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Grading the Tigers after two weeks of play

Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn addresses his team during practice (Photo: YouTube)
Auburn University head football coach Gus Malzahn addresses his team during practice (Photo: YouTube)

A trip to Manhattan, Kansas and No. 20 Kansas State is just a week away, so an early season bye week seems to be a good time for head coach Gus Malzahn and Auburn to look back at early season strengths and weaknesses.

Some areas, such as running backs and the offensive line, have played as expected, while others, such as the receivers and linebackers, have seen massive improvement.

That said, the Tigers could still see improvement along the defensive line and in the secondary ahead of their first ranked matchup of the season.

Quarterbacks: B+

Nick Marshall’s improved passing was the subject of much discussion this offseason and, at least so far, it hasn’t been on display. The senior’s completion percentage is down from 59 to 56 percent, though that’s through just three halves of play.

What hasn’t changed is Marshall’s affect on the run game. With Marshall at the wheel, the Tigers add a new component to their rushing attack, forcing defenses to try to eye the quarterback as well as the bevy of backs in motion.

If worst comes to worst, Jeremy Johnson appears to be more than adept as a backup. His 277-yard, two-touchdown performance in the first half against Arkansas only added pressure for Marshall to improve as a passer.

Running Backs: A

Little seems to have changed with the Auburn rushing attack since the departure of Tre Mason this offseason. Senior back Cameron Artis-Payne answered any offseason questions regarding his potential as a lead back by recording back-to-back career performances: His 177 yards against Arkansas were a career-high as were his three touchdowns against San Jose State.

Despite receiving half as many carries as Artis-Payne, Corey Grant is still an explosive threat whenever he’s on the field. His 8.8 yards per carry so far this season is just a yard less than his 2013 numbers and the senior is already a third of the way to matching last season’s carry totals.

The Tigers’ young backs Peyton Barber and Racean ‘Roc’ Thomas have made an impact in their limited playing time as well, with Thomas scoring on his first collegiate carry. There’s little for Auburn fans to complain about with this group.

Wide Receivers: A

There was no shortage of hype surrounding the wide receivers this offseason, and so far they’ve been as advertised.

Even with a limited Sammie Coates, D’haquille Williams has made a splash in his first two games on The Plains. The former No. 1 JUCO receiver has been so open at times in the Tigers’ first two games that the deafening “Duuuukkkeee” chant often begins before he’s even caught the ball.

Junior receiver Melvin Ray is a yard away from surpassing his career receiving totals after just two games this season, and though he needs to limit dropped passes, appears to be a reliable third option receiving.

Fellow receivers Ricardo Louis, Quan Bray and Marcus Davis have yet to become heavily involved in the offense this season, but when the biggest worry in a position group is the production of your fourth, fifth and sixth-stringers, it’s probably a good reflection on that group’s depth.

Tight End: C

I for one have always felt that C.J. Uzomah is underutilized in the Tigers’ passing game.

The 6-foot-5, 264-pound tight end had just 18 collegiate catches and 290 receiving yards to his name prior to this season. Uzomah’s size has always made him a dangerous red zone threat, but the Tigers’ dedication (and success) to the run game often limits those opportunities.

It seems that, despite Auburn’s growth in the passing game, Uzomah may have a relatively low ceiling of production in this offense. The 2014 Tigers will likely always be a run-first team, while Coates and Williams are always going to get the first look when the Tigers take to the air.

Perhaps giving Uzomah a “C” is a bit harsh, but the expectations for this veteran leader are high. Maybe that’s why Malzahn reacted so hilariously to Uzomah missing this block against Arkansas on third down.

Offensive Line: A+

Once again, there’s little to criticize here.

As a whole, the Tigers have allowed just one sack so far this season, which is tied for seventh nationally.

The rushing attack has had plenty of holes to work with as well, and already leads the SEC in that category. Patrick Miller has been caught for a couple holding calls early in the year, but this group can be relied upon on a weekly basis and should hold their own with just about anyone in the nation.

Defensive Line: B-

It’s been a tale of two halves for Auburn’s defensive line in 2014.

In the first half against Arkansas and San Jose State, the Tigers struggled to contain the punishing ground attack of the Razorbacks and failed to apply pressure to San Jose State quarterback Blake Jurich.

The second half was a different story in both games, however. The defensive line held Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks to just two rushing yards and Montravius Adams relentlessly harassed Jurich, eventually forcing him from the game with an injury.

The loss of Carl Lawson has had a significant impact on the pass rush, but defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson’s defensive line rotation has proven effective in wearing teams down in the second half.

Linebackers: B+

The maturation of Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost must be a wonderful sight for Auburn fans.

McKinzy has developed into a reliable fixture in his first season at Mike linebacker and has shown his athleticism when Johnson moves him to defensive end in passing situations.

Frost, meanwhile, has been solid at Will linebacker, though he’s yet to put up the statistical numbers to show it.

Any injury to McKinzy or Frost could be devastating considering the lack of proven commodities behind the duo, but for now, these two seem to be improving each week.

Defensive Backs: C+

The secondary has so far caught the brunt of fan frustration in 2014.

Lapses in coverage have resulted in four 20+ yard passing plays, including a 75-yard touchdown against San Jose State where the Spartan receiver managed to get behind Josh Holsey.

Jonathon Mincy has been a bright spot, but the rest of the Tigers’ cornerbacks have each seen their fair share of ‘trashy plays’ as Johnson called them.

It will be interesting to see what Johnson does to improve coverage. A nagging injury to Derrick Moncrief and a sub-par pass rush haven’t helped, but coverage will have to improve for Auburn against better opponents.

Kicker/Punter: B+

For a placekicker by trade, Daniel Carlson has adapted nicely to handling punting duties. His booming punts came out to a 53.3 average against Arkansas while he sent seven of eight kickoffs for touchbacks.

The freshman clanked his first career field goal attempt off the upright, but bounced back to knock through a 45-yarder later on. Carlson earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors for his efforts against Arkansas and seems to be comfortable in his new role.

Follow Eric on Twitter @EWall14

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