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Saturday, March 27, 2010

Full practice notes: Quarterbacks ahead of last year's group, says Gus Malzahn

AUBURN, Ala. — After watching his quarterbacks perform in pads for the first time this spring, Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn thinks this group is ahead of last year's.

"The thing that stands out to be is all four have a good grasp in what we’re doing," Malzahn said. "Compared to this time last year, you can tell the guys have a better understanding of the offense."

The Tigers divvied up reps equally among their four quarterbacks — Cam Newton, Neil Caudle, Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley. Malzahn would like to narrow the quarterback field down to give the frontrunners more reps, although he does not have a timetable for doing so.

Despite having the most impressive physical attributes, Newton, who transferred from Blinn (Texas) Community College in January, is still trying to play catch-up in the offense's lingo. But he said he's not completely new to the system.

"People think it's just three days (of practice), but ever since I've been on campus, coach Malzahn has been getting all the quarterbacks around and going over, just walking through it," Newton said. "That's probably been the biggest help I've had. Just not coming out here and going right into the fire. We've been practicing for this for a while now, for about three or four weeks. Just walking through against the air and knowing where our guys are supposed to be."

Here are some other notes and quotes:
  • Not only did Auburn wear full pads for the first time this spring, the Tigers used the opportunity to go to Jordan-Hare Stadium to practice in front of a large crowd of potential recruits on Junior Day. "That was exciting," Newton said. "At my other schools, we never played in the stadium unless it was the spring game or the game. I think playing in the stadium really raised the level and probably put the effect in everybody's head that you've got to be perfect today, and that's what we're aiming for."
  • The Tigers did some live inside drills, which are just short of going 11-on-11, head coach Gene Chizik said. The team also did two separate first-and-10 sessions that were live, except for quarterbacks. "It makes a huge difference," defensive coordinator Ted Roof said. "Some players, when they know they're not going to get hit, it makes them react a lot different than when they've got pads on."
  • Chizik on Newton: "We're really proud of where Cameron after the third day is, in terms of just digesting the information. I think we're really pleased with the gains and the traction he's made here in the last three days. It's a complete learning process, completely different when you go out there and throw 11 guys against it and they're running fast."
  • Newton didn't notice much of a change of pace with the team in pads, going full speed. "Being around coach Malzahn, you've got a tendency to be so fast and when you slow it down on the field, that's when you get your stuff in trouble because he's so fast 'Go, go, go, go!' When you get on the field, you may be too fast and it will hurt you. Other than that, I've been prepared, all the quarterbacks have been prepared. it's showing out there on the field."
  • Craig Stevens, who stared all 13 games last year at strong-side linebacker, has moved to the weak side this spring to give Auburn some flexibility. Junior Eltoro Freeman has worked on the strong side. "Part of what we're trying to build in our system is interchangeable parts," Roof said. "So the absolute next best player goes on the field at that position, not the next best left linebacker or strong linebacker goes on the field." Stevens, who finished with 95 tackles last year, second most on the team to middle linebacker Josh Bynes, doesn't look at the move as a big deal. "They're basically mirror positions," he said. "(Weak-side) is just in the box more and (strong-side) has to cover a little more. Right now I'll just be in the box more. I guess we'll see how that works out. I played it before my freshman year so it shouldn't be too different."
  • Stevens has seen growth in Freeman. "He's calmed down a lot from when he first got here," Stevens said. "Before, he was just thinking too much. He done probably thinking his way into making a mistake. Now he's calm out there, he's kind of playing the way he wants to play now. I see a lot of improvement in him and I think he'll be good going into the season ... He's still the same Eltoro, he just thinks a lot clearer now."
  • Stevens has embraced his leadership role, with seniors Walt McFadden and Antonio Coleman no longer around. "I'm used to guys leaving and new guys coming in," he said. "With it being my senior year, I want it to be a very special year. I've been taking more of a stronger leadership role. It's to teach the younger guys and try to get them to follow our lead and get them to play the way we want to play this year."
  • Offensive line coach Jeff Grimes said left guard Mike Berry will not participate in spring drills. Berry had offseason surgery on his knee. It opens up an opportunity for senior Bart Eddins to step in and work with the first team, with fellow senior Byron Isom at right guard. Grimes said he has rotated playing time for three players at the guard positions before but added that it can't mean sacrificing a certain level of play. "If I have three guys that are really close in terms of their ability, then I'll certainly rotate a guy in with them," Grimes said. "But he's got to be a guy who is not going to drop us. You can't give us a drop-off to get in there."
  • Malzahn thinks both Brandon Mosley and Roszell Gayden, two junior college transfers, have fit in well with the rest of the offensive line. "Both those guys look the part, too," he said. "They have great attitudes. They just need reps working with the other four guys. At times they look really good, and at times you can see they’re hesitant on the assignments. The big key is to program those guys to execute. Both of them are physically what you want."
  • Grimes agreed, and thinks we'll see more of what the two are capable of by the end of spring drills: "I think they're both really eager to learn and they both are guys who I think want to succeed and do well and they've both got a long way to go, of course, in terms of just learning the system. The thing that happens so often with brand new guys is you can't see how good they're going to be because there's so much thinking going on for them. So the real evaluation for them I think will come a whole lot more in the next couple of weeks toward the end of spring ball instead of the beginning. Because right now, their heads are spinning and they're just trying to figure out who to block and they're not doing things as quickly and aggressively as they can. But once they learn what to do, I think we'll see their real ability take over."
  • Safety Mike McNeil, who missed last year with a broken leg, went live during the full contact portion of Saturday's practice. Aairon Savage (Achilles') and Zac Etheridge (neck) did not.
  • McNeil is finally starting to shed a slight limp, safeties coach Tommy Thigpen said. "I think Mike is moving around a lot better than I thought because when we were going through the workouts in the morning he had a slight gimp," he said. "But I haven’t seen that since we started practice. I think he’s making a conscious effort to make sure he doesn’t have a limp. He flies around." Thigpen said the key for McNeil is to keep his pads low. With leg injuries, there's a tendency to play higher than usual. The same applies for Savage.
  • McNeil also has to shake off some of the rust. "We’ve been working technique, technique, technique for the last two days and then once we put the pads on, technique went out the window," Thigpen said. "He’s a little rusty. He’s willing, that’s the good thing with Mike. He’s in the film room every day asking a lot of legitimate questions. I think he’ll be able to pick it up really fast and get back into the flow."
  • Thigpen has been impressed with the play of Ikeem Means, a walk-on from Wetumpka, Ala., who played almost exclusively on special teams last year. "He’s really doing a good job," Thigpen said. "A big-bodied kid. He really has burst, he’s got size. He’s physical. The key for him is going to be how fast can he pick up the concepts."
  • Today was a significant day for two freshmen who enrolled during what was supposed to be the final semester of their senior year of high school -- linebacker Jessel Curry and defensive end Craig Sanders. "Those guys ought to be doing something else right now," Roof said. "But I thought they both did a nice job and both have got a million miles to go, but I'm really proud of both of them and happy with their attitude and happy with their attitude."
  • Former Auburn and current NFL players Jerraud Powers (Colts), Sen'Derrick Marks (Titans) and Quentin Groves (Jaguars) attended practice.

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