The A-Day recap

How confusing are spring games? The AUfficial photo caption calls the tackler on the left Craig Stevens even though the defender on the right is definitely Robert Hill, who even I had never heard of until I read the caption in question. Do I believe Stevens and Hill both actually saw the field at the same time? Nope, sorry, I don't.

That’s right, it’s time to get our recap on before the A-Day “game” slips too far into the memory hole. Anyone who’s joined us since the end of last season who’s unsure of what I’m talking about, we get our recap on like so. Enjoy:

PRE”GAME”

– At the appointed time of the broadcast, we turn on ESPNU and find … Georgetown facing off against Loyola-Maryland in college lacrosse. Gosh, I can’t imagine why ESPN’s had so much trouble getting traction with this channel. (As I wait for the game to end, I can’t help but wonder, though: do Loyola fans feel weird chanting “Go Greyhounds!” at athletic events? Seems like it’d feel like you were cheering for buses.)

– Your announcers today: Chris Fowler, Kirk Herbstreit, Carrot Top, and a shimmer that Fowler introduces as the ethereal spirit of the late Tom Landry! Wow, ESPN really went all out for this one!

Just kidding, of course. It’s Beth Mowins on play-by-play with Tom Luginbill and Mike Belotti (in his “here’s one even you can’t screw up, rook” assignment) on color. Maybe part-time guru Luginbill can at least drop some recruiting knowledge on us at some point? Something more exciting than “Michael Dyer will be good”? Still probably asking too much.

– Seriously, it’s the first thing I notice as the team runs out the tunnel: aren’t those helmet decals larger than they were before? What’s with that? As we watch Newton, Caudle, and friends warm up, there’s no doubt: those logos have definitely hit the weight room.

I don’t like it. They don’t look bad–it’s still the Auburn logo, after all–but for someone who’s spent a lifetime staring at Auburn helmets on TV, they do look weird, unsettling, like in elementary school when you went to the grocery store on a Saturday and saw your teacher without her glasses. It’s not like the change adds anything, either–it’s the same logo, no easier to see than it was before, just bigger. Here’s to hoping they shrink them back to regular size, or failing that, that it doesn’t take more than a couple weeks to get used to it, because today it’s making my brain itch.

FIRST QUARTER

HOLY CRAP CAUDLE GETS THE FIRST SERIES HE’S BEEN THE STARTER ALL ALONG NOW WE’VE SEEN THE TRUTH not really. You can tell because the first pass went to Jay Wisner, so we’re probably not looking at the first unit here. Hard to tell, though, since there’s no names on the back of the jerseys. I’m OK with that during the season, but today of all days, we need the help, don’t we? (I am not expecting much help from Mowins. Internet numerical roster, your time to shine.)

– Impact offensive players, according to ESPN: Newton, Adams, Ziemba, Fannin, and …. Lutzenkirchen. Not saying that might not be a savvy choice, but I’m still thinking someone just happened across that one YouTube highlight and got carried away.

– Caudle, looking sharp despite a Wisner drop, first down across midfield. And a “sack” by … you goign to tell us, Mowins? Of course not … No. 56 … Ashton Richardson! Good job, Ashton! Next play, Caudle to Robert Cooper in the flat, tackled by Anthony Gulley-Morgan … and not that this isn’t awesome, but honestly, we couldn’t have gotten the first-teamers on the field first?

– Another great throw by Caudle downfield (as A.J. Greene and Roszell Gayden stuff DEs Craig Sanders and Robert Hill), another Wisner drop. Well, live. On replay, it’s a nice breakup by No. 28, who is … Dontae Aycock? That’s not right.  Even the box score is no help; it doesn’t list another 28 for Blue. Help us out here, SIDs! This is really important! (For the crazies, anyway.)

– Newton on the field! GO GO GODZILLA. First teams, too, both sides of the ball. Maybe the huge cheer that greeted Newton is why they didn’t take the field first? In retrospect, seems like that would have been a good way to convince everyone the QB race was over. Now … you know, Caudle did get the start and all.

– Fannin gets to the edge courtesy of two excellent blocks from Eric Smith (on Bynes) and Zachery (on T’-Bell) for a nice gain. Luginbill spoils it by pointing out that Fannin didn’t switch the ball to his outside hand, though, making a fumble more likely. For the good of Auburn fans’ cardiovascular health, fumbles and Fannin shouldn’t be mentioned in the same sentence, thanks, which is why from now on if Fannin’s involved fumbles will be referred to as “sunshines.”

