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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Late practice notes: Punt return position wide open

AUBURN, Ala. — Mario Fannin’s one-game stint as Auburn’s punt returner might be over.

Wide receivers coach
Trooper Taylor, who is in charge of the return game, said he thinks the Tigers will use a different player to field punts this week after Fannin struggled in the opener, muffing a punt and misplaying another.

“We gave everybody, managers, trainers ... I’m telling you, we had an open tryout,” Taylor said. “The biggest deal for our guys back there is decision-making. If you just simply catch it and we walk off that field and it’s our ball, then we’ve done our job.”

Freshman Anthony Gulley is a top contender, having been on the field for Louisiana Tech’s final four punts Saturday. He returned one for negative-1 yard.

Other contenders include
Quindarius Carr, Demond Washington, Emory Blake, Zac Etheridge and Walt McFadden.

Fannin remains an option, but has so many other duties that the team doesn’t want to overload the junior.

“Mario’s playing 70 snaps,” Taylor said. “I mean, that’s quite a bit. So we want to make sure that we have guys back there that are fresh.”

Follow the blog on Twitter for instant updates. After you do that, read some more of these notes ...
  • Running back Eric Smith, who returned to the team Monday after a 2½-week absence following his arrest for third-degree assault, will not only be in uniform this Saturday against Mississippi State, he’ll have an active role. “I’m really proud of the way he’s responded to the things we’ve asked him to do,” head coach Gene Chizik said. “I think he’s ready to play. Obviously, early in the week maybe a little sluggish. Nothing alarming but probably what you would expect playing himself back into playing shape. We expect him to play Saturday.”
  • The 5-foot-10, 237-pound Smith could play a couple positions. He can play as a regular tailback or in Auburn’s hybrid fullback/H-back role. “It helps because we have three running backs last game,” running backs coach Curtis Luper said. “It helps because he has some experience.”
  • Smith’s return also increases the likelihood that freshman Dontae Aycock will redshirt. Luper said it would be nice to, but it’s too early to make that judgment.
  • Chizik doesn’t want to pull the reins back on freshman running back Onterio McCalebb, but he does want to hold back the hype after the freshman ran for 148 yards in his debut. “People can jump to a lot of conclusions with one football game,” Chizik said. “We don’t know what he is yet. He had one good football game and there was a lot of other people responsible for his success other than him. That was one game out of the box. We’ve blinked and moved on.”
  • The speedy McCalebb remains the backup to starter Ben Tate, despite getting more two more carries than the senior in Auburn’s opener. The coaches still want to see McCalebb become a well-rounded back, not just one who carries the ball. “He’s got to continue to just be a better football player,” Chizik said. “As the season goes on, whether he has earned the right to handle the ball more remains to be seen. If he does earn that right, can he do it? Well, that remains to be seen, too. So we’re kind of in a feeling out process, too. We’re not going to put a whole lot of stock into a guy that rushes for 110-some odd yards one time. If you do it six or seven times in a row, now you’ve got our attention.” Weird comment about a kid who had a pretty spectacular first game.
  • Luper had some concern about McCalebb holding up after getting 22 carries, in addition to his kick return work. He's listed at 164 pounds, but Luper said he plays closer to 170. "That's a little much for him," he said. "He's 170 pounds so we're not trying to get him 20 touches a game. We'll take it slow with him. We'll get the ball to him in various ways. it won't always be running downhill between the tackles. He'll be on the perimeter some, catching the ball some and in the return game. So 15 touches in various ways."
  • Luper also commented on fullback John Douglas, who got some action Saturday: "He's a tough, blue-collar type guy. It seems like he always has a wrist or something bothering him at some point but it's never anything major. He just shakes it off. He's tough. He can play with a little nick here and a little nick there. He knows the offense well. In the spring, he was just consistently there every practice, every day and he earned the right to play and he played well. He's not as physical as you would like for him to be. A couple times in the game a couple linebackers got the best of him but he's going to stick his nose in there every single time. That's just Auburn football."
