Todd Van Emst
This version of the Tiger offense leaves many people scratching their heads.
There has been a lot of turnover on the Plains since hoisting the crystal ball in the desert. The immediate loss of a large senior class and a number of other significant contributors following the championship led to a rebuilding year in 2011. That season saw even further unexpected turnover, including the changing of both coordinators. Despite all of this, the hopes of improved play on the field was high among Auburn fans entering 2012. That's not to say that realistic Auburn fans were expecting a title run this year, just improvement. Many, like myself, had questions that we hoped to see answered -- or at least development towards answering those questions.
After breaking all kinds of records on offense in 2010, the 2011 version of Gus Malzahn's offense was quite anemic. There was a lot of inexperience along the offensive line, and many fans noticed a certain predictability about the play-calling. After the season was over, further attrition occurred, including Malzahn. So, in comes Scot Loeffler and a move away from the hurry up, no-huddle spread toward a more multiple pro-set style of offense. Expectations were for a power running game, utilization of the tight ends and play-action downfield passing. Heading into the season, the reputation of Loeffler gave fans hope that we would see development at the quarterback position. Kiehl Frazier was a highly regarded prospect coming out of high school and was expected to show off his talents. Having Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen as his primary targets to throw to was an exciting thought. The idea of utilizing transfer fullback Jay Prosch to lead block and open up Lutz to catch passes was almost more than some fans could take.
What we've actually seen has been far from exciting. The Tigers have just 95 first downs and only 14 appearances in the red zone through the first six games. Blake and Lutz have 26 and 15 receptions, respectively, far fewer than what was expected before the season. Other playmakers haven't stepped up at the receiver position. Quan Bray has totaled eleven catches, while Sammie Coates, Trovon Reed, and Travante Stallworth each have four. Where is the progression from the playmakers? Will someone step up opposite of Blake?
The power running game that was expected before the season has been more like a soft pretzel. Prosch hasn't been on the field as much as expected, and there still seems to be an affinity for jet sweeps and sprint draws up the middle with a 175 running back. Sure, Onterio McCalebb is a home run threat, but he's also a candidate to lose yards. O-Mac has gained 347 yards this year and lost 54 for a net of 293. Tre Mason has been effective running behind Prosch, but he only received 15 carries against LSU and Arkansas and just 5 in the second half against Ole Miss. Mason has gained 406 and lost just 17 for a net of 389. The Tigers as a team have just 753 net yards rushing through the first half of the season. Where has the running game been? Why has Prosch only been used sparingly? Why has Mason not gotten more touches?
Part of the problem on offense stems back to sub-par play by the offensive line. Some growing pains were to be expected with a two-deep full of true freshmen and underclassmen. But after giving up eight sacks to Arkansas in the fifth game of the season, the progression just isn't evident. Not all of those were the fault of the line, but the problem still persists. This is the one position where we have a really good idea of where the problem lies. Youth. A redshirt freshman is starting at left tackle with a freshman behind him. A pair of true freshmen have rotated at right tackle. The leader of the line is a sophomore at center who has now missed two games this season. The guard spots are both juniors, but freshmen back them up. Will they be able to turn a corner? How long will it take for them to grow up?
There is a saying in football that if you have two (or three) quarterbacks then you don't have one. Well, three different quarterbacks have taken snaps for Auburn this season. Frazier showed some flashes in the opener but was hesitant with his decision-making and a little off with his accuracy. He seemed to regress from that point. He played with less confidence each week until the point where he was pulled at halftime against Arkansas in favor of Clint Moseley. In four and a half games, Frazier completed just 54.4 percent of his passes and just two touchdowns to eight interceptions. Moseley came in for the second half against Arkansas. In a game and a half of play, he's completed 61.5 percent of his passes for one touchdown and three interceptions. Allegedly, the decision to start Moseley was made in part due to an undisclosed shoulder ailment that prevented Frazier from taking his share of snaps in practice prior to Ole Miss. True freshman Jonathan Wallace has not attempted a pass yet, despite having his redshirt burned to run approximately 15 snaps as the wildcat QB. Where is the progression from the quarterbacks? Who is the quarterback?
That brings me to the coaching and play-calling. Every team has moments where a coach's decision leaves fans scratching their heads, ,but his team seems to have more than its fair share of those moments, starting with the play-calling. There is nothing wrong with running a play that is working multiple times in a game. However, you usually wouldn't run said play three times in a row, especially out of the same formation, with the same personnel package, and using the same pre-snap motion (see LSU and Arkansas). Most coordinators wouldn't call a play and show their hand (formation, personnel, motion, etc.) and run said play, only to have it called back by a procedure penalty, and still come back with the very same play. If I can see that, I know a highly paid SEC defensive coordinator can. You may have noticed some trends with play-calling on certain down and distance situations. Anytime O-Mac is in the game and lined up beside the quarterback, you can count on one of two plays. It will either be a speed sweep or a sprint draw up the gut. Again, if I can see it, an SEC DC surely can. If the goal is to be a power running team, why the insistence on running Squirrel between the tackles in stead of Mason? When a gameplan is working, why would you completely abandon it in the second half (see Ole Miss game)? Of course, there is also the age old question of why would you call a four-yard pattern on 3rd-and-6?
I know I'm just a fan, and the coaches are the ones making the big money, but if I can see certain trends without studying tape, then guys like John Chavis certainly can. That's not a good way to be successful in this league. Before the season started, we weren't wondering if we would score. Now, that's a valid question. If you look back to some of the worst years in memory for Auburn offensively, this one takes the cake. Everyone remembers Tony Franklin being canned following the loss to Vanderbilt in the sixth game of the season in 2008. This year's Tigers are averaging fewer points per game and have significantly more questions. Would a loss to Vandy cause a similar result this year? Should it? The failed Franklin experiment went a long way toward ultimately costing Tommy Tuberville his job. Will this season have a similar effect on Gene Chizik's status? Right now, all we have are questions, and we don't appear to be close to finding answers any time soon.