War Eagle, everybody! Spring training is done on the Plains, and now comes the long time of year that will make or break football teams. The Auburn football players' preparation begins in earnest, with every day workouts. We saw a team much improved in the trenches on A-Day, an athletic bunch on both sides of the ball. What will have to happen in the next few months is for those guys to continue to work hard, and obtain those levels of strength, agility and stamina the top levels of the SEC requires. To compete with the likes of LSU, Arkansas and Alabama, only the best will do!
There's every reason to be confident about the leadership on this team. The core of this team are players that were young contributors on Auburn's national championship team of 2010. They've seen first hand the level of dedication it takes to win a title. There have been lots of encouraging signs from this crew this spring. Jeffery Whitaker has been an iron man in the middle of the line. He's been in the fire, and knows what it takes. Jake Holland and Darren Bates are out there leading the linebackers. I noticed a lot more tackles going forward this A-Day, rather than being dragged backward. In the secondary, Chris Davis and Demetruce McNeil have been there, playing meaningful snaps in a BCS title game. Guard John Sullen has seen it all, from the disaster of 2008 when he first arrived on campus, through the titles, to a leadership role on a young line this season. Emory Blake and Phillip Lutzenkirchen lead the way for the receivers, and Onterio McCalebb has been there as a weapon every step of the way during the Chizik Era. I'm confident this is a great group of upperclassmen who'll show how to do things right.
There are also young leaders emerging, none more impressive than Khiel Frazier. Pidgeon-holed as a running specialist, Frazier has jumped into the playbook of new offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler, and taken the lead in the quarterback race. Frazier did not look like a true sophomore on A-Day. He had command of the offense, and things went pretty crisply when he was in there. I also think Illinois transfer Jay Prosch has had a big impact. He raises the level of play of everyone around him with his intensity. He's quickly become one of the more respected members of the team.
I came away from A-Day very encouraged about this team's prospects. Particularly watching the starters, you didn't see penalties, bad passes, blown coverages or big plays given up. This team had the look of a fundamentally sound squad. Certainly it wasn't a terribly complicated set of plays for this day, but what was done was executed cleanly. I'm encouraged about the depth at defensive line and in the secondary. Over half the starters were missing, but those who filled in played at a high level. Having a stable of defensive linemen and defensive backs will really help as the grind of the season sets in. Having said that, keeping the linebackers healthy will be really important.
Every year in this space, I've noted the talented runners Auburn has prepared, and wondered who was going to block for them at tight end and fullback. This year's group looks pretty strong in those positions, and we've got a couple of freshmen capable of playing who'll arrive in the summer. The coaches still say that they are searching for that receiver to line up opposite Emory Blake. What was great on A-Day is that the likely candidates, Travante Stallworth, Trovon Reed, and DeAngelo Benton did not drop a ball.
We saw receivers make sight adjustments, and find the cracks. I don't think Auburn receivers have had the freedom to check routes since Bobby Petrino left back in 2002. Some offensive coordinators believe it's important to be able to do that, as the receiver otherwise may be running a wasted route into coverage. Other coaches, such as Gus Malzhan expect the route called to be the one run. There's good reason for that as well. If the quarterback and receiver make different adjustments, ugly-looking throws right to a defender can happen. We've even seen NFL coaches eliminate or reduce sight adjustments in recent years, most notably Jim Harbaugh at San Francisco. I saw one example of a play that might have been a receiver check on A-Day. Emory Blake recognized single coverage, inside technique against corner Ryan White, and checked into a successful fade route. At least I think that was a check!
The season starts with a bang in the Georgia Dome, on September 1st. Auburn faces Clemson, who is no doubt still stinging after giving up over 70 points in their BCS bowl. The coaching styles of the two schools could not be more different. Auburn basically made an extra practice out of A-Day. Clemson's spring game was a dogfight, with timeouts being called in a tight game near the end, and a quarterback suffering a season-ending blown out knee on the last play of regulation, the second quarterback to get injured in the game. That wasn't enough for Dabo Sweeney. He ordered up an overtime of field goal attempts. Will Dabo boot-camp his troops to their doom in Atlanta next fall?
In week two, it's on to Starkville for the SEC opener against the Bulldogs, who've put together back to back near misses against the Tigers. A tune up date follows against Louisiana Monroe, then defending SEC Champ LSU visits Jordan Hare. Auburn has a bye week to recover, then hosts Arkansas. If you're keeping score at home, that's two conference champs and four bowl teams in the first five games. If the Tigers make through that gauntlet, the sky's the limit! Auburn takes a midseason road swing to Ole Miss followed by Vanderbilt, then returns home for a four game home stand including Texas A&M, New Mexico State for homecoming (two weeks of Aggies in a row!), Georgia, and Alabama A&M. The season finishes the Saturday after Thanksgiving in Tuscaloosa for the Iron Bowl.
With Auburn's talent, I feel the Tigers should win nine games next fall. There's a probable loss in those first five games, and probably two. Either Georgia or Alabama is likely to win, also. However, if Auburn survives those first five undefeated, stays healthy, and gains confidence, I like their chances of running the table again!