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Monday, Apr. 19, 2010

Auburn football analysis: Ups and downs of spring drills

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A look at which Tigers rise, fall

By ANDY BITTER

abitter@ledger-enquirer.com

AUBURN, Ala. — Auburn finished its A-Day scrimmage Saturday, and offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn dodged the starting quarterback question like he has all spring.

“We’ve compiled information for 14 practices now and we’ve got one more,” he said. “As soon as we get through it we’ll sit down and kind of see where we’re at and we’ll kind of go from there.”

It’s been a common refrain from the Auburn coaching staff all spring: ask us later.

Gene Chizik and his assistants have been hesitant to draw conclusions, knowing there are still 4 1/2 months before the season. If a player had a good scrimmage, they would be cautious with their praise, quick to point out that it was only one of 15 practices this spring.

With only one post-A-Day polishing session remaining, here’s a look at the ups and downs after nearly 3 1/2 weeks of spring drills:

Three up

1. Cam Newton: Whatever concerns Auburn had about the junior college transfer’s ability to win over the team have been alleviated. The 6-foot-6, 247-pound presumed frontrunner for the quarterback job has come a long way, both in learning the playbook and earning his teammates’ trust.

“He’s earned a lot of people’s respect,” linebacker Craig Stevens said. “He didn’t come in too arrogant or anything. He just came in (and) got to know everyone. And that’s crucial at that position.”

2. Ikeem Means: Last year Daren Bates came out of nowhere to seize playing time at safety. This year it could be Means, a 6-foot, 204-pound walk-on from Wetumpka, Ala., who has drawn universal praise for his development in his second year.

Means might have benefited from a lack of competition (safeties Zac Etheridge, Aairon Savage and Mike McNeil are returning from injuries), but he took advantage of every opportunity given to him this spring to be more than a special teams stalwart.

3. Third receiving options: The Tigers might have found some solutions in their long search for viable receiving threats to go along with starters Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery.

Malzahn praised sophomores DeAngelo Benton and Emory Blake, both for their maturity and willingness to do the dirty work of a receiver by blocking more. Blake might be more visible in the offense because he’s worked as a slot receiver, a weapon that was missing from Auburn’s arsenal last year.

Quindarius Carr, meanwhile, hopes to build off a fantastic A-Day in which he caught four passes for 152 yards and two touchdowns, earning offensive MVP honors.

Three Down

1. Eltoro Freeman: After an erratic first year on the Plains, Freeman continues to be a mystery. An outside linebacker last season, he worked as a backup at middle linebacker this spring behind Josh Bynes.

Coaches said it was to train all the linebackers at every position, but questions about Freeman’s progress have drawn tepid responses. At one point, Chizik said explicitly that Freeman had to “step it up,” suggesting the junior hasn’t quite turned the corner to being a defensive mainstay.

2. Mike McNeil: Perhaps the most telling statement about the junior safety came from defensive coordinator Ted Roof. Asked what has stood out to him about McNeil, Roof paused, searched for an answer for close to eight seconds and said simply, “Experience.”

McNeil, who missed all of last year after breaking his leg in a spring scrimmage, has been slow to work his way back. Safeties coach Tommy Thigpen said McNeil has a noticeable limp during the latter half of practices, meaning the safety still isn’t quite 100 percent.

3. Decisiveness: Auburn’s coaches didn’t make any definitive statements about the team’s few ongoing position battles.

The four-man quarterback race will likely spill over into two-a-days in August, despite a general feeling that Newton will emerge as the No. 1 guy.

But other positions are also not defined. No decision has been made at right tackle, where Brandon Mosley had a slightly better spring that Roszell Gayden, who was set back by a hand injury.

Questions also loom at safety, linebacker and receiver that likely won’t be answered for a while.

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