War Eagle, everybody! It's time now for the Auburn A-Day review. If I had to rely solely on the view from the stands, I could probably have written a game review in a couple of sentences. "On a hazy, 70 degree spring day, Gene Chizik charged 45,000 fans $5 each to watch the starters beat the tar out of the scout team. It was over in about an hour and a half, and fans were left wondering what to do with the rest of the afternoon." Harsh, but after a whole spring of closed practices, I had hoped to see more. I understand the reasons why Coach Chizik closed practice, but that doesn't mean I have to like it!
I spent way too much time yakking, and was not really glued into the game. That, and I got tricked into spending the entire second quarter in line at the concession stand! I don't know why I did that. I was perfectly happy to sip my Maker's Mark right out of my vintage 1979 Aubie flask! Fortunately, they do rebroadcast A-Day on CSS, so I was able to look at the tape a bit this week. If there's any definitive conclusion to be drawn from the "game," it's that there's an enormous gulf between the ability level of Auburn's front line players, and that of the reserves.
The schemes used by the coaches on A-Day ensured lots of offensive success. The defense was parked for the most part in a base 4-3, with a substantial drop by the middle linebacker on most passing downs, the classic Tampa-2 look. Meanwhile, the offense used an array of formations, all shotgun, with motion, and lots of pulling linemen. The defense was not really allowed to adjust, or attack with heavy blitzes. We'd occasionally see a 5-man rush, but that was about it. The defensive line starters played only about 3 series, before giving way to mostly walk-on players. On the other hand, the offensive line starters played well into the 4th quarter. Reserve o-linemen did play, but it was in twos and threes, almost never a whole reserve line out there. Starting guard Byron Issom was spotted on the field even on the last drive of the game.
Defensively, Auburn's starting D-linemen were dominant, stuffing the inside runs, forcing throw-aways, and tallying sacks. Beyond that, Auburn is in deep trouble depth-wise, in the back seven. After the starters went out, we were treated to an amazing array of bad pursuit angles, and poor tackling. Several sure interceptions were dropped. We've GOT to stay healthy at linebacker, this fall!
Other than the place-kicking teams, other special teams work wasn't live. Kickoffs and punts were dispensed with entirely in the second half. The punt or kick would happen, the receiver would catch it, and the play would be whistled dead. There were seven kick-receiving opportunities, and 2 balls were fumbled. The newcomer return men clearly need some work!
Offensively, we appear to have at least a solid starting offensive line, possibly a great one. We also have capable runners, and a few receivers ready for prime time, especially in the slot. I still don't have an answer for how we're going to block 7 or 8 onrushing defenders in the box. We usually only had one linebacker pursuing outside runs, and he was often facing a pulling lineman. Fullback/h-back blocking was spotty. At quarterback, we've still got a LONG way to go.
Position by Position
Defensive line: The only playing rotation guys to record a stat were tackle Mike Blanc (one sack), end Michael Goggins (two tackles for loss), and Antonio Coleman (1 QB hurry). Those three played about 3 series, abusing the likes of Vance Smith and A. J. Green. After that, the backups recorded one tackle, no assists, no hurries. It's no coincidence that the offense averaged 9.7 yards per rush, and 8.5 yards per pass.
Linebackers: These guys were held back by the scheme. Eltoro Freeman flew around the most of anyone, but he was frequently out of position, and only recorded one tackle, taking Justin Alpert to the ground nicely on a sprint option. Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens combined for 3 tackles, none for loss. Even among the starters, though, slot receiver Ralph Spry got around Bynes and Stevens for nice gains on back to back screen passes. Neither of the likely top back-ups, Spencer Pybus and Adam Herring, recorded a single stat.
Cornerbacks: Walter McFadden looked sharp, staying on his man like glue, and making an immediate shut-down tackle on a hitch to Quindarious Carr. Neiko Thorpe and D'Antoine Hood looked ok, also, in limited work. We got good, long looks at reserves such as T'Sharvan Bell, and a host of walk-ons. Bell's aggressive, but needs a lot of work on his technique. In general, outside receivers were limited pretty well, but we struggled to cover slot guys. That's going to happen, if you stay in a base defense against 3 wide.
Safeties: With starters Mike McNeil and Zach Etheridge, as well as top backup Mike Slade out, we might as well have been playing defense with 9 guys. Early on, Ben Tate broke loose through the middle. Both safeties had him bracketed, and looked like they wanted NO PART of number 44 racing downhill! Tate went untouched for the score. On the next series, Burns hit safety Brandon Evans right in the numbers on a post, and it bounced over his shoulder pads to Fannin. There were at least 5 deep balls down the middle where the safeties were cooked, as well as some really bad pursuit angles on the reverse to Zachary.
Kickoffs: This was 4 kicks by Wes Byrum. He's still not getting the ball to the end zone, but he was consistent, and pretty high. The kicks went to the 6, 2, 1, and 3 yard lines. We can live with consistency like that.
Place kicking: Wes Byrum was six of six on extra points, and one of two on field goal attempts. Missing a 51-yarder is no big deal. The 46 yard made field goal was right down the middle.
Punting: Clinton Durst handled all three punts, and had one of his trademark howitzers go nearly to the clouds, for 52 towering yards. That was sandwiched between two high-school range 38 yarders.
