auburn score for score early. With an offensive line that the SEC Network broadcast noted as the fourth-largest in all of football, the Razorbacks pummeled the Auburn front for 151 yards on seven yards a pop in forging a 21-21 halftime deadlock, but defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s unit dominated the second half. Every second half Arkansas possession traveled 20 yards or less and ended in a punt, except for the one Jermaine Whitehead ended with a 33-yard pick six that effectively shut down any chance of an upset.

After rushing for those 151 first-half yards, Arkansas was nearly doubled up on the ground, 302-153. That means Arkansas rushed for two yards in the second half.

The second half was fractured by a one hour, 28 minute weather delay. And, in the ultimate act of vengeance by the football gods, after years debate over the hurry-up no-huddle and debates about “what we want football to be” that saw Bret Bielema and Malzahn taking polar opposite sides, the Jordan-Hare Stadium clocks were inoperable for the entire first half.

CFT Preseason Top 25: No. 8 Auburn

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2013 record: 12-2 overall, 7-1 in SEC (1st in West division)
2013 postseason: BCS title game vs. Florida State (34-31 loss)
2013 final AP/coaches’ ranking: No. 2/No. 2
Head coach: Gus Malzahn (21-5 overall; 12-2 in one year at Auburn)
Offensive coordinator: Rhett Lashlee (second season); Dameyune Craig (second season as co-coordinator)
2013 offensive rankings: 1st rushing offense (328.3 ypg); 106th passing offense (173 ypg); 11th total offense (501.3 ypg); 12th scoring offense (39.5 ppg)
Returning offensive starters: 7
Defensive coordinator: Ellis Johnson (second season); Charlie Harbison (second season as co-coordinator)
2013 defensive rankings: 62nd rushing defense (162.1 ypg); 100th passing defense (258.6 ypg); 86th total defense (420.7 ypg); 48th scoring defense (24.7 ppg)
Returning defensive starters: 6
Location: Auburn, Ala.
Stadium: Jordan-Hare Stadium (87,451; grass)
Last conference title: 2013

THE GOOD
No one was able to control the Tigers’ powerful rushing attack and, even with the departure of its leading rusher, that’s expected to continue on into 2014 and the second season in Gus Malzahn‘s fast-paced, relentless offense.  Having Nick Marshall, expected to be much improved in the passing-game aspect, in his second season as a starter should help soften the blow that was running back Tre Mason‘s departure for the NFL.  As AU goes from the hunter to the hunted, it’ll be incumbent on Marshall to take that next step, one his head coach feels he’s ready to do.

THE BAD
When you have as magical ride as AU did last season there’s not a whole heck of a lot of bad going on, but the defense was, at the very least, suspect during that run to Pasadena.  They were in the bottom half of the country in yards allowed per game, although they were in the top half in the most important stat: points allowed.  That, though, was only good for eighth in the SEC.  In fairness, it was the Tigers’ first season under coordinator Ellis Johnson, so the expectation is that just based on familiarity with the scheme the defense will improve.  The good news is that there’s really nowhere for that group to go but up, especially as it relates to the rest of the SEC.  There’s also the little matter of the schedule as AU has conference road games scheduled for Mississippi State (Oct. 11), Ole Miss (Nov. 1), Georgia (Nov. 15) and Alabama (Nov. 29) to go along with a non-conference tilt at underrated Kansas State.  AU won’t sneak up on anyone this season, so they will get every team’s best, most concentrated shot, especially on the road.

THE UNKNOWN
(Writer’s note: pardon me while I repeat myself)
There’s no way around it, no way to tap-dance whilst whistling past the biggest question when it comes to AU football in 2014 — did the Tigers use a couple of years (decades?) worth of luck in their magical, unexpected, inexplicable ride to the BCS title game?  Even the biggest homer out on The Plains would have to admit that the Tigers were “fortunate” to end the season where they did.  Of their 12 wins, six were decided by eight points or less.  In four games — Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama — they were trailing with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.  The Georgia (“Prayer at Jordan-Hare“) and Alabama (“Kick-Six“) wins immediately earned nicknames for the sheer improbability of the endings.  There’s little doubt that Malzahn has, very quickly, turned AU around from the three-win embarrassment that was the final season of Gene Chizik in 2012.  How much was sheer luck, the kind of once-a-decade (or two) happenstance that simply can’t repeat itself?  Regardless of the answer — I’m guessing the talent is sufficient so as to make the question mostly moot — Malzahn’s Tigers will be one of the more fascinating squads to watch throughout the 2014 season.

