March 20, 2006

Speedy Tigers defense dominates A-Day

AUBURN, Ala. By the final day of spring football the defense has seen just about everything its offense can do.

Just about.

Quarterback Brandon Cox surprised Auburn's defenders by sending four receivers on vertical routes, and tight end Tommy Trott beat a safety and a cornerback with a 53-yard touchdown catch for the only touchdown as the Blue posted a 7-0 victory in Auburn's A-Day game Saturday at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

"Actually, that was a play we hadn't showed the defense all spring," Cox said. "We caught them off guard."

Of course they did. Last season Auburn tight ends accounted for just 29 catches in 12 games and the longest covered 33 yards. Trott, a redshirt freshman with the speed to get deep, beat that on the 19th play of the spring game.

"That was a lucky chain of events," Trott said. "Brandon got the ball off, the safety fell down and the cornerback (Jonathan Wilhite) had to leap over the safety. It was crazy that it unfolded like that and it ended up the way it did."

Trott finished with four catches for 112 yards.

"He gives us the dimension of spreading the defense," Cox said. "He gives us a little more speed getting down the field."

The Tigers showed a lot of speed on the field, and most of it was on defense.

Although allowing running back Brad Lester 59 yards, including a 16-yard gain, and Carl Stewart a 13-yard run, the Tigers defense kept the offense hemmed in most of the afternoon.

An Inside Look
Old reliable: Running backs. Reigning SEC rushing champ Kenny Irons did not play, so Brad Lester stepped in and averaged 6.6 yards on nine carries.
Promising newcomer: Tight end Tommy Trott. Aside from his 53-yard touchdown grab he had catches for 16, 21 and 22 yards, the last in which he maintained possession after a jarring hit.
Solid unit: The secondary. David Irons is a suffocating corner, and Jonathan Wilhite isn't far behind him. Redshirt freshman Aairon Savage is aggressive but needs to add some bulk.
Unit that needs work: Wide receivers. Combined for just seven catches and the longest was 12 yards.
Fast forward: Don't blink when Auburn is on defense. The Tigers are as fast as advertised.
Click here for Olin Buchanan's complete position-by-position grades for the Tigers.
Running plays netted fewer than 2 yards per attempt and eight sacks were recorded for 59 yards in losses. Senior defensive end Marquies Gunn and redshirt freshman defensive end Antonio Coleman had two sacks each.

However, coach Tommy Tuberville pointed out the defense also showed some new looks and new plays the offense would and wouldn't run.

"We have fast defensive ends," Tuberville said. "The defensive ends rush even faster if they don't care whether you're going to run the draw. They knew we weren't going to run the draw."

Notes from the Plains:
Heralded true freshman running back Ben Tate played despite a heavily wrapped right ankle, which he twisted earlier this week in practice. That tender ankle might have slowed him some as he rushed for 34 yards on 14 carries. Tuberville said he did not intend to redshirt Tate next fall. "He will play next year," Tuberville said. "He should be able to help us. He's a big back who can push the pile a little bit."

The interior defensive line is an area of concern with redshirt freshman Sen'Derrick Marks, junior Tez Doolittle, junior Josh Thompson and sophomore Pat Sims combining for just 37 career tackles. However, their play was encouraging. Marks dropped Carl Stewart for a 4-yard loss and Doolittle threw Brad Lester for a 5-yard loss, but was flagged for an unintentional face mask penalty on that play.

Cornerback David Irons was named the A-Day defensive MVP, while running back Brad Lester was cited on offense and punter Kody Bliss on special teams. Irons had an interception and five tackles, Lester rushed for 59 yards, and Bliss punted six times for a 46.8 average with three downed inside the 20.

Auburn needs a few redshirt freshmen to emerge next season, and several showed on A-Day they may be ready. Trott's four catches for 112 yards was most impressive, but end Coleman led all tacklers with 7.5, including two sacks. Linebacker Patrick Trahan had 3.5 tackles and a sack, and Marks had three tackles and a sack.

The 59 yards rushing were nice, but the best part of the spring for Lester was remaining healthy. Lester struggled with a strained right groin that forced him out of three games last season. "Staying healthy was my biggest focus this spring," he said.

Although he had just a modest two tackles, redshirt freshman linebacker Tray Blackmon had a solid spring and is expected to play a vital role next season. "He has been an eye-opener for us," Tuberville said. "From day one he has made an impact on our defense. He will probably be a starter going into two-a-days with (sophomore) Merrill Johnson hurt. They will fight it out in two-a-days.

Tuberville did not condone a helmet-to-helmet hit by safety Aairon Savage that resulted in a personal foul. However, he had to like the aggressive play. "You will have some of those," he said. "Sometimes the defensive backs are trying to make a name for themselves. Aairon Savage was trying to make a name for himself, but we don't need helmet-to-helmet hits like that."

Making the Grade
Quarterback: 8.0
Brandon Cox needs to strengthen his arm, but he showed good touch and accuracy completing 12 of 21 for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Running back: 8.5
Explosive Kenny Irons and backup Brad Lester may often play at the same time because no proven fullbacks are available.
Wide receiver: 6.0
Courtney Taylor has a history of making big plays, yet no other receivers have asserted themselves. Some incoming freshmen could help.
Tight end: 6.0
Tommy Trott showed he can make have a major influence on a game. Let's see him do it in the fall.
Offensive line: 7.0
Guards Tim Duckworth and Ben Grubbs are NFL-caliber. The jury is still out on tackles Jonathan Palmer and King Dunlap.
Defensive line: 7.5
Fierce pass rushers Marquies Gunn and Quentin Groves and redshirt freshman Antonio Coleman make the ends a position of strength, but Tez Doolittle, Josh Thompson or Pat Sims must turn potential into production in the interior line.
Linebacker: 6.5
Redshirt freshman Tray Blackmon and converted safety Will Herring offer speed and physical play, while Kevin Sears is experienced in the middle. Let's see how they adjust to new Defensive Coordinator Will Muschamp's style.
Defensive back: 7.0
Finding a better pair of cornerbacks than David Irons and Jonathan Wilhite will be difficult, maybe futile. Safety is another story.
Special teams: 8.5
Omit the LSU game last season and kicker John Vaughn had a great season, and Kody Bliss is the best punter in the SEC. Senior College Football Writer Olin Buchanan rates the strength of each position on a scale of 1 to 10. Senior College Football Writer Olin Buchanan was on hand for Saturday's Auburn A-Day spring game. This week he'll be traveling to South Bend, Ind., for an inside look at the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

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