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August 11, 2014

AU Whiparound


AUBURN | If you didn't think Nick Marshall was a cool operator before Sunday afternoon, well, there's no excuse for your ignorance now.

The senior on Sunday faced reporters for the first time since his citation for marijuana possession last month. It wasn't a major crime by any stretch, but Marshall is the quarterback at Auburn and could be an alluring candidate for the Heisman Trophy a few months from now.

He fell below expectations that July afternoon in Reynolds, Ga. That's a fact.

He didn't on Sunday. That's also a fact.

Marshall apologized for his misstep, said he'd used the experience to become a better person and a better teammate. He faced some difficult questions Sunday -- one about disappointing his grandmother surely triggered emotions somewhere behind Marshall's emotional wall -- yet managed the situation with aplomb.

When Marshall heard a question he didn't like or didn't want to answer, he redirected things by restating his plan to regain relinquished trust. That's how experienced public speakers navigate difficult straits and, oddly, Marshall is becoming adept at that skill.

No, his delivery isn't great. Marshall is from rural Georgia. He speaks slowly. He offers only token insight. If you're expecting everyone to flourish in front of a microphone like Gabe Wright, C.J. Uzomah or Jeffrey Whitaker, that's not a problem with Marshall.

That's a problem with your own expectations.

Jonathon Mincy's apology was overshadowed on Sunday because he's not a candidate for the Heisman Trophy. He's just a three-year starter who also is facing suspension for a marijuana-related situation.

Yet Mincy's time at the podium was more impressive given what we saw from him four years ago. He was overwhelmed by interviews during the 2011 season. Sitting in front of 12 reporters, six cameras and a pair of staging lights may seem easy, but it's not.

Some players deal with that pressure better than others.

Mincy didn't handle it well as a redshirt freshman. He was a panicked teenager and I felt bad for him. I'd often offer words of encouragement after Mincy's interviews that season and into 2012 because it was clear he'd been trying to improve.

And he did. Mincy offered some excellent interviews during the 2013 season and I fully expect him to be a figurehead this fall. I joked with him Sunday about how far he's come since those days in 2011.

"It's a process," he said with a laugh.

Talking with offensive line coach J.B. Grimes is one of the best things about covering Auburn athletics. It's a shame assistant football coaches are permitted to speak with reporters so rarely.

Why is Grimes so entertaining? He always has another tale.

This time, he recalled jobs held before landing his first coaching gig at the age of 22. Grimes worked in the restaurant business as a short-order cook, in the construction business and even worked on a deck hand on a river boat.

"I'm kind of like Forrest Gump," he said. "I've worn lots of shoes."

The most surprising part of the story involved the river boat. Grimes spent the summer of 1971 and 1972 (ages 16 and 17) on boats that traversed the Mississippi River and to points as far away as Panama City, Fla.

"I don't know why in the world my Daddy let me do that," Grimes said with a laugh. "He allowed me to go earn a little money. Instead of farming that summer, he let me go work on a river boat. I was making $20 a day. I was rich!"

Rudy Ford is in a tough spot.

He grew up viewing himself as a running back. When people asked him which position he played, Ford would say he scores touchdowns.

Yet the sophomore is beginning his first full season at field safety. Make no mistake: It's a great situation for him. Playing behind an experienced and bright player like Jermaine Whitehead ensures excellent practical instruction. Having 4.3 speed coupled with a dense, muscular body also gives Ford the ability to make plays (and hits) mere mortals experience only in theory. Or dreams.

Ford has ability there, too. He made some jaw-dropping hits during spring ball that affirmed the coaches' decision to transform a career tailback into a defensive back.

But is this his passion?

Ford says all the right things. His bond with position coach Charlie Harbison is real. His passion for making plays is real as well. He says he likes playing defense and every coach says Ford is as eager as they come.

Still, Ford told reporters the other day that he misses playing offense. It was a cringe-worthy moment. The selflessness is admirable; the suppression of dreams is sad in a way.

Auburn wants Ford to be the top field safety in 2015. Injury seems like the only way that won't happen and having a tenured, savvy player in that spot is critical to everything Auburn aims to accomplish in the secondary.

With Corey Grant established as perhaps the country's best speed back, there's no need to have Ford moonlight on offense right now. When Grant leaves after this season, though, will there be some temptation to maximize Ford's remarkable acceleration?

Maybe a return role will be enough.

Then again, maybe it won't. Could Ford become a true two-way player?

Bruce Pearl's first challenge was to change the culture within the basketball program.

His second challenge? Pare down the roster.

That goal was accomplished last week when guard Dion Wade, out since May with a turn knee ligament, announced plans to transfer to Miami University in Ohio. Wade's departure along with signee Sam Logwood's failure to earn academic clearance assuaged an unspoken-yet-gripping drama.

The NCAA allows a maximum of 13 players to be on full basketball scholarships at any given time. The Tigers' decision to sign four players after Bruce Pearl's hiring (point guards K.C. Ross-Miller and Kareem Canty, shooting guard T.J. Lang and power forward Cinmeon Bowers) and welcome two previously signed players (Logwood and forward Jack Purchase) created a major logjam.

Forward Benas Griciunas transferred in June. One down.

Still, it wasn't until Wade's announcement, which nearly coincided with disappointing news from Logwood, that the Tigers' 13-man roster came into focus.

The big winner here was Alex Thompson, who deserves credit for remaining true while his world was in virtual upheaval. The Dothan native was promised a scholarship by previous coach Tony Barbee, but those kinds of commitments don't automatically transfer from coach to coach.

Thompson had to engender repsect and trust from the Tigers' new staff. Every practice was a job interview of sorts. Every mistake could be the one that convinces Pearl to go in another direction.

Thompson didn't disappoint. He worked quickly to understand Pearl's ideas and found ways to integrate his max-effort approach into the Tigers' new system. His energy, length and shooting ability give Thompson a chance to play a meaningful role this season and beyond.

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