MAKE-OR-BREAK GAME: at Alabama Nov. 29
As Auburn and Alabama are expected to be the class of the SEC West, it only makes sense to put the season-ending Iron Bowl in this slot.  Last year’s dramatic, last-second win over the Tide that propelled the Tigers into the SEC championship game and, ultimately, the BCS title game was one of the most exhilarating and improbable in the storied history of the rivalry.  UA will have revenge on its mind as the Tide looks to get back on the national championship stage after its one-year sabbatical in 2013.  More than likely, the winner of this game will claim the West’s spot in the SEC championship game and, perhaps, a spot in the four-team playoff.  So, yes, this will be one of the more anticipated games of the year — provided both teams can make it to the game unscathed, of course.

HEISMAN HOPEFUL: Quarterback Nick Marshall
Marshall’s first season as a starter wasn’t statistically overwhelming — less than 2,000 yards passing, just 14 touchdown passes — but it was deadly in its efficiency. Marijuana citation aside, Marshall is said to have had a very good offseason, improving his throwing mechanics and becoming more and more comfortable in Gus Malzahn‘s offense. If true, and if the passing aspect of his game improves — as evidenced by his 1,068 yards rushing and 12 rushing touchdowns, he’ll continue to get his on the ground — that could prove to be bad news for the SEC in general and the West specifically. Thanks to the departure of their leading rusher, the Tigers will likely lean even more heavily on both Marshall’s arm and legs; as far as his Heisman chances go, that’s certainly good news.  Hell, one teammate has even already called his stiff-armed shot for Marshall, so he’s got that going for him.  Which is nice.

(Click HERE for the CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository)

NFL Draft: Three 2013 Heisman finalists still on the board on final day

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The 2013 college football season was a bit of a unique one when it came to the Heisman Trophy. Ina  season that had a number of worthy candidates to at least make the trip to New York City, six players were invited to the most prestigious award ceremony in college football, if not all of sports. With the final day of the 2014 NFL Draft hours away, there are three Heisman finalists from last fall still waiting to hear their names called.

Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, Boston College running back Andre Williams and Northern Illinois quarterback Jordan Lynch have yet to hear their names in the first three rounds. Will today be the day?

McCarron is one of a handful of quarterbacks from the SEC that could be drafted in the final four rounds. LSU’s Zach Mettenbeger and Georgia’s Aaron Murray are also waiting patiently. There have already been five quarterbacks drafted in the first three rounds, with none being chosen in the third round. Where McCarron falls will be interesting. He is certainly confident, explaining his reasoning for skipping the Senior Bowl by saying he would let his résumé speak for itself. Lynch may be hoping more for a team to take a chance on him as a running back, although the need for running backs has clearly been reduced if this year’s draft is any indication.

No running backs were drafted in the first round for a second straight season and this year marked the longest the draft went on before a running back was drafted. Washington’s Bishop Sankey was the first running back off the board with the 54th overall pick in the second round (Tennessee Titans). A pair of running backs from the FCS were drafted later in the third round, leaving Williams in waiting.

Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, a 2013 Heisman finalists and 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, was drafted 22nd overall by the Cleveland Browns. Auburn running back Tre Mason, a 2013 finalist, was drafted by the St. Louis Rams with the 75th overall pick Friday night. Of course, the other finalist is still playing football this fall for Florida State. Quarterback Jameis Winston won the 2013 Heisman Trophy and led the Seminoles to an ACC and BCS championship. He will be back in Tallahassee this fall and perhaps enter the NFL Draft in 2015.

Spring optimism: Auburn’s Nick Marshall improving his passing skills

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Nick Marshall’s always had a strong arm and was often lethal on play-action last fall, but per Jay G. Tate of AuburnSports.com, the Tigers quarterback has become a better overall passer this spring.

Of course, everyone is “improving” or “developing” during spring practice, which wraps up about four and a half months before the 2014 season kicks off. But perhaps there’s something to this, given Marshall was still a relative greenhorn running Gus Malzahn’s offense last fall. Via Tate:

It’s clear that Lashlee and coach Gus Malzahn are placing more emphasis on the passing game this spring. Marshall, whose development will determine just how far Auburn goes with that passing game, is inspiring widespread confidence.

Lashlee said Marshall now is showing the kind of next-level awareness shown by Ryan Aplin, who thrived for this same offensive brain trust at Arkansas State. As a senior in 2012, Aplin impressed Lashlee and Malzahn by suggesting adjustments and challenging ideas with structured arguments.

Granted, Arkansas State and the Sun Belt is a few rungs down the ladder from the SEC, but Alpin completed 68 percent of his passes for 3,342 yards with 24 touchdowns and four interceptions in 2012. He wasn’t the kind of threat Marshall is with his legs (104 attempts, 438 yards, 6 TDs) but there is precedent for a quarterback to put up elite-level passing numbers in Malzahn’s system.