– Antoine Carter just glides past John Sullen for the “sack.” Get well soon, Big Snacks.

– Newton’s first pass … is not bad, not bad at all, a laser across the middle to Adams. It sets up a 3rd-and-1 despite the sack, and HEY why was McCalebb just tackled for a two-yard loss? We’ll never know, because ESPN was still busy showing the replay of the last play. I know it was a nice pass, guys, but it wasn’t that nice. Luginbill blames the tackle-for-loss on the second-string offensive line, but … he’s just wrong. That’s Ziemba, Sullen, Pugh, Isom, and Mosley out there. It’s as first-string as Auburn’s going to get.

So even though he had nothing to do with it, Newton’s first drive ends without the skies parting and cherubs descending to nestle a laurel of live oak across his mighty brow. Guess that’ll happen later.

– Barrett Trotter, zone read, no one near him, gain of 11. It’s not really fair to Caudle and Trotter that every time they run the zone read all I can think of is “Man, how awesome will that play be when Newton runs it,” but seriously, every time they run the zone read all I can think of is “Man, how awesome will that play be when Newton runs it.”

– Man, Trotter, that was a nice play: edging left to avoid the rush, strong throw across his body to hit Derek Winter in stride, gain of 21. Two plays later, Trotter goes deep, got his man! TOUCHDOWN. Your receiver: Nathan Taylor. (Of course, Nathan Taylor.) 50 yards, nicely done. That’s two excellent throws and a well-executed zone read on this one drive. Could Auburn actually have … depth at the quarterback position? Wonders truly will never cease.

The victimized safety, No. 28 again, which I remember now is Blake Poole. Blake’s number is listed as 29 on the roster and “2c” in the box score. No wonder I’m confused.

– Caudle’s first series with the first string. The defense seems to be making better plays–Bynes shrugs off Isom to hold McCalebb to a 2-yard gain, Carter tracks down McCalebb on a dangerous-looking screen, Bell knocks back Zachery to help disrupt a swing to Blake–but Caudle’s executing well enough that Auburn’s moving the ball anyway, bit by bit. Take the swing to Blake for example; yeah, Zachery didn’t get much of a block, but Burns erased his man out there, the pass hit Blake directly in stride, and Blake was slithery enough to pick up 6 yards even though the defense had it mostly snuffed out. Yeah, this offense is gonna be something, man.

– 1st and goal after a check-down to McCalebb (who showed off some surprising hands on a ball that was behind him). Caudle carries to the 1, but on 2nd-and-goal Nick Fairley blows up a handoff to McCalebb. YES PLEASE. Whatever positives we see from this first-team defense, especially on the line, far outweigh whatever negatives we might get from the first-team offense.

SECOND QUARTER

– Luginbill’s on the field and chatting up Chizik between quarters. The odds of our head coach, who God bless him but rarely says anything interesting during sideline interviews of actual football games, saying anything interesting in the sideline interview during A-Day are long indeed, and here at least they don’t pay off. Going to have to try harder than “tell us what you’re doing,” Luginbill.

– TOUCHDOWN, Mario Fannin, and here’s the dilemma of the spring game in a nutshell: it’s a run over the right side, and our new right tackle Brandon Mosley seals up Michael Goggans as Fannin darts behind him for the score. Are we happy, because Mosley made a nice play and Fannin showed off some top-notch quickness to get in before the unblocked Jon Evans could make the tackle? Or are we upset, because Evans didn’t seem to react particularly quickly and Goggans allowed himself to get sealed? I tend to think this is more solid execution from the offense than poor play from the defense, but it’s 100 percent in the eye of the beholder.

– Luginbill spends a moment talking to Malzahn, who is exactly as we expect him to be: a fast-talker, more bothered by the slip-ups (the botched 3rd-and-1 conversion, a missed check-down from Caudle I think on the 2nd-and-goal) than the fact his unit just scored, in general a guy who’s probably too smart to have chosen football coaching as a career path but was born Southern and here he is anyway instead of calculating fuel ratios for the next space shuttle or whatever.

– Kickoff returns couldn’t be more meaningless. With no contact on the returner and the whistle blowing once he crosses the 25 or so regardless of whether he’s touched or not, saying the coverage and blocking units are going “half-speed” is being entirely too generous. The more important development is that Auburn’s kickoffs, whether Brooks’s or Byrum’s, still aren’t coming anywhere near the end zone. Cody Parkey to the courtesy phone, please, Cody Parkey to the orange-and-blue courtesy phone …

– Newton on the field again, this time with the second string. Goes deep … Carr! 60 yards! Poor Blake Poole is not having himself much of a day. If Newton gets it a little further downfield maybe it’s a score, but the line had been pushed back just enough (and a rusher. Chris Humphries, sort of applying a rush behind him) that he couldn’t step into the throw. It’s all arm. I’m going to go ahead and say this: no way the other quarterbacks make this throw. Maybe they back out of the pocket, wind, up, and get it there, but standing in the position Newton was standing in, it’s my EXPERT opinion that their attempts don’t even make it to Carr in the first place.

