AUBURN, Ala. — This weekend, football and all the necessary fanfare will return to Jordan-Hare Stadium after months of quiet.
Only a couple of practices remain for Gus Malzahn's Auburn Tigers between now and Saturday's A-Day Game, where they'll give the orange and blue faithful its first glimpse at what's coming in a crucial 2016 campaign.
Auburn wrapped up its fourth week of spring practices last Saturday with its second scrimmage of the year, where a certain quarterback got some special spotlight due to his jersey color and more separation developed at key position battles.
Malzahn has said he has a goal of putting together a two-deep depth chart at the end of spring practice, which means these last few practices—and A-Day—will be quite important for the team heading into the long summer months.
Here are all the top news, notes and quotes from Week 4 of Auburn's spring practices, with the grand finale just around the corner.
Shaking things up on the offensive line
Between Auburn's need to replace both of its starting tackles and new offensive line coach Herb Hand's plan to build versatility, there's a new favorite in the race to be the Tigers' next blind-spot protector.
Austin Golson, who started at center last season for Auburn after transferring from Ole Miss, was the Tigers' first-team left tackle during last Tuesday's media viewing window. According to Hand, Golson's move there isn't a one time thing.
"Austin Golson has been repping at both left tackle and center," Hand said. "He's got a lot of experience at center so every rep he takes at left tackle he gets more comfortable, which is big for us."
On Saturday, Malzahn said Golson's move to left tackle might be permanent, according to Ryan Black of 247Sports. The head coach said Golson was still getting used to the position:
Moving around on the offensive line is natural for Golson at this point in his career. He was a 4-star offensive tackle out of Prattville High School in Alabama, but he played mostly at guard as a true freshman in 2013 with Ole Miss. At Auburn, he quickly became the favorite to replace Reese Dismukes at center.
Senior and experienced backup Xavier Dampeer has stepped in as the first-team center while Golson reps on the outside. Hand said Dampeer has been playing at a "pretty good level at center" and was one of the players he has been pleased with this spring.
Golson's move to left tackle has bumped Robert Leff, who began spring practice as the favorite at left tackle, over to right tackle. The now-eligible transfer Darius James, who sat out Tuesday's practice but returned for Saturday's scrimmage, is primarily competing at left tackle with Golson.
While it seems the Tigers are moving closer to an established depth chart on the offensive line as spring camp winds down, Hand is still making it a point to work players at multiple positions.
"We have to have a contingency plan...and what that means is I can't just go out there and say this guy is our left tackle and this guy is our right tackle," Hand said. "We have to have a plan that if something were to happen and we have to shift some bodies around. What's allowed us to do that is the versatility of guys like Austin Golson."
Staying live, staying live
Malzahn said at the end of Week 3 that one of the staff's biggest goals from its scrimmage was to get more film on quarterback John Franklin III in live situations.
In Auburn's second scrimmage one week later, Malzahn decided to put his newest quarterback under the microscope again. Reports on Franklin from the closed scrimmage were favorable, per Brandon Marcello of SEC Country:
According to Wesley Sinor of AL.com, Malzahn left the orange non-contact jersey off of Franklin on Saturday. Former starting quarterbacks Jeremy Johnson and Sean White, however, did not go live.
"We just felt like it was important, one more time, to see how [Franklin] can protect the football," Malzahn said, per Sinor. "Let him make some plays and stuff like that, so it was a good evaluation from that end."
Franklin, who continues to rotate and get first-team reps in practices, has been subject to more hands-on coaching by Malzahn over the last couple of weeks.
That carried over to his teammates on defense, too, and Malzahn sounded pleased with the way Franklin protected the ball—a key focus after some fumbles in Week 3's scrimmage.
In almost every player and coach interview that has mentioned Franklin's name this spring, the transfer's speed has been a hot topic of conversation. But on Saturday, Malzahn focused on the finer details of playing quarterback at Auburn when discussing Franklin's scrimmage.
"We've been impressed the way he's picked up all the things from the sideline―the pre-snap things," Malzahn said, per Michael Niziolek of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer. "There's a lot to playing quarterback in our system before the play even starts, before you even look at the defense. I've been very impressed the way he's done that."
The next time Franklin goes up against the Tigers defense in a scrimmage setting will be this Saturday's A-Day Game, when Auburn fans will get to see the dual-threat star in uniform for the first time.
'Butt beatings' important for heavily hyped linemen
The focus on Auburn's now-deep defensive line this spring has been on two different camps—the veteran leadership of returning starters such as Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams, and the bright potential of underclassmen such as Byron Cowart and Marlon Davidson.
In his first interview session of the year, veteran defensive line coach Rodney Garner spoke highly of both Cowart and Davidson, who are both repping at strong-side defensive end, opposite the "Buck."
Garner said Cowart, who had a microscopic amount of production compared to the hype he received last year as a true freshman, is showing the consistency this spring needed to become a factor at the SEC level.
"He's going to be fine," Garner said. "They have to guard against all this pressure that everybody has placed on them that they're going to come in and be an instant success. ... I don't care about stars. Nobody cares about stars. You think that guy lined up across from him cares about stars? It probably motivates him more to beat his butt."
On Saturday, Cowart faced the media for the first time as a Tiger, and he spoke openly about one of the main areas that was said to have held his development back in 2015—his head.
"I'm trying to improve my mental toughness—that's the biggest thing, and being able to move on to the next play," Cowart said, per Black. "If you mess up on the last play, don't let it affect the next play, because if you let it affect the next play, then it's affecting the whole team."
Garner said making that adjustment comes differently for every highly touted defensive lineman, who is normally used to dominating his competition in high school practices and games.
Davidson, who impressed as the first-team defensive end in a pace drill last Tuesday, is finding that out, to the delight of a smiling Garner.
"It's been great watching him get beat," Garner said with a laugh. "It's been a humbling experience because he hasn't had many of those opportunities. ... For him to have to go in there, because he just thought, 'I'm Marlon Davidson, I'm going to line up and kick your butt,' and then get his butt kicked—it's great."
- Auburn picked up a graduate transfer over the weekend—Georgia native Marshall Taylor, who played cornerback at Miami (Ohio) in the MAC. At 6'2" and nearly 200 pounds, Taylor provides another big body with experience to the Tigers' cornerback room.
- Malzahn made a special note to highlight the play of sophomore wide receiver Ryan Davis on Saturday, per Matthew Stevens of the Montgomery Advertiser (via the Anniston Star): "Ryan Davis is a guy that really you can tell has taken that next step. I've been very proud of him. He's got a lot of winner in him. He's wanting to be coached, and he's got some ability."
- According to Niziolek, sophomore cornerback Carlton Davis' goals for the defense this season are massive. He wants the Tigers to hold opponents to an average of less than 14 points per game.
- New defensive backs coach Wesley McGriff said sophomore defensive back Nick Ruffin has had a "really good spring camp" at safety and raved about his "good football IQ" and "contact skills."
- Running backs coach Tim Horton said senior running back Jovon Robinson has been more engaged with his teammates in the past year and has opened up after his tough journey to get back to the Plains.
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Recruiting rankings are courtesy of 247Sports.
Justin Ferguson is a National College Football Analyst at Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JFergusonBR.