  • Jeff Grimes is a very cerebral offensive line coach. Here's an example. He gives his players grades for their performances, like all line coaches do, but he emphasised a few things more than others, specifically how many times they put a player on the ground and big negatives like penalties or sacks and pressures allowed. Then, and here's the unique part, he makes his linemen write out how they thought they did. "I'm big on getting them to evaluate themselves and giving me a write-up after each game of how they felt like they played and the things they need to work on the most," he said. "To me that's a whole lot more valuable than saying so-and-so graded out at 74 percent."
  • Chizik didn’t get into specifics about injures but said “it’s really going to be about the same crew you saw.” That could mean Adam Herring starts in place of Eltoro Freeman (hamstring) at weak-side linebacker again. “We think today he looked better,” Chizik said of Freeman. “But I don’t want to be premature on saying that. We’re hoping he’s able to play Saturday.”
  • The Tigers are still rotating kick returners trying to find the right person. “I’m not looking for a guy that’s going to dance,” special teams coordinator Jay Boulware said. “I’m looking for a guy that’s going to get downhill.” Terrell Zachery, McCalebb, Neiko Thorpe and Fannin are the top-four players on the depth chart at kick return.
  • Taylor was impressed by wideout Darvin Adams, who fought through a shoulder problem to play and thrive, catching a touchdown. He wasn't thrilled by his fumble. "What got him, we talked about him catching the ball, turning and getting up field," he said. "And he started dancing and doing all this [Trooper shimmied when he said this]. In the SEC that window is going to close like that. You've got to save that dancing for the club. If you're doing that, it's the guy that you don't see that punches it out. And he learned a valuable lesson."
  • Safeties coach Tommy Thigpen has a few connections to the Mississippi State staff. Current MSU defensive coordinator Carl Torbush coached Thigpen when he was a three-time All-ACC linebacker at North Carolina, later giving Thigpen his coaching start as a graduate assistant. Thigpen was also on the same Bowling Green staff as MSU head coach Dan Mullen when Urban Meyer was the head coach. That was in 2001-02. Despite competing against old coaching friends, Thigpen doesn't mind. "I don’t think twice about it. I could care less who is on the other side of the ball," he said. "It’s good to see him before the game but the ultimate goal is to win the football game regardless who is on the other side."
  • Thigpen on Mullen's offense and if it's the same now as it was back at Bowling Green: "They’ve evolved quite a bit. It’s very difficult to defend. There are a lot of moving parts, like our offense. It gives you a couple of challenges as far as the zone coverage, do you stay in zone? They have ways to attack everything you’re in. It’s going to be a challenge because there are a lot of moving parts. The quarterback running the ball presents problems for you, especially when the quarterback can throw the ball. It’s a double-edged sword. Do you defend the quarterback? Do you defend the running back? There are a lot of moving variables."
  • Boulware was a little reserved about Auburn's special teams performance last Saturday, calling it "a solid day, nothing spectacular."
  • He was pleased for PK Wes Byrum, who was 3-for-3 on field goals, connecting from 25, 49 and 47 yards. But Boulware expects perfection. "I stress to them everyday," he said. "I expect them to be perfect. If he's not perfect then I'm on him."
  • Auburn's opponent's average starting field position last Saturday was the 23-yard line. Not good enough for Boulware. "I think last year the best in the country was probably somewhere around the 21-, 22-yard line for the whole year," he said. " Obviously it helps you when you kick the ball deeper. It's kind of our philosophy: We want to kick the ball deep and cover it. When you start pooch kicking and squibbing it, guys field the ball and you may not be the top team in the leagues in terms of kickoff return yardage. Someone may stop you and you might only get 18 yards because they kicked it to the 25 or the 30. That's not our philosophy. We want to kick it deep and we want to cover kicks. We want them to start further back."

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