– 2nd-and-goal from the 4, play-action, roll-out, all day to throw and Wisner wide open in the back of the end zone … and Newton just misses him, firing another laser over his head. Maybe Adams gets his hands up in time to make a play, but that’s just a bad throw. One of them isn’t a big deal, but let’s not make this a habit, huh, Cam?

– Third-down pass is well-covered, and on comes Chandler Brooks for a 22-yard field goal … which he doinks off the upright. I blame the fact that he’s not wearing the yellow shoes. You’re the backup kicker, Chandler: you’re allowed to be as goofy as you wanna be. (Or at least, I hope you’re allowed.)

– Seriously, how many times must Auburn’s first-team defense have seen this flip reverse to Zachery? And they still fall for it hook, line, sinker, like a Bronco scout at a Florida pro day. Zachery’s going to wind up our like fifth-leading rusher on that play alone. (Or maybe, uh, third? Fifth would be a step back for him, as it turns out.)

– Because he didn’t have enough fun with that one, a couple of plays later Zachery breaks a double-team tackle from Stevens and Bell, gets a block on Ikeem Means from Burns, and shrugs off what’s frankly a weak attempt from Mike McNeil to score a 44-yard TOUCHDOWN. Trooper Taylor sprints down to the end zone and leaps on top of Zachery like he just won the Iron Bowl, and it’s awesome, because he’s Trooper Taylor. Major props on this drive to Auburn’s edge blockers: Burns, Smith, Adams, etc. All three plays (the middle of which was a dump-down to Fannin for 18) worked because the corners and safeties couldn’t get to the ballcarriers.

– Very next play from scrimmage, it’s more of the same: Caudle throws a swing to Carr, Gulley-Morgan unfortunately takes a pretty rotten angle, and Carr jukes him and takes off down the sideline without even having been touched. 70 yards, TOUCHDOWN. After the game the gripe was that Newton never got to pad his stats with throws like these, and that strikes me as both fair and unfair. Fair, because this is now 132 yards in three plays for Trotter and Caudle picked up by virtue of throwing simple swing passes.

However: this doesn’t mean that Trotter and Caudle don’t get any credit. As we saw with Todd last year, it’s quite possible to throw these swings in such a manner that the receiver loses his momentum, gets turned around, never gets his balance, etc., and fails to pick up yardage even when the blocking is good just because the pass is bad. Maybe Newton can throw these passes just as well (we haven’t gotten a look at him trying them just yet), but Caudle’s and Trotter’s efficiency shouldn’t be knocked just because the throws look simple.

Also: Wisner got a terrific block on Poole. Honestly, I’d rather see him blocking than trying to make receptions.

– Shot of Roof (calmly) explaining to Gulley-Morgan what he did wrong, but all I can think is “that helmet logo is gigantic.”

– Newton with the 1′s again. Handoff to McCalebb on the zone read, and Stevens soundly beats Sullen to tackle after a short gain. With the exception of Stevens missing the tackle on the Zachery touchdown, linebackers have been largely solid. Next play is another zone read, and I’m not sure why Newton keeps when it looks like Carter’s playing him more than McCalebb. Not that it’s a bad decision–if this live it’s Newton one-on-one in space with a defensive end. But it’s not live, and Newton is “tackled” for a loss of one. Would love to know what Malzahn thought of this decision.

In any case, hope you enjoyed seeing the zone read at A-Day, Auburn fans, because you’re going to see a freaking ton of it this fall.

– 3rd-and-9, long throw over the middle to Emory Blake, and it’s just a tad out of his reach. Another incompletion for Newton, but 3rd-and-9 against good coverage–which is what that appeared to be–is tough. And Newton almost made the play. Luginbill applauds him anyway, and so do I.

– Shoemaker shanks one. Sigh. He was probably distracted by hearing that Mowins had called him “Shoemacher,” like the F1 driver, earlier in the broadcast.

– A white team drive with Trotter picks up one first down, stalls. Caudle takes over with the blue, hands off to McCalebb, goes around left end with Isom pulling and two defenders, Washington and Means. McCalebb leans inside just enough to put Means off-balance, then cuts around Isom’s block to pick up 6. It’s not often I disagree with bloggin’ colleague Acid Reign, but I’m not worried about McCalebb, as he seems to be. Aside from maybe the one tackle by Evans in the open-field (where he tried a cutback and appeared to lose his balance just a bit), McCalebb’s taken advantage of the space he’s been given. He just hasn’t been given much.

– Caudle’s drive ends with a Smith drop and Carter abusing Ziemba for a “sack.” He’s been the best player on the field by a mile, either side of the ball. Newton in with the second-team, 2nd-and-8, pump-and-go fails to work and Wisner is bracketed, blanketed. Newton zips it between the defenders, Wisner makes the catch … out-of-bounds. As with the Blake pass, maybe it doesn’t count as a completion, but that’s as good a pass as you can ask for.

On third down the defense jumps and the line does that thing where none of them move. I still don’t understand the point. Newton wings it off his back foot, incomplete. Another failed drive for Newton that’s .67 percent his fault.

HALFTIME

– ESPNU gives us a live look-in at the Tide spring game. I give the fast-forward button on the remote a live push-in.

(That was lame, but it’s Friday afternoon and I’m recapping the A-Day game. You’re not going to get the first-string material.)

– Auburn Elvis sighting!

SECOND HALF

– Wow, not only is there a running clock, there’s only 10 minutes per quarter? Hope no one took their time going to the bathroom, this “half” is going to be done before they get back to their seat .

– Deangelo Benton can’t catch a break. First, at the end of the half, Trotter fires a long completion to him that’s nullified by Carter “sacking” Trotter just as he threw. A quick swing that he picked up about 7 yards on to open this drive was nullified by an illegal formation flag. And now–after watching Wisner run wide open down the middle of the field for a huge gain–another swing goes nowhere when Andre Harris is waaaaaaaaay too slow to get a block on the DB (Tyler Mickens) (?). You’ll get yours this year, DeAngelo, don’t sweat it.

– Byrum, from 50: money, even though I didn’t get the sense Byrum hit it as cleanly as he’d have liked. Taylor gives him a hip bump, just to prove he’s got hip bumps enough for all.

– Hey, there’s Dee Ford. Why didn’t we see him in the first half? Or Nosa Eguae? The first-half white team ends were Craig Sanders, Chris Humphries, that Hill kid. Probably means nothing, but it’s worth noting.

– Aycock gets a nice block from Andrew Parmer, runs through an arm tackle by some safety I can’t identify (though based on the photo above I think it’s Means, No. 16), and scores a TOUCHDOWN. Luginbill, who earlier called the first team offensive line the second team, then calls the very clearly second-team line that just put together that drive the first teamers. On the one hand, it’s not like Luginbill is familiar with the intricaices of Auburn’s offensive line depth chart, but it’s not that hard. Is No. 73 out there? No. 50? The big No. 57 with the dreads? No? Then it’s not the first-team line.

– I know Clint Moseley’s the guy taking the end-of-scrimmage snaps for a reason, but geez, even he’s not looking half-bad; the big throw to Wisner was right on the money and his short tosses have been crisp. Yes, in case you were wondering, Gus Malzahn can coach himself some quarterbacks.

Aaaaaand that’s it. As I said the other day, the positives from A-Day far outweigh the negatives. Let’s compare:

POSITIVES

1. Antoine Carter healthy and ready to assume Groves/Coleman mantle

2. Up to three quarterbacks likely capable of leading offense at Todd-like level, at minimum

3. Receiving corps now deepest position on team somehow; Carr a contributor, Zachery a beast

4. Nick Fairley lookin’ stout

5. Mario Fannin playing like Mario Fannin ought to play

6. NO INJURIES NO INJURIES NO INJURIES NO INJURIES

NEGATIVES

1. John Sullen probably not ready for SEC play

2. Secondary not particularly deep

3. Aycock more likely to contribute at H-back in fall rather than as third-string tailback; will need Dyer or Smith in that role

That’s pretty much it, right? What else–Newton missing to throw to Wisner, the struggle to run the ball up the middle, the handful of missed tackles–can’t be chalked up to “small sample size” and the half-speed vanilla nature of the scrimmage? And looking at those negatives … uh, we kind of knew those first two already, didn’t we?

I maintain we didn’t learn much … but even on second viewing, I think what we learned should be reason for encouragement rather than pessimism.

Enjoy your weekend, folks.

Photo by Van Emst.

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