AUBURN - Freshman Cassanova McKinzy got his first start last Saturday at Vanderbilt and is expected to get another one when the Tigers play host to No. 22 Texas A&M on Saturday.
Auburn linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen
Linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen said Wednesday night it was the first step in what could be a road to stardom.
"He brings a physicalness to the game," Thigpen said. "He's the big linebacker Brian (VanGorder) has been talking about we need in the program. He made about 12-13-14 tackles, but he left a lot of plays out there. His whole deal is he has to get lined up and concentrate on where his eyes are supposed to be. He should have made 18-19 tackles and one or two sacks."
Saturday's game will be a different kind of challenge for McKinzy. Texas A&M brings a spread offense that plays at a frantic pace. Junior Jake Holland, who started the first six games of the season, has been hard at work trying to get McKinzy up to speed.
"He's been all in with us," Thigpen said. "He's been teaching those young guys. He will tell them exactly where to align and why, why we line up the way we do and why we call certain things the way we call them. He's been very instrumental in getting the young man lined up, very unselfish."
Holland's role, Thigpen said, will be more than teaching in Saturday's game.
"He has a huge role," Thigpen said. "The team we are playing ran 100-something plays against LSU. He's going to play a lot in this game as well."
Auburn's defense will get its first look Saturday at quarterback phenom known as "Johnny Football."
Redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel is on a pace to shatter SEC offense records. He has led the Aggies of first-year coach Kevin Sumlin with his arm and his feet.
"I've never seen one like him," Thigpen said. "He's probably the fastest quarterback in the country, NFL or college. He's a 4.3 guy at least. He makes people miss. Space is your enemy. I can see why they call him Johnny Football."
Secondary coach Willie Martinez added his praise for Manziel, who has passed for 1,956 yards and 14 touchdowns rushed for 703 yards and 10 touchdowns. In total, Manziel has 2,659 yards offense and has scored 24 touchdowns.
By comparison, Auburn, as a team, has 1,937 yards of offense and has scored 11 touchdowns, one of those on special teams.
"He's so creative that he makes it very difficult," Martinez said. "You have to somehow be able to contain him and eliminate those big plays he has with his feet. Make him play quarterback. Force him to stay in the pocket, which has been very difficult. And they have a great offensive line. They are obviously very experienced. It's very difficult to get to him."
Junior defensive tackle Jeff Whitaker appears likely to miss his second consecutive game Saturday. But head coach Gene Chizik offered few details about a lengthy injury list.
Whitaker, Blakely, safety Erique Florence, safety Ryan Smith and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen all sat out last Saturday's loss at Vanderbilt. Defensive end Dee Ford played only a handful of snaps.
Ford is expected to play against Texas A&M, though it is uncertain how much. Lutzenkirchen had hip surgery Thursday and is out for the season. Chizik offered no details about the availability of the others.
As usual, Chizik was pleased with what he saw at Wednesday's practice.
"Practice went well tonight," Chizik said. "Obviously, we had to spend a lot of time preparing for an offense that's a little bit different in tempo. Last night and tonight we spent a lot of time on that. I thought it went well. I thought the energy level was good at practice tonight and I thought it was productive."
Running backs coach Curtis Luper said he expects fullback Jay Prosch to get more chances with the all in his hands.
"I think the surprising thing is how good his hands are," Luper said. "In practice, he catches everything. He's caught a few in games, but he catches everything in practice. He is going to enable us to do some things offensively to take advantage of his hands. He can get out in space and make a catch and make a move."
The Tigers are likely to see eight- and nine-man fronts frequently against Texas A&M. Chizik said they have a plan.
"They are certainly willing to do it," Chizik said. "They are very adamant about putting as many guys up there as they need to. You have to be able to throw it some. That's just the bottom line. But you have to attempt to run as well. It's difficult to run against those types of fronts, but we think we have some things that will help us. We also have to be able to throw the ball vertically down the field and challenge guys when they are stacking everybody up there."
The decision on whether junior Clint Moseley or sophomore Kiehl Frazier will start at quarterback, Chizik said, will come after Thursday's practice. He said Frazier's sore right arm has improved.
For video interviews with Chizik, Thigpen and Martnez, follow the links below.