There’s more from Malzahn & Co. in Tate’s article on Marshall’s comfort level and fit in the Tre Mason-less offense, too, so go check that out.

Future Heisman candidates from the recruiting class of 2014

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The recruits from the high school recruiting class of 2014 have signed their letters of intent, so it’s time to start thinking about what kind of impact they’ll make in college.

Not all of them are going to live up to their lofty recruiting rankings this season. Some will take time to adjust to the rigors of college life and go on to redshirt. Some will find ways to contribute as backups or on special teams. Others will be pressed into action due to injuries. Only a select few will become stars this fall.

That said, here are the recruits from 2014 who stand the best chance of competing for a Heisman in the future, according to HeismanPundit.com (in no particular order):

Keller Chryst, QB, Stanford — Chryst is the best quarterback prospect from the West Coast since Carson Palmer. He’s a big, strong, grown man (6-4, 230) with good athleticism who happens to throw lasers. He has first-pick-in-the-draft potential down the road and, if all goes right, he’ll be the latest Cardinal quarterback to make a legit run at the Heisman.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson — Think of how prolific Tajh Boyd has been in Chad Morris’s offense the past three seasons. Now replace him with an even more talented specimen like Watson and it’s not hard to imagine that the Gainesville, Ga., product is on his way to a special career. The 6-3, 195-pounder had over 17,000 yards of offense in high school.

Aaron Sharp, QB, UCLA — Sharp is very similar to Robert Griffin III coming out of high school due to his combination of track speed (21.19 200m) and raw football talent. It’s rare to have one of the fastest players in the country playing quarterback, but that’s what Sharp brings to the table. He also has a strong arm, good size and solid accuracy and with his skill set he should flourish in UCLA’s offensive scheme.

Joe Mixon, RB, Oklahoma — Mixon is a big, bruising downhill power back with good speed for his size (10.96 1oom at 6-1, 215 pounds). He is deceptively athletic and also exceptional as a receiver. He’s the best back signed by Oklahoma since Adrian Petersen. Like Petersen, he has an upright, attacking running style that makes him very tough to tackle in the open field. Though he’s no A.D. when it come to breakaway ability, he’ll play a lot as a freshman and eventually emerge as the latest star running back for the Sooners.

Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State — Rudolph is a perfect fit for the Cowboys offense. At 6-4, 210 pounds, he has a strong arm and is athletic enough to make plays with his feet. He is used to operating out of a shot gun attack. Like most of the quarterbacks who came before him in Stillwater, he’ll have excellent production in his career. But his overall physical ability separates him from previous OSU quarterbacks and could turn him into a potential Heisman candidate down the road.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU — Fournette is the consensus No. 1 running back in the country and some contend he is the best player overall. There’s no doubt he’s a physically gifted big back with very good speed for his size (10.95 at 6-1, 226) and he should play right away for the Tigers. The only question is whether he’ll get the chance to have the kind of production needed to challenge for a Heisman while playing for LSU. If given the carries, he should be a candidate sooner rather than later.

Elijah Hood, RB, North Carolina — This was an excellent year for high school running backs. Hood is another one of those big, physical backs who can kick it into an extra gear in the open field. It’s rare for a man this size to have such quick feet. Hood will start from Day One for the Tar Heels and have an outstanding career.

Racean Thomas, RB, Auburn — While Fournette, Mixon and Hood are power backs with speed, Thomas is an ultra-quick and shifty scatback with breakaway ability and a knack for staying on his feet. His vision is outstanding and his ability to stop and start and cut on a dime is the best I’ve seen in quite a while. It’s not hard to picture him gaining huge yardage in Gus Malzahn’s offense and, like Tre Mason, making it to New York one day.

Deshone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame — It’s only a matter of time before Brian Kelly finds the right quarterback to run his offense. Kizer could be that guy. He’s a very talented dual-threat with good size (6-4, 205) and athletic ability. A successful Irish quarterback is always a Heisman candidate, so Kizer stands a good chance to fulfill that promise.

Others to watch
Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Luke Rubenzer, QB, California
Reggie Bonnafon, QB, Louisville
De’Chavon Hayes, RB, Arizona State
Adam Choice, RB, Clemson
KD Cannon, WR, Baylor
DJ Gillins, QB, Wisconsin
Jarrod Heard, QB, Texas
Will Crest, QB, West Virginia
Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
Dalvin Warmack, RB, Kansas State

Photo courtesy of Rivals.com.