This Saturday, weather permitting, the Auburn Tigers will hit Jordan-Hare Stadium for their first action on Pat Dye Field since your average, run-of-the-mill, 109-yard field-goal return for an SEC West-clinching touchdown against rival Alabama.
Whether the weekend rain forecast for the Plains keeps the Tigers indoors or holds off enough for a return to Jordan-Hare, Gus Malzahn's team will take the field for its first scrimmage of spring practice.
The coaching staff continues to rotate pieces all across the depth chart as position battles continue to unfold for the defending SEC champions. As always, speed has been a high priority for Malzahn and Co. through the first five practices of spring camp.
Before Auburn holds its first scrimmage of 2014, let's hit the high points from the Tigers' second week of spring.
Speed, speed and more speed
It dominated the winter months between Pasadena and spring camp. It is a staple of Gus Malzahn's coaching philosophy.
Pace of play is not going away in Auburn anytime soon.
Malzahn opened spring camp by announcing that the Tigers were going to go even faster in 2014 than they did in their run to the BCS National Championship Game. Tight end and potential H-back C.J. Uzomah echoed his head coach last Saturday.
"We've been in the system before, now Coach Malzahn wants us to pick it up," Uzomah said. "He said last year was nothing compared to the speed that we want to run next year. We're ready."
But speed is not exclusive to Auburn's offense this spring.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson spoke at length about the pace-of-play debate from the perspective of a veteran SEC coach Thursday, per AL.com's Joel Erickson: "The whole thing, to me, is just people arguing for what they think is going to be an advantage to them. And it really doesn't matter, cause that's the rules and that's what we're going to play."
Johnson also said, per Mike Szvetitz of the Opelika-Auburn News, that the Tigers defense benefits from practicing against Malzahn's up-tempo offense. The longtime defensive coordinator has been at schools that did not play fast-paced football, which Johnson says "makes it very difficult" to prepare for teams such as Texas A&M and Ole Miss.
CAP, Grant heat up running back competition
After the departure of Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason, Auburn might go back to the running-back-by-committee philosophy it used in the first half of the 2013 season.
Cameron Artis-Payne does not want it to go that way.
The rising senior wants to be the next feature back at Auburn. Although Auburn's key position battles are not expected to be decided by the end of spring practice, Artis-Payne told the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea that he wants to win the job "as soon as possible."
Artis-Payne is currently in a three-way battle with fellow rising senior Corey Grant and redshirt freshman Peyton Barber. They each had opportunities to work with the first-team offense this spring.
The former junior college transfer from Harrisburg, Pa., told Crepea that each back in the unit—which will add Racean "Roc" Thomas, a 5-star recruit per 247Sports, this summer—is thriving in the battle for the job: "It’s a good thing. You’ve got a bunch of a good running backs in a room and everybody’s trying to push each other. Everybody wants to be the guy to step up and be the lead back. It’s a healthy competition. We all feed off of it."
The powerful Artis-Payne would complement the speedy Grant in a committee system, but both players say they are pushing to develop more of an all-around style so they can be the next starter at Running Back U.
A more accurate Marshall
Nick Marshall's first season at Auburn featured several memorable plays with both his arm and his legs, but there were also some memorable misfires on crucial passes in 2013.
Auburn's coaching staff wants Marshall to improve his completion percentage in 2014 as the offense puts more emphasis on the passing game.
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee specifically wants Marshall to put up numbers that would place the dual-threat quarterback in elite Auburn football company
"You know, I think between 65 and 70 (percent) would be great," Lashlee told AL.com's Brandon Marcello. "To me, if we're getting close to 65 percent, that's going to show improvement, so that's, I think, the first step."
|Single-season completion percentage (min. 100 attempts)|
|2013 Auburn Media Guide|
After completing 59.4 percent of his passes in 2013, 65 percent would be a major yet attainable "first step" for Marshall in a more balanced Auburn offense.
Shuffling the defensive line deck
With rising senior LaDarius Owens expected to miss the rest of spring practice with a foot injury and rising sophomore defensive end Elijah Daniel currently out with a groin injury, Auburn has had to move some pieces around on its constantly rotating defensive line.
A couple of those moves came as a surprise earlier this week.
Defensive tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams spent time at defensive end, making for a massive look up front for Ellis Johnson's defense. Wright, who dropped to 284 pounds over the offseason, and Adams, who weighs more than 300 pounds, impressed coaches and teammates on the ends during their time there this week.
But Johnson does not expect the two tackles to make any full-time moves as their teammates work their way back to health.
"Both of them do some pretty impressive things out there, but we need their depth and rotation in the interior line," Johnson told AL.com's Brandon Marcello. "So I don’t foresee that being permanent. But it would be good that if we did have some unusual rash of injuries next year or something occur, those guys have got the ability to maybe go out there and help us."
With the amount of rotating Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner did on Auburn's front four last season, any extra depth on the defensive ends can only be a good thing for the Tigers' future.
McKinzy and Frost flip positions
While we will not see Adams and Wright make permanent position changes, two more returning playmakers on Auburn's defense made moves earlier this week.
After a season of rotating with now-departed Jake Holland at middle linebacker, Kris Frost is back at outside linebacker, the position he played in high school.
His move to "Will" linebacker coincides with a move to middle linebacker for Cassanova McKinzy, the team's leading tackler in 2013.
Frost, who showed his speed and agility on that crucial third-down tackle of Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel late in Auburn's upset at College Station, will have to show off his athleticism more in coverage now that he is back at his original position.
McKinzy, on the other hand, has already shown himself to be a great tackler for Auburn, and he will play a crucial role in the middle of Johnson's 4-2-5 defense this season.
Newcomers shining in the secondary
Trovon Reed, a former 5-star wide receiver per 247Sports, is now in the Auburn secondary, a unit looking to reload after the departures of several starters and role players.
Ellis Johnson said he has been impressed with Reed in the short time he has been at cornerback, per Mike Szvetitz of the Opelika-Auburn News: "Trovon has had a really good camp. He’s still learning the system, but I think from what (cornerbacks coach Melvin Smith is) telling me about 1-on-1’s, just his cover skills and playing the position physically, he’s been a really bright spot. We think he’s going to help us tremendously."
Reed will compete for a cornerback spot alongside Jonathan Jones, who is battling back from injury, T.J. Davis and Kamryn Melton. Fellow cornerback Jonathon Mincy is Auburn's lone returning starter in the secondary this season.
Also in the secondary, Derrick Moncrief, the former No. 1 JUCO safety per 247Sports, received high praise from his fellow defensive teammates and coaches throughout the week. Johnson noted the former Prattville (Ala.) High School star's performance during his press conference Thursday, per Justin Hokanson of AuburnSports.com:
As Auburn looks to replace Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis and several safeties from last year's roster, look for Reed and Moncrief to make a run toward the top of the depth chart this spring.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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