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April 18, 2014

A-Day Watch List


AUBURN | This will be my 16th A-Day, which means I've seen enough spring scrimmages to know they have little in common with what happens on a Saturday afternoon during the fall.

Several starters will not play today. Others will be permitted to work a series, perhaps a handful, and then they'll be called to the sideline. There's no need to risk a serious injury to critical players during an exhibition scrimmage and nobody is more in tune with risk-reward ratio than coach Gus Malzahn.

Still, this A-Day game includes more than its fair share of intrigue. Five new players will make their debut in an Auburn uniform Saturday and that's always good for something. A few players have changed position. Seven players are fresh off promotions from the scout team and, well, it was a long eight months of anonymity and unappreciated grinding.

So what are the best storylines? Let's take a look:

1. Trovon Reed's defensive debut: No player on the roster has endured more hardship that Reed, who lost his mother to cancer and never managed to break through at wideout. Yet he's now playing cornerback, a position he says he always wanted to play, and teammates say Reed has made remarkable progress in terms of translating his offensive experience into defensive savvy.

Can he force his way into the starting lineup next fall? That seems unlikely given that Jonathon Mincy has a ton of experience, Jonathan Jones is playing well and safety Joshua Holsey may be sliding back to cornerback after a season at safety.

With that said, Reed is extremely driven and remains an excellent athlete. The A-Day game will give us a chance to see how much he's learned during the past four months - sticking with wideouts in man coverage, anticipating passes in zone, making adjustments on the fly. Everyone wants to see him succeed. Now is his chance.

2. Is Peyton Barber for real?: The reports we've received from practice observers is that Barber, the redshirt freshman tailback, has been the most impressive player on the field. That includes everyone. Opinions are unanimous that Barber has the agility and power to be a productive, every-down back beginning this fall.

Of course, Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant will have something to say about that during fall camp. Racean Thomas also could become an obstacle in short order.

On Saturday, though, Barber will get his chance to show everyone what he can do with the ball in his hands. I fully expect him to make some memorable plays. His real challenge will involve what he does without the ball in his hands - picking up blitzes, adjusting to pre-snap changes, avoiding mental mistakes. Assistant coach Tim Horton doesn't just count yards. Mistakes count double.

3. Is D'haquille Williams a front-line player?: Yes, he was a top-tier recruit. Yes, he was nearly unstoppable in junior college. Yes, he plays like Anquan Boldin and arrives at Auburn as perhaps the most talented wideout to sign in a generation.

Playing at this level is different, though. Talent isn't enough most of the time. Being great in the Southeastern Conference requires attention to detail. How sharp are his routes? Can he block? Can he sense open space even if he can't see it? Does he understand how to create separation from cornerbacks dead-set on attaching themselves to his back hip? The A-Day game will be his first foray into the SEC. Williams is an emotional player who understands showmanship. He'll want to make this special.

4. How smooth is Derrick Moncrief? Williams' former teammate at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College has the look of someone who will start at in 2014. Observers say he hits like a train and has more than enough speed to thrive at boundary safety.

He's been a hitter since his days at Prattville High. That's a given.

They key here is learning how much ground Moncrief can cover. Does he move well in open space? Does he show that intuition that turns a good safety into a great one? How often does he run himself out of position while lining up a hit? Much like Barber's situation, what Moncrief doesn't do is just as important what he does.

Other developments of note:

  • I'll also be watching star Justin Garrett to see if he looks like he did a year ago. Remember that he was the standout performer throughout 2013 spring practice before falling victim to a pair of foot problems last fall. Now that he's back to full health and in tune with what Auburn is demanding of him, it'll be interesting to see how much Garrett is able to affect the offense.

  • Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost swapped positions during the offseason. That means more administrative duties will be placed upon McKinzy, who now is playing middle linebacker, and he'll have to make sharp pre-snap checks.

  • Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams moonlighting at end? Yes, please.

  • A few inside guys who interest me, Xavier Dampeer and Devonte Danzey, will get plenty of chances to play. I want to see them work. Dampeer looks bigger than ever. Danzey is slimmer than before, which should give him the ability to get outside quickly. That didn't happen last spring.

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