Returns: These weren't live, and were blown dead after the catch. Onterio McCaleb let one kickoff go through his hands, and Justin Alpert dropped a punt. Both men had fortuitous bounces, and recovered their fumbles. McCaleb handled all kickoffs, Alpert handled two punts, and Quindarious Carr handled the last one.
Offensive Line: The starters were dominant, but they did not face any front-line defenders. Ziemba and Issom have to be singled out for nasty blocking downfield. Issom was a WEAPON pulling and leading sweeps. Behind the starters, it's clear that tackles such as Vance Smith and A. J. Green aren't ready. It was nice to see Darrell Roseman get on the field after three years of misfortune and injuries.
Slot Receivers: Mario Fannin is a beast! Our reserves couldn't handle his blocks, nor get him on the ground after the catch. Fannin picked up 22 yards on two carries with little blocking help. Fannin was also sure handed, deftly handling two deflected balls. Terrell Zachary can run, we found out, on a little reverse. John Douglas also had his moments. While he wasn't a dominant blocker, he did adeptly shield corners off from making the play on outside screens. Ralph Spry gets a nod, for taking two screens for positive yardage against the starting defense.
Wide Receivers: Getting rave reviews all spring was Tim Hawthorne, but he was only in for a few plays, and didn't have one thrown his way. Quindarious Carr and Darvin Adams looked the best on this day, consistently getting open and making catches. Carr had one drop, but it was on a hitch pass from Burns, thrown high, that Carr had to leave his feet for. Harry Adams is lightning fast, but on the two balls thrown for him, he dropped one (a good hitch pass from Caudle), and tripped and fell before the ball got there on the other. Derek Winter was running around wide open frequently, too, but had a drop on a deep post. Drew Cole did bump him right when the ball got there.
Running Backs: This may be the one place on the team where Auburn has abundance. Ben Tate was a load against the reserves, scoring twice, and his day was over early. Onterio McCaleb makes everyone else on the field look like they are running in quicksand. McCaleb was gone for 70 yards before the defense could blink, on one snap. Justin Alpert had some nice, tough runs against the ones. Eric Smith didn't play, but he's been getting rave reviews this spring. The defense did try a few blitzes here and there, and running backs picked 'em up pretty well. And don't forget, top backs Dontae Aycock and Brandon Jacobs arrive this August!
Quarterbacks: Like the Auburn coaches, I wish this thing had been decided by now. Beyond the first quarter, the quarterbacks mostly had ALL DAY to throw the football, with excellent protection. Did we have a guy step up and prove that he can be an excellent starting SEC quarterback? Sadly, no.
The offense, under Kodi Burns, had much early success. But, it was mainly on handoffs to Tate, Zachary, and McCaleb. On most of his eight passing attempts, Kodi still seemed to be throwing off balance. There was a high throw to Carr on the hitch. A bomb to Fannin into coverage that should have been intercepted. A slip screen to Spry WAY behind him. An underthrown post pattern to a wide open Derek Winter that allowed the safety to close. An overthrow out of bounds on the screen to Spry, with pressure coming. A line drive on a post to wide-open Winter, no air under it, overthrown. That was six bad throws on 8 attempts. The capper was Kodi, late, deciding to try and run for it on 3rd and 27. Bear in mind, though, that if the quarterback had been live in this one, Kodi probably could have run for 200 yards.
Many folks out there want to adorn Neil Caudle as the starting quarterback, after A-Day. Caudle had some of the nicer throws of the day, and hit his short hitches and screens consistently. There was a deep touchdown to Darvin Adams that was a thing of beauty. Adams was covered, but Caudle threw it to his outside shoulder, away from the defender. Savvy! There was also a blitz beater early in the second half on a great throw to Adams on the crossing route. But there were some green moments for Caudle, too. He was not terribly effective early, working against the starting defense. He took sacks, or threw the ball away. There was a throw into traffic that Christopher Wade tipped, that was caught by Darvin Adams. A starting LB picks that thing off. There was an overthrow on a post to Adams. Then, on the big throw to Carr down to the 4, that was some serious sandlot ball! Caudle slung it off his back foot, and that thing sailed like a punt. The only reason it worked was that Carr had completely spun T'Sharvan Bell around, and was open by ten yards. Caudle tried to stuff a slant into coverage, with three defenders there. Luckily, the throw was low. The big break-away screen to Fannin wasn't a great decision, either. It was 3rd and 4, and Caudle had room to run for the 1st. Instead, he dumped it short of the stake to Fannin, who was bracketed. Fannin made him look good, shedding 3 tacklers.
A week ago, I made a list of five things to look for on A-Day: solid quarterbacking, punt returns, defense in the middle, lead blockers, and catching the ball. I give us a C- on quarterbacking, due to bad/questionable throws. On punt returns, and not being live, it's an “Unsatisfactory.” Can't drop one of three in SEC competition! Defense in the middle: D-. 9.7 yards per carry says it all. Lead blockers: Incomplete. We can't count on being able to pull a guard every play in the SEC. The h-back is going to have to block ends and linebackers when we go live in the fall! Catching the ball: B+. We had 3 drops, on 26 attempts, and 2 of those weren't good throws. Only one really ugly drop! And, we hauled in a couple of deflected balls. Much, much improved, here.
Here's looking forward to fall, where we should see an infusion of talent to help on the D-line, and receiver corps. The real test over the next three months will be that of leadership. There is a LOT to work on, and how well the Tigers improve will be key. It's going to be a long, hot summer till August camp! War Eagle!