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Scouting report: Tailbacks

Hey everyone. I'm into the second half of my Kentucky/Indiana/Ohio shindig, and I wanted to pass along some random observations. I'll do a scouting report on the tailbacks toward the end of this entry.

So let's get going.

**People in southern Ohio drive pleasantly. When the speed limit is 65, by God, they drive 65. Not 75. They use turn signals. It was surprising to me. I expect all large cities to be like Atlanta, where 20 under the speed limit is considered slow-lane material.

**We had a great time at Kings Island in suburban Cincinnati. I love me some rollercoasters, and KI certainly has plenty. Of note, the Drop Zone ride was closed because of a recent incident on a similar ride in Louisville, Ky., and Son of Beast was closed because of a 2006 incident. I used to believe people never got hurt on amusement-park rides.

**We skipped the Reds-Cardinals game on Friday night. Too much money. We never sit in our seat anyway. If they sold walk-around passes for like $2, we'd go.

**Apparently, there's a Mini Cooper plant in Cincinnati. I see maybe one Mini per week in Montgomery, maybe a few more in Birmingham. In Cincinnati, every 15th car is a Cooper. The bad thing for me is that I so badly want a silvery Cooper S with 18" wheels. So I got to see them every two minutes on the road. Swell.

**We saw "Knocked Up" at a spacious theater that was both a.) more expensive than Rave and b.) not as good as Rave. Bummer. The movie wasn't a bummer, though, and is one of the best light dramas I've ever seen. I won't review it for you; that's Josh and Kimberly Moon's job.

OK. On to some Auburn talk.

I like grading on a scale of 1 to 5.
5 is best.
3 is SEC average.
1 is a long-term project or someone who could play in NAIA right now.

I post two grades for each player: current score (college peak score)

2006 overview: Kenny Irons and Brad Lester handled business for most of the season behind an offensive line that was pretty good at run blocking. I'll admit that Irons never developed into the college star I predicted in 2004. He put together some excellent games but seemed to struggle with lower-leg injuries. Lester was an outstanding complement to Irons' grinding, north-south style. Lester isn't the dancer he was as a redshirt freshman, and was more willing to bang with linebackers in 06. Carl Stewart earned tons of snaps at the team's slot/fullback hybrid position. He made some truly outstanding catches that saved games – particularly the LSU win. Ben Tate earned sporadic playing time as a true freshman. His receiving skills are outstanding. Tate showed that he still has a lot to learn about rushing.

2006 depth chart:

STARTER (tailback) – Kenny Irons 4.25
BACKUP – Brad Lester 3.75
REDSHIRT – Mario Fannin 1.5

STARTER (fullback) – Carl Stewart 3.5
BACKUP 1 – Ben Tate 3.0
BACKUP 1A – Tre Smith 2.5

My projected 2007 depth chart

STARTER (tailback) – Brad Lester 4.0 (4.5)
BACKUP – Mario Fannin 2.5 (4.25)
BACKUP 2 – Tristan Davis 2.5 (3.0)
REDSHIRT – Enrique Davis 1.5 (tba)

STARTER (fullback) – Carl Stewart 3.75 (4.0)
BACKUP – Ben Tate 3.25 (4.0)

The franchise player:
Brad Lester. He is quick, fairly strong and a passable receiver. When he's healthy and working behind a line that's blocking properly, Lester is a top-three SEC back. The problem is that Lester is a fairly lean kid and I don't see how he's going to hold up under heavy hitting. I'm not sure this offensive line will be all that good. I can't tell yet. I like Fannin a lot more than I used to. He is Tristan Davis with significantly better hips and receiving skills. That's a good package. Davis is great on straight-ahead runs, but doesn't fool defenders for whatever reason. Carl Stewart is what he is. I guess the best way to describe my thoughts on Ben Tate is that I don't appreciate him at common levels. He is a gifted receiver, possibly the best on the team right now, but doesn't seem particularly fast or elusive. A lot of people I trust believe that Tate is going to be a star. I just don't see it yet.

