Chizik and staff appear to be making progress on building a champion!
War Eagle, everybody! We're now a mere two weeks from national signing day for college football. By all appearances, Auburn has a strong class lined up. The Tigers are currently ranked in the top five in the nation by most services. It's been years since the Tigers hauled in a class with this much promise.
Already signed are six players, four of them top junior college prospects. Two of these guys (Roszell Gayden and Brandon Mosely) are expected to compete immediately for the starting right tackle position vacated by the departed Andrew McCain. While both are 4-star signees, Mosely is trying to move from tight end to the tackle spot. 4-star JUCO defensive end Joel Bonomolo may be able to compete for early playing time also. He's currently rehabbing an injured arm.
The prize of Auburn's JUCO class is former Florida Gator quarterback Cameron Newton, who arrives by way of Blinn College. Newton, a five star prospect, helped Blinn to the junior college national championship. Newton was primarily a running QB for Florida as a reserve, but at Blinn he put up some eye-popping numbers. In 12 games, Newton completed 204 of 336 passes for 2833 yards, with 22 touchdowns and only 5 interceptions. That's a net yards per pass average of 7.69. Newton was also a force on the ground, picking up 655 yards on 108 carries, with a whopping 16 rushing touchdowns. That's 6.0 yards per carry for a quarterback. Yes, I know Auburn has had hyped transfer quarterbacks before: Jon Cooley, Daniel Cobb, Chris Todd. None of those guys brought stats like Newton has. I think a guy that put up 290 yards of offense a game for a champion last season has a shot to start at Auburn.
Also signed early and already in school are defensive end Craig Sanders (3 star) and fullback Jessel Curry (2 star). These two guys will count as freshmen, but towards last year's class.
In terms of verbal commitments, Auburn has a great list already and is in the running for more. Those already committed include the nation's best runner in 5-star Michael Dyer. 4-stars Trovon Reed, Antonio Goodwin, Shaun Kitchens, LaDarius Owens, Ed Christian, Cody Parkey, and Jawara White. In addition, Auburn has a good shot at 5-star running back Marcus Lattimore, and 5-star offensive lineman Eric Mack has just announced that he's going to be a Tiger! Thus far, every player on the commit list is a 3 star or better. This is certainly encouraging for Tiger fans, going into the recruiting homestretch!
Early 2010 Auburn team analysis, after the jump!
Expecting early contributions and consistent play from newcomers in college football is usually a fool's errand. For most of the signees, expect spot duty, and lots of special teams action. If Auburn gets most of the guys on their list, there will probably be ten redshirts or so. Occasionally a freshman really jumps out and takes command, like 2-star safety Darren Bates did last season. Those things are rare. Of everyone currently on board, I think quarterback Cameron Newton and running back Michael Dyer have the best chance to win starting jobs right off the bat. It won't be easy, though! None of these guys will arrive in the physical shape they'll eventually be in after a year of strength training with coach Yoxall!
Defensive Tackle: It's often been said that tackle is where one starts building a program. If there's a knock on either of Gene Chizik's two recruiting classes, it's here. Auburn hasn't signed a 4 or 5 star defensive tackle (that's worked out!) in many years. On the other hand, we may already have a capable disrupter in the middle on campus. I'm extremely interested in seeing how junior Nick Fairley does after an off-season of coach Yox. At times, Fairley was the most explosive of our tackles. It's time for Fairley to make a move, and become one of the better tackles in the league. The other starter next fall is likely to be senior Mike Blanc. Depth will come from senior Zach Clayton, and sophomore Derrick Lykes.
Defensive End: The loss of All-SEC end Antonio Coleman may be huge. Coleman was the last in a long line of consistent quarterback-terrorizing ends from the Tuberville era. The baton is handed to seniors Michael Goggins and Antoine Carter; a pair that's been up and down throughout their Auburn careers. Depth is a big issue, as only 214 pound sophomore Dee Ford has any experience behind the starters. I'd expect newcomers to play big roles in the rotation, come fall. If none of the new players works out, Zach Clayton could move over from tackle, but that leaves a hole in the roster in the middle. It's a sign that Auburn's depth woes won't be over in 2010.
Linebacker: If depth is a concern at defensive end, it's an emergency at linebacker. With all of our 2009 woes in this space, we've recently learned that key reserves Adam Herring and Spencer Pybus won't be back, due to injury. The starters should be pretty solid. Senior starters Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes return, and those two are proven iron men, capable of playing every snap. Neither is an all-star, though. Junior Eltoro Freeman has the talent to become a star, but he has to stay healthy to do it. Right now, the only scholarship depth at linebacker is sophomore Jonathan Evans. There is a good chance that 4-star commit LaDarius Owens could jump right into the playing rotation next fall.
Cornerback: Auburn may feel the loss of All-SEC performer Walter McFadden, but does have talented candidates lined up in his place. The secondary is somewhat unsettled going into spring drills. Senior Demond Washington and sophomore T'Sharvan Bell have both played corner and safety. Washington was close to taking a starting job away from Neiko Thorpe before the move to safety. T'Sharvan Bell played extensively in the Outback Bowl in coverage, and has come a long way in a year. With the junior Thorpe, Washington and Bell, Auburn should be able to field a solid pair of cover corners. Depth beyond those guys is a concern. Sophomore D'Antoine Hood did not look comfortable at corner in the Outback, and battled injury all season. There is no depth at cornerback beyond those 4. If Auburn can get some injured safeties back next season, it will be big to keep all four cover guys playing corner! There's no obvious help available among this year's commits.
Safety: The Auburn safety position has been a mash unit. True freshman Darren Bates started all 13 games for the Tigers in 2009. He should be even better as a sophomore in 2010. Strong safety is more of a question. Senior Zach Etheridge is the incumbent, but may never play again due to a horrific neck injury suffered against Ole Miss. Junior Mike McNeil should be back from a broken leg that kept him out last season. With his two years of starting experience, he'll help out. The ill-fated Aaron Savage seems to be poised to return for a 6th season on the Plains. Savage had a good freshman campaign in 2006, and has dealt with injury after injury since. If he can return to health, Savage can play either safety or corner. Providing depth at safety will be junior Mike Slade and junior Drew Cole. Again, there's little help from the incoming class, but with decent injury luck, it might not be needed.
Punter: Auburn loses a strong leg in the departed Clinton Durst. However, the Tigers do have a senior punter on the roster that did a great job in 2007: Ryan Shoemaