Five questions: Tigers looking for answers prior to opener
by Ryan Black
Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
Aug 22, 2013 | 1942 views |  0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Auburn’s Jaylon Denson is in the mix to become the Tigers’ go-to receiver. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
Auburn’s Jaylon Denson is in the mix to become the Tigers’ go-to receiver. (Photo by Bill Wilson)
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AUBURN ­— Auburn wrapped up its fall camp on Tuesday, the first since Gus Malzahn took over as head coach.

The Tigers were able to solve what Malzahn considered “the No. 1 priority” heading into the regular season — settling on a quarterback. That four-man race concluded last Saturday, when Nick Marshall was named the starter. But with just nine days left before Washington State comes into Jordan-Hare Stadium for the season opener, Auburn is still looking for answers at other positions.

Here are five questions (in no particular order) the Tigers will try to solve prior to squaring off against the Cougars on Aug. 31, with (bold) predictions on what the outcomes will be:

Who starts at right tackle?

For the duration of fall camp, it appeared that Avery Young and Patrick Miller were neck-and-neck at the position, as both saw time with the first-team offense. Earlier this week, however, offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said Miller had “been working there a lot” in recent practices. During the same interview session, Lashlee said Young had moved inside and started taking snaps at both guard spots, though he saw more time on the left side, which has been manned by Alex Kozan.

Malzahn refused to shed any more light on the situation following practice on Tuesday, but expect a decision by the beginning of next week — even if the coaching staff doesn’t make its choice public.

Bold prediction: Miller becomes the right tackle, and Young, who Lashlee said is “talented enough to play all five positions,” steals the left guard spot from Kozan.

Who is the team’s go-to receiver?

One of the biggest unknowns heading into fall camp remains the same at its closure. The Tigers have a lot of options at receiver, but none has stood above the rest . Just see what Lashlee had to say earlier this week. “I’ll be honest right now,” he said. “I don’t know who our leading receiver is going to be.” Lashlee lauded juniors Quan Bray and Jaylon Denson for their consistency, but didn’t rule out tight end C.J. Uzomah possibly developing into the best pass-catcher the Tigers will have this fall.

Bold prediction: Sophomore Ricardo Louis, who was the “most explosive” player in camp according to teammates, establishes himself as the Tigers’ top receiver this fall.

What happens at defensive end without Dee Ford?

The Tigers certainly would have liked to have some semblance of a rotation in place by now. Injuries have made that difficult. Ford has already been ruled out for the opener due to a ligament injury in his knee, but he’s far from the only player who dealt with an affliction during camp. Fellow ends Kenneth Carter and Nosa Eguae have missed time, while Keymiya Harrell has yet to practice this fall after having knee surgery this spring. To combat their lack of healthy bodies, the Tigers also moved LaDarius Owens back to end after he had shifted to linebacker this spring.

The absences allowed true freshmen Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel to audition for a possible starting spot, and they have done their part to impress Johnson, saying the duo already comprises “two of our best pass-rushers.”

Bold prediction: Though Johnson said he would prefer to have his “veterans prepped up to be the starters,” Lawson is on the field at one of the end positions with the first-team defense versus Washington State.

Who holds the edge at middle linebacker?

Kris Frost entered the fall No. 1 on the depth chart, but he didn’t stay there long. Time and again, Johnson said Jake Holland has been the steadier player during practice, and as such, moved him into the starting lineup. Johnson explained the difference between the two on Monday.

“Kris had two or three days where he kind of went backwards, had some missed assignments and some things that were uncharacteristic and shouldn’t have done,” he said. “ ... The two legitimate scrimmages that we had, Jake just had more production, had more tackles, more plays, had a pick (and) hasn’t had as many missed tackles.”

That should tell people all they need to know.

Bold prediction: Frost continues to fight the good fight, but Holland is in the starting lineup come game time.

What’s the deal with the secondary?

Much like the defensive line, injuries have taken their toll on the Tigers’ back end. Jonathan Jones will miss the opener (and possibly more) after breaking a bone in his ankle in an off-field mishap. That means the No. 3 corner on the Tigers will come from a trio of first-year players: redshirt freshman T.J. Davis and true freshmen Kamryn Melton and Johnathan Ford, who switched from running back this week.

Demetruce McNeal’s decision-making didn’t help matters, whose arrest last Saturday led to his dismissal and weakened an already-lean unit at safety. Originally a cornerback, Josh Holsey has been at the strong (or boundary) safety position since the end of the spring, when McNeal missed the last five practices for undisclosed personal issues. McNeal then sat out the first 10 practices of camp following an infection that required minor surgery, which forced Holsey to remain at safety. Many thought he would finally move back to corner after McNeal regained his health, but the senior was dismissed before the Tigers ever reached that point. If anything were to happen to Holsey or fellow safety Jermaine Whitehead, it would be down to Ryan Smith and quarterback-turned-safety Kiehl Frazier.

Bold prediction: The two former offensive players — Ford and Frazier — see more action on defense than they ever would have imagined one month ago.

Ryan Black covers Auburn University sports for the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer and The Anniston Star. Email him at rblack@ledger-enquirer.com. On Twitter @wareagleextra.
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Five questions: Tigers looking for answers prior to opener by Ryan Black
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