The next generation:
It's going to be a while. Lester has two full seasons remaining, and Fannin could be just as good. Incoming freshman Enrique Davis, provided he qualifies academically, probably will spend the season on the scout team because there are several quality backs already in the system. Two Auburn coaches who scouted Davis in high school believe he has Carnell Williams-type ability. I have no way of verifying this until Davis hits the practice field. Remember, though, that freshman backs rarely make an impact at Auburn. I'm not sure Bo Jackson, the 1982 version, would get a lot of carries in this system right now.

Auburn update

A couple things are poppin' this afternoon. Here's a quick update. You can read more in the Advertiser on Friday morning.

*AU has reached agreement with Clemson on a football home-and-home series beginning in 2010. Clemson will play at Jordan-Hare Stadium on Sept. 18, 2010. That's a step in the right direction in terms of schedule difficulty for the Tigers.

*The property/facilities committee of Auburn's Board of Trustees approved a plan Thursday for the construction of a $92.5 million basketball arena. Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum, the Tigers' current home, will be demolished a few years after the new arena opens in 2010. Luxury suites are part of the plan. The facility will include separate practice courts and locker rooms. The full BOT is expected to green-light the plan during its meeting Friday morning.

MY THOUGHT: Good decision. The athletic department can handle approximately $60 million of this, but will need an additional $30 million through other means. I'm not sure this is a great financial decision, but it's the correct decision for Auburn. BEMC is far below standards set by Auburn's other athletic facilities. Athletics could do a lot of neat stuff with that $93 million. This is a project that has to be done for the good of the school and the overall program. Like it or not, basketball is an important component of every SEC school's identity.

*Bill Mosiello, most recently the hitting coach at Southern Cal this spring, has been hired by the Tigers. He replaces Matt Myers, who resigned in May. Mosiello has a wealth of minor-league coaching experience, and also served as an assistant at Ole Miss, Tennessee and Cal State Fullerton during the 1990s.

Thinking about Hugh Nall

Hey everyone. I was thinking back on some things I wrote years ago, ideas of mine that might have changed over time, and it got me thinking about Hugh Nall.

As some of you might recall, I once spent a short period of time writing columns for Bryan Matthews and Will Woods over at Things didn't go well. After my third column, a defense of Nall published in April 04, response was so negative that Woods fired me quickly. He's a businessman and his customers revolted against a columnist who was defending the undefendable, so I understood his position. No problem.

Nall's popularity was at an all-time low after the 03 season. Auburn went 8-5 as Nall and fellow assistant Steve Ensminger co-coordinated a terribly underachieving offense. Many fans incorrectly assumed that the display showed that Nall and Ensminger no longer were valuable college coaches. All that meltdown showed me is that co-coordinatorships generally don't work, and that the two assistants probably were more valuable in more peripheral roles.

Has public opinion changed in regard to Hugh Nall? Auburn was outstanding in 04, thanks in large part to a stout offensive line. T Marcus McNeill turned into a millionaire after the 05 season. G Ben Grubbs played himself into the first round during 06. The line hasn't always been the team's strength, but it's never been the weakness. I stand by my initial claim – the one that cause so much angst years ago – that Nall is an elite line coach and a critical piece of Auburn's recent run of success.

Nall and I are not friends away from the field. I don't praise him because of personal interest. I praise him because he's done one heck of a job – and I won't get fired for saying so this time.

Auburn update, 6/24

Hey everyone. I'm on vacation these days at points north: Kentucky, Ohio and Indiana. The high point will be a trip to Kings Island, the big amusement park in suburban Cincinnati, later this week. I love me some summer. I'm aiming to break my personal record of 12 consecutive rides on the Vortex, an iron coaster with two regular loops, one cobra loop and a two-twist corkscrew. Good times.

I know it's Auburn you want to hear. So let's get into athletic-related business.

