AUBURN, Ala. — In the first two minutes of his first fall camp press conference, Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn made three important announcements:
Starting quarterback Nick Marshall would not start against Arkansas for his marijuana citation.
Cornerback Jonathon Mincy would miss time in the opener too for his drug arrest.
Finally, SEC All-Freshman left guard Alex Kozan suffered an offseason back injury that required season-ending surgery.
With that news out of the way early in camp, it has been business as usual and back to football for Auburn.
The Tigers wrapped up their first full week of fall practice Thursday and will have their first off day on Friday. Since last Friday's opener, Auburn has had one scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium and its first two-a-day practice.
Here is a wrap-up of all the major news and notes from the defending SEC champions' first few days of fall camp.
Marshall and Johnson Rotating at First-Team Quarterback
Now that Marshall will not start the season opener against Arkansas, all eyes are on backup quarterback Jeremy Johnson.
In anticipation of the opener, Johnson has gotten more time to practice with Auburn's returning offensive starters.
Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee have not announced how much time Marshall will miss against the Razorbacks, but they both have said Johnson will get more time with the first-team offense this season.
"Me and Rhett decided Jeremy Johnson was going to have a bigger role regardless this year," Malzahn said. "We've talked about him and his ability and how we feel about him. We feel very good about our quarterback position as a whole."
Teammates say Johnson, who did not go live in Wednesday's scrimmage, has now taken more of a leadership role with the offense and with the entire team.
"Jeremy Johnson has come a long way from his freshman year," H-back Brandon Fulse said. "Most freshmen are immature, just kind of lollygagging, but now he’s stepped up. Jeremy Johnson will be a leader now and when Nick leaves, and he carries this team. First game, anytime you put him in, we have 100 percent that Jeremy Johnson will get the job done."
Offensive Line Depth Getting Tested Early
During the spring, Auburn experimented with rotations along the offensive line. A few tackles moved to the interior for some work, while other players flipped to the opposite side of the front five.
That experimentation is paying off early for the Tigers.
With Kozan out for the season, starting right guard Chad Slade moved to left guard, while starting right tackle Avery Young moved inside to guard. However, Slade was held out of Auburn's Tuesday practice and Wednesday scrimmage with a minor injury.
"He was one of the guys we held out," Malzahn said Wednesday. "He's fine. He just got a little banged up. Fall camp, a lot of times, especially with the guys we have a lot of information about, you just want to be smart."
According to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, Auburn's midweek scrimmage was focused on "evaluating the entire depth chart," which opened the door for several younger players to stand out in the deep offensive line unit. One player who impressed coaches was Slade's replacement, backup left guard Devonte Danzey.
"We've really seen him improve in the spring, and now he's just improved even more," Malzahn said. "It's almost good to put guys in there with certain groups, see how they respond, and so far, he's responded well. You know, we're trying to develop depth in our offensive line, especially without Kozan."
Several True Freshmen Making Early Impact
Last fall, Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Marcus Davis were some of the players who contributed to the Tigers' success as true freshmen. This fall, a whole host of newcomers are fighting for their chance to receive some spotlight and hopefully playing time when the season begins.
The biggest spotlight so far this camp has been from the biggest newcomer, 6'6" offensive lineman Braden Smith.
"If I saw Braden in public and I didn't know him at all, and you told me he was a freshman in college, I would not believe you at all," Slade said. "He's one athlete, big and strong. He's going to be something great."
Smith, who was nicknamed Drago because center Reese Dismukes said he "looks like the Russian of Rocky IV," is a freshman Auburn's staff has tabbed as a player with a shot to get in the rotation this fall. After he showcased his athleticism and pure power in offensive line drills throughout the week, the Kansas native was a topic of discussion for both offensive and defensive players in interviews.
On defense, true freshmen Raashed Kennion, Andrew Williams, Tre' Williams, Stephen Roberts and Markell Boston were singled out for praise in Ellis Johnson's Thursday press conference. Roberts has gotten additional work in Auburn's kick returner battle, along with running back Roc Thomas and wide receiver (and early enrollee) Stanton Truitt.
"Here's the deal with Stanton: He is super-fast," Malzahn said last Saturday. "He's got electric speed. So finding ways to get him the ball in space or maybe in the return game or something like that, he's capable of taking it the distance anywhere on the field."
Returning Defensive Starters Shifting to New Positions
The story of spring for Auburn's defensive line was "the Rhino package," senior defensive tackle Gabe Wright's name for the larger front four that will be used to combat power offenses.
Now, this fall, it appears the package's namesake will become more of a permanent feature at a new position: defensive end. The slimmer Wright wanted a chance to fill in the position after the departure of Dee Ford and the injury to Carl Lawson, and he has made an impression on the defense so far in camp.
“Gabe is very versatile at everything he does," linebacker Kris Frost said. "He’s very athletic and very strong. I could really see him at any spot on that D-line, and I know he’s going to succeed [at defensive end]."
While Wright is moving to a new spot on Auburn's heavily rotating defensive line, another returning starter is moving back to a familiar position in his return from injury.
Josh Holsey, who started as safety for the Tigers last season before tearing his ACL, is now getting most of his playing time at cornerback, where the team is trying to replace the departed Chris Davis.
"I know it's a big spot to fill from what he did last year," Holsey said. "I know from watching him my freshman year because I played boundary corner as well. I watched Chris Davis a lot. I know everything he did, and he taught me a lot of things. I know those are big shoes to fill, but I feel like I'm capable."
Ellis Johnson gave an exhaustive injury update for his defense on Thursday evening:
- Defensive tackle Devaroe Lawrence missed two practices and a scrimmage with an undisclosed injury before returning Thursday.
- Projected starting safety Derrick Moncrief missed a practice-and-a-half with an illness.
- Star Justin Garrett missed some time during Thursday's practice with an injury.
- Wide receiver-turned-cornerback Trovon Reed has been held out of practice with a "nagging" hamstring injury.
- Weak-side linebacker Khari Harding avoided missing practice time after injuring his wrist.
- Offensive lineman Austin Golson has been held out of the last few practices with an undisclosed injury. The Ole Miss transfer must sit out a year before he is eligible with the Tigers, but he was practicing with the second-string offensive line before his injury.
- On the positive side of injury news for Auburn fans, wide receiver Jaylon Denson is at 100 percent in practice. Denson suffered a season-ending tear to his patellar tendon against LSU in 2013. During the media viewing windows of the Tigers' earlier practices, Denson looked sharp running routes and making hard cuts.
- The offense has practiced several times with a four-wide, no H-back shotgun set, which was seldom seen last season outside of the BCS National Championship Game. Defensively, Johnson has installed an "expanded dime package" for third-down situations that will include three-down linemen, two linebackers and six defensive backs.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.
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