Who is going to be Auburn's offensive leader? (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
War Eagle, everybody! Tomorrow, spring drills will crank up for the Auburn football team. It has been a long 82 days since Auburn knocked off Virginia in Atlanta. Finally, we'll have some actual news from the football field, rather than speculation. The team gets to work with the coaches, and there will be a whole lot of teaching going on. There are new systems on both sides of the ball to install, and only 15 practices plus A-Day to do it. The team will have their work cut out.
In recent weeks, I've speculated on Auburn's likely hard-nosed defensive prospects under new coordinator Brian VanGorder. What's far more a mystery is how Auburn will look on offense. New offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler comes to Auburn with just one year as an offensive coordinator. Last season, Loeffler's single Temple Owl offense generated 398 points in a 9-4 season, which was the second biggest points total in Temple history. I think we'd all be quite happy if Loeffler's first Auburn offense generated the second most points in a season.
Realistically, Temple's offensive rise was well under way before either Loeffler or head coach Steve Addazio arrived on campus in early 2011. The Owls were an 0-11 team in 2005, and hired Al Golden. Golden's first three teams finished with losing records, then posted 9-4 and 8-4 seasons before being hired away by the Miami Hurricanes. All the old adages about winning with the old coach's players certainly applies here.What Loeffler and Addazio accomplished in 2011 on the offensive side of the ball is pretty impressive nonetheless.
How Temple scored points was by running the ball efficiently, and minimizing turnovers. The Owls had just 12 turnovers in 13 games, losing 8 fumbles and 4 interceptions. Compare that to last year's Auburn team that had 21 turnovers, including 13 interceptions. Temple averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and a sterling 8.4 yards per pass.
Temple ran the ball 636 times on the season, to only 198 pass attempts. However, they did a good job of spreading the ball around. Running backs Bernard Pierce and Matt Brown alternated as primary runners, but Temple quarterbacks also ran a significant portion of the time. There were occasional fly-sweeps and reverses from the wide receivers, too. Time will tell whether the Loeffler offense can line up and primarily run the ball at SEC defenses.
To have an effective offense this fall, Auburn coaches must identify who the playing rotation guys are pretty quickly. I think the key to this will be getting a coherent, solid offensive line together early. Most of Auburn's offensive woes last season boiled down to problems and changing personnel on the offensive line. Getting things solidified this spring will be a priority.
Up front, I think it's a given that center Reese Dismukes will start, and will lead the line. Dismukes was named a freshman All-American last season, and should be that solid anchor in the middle. You'd have to think that with the experience they have, senior John Sullen and sophomore Chad Slade will start somewhere. The rumor I'm hearing is that Sullen will stay at right guard, and that Slade will move out to right tackle. Slade played some minutes at tackle due to injuries last season, and is said to be more comfortable at the tackle positions. Last year's true freshmen scout team phenoms Greg Robinson and Christian Westerman are front running candidates to start at left tackle and left guard. Needless to say, this potential lineup is just a guess. Auburn has about a dozen more guys who'll fight to make it interesting.
I would have thought that finding a starting quarterback quickly would be big, but Auburn coaches have said not to expect a decision till fall camp at the earliest. While he coached a Michigan, Loeffler's tendency was to find a young guy and stick him out on the field for three or four years. It took Loeffler several games into the season at Temple before he settled on a starting guy. We may well see the dreaded "quarterback rotation" early next fall. I think it will be an upset if experienced quarterbacks Clint Moseley or Khiel Frazier don't end up at the front of the pack.
If you are going to run the ball successfully in the SEC, you're going to have to have good blocking from the tight end and fullback positions. Last season, Auburn had some good blocks from Phillip Lutzenkirchen, but no one else stepped up to be that 2nd good blocker at those positions. This season, Auburn has added Illinois transfer Jay Prosch to the mix, and he'll likely be an instant starter. Lutzenkirchen will be held out of contact this spring, so it's a great chance for sophomores Brandon Fulse, Ladarius Phillips and Cameron Groce to step up. One big concern with this offense is depth at these positions.
Auburn has been said to have quite a bit of talent at the tailback slot on campus, but there's precious little experience beyond senior Onterrio McCalebb. Writers everywhere have opined that McCalebb is too small to be an every down back. That may be true, but I think McCalebb has established a pretty good track record for durability in his three years in the playing rotation. He was slowed by a mid-season ankle injury his freshman year, but still played. He's been full speed since then. Beyond McCalebb, sophomore Tre Mason got in a few snaps in 2011, and he certainly has a burst. One to watch is Corey Grant, a transfer from Alabama. Grant was considered the best scout team offensive player last fall.
Last year at wide receiver, it was Emory Blake and the invisible men. If Blake was out of the game or double-covered, Tiger quarterbacks could not find a go-to second read. Fixing that problem is going to be important. Senior DeAngelo Benton has the most playing experience, but he's also had a problem with dropped balls. Sophomore Quan Bray became a screen pass specialist as the season wore on last year. Sophomore Trovon Reed showed flashes, but spend a second year at Auburn battling injuries. I'd look for young second year players Sammie Coates and Jaylon Denson to make a move. Coates in particular was getting rave reviews in fall camp last season, before a foot injury.
We'll look forward to hearing the news from spring. It's going to be fun to hear who's having good days, and who's not. Here's hoping they all avoid injury, and absorb the maximum amount of teaching from Auburn's great coaching staff! War Eagle! It's time to strap on the pads, and start hitting again!