Auburn Football: 5 Things Tigers Must Fix in the Bye Week
Everyone at Auburn seems to agree: It's the perfect time for a bye week.
The Tigers certainly aren't losing any momentum by taking a break here in the fifth week of the season. Any momentum Auburn had after a 3-0 start was derailed by Jeremy Hill and LSU in a rainy Death Valley last Saturday night.
But what Gus Malzahn's team does have—and has shown in the first four weeks of the season—is a lot of potential.
This week, the Tigers will have plenty of time to harness and hone in on that potential in time for their return to action Oct. 5 against No. 21 Ole Miss.
"The next two weeks are huge," Auburn offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said on Sunday. "It couldn't have come at a better time. We are 3-1, we have a young football team and we feel like we can really clean some things up. We'll work on us a little bit, as well as worry about our opponent, which is a really good one."
Just like any team in the country, there's a long list of corrections the Auburn coaching staff would like to make sooner than later. But five issues in particular have stood out through the first four games of the season to spectators, coaches and players alike.
If the Tigers can straighten out these five areas of concern, they might just come a few steps closer to living up to that vast potential.
They say a team always makes its biggest improvement from Week 1 to Week 2. For Auburn, it may just come from Week 4 to Week 6.
Find Consistency in Nick Marshall
Junior transfer quarterback Nick Marshall has shown flashes of brilliance in his first four games in a Tigers uniform, but his playmaking ability and knack for improvisation have come with a measure of inconsistency as Auburn's signal-caller.
Without question, Marshall has been a key piece in reigniting a stagnant Auburn offense from 2012, and he stands as a perfect fit for Malzahn's system moving forward.
But Marshall, who missed all of spring camp and arrived on the Plains in the middle of the summer, has had to go through some growing pains in his first handful of games as a starting quarterback at the Division I level.
That showed Saturday night in Baton Rouge when Marshall started the game just 6-of-16 for 31 yards in the first half. Marshall bounced back in the second half, finishing the game 17-of-33 for 224 yards, but the Tigers were in too big of a hole, down 21-0 at the half, to make any kind of real comeback.
"There's no secret, Nick didn't have a good first half, and he knows that," Lashlee said on Sunday. "We weren't throwing and catching the ball as a whole. We had some drops too. We weren't throwing and catching the ball well. I don't know what the reason for that is. In the second half, we settled down and did a much better job.
"But bottom line is we've got to be more consistent, and if we're going to win against Top Five, Top 10 teams, you've got to play four quarters and be more consistent in the passing game. I think (Saturday) we proved we can still run the football. But we're going to have to make plays in that passing game too in clutch situations."
Find a Second Receiver Behind Sammie Coates
So far in 2013, redshirt sophomore Sammie Coates has been the man for the Auburn receiving corps.
Coates leads the Tigers receivers in every statistical category with 11 receptions for 306 yards while being one of four different Auburn players with a touchdown reception this season.
Through just four games, Coates has already doubled his output in yardage from a year ago. He finished 2012 with six receptions for 114 yards and two scores.
"I think from last year to this year, it's a mindset, just getting myself back into the game," Coates said on Tuesday. "I sat out my (redshirt) freshman year. I was hurt. I think just getting my mind back to just play football and have fun doing it. Me going out Saturday making them plays, it was part of me getting my mind back into the game."
Coates has solidified himself as the Tigers' best deep threat, and perhaps as Marshall's go-to receiver in any situation. But Auburn needs to find some consistency from its receivers outside of Coates, especially as Marshall continues to mature as the Tigers quarterback.
Only one other Auburn receiver—Quan Bray—has passed the century mark in yards through four games with 114. Ricardo Louis has matched Coates with 11 catches, but he has just 66 yards to show for it.
Someone will have to step up at the receiver spot if Auburn is going to reach its full potential on offense this season, and the bye week would be the perfect time for someone to do it.
For Coates, Auburn has the talent. It all comes down to just one thing:
"We got a lot of good players that run good routes," Coates said. "That's one thing we got to work on, is running the routes. After we look at practice today, these guys, they did a really good job running routes. As we keep working, that's it, just running good routes. That's all it takes."
Establish a Pass Rush
The Auburn defensive line has done well enough for itself through the first four games of the season. The Tigers stand sixth in the SEC in total sacks with six.
That number could have been higher if senior defensive end and pass-rushing specialist Dee Ford had played in the first two games of the season. Instead, the preseason second-team All-SEC selection and Bednarik Award watch-lister sat out the first two weeks with a sprained MCL in his left knee.
Now with Ford back in the fold, the senior could mix with the rest of the members of the Tigers veteran defensive line—and the unit's young, raw talent—to become one of the most fearsome groups in the conference to opposing quarterbacks.
One of those young talents who has grown each week is freshman Montravius Adams—a universal 5-star recruit who pulled his first collegiate sack in the Tigers' season opener against Washington State and could become a force inside by the end of the season. Adams has eight total tackles on the year, which is second among defensive linemen on the team.
"Montravius, right now, is right there neck-and-neck with the starters but still has to learn what to do," defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said on Sunday. "A few assignment things keep him behind. Physically, he's playing good."
If the rookies and veterans each hit their stride at the same time this season, the Auburn pass rush could become a nightmare for opponents. The entire unit will have a chance to start fresh after the off week. Senior defensive end Nosa Eguae said Tuesday that the Tigers have gone back to the basics during the bye after their loss to LSU.
"We've watched the film, we corrected mistakes on Sunday, and (Tuesday) was a day just to get better," Eguae said. "It was get better at the little things, it was a fundamental day, it was get better at your step on the defensive line, working pass rush moves—getting back to the stuff that we were doing in August.
"We've moved on, but you know, we're still taking it day by day, learning, trying to get better."
Discover What This Defense Can and Can't Do
When you think of Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 defensive scheme, you think of flexibility.
In theory—and on the chalkboard—the 4-2-5 should allow a defense to face any of the different offensive attacks that teams employ in modern-day college football; from the spread to the wishbone, and from the hurry-up, no-huddle to the slow ground-and-pound.
But the Auburn defense didn't show much in the way of flexibility when it faced a different style of offense last Saturday against LSU. After three games—and three victories—against teams running variants of the spread, the Tigers had a much tougher time against LSU's two-back, two-tight end sets.
In fact, that's when LSU did its most damage. LSU running back Jeremy Hill opened the scoring on Saturday night with a 49-yard touchdown run on a simple 3rd-and-2 play. Hill broke free again for a 54-yard run in the second quarter out of a similar set.
"Mainly, we were playing five defensive linemen in our short-yardage packages; just trying to get more bigger people out there because of their personnel," Johnson said Sunday. "It looked good all week in practice, but frankly, their offensive line out-executed us. We also had some issues with it; didn't feel comfortable. So we go out of it.
"Second half, we went back to some other things we'd been doing in short yards."
That's a personnel matchup the Tigers are going to have to get down by the end of the year when Georgia and Alabama each roll onto the schedule, both with physical, two-back, two-tight end sets of their own. Fortunately for Johnson and Auburn, they have some time—and this bye week—to make some adjustments and bring the true flexibility out of the 4-2-5 set.
"The base 4-2-5 was OK with it on normal downs, but your base would be conceding short yardage if we didn't get that extra body out there," Johnson said. "And it's a package we worked quite a bit, but our offense doesn't run anything like that so we really haven't run it against good people. I think the technique of it, we got caught off our feet and pushed back, that was the biggest issue with it. We really hadn't worked with it against good people yet."
If nothing else, this off week gives an injury-plagued Auburn team an opportunity to get healthy and back to full strength before the meat of the schedule arrives.
The Tigers have had to deal with constant flux on their depth chart and sudden moves from position to position—both with serious, long-term injuries and with nagging, day-to-day injuries that leave groupings uncertain each week.
It's been especially noticeable on the defensive side of the ball. Ellis Johnson has had to work each week without a full cupboard as he patches together a defense.
"We physically are beat up," Johnson said. "We've been through musical chairs on defense and still are going through it. I've got guys even that have played in games that are practicing one-and-a-half days a week. We've got guys that are missing.
"An open date could have helped us earlier, but I think it is a very good time for it now."
Just as Ford made his return after missing the first two games of the season, fellow defensive end Craig Sanders went down with an ankle injury.
Defensive tackle Jeffrey Whitaker and cornerback Jonathan Jones have each missed the first four weeks. Cornerback Chris Davis has now missed the last two games.
Justin Garrett missed the first two games of the season and, upon his return, moved from the "Star" linebacker-hybrid position in Johnson's defense to weak-side linebacker after Robenson Therezie's impressive play at the "Star" in the first two weeks. But Therezie was limited late on Saturday against LSU after suffering a neck stinger during the game.
On offense, wide receiver Jaylon Denson suffered what appeared to be a serious leg injury on the opening drive of the game against LSU. Lashlee confirmed Sunday that Denson is likely out for the rest of the year.
For some, like Denson, the season may be over, with just a long road of recovery and the 2014 season ahead.
For others, like Jones, who has made it a goal to return in time for the Ole Miss game, the bye week could prove to be the right stoppage at just the right time.
Either way, after this off week, the Tigers are going to have to keep playing—whether they're ready for the rest of the season or not.
"We have been banged up, but that's football," Eguae said. "That's every team in the country. It's not an excuse. The next guy has to step up. Whoever has been out since the beginning of camp, the next guy has stepped up. We're just going to continue to do that."
Justin Lee is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @byjustinlee. All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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