Special thanks to Ryan Black of the Columbus (Ga.) Ledger-Enquirer …
Q: A lot has been made about the absence of H-back Jay Prosch this season. How has that affected Auburn’s run game?
A: Funny you bring that up: It’s something that happens nearly every week on the Auburn beat, after all. As such, Brandon Fulse has heard his name tossed around a lot. Every time a beat reporter asks about him, it’s always praise.
How close is that to being the truth, though?
With this coaching staff, you never know — at least offensively. As an old-school coach, Ellis Johnson uses his weekly media appearance to lambaste his defense (even after seemingly standout performances) every Sunday. Gus Malzahn and Rhett Lashlee, on the other hand, rarely criticize offensive players. And even when they do, it normally comes with a cavaet: “Nick could have made a better decision, but … we put him in a better position there. It was a bad play-call.” That type of thing.
So even if Fulse was doing terrible, you wouldn’t know it from the coaching staff. And here’s a not-so-well-kept secret: Of course the running game has dipped a smidgen with Prosch gone. From the minute he graduated, Malzahn and Lashlee made sure to mention that whoever replaced Prosch “couldn’t be Jay.” From a physicality standpoint, there were few like him — Auburn or anywhere else. At the same time they were downplaying the “replacing Prosch” angle, Malzahn/Lashlee said the H-back role would be a little different this year, as they planned to use Fulse in the passing game a bit more.
Ironically enough, Fulse hadn’t caught a single pass this season prior to last week. Then he went out and had a career-best game (two receptions for 27 yards), which included his first touchdown catch as a Tiger.
To sum this up, has Auburn’s ground game been taken down a notch? Yes. Keep in mind, however, that there’s “nothing higher than No. 1.” The Tigers led the nation in rushing last year at 328.3 yards per game. The Tigers knew they wouldn’t match those numbers this year since they had placed a premium on becoming a more balanced unit during the offseason.
Running for 281 yards per game, as they’re doing this year, ain’t too bad, though.
Q: How is Nick Marshall better in his second year as the starter?
A: This is always a complicated thing to answer. First things first: He could run well before he got to Auburn. Everyone knew that. He showed that last year by running for 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns and he’s followed that up with four 100-yard performances in seven games.
So this question boils down to Marshall’s gains as a passer. Or one might say, lack thereof. At every opportunity during spring practice and fall camp, Malzahn and Lashlee talked up Marshall’s improvement, saying that once the regular season arrived, he would show he could beat teams with his arm every bit as easily as he did last season with his feet.
Lashlee even threw out a number, saying the goal was for Marshall to complete “65-70 percent” of his passes this year, far better than his 59.4 percent showing last season. So of course, he’s completing passes at only a 58.3 percent (84-for-144) clip in seven games to this point.
Simply put, he’s shown glimpses of greatness in the passing game. At other times, you wouldn’t be able to tell this is his second year working with Lashlee and Malzahn.
There’s still time for him to break the 60 percent completion mark before the season ends.
But at this point, it’s fair to ask if Marshall’s as good as he’s going to get as a passer.
Q: With more depth at wide receiver how much more are those guys involved this year?
A: Not as much as you’d probably think.
Sammie Coates caught 42 passes for 903 yards and seven touchdowns last year, numbers that dwarfed the rest of the receiving corps.
This year, it’s the same thing — only with D’haquille “Duke” Williams taking Coates place as the (far and away) top option in the passing game. Williams has a huge lead on his fellow wideouts in every category, from receptions (34) to yards (527) to touchdowns (five). Coates wasn’t healthy for the first half of the season and his numbers (13 catches, 236 yards, one touchdown) show it.
Quan Bray, a senior, has been a reliable No.2 receiver this year, and Ricardo Louis had a pair of touchdown catches, but that’s about the extent of it.
We constantly hear about how confident the coaching staff is in the receivers not mentioned above.
We just haven’t seen much evidence of that in actual games.
Q: How would you assess the play of Auburn’s secondary? Lots of yards given up but lots of interceptions too.
A: That’s a good way to describe it. The secondary isn’t a “no-fly zone” by any stretch, as it has allowed 200-plus passing yards in every game aside from Arkansas and LSU (when QBs Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings struggled mightily).
But as you mentioned, the Tigers have excelled at snagging interceptions, with their 13 picks tied for second-most in the SEC along with Kentucky (in one fewer game).
It’s been up-and-down, no doubt. But it must be noted free safety Jermaine Whitehead’s monthlong suspension (for still-undisclosed reasons) left the Tigers without the most experienced member of their secondary. In addition, he was tops on the team in interceptions at the time he was suspended.
Q: Auburn’s run defense numbers are solid. What has play been like along the defensive line?
A: Another good call on your part. The Tigers have been quite good against the run. The only opponent to top the 200-yard mark this year has been Mississippi State, thanks to some guy named Prescott.
But there’s no way to sugarcoat how pathetic the pass-rush has been. It’s a sore spot for Johnson to discuss each week.
How bad have things gotten?
Auburn moved Brandon King, a former defensive back, to defensive end in a bid to get more speed off the edge and possibly catch opposing offensive linemen off guard.
Q: It looked like South Carolina had a pass-heavy game plan and gave itself a chance to win. What was your take on that game?
A: Steve Spurrier called a perfect game. It still wasn’t enough, but give the Head Ball Coach a lot of credit: He left nothing to chance.
A quick pitch on fourth-and-2 at his own 33-yard line in the second quarter? Sure. A trick play that ended up with a reception for quarterback Dylan Thompson? You betcha. An onside kick in the third quarter? No doubt.
As Spurrier said afterward, the reason they went for it so often on fourth down in the second half is because his defense is a wreck. They couldn’t stop the Tigers’ offense, so Spurrier wanted to win a shoot out.
And he almost did.