**The Board of Trustees officially will greenlight the long-awaited arena project on Friday. The projected cost will be around $90 million. Construction is supposed to begin next summer. It's a worthwhile project for a variety of reasons. Beard-Eaves Memorial is a dump, yet it's where the university holds its graduation. Lovely. That's the last place many parents see after paying for their kids to attend Auburn for four/five/six+ years.

Of course, the basketball teams could use new digs. I'm not convinced that a new arena is going to pull Auburn from this current hoops malaise, but that's not why this project is critical. It's just time Auburn has a respectable basketball facility. Period.

**Cliff Ellis and former Alabama coach David Hobbs are finlaists for the job at Coastal Carolina. I enjoy that for some reason.

**New Auburn president Jay Gogue stopped by the Advertiser last week for an informal talk about several topics. I promised not to publish anything from that meeting until after he takes office in mid July, but I can say that Gogue won't be the athletics lightning rod that Ed Richarson was. Gogue thinks that athletic directors should handle athletics, which seems like a reasonable approach to me. That's not to say that Richardson ever usurped Jay Jacobs' power, but at times it seemed like Richardson wanted to take an active role in the department's overall design. I don't think Gogue wants to do that.

**I saw a "T The Coach" bumper sticker on I-65 the other day and had quite a laugh. I think he's the last coach in the SEC to get his own little one-letter sticker. I hope Tuberville slaps one on his car. Knowing him, though, he's more likely to throw an "S The Coach" for kicks.

Neither one will happen. Just saying…

I like grading on a scale of 1 to 5.
5 is best.
3 is SEC average.
1 is a long-term project or someone who could play in NAIA right now.

I post two grades for each player: current score (college peak score)

2006 overview: Brandon Cox held the job throughout the season, with mostly positive results. He showed extreme toughness in the win against LSU, when he took a hard hit on a scramble and played through an epically nasty lower-leg bruise. It caused him problems for another month. He still played most of the time. His season took an abrupt swoon in the Georgia game. He was intercepted four times, completed 4 of 12 passes and was sacked four times. Auburn had team-wide issues that day. Cox wasn't the only one struggling against the Bulldogs. Blake Field, a sophomore last season, played in three games. He completed 8 of 9 passes. His playing time came in meaningless situations. Steven Ensminger and Neil Caudle spent the season on the practice squad.

2006 depth chart:
STARTER – Brandon Cox
BACKUP – Blake Field
REDSHIRT A – Neil Caudle
REDSHIRT B – S. Ensminger

My projected 2007 depth chart
STARTER – Brandon Cox 4.0 (4.25)
BACKUP 1 – Neil Caudle 2.0 (4.0)
BACKUP 1a – Blake Field 2.0 (3.0)
BACKUP 2 – S. Ensminger 2.0 (3.5)
TO BE DETERMINED – Kodi Burns 1.5 (tba)

The franchise player: Cox. Duh. He's been starting for two full seasons now, and he's made significant improvements. His pre-snap adjustments always were good. His throwing decisions weren't consistent early in his career, but Cox rarely forces the issue these days. The problem with Cox is that he doesn't have much arm strength. His value is concentrated in his administrative skills and track record of not hurting his team. Opposing safeties are able to cheat up in more of a run-defense mode because they're not worried about Cox busting them with deep throws. Still, Cox is a good player. Most coaches would love to have a experienced kid like that under center.

The next generation: The trendy pick is Arkansas freshman Kodi Burns, who was one of Auburn's big-name recruits. He's allegedly a mobile quarterback who, unlike Cox, can throw authoritatively beyond 25 yards. There is talk of Burns immediately moving into a Tim Tebow-style role this season – running a few plays as a complement to Cox's drastically different skill set. I haven't seen Burns play. It takes someone pretty special to make a difference in the SEC that early. I saw some great things and hideous things from both redshirt freshmen during spring ball. Caudle has outstanding arm power. His accuracy is pretty good, but he'll attempt high-risk throws too often. Same for Ensminger. They both have a lot of ability. I can't make firm assessments on the depth chart until Burns gets on the field. I don't see how Blake Field is going to maintain his spot on the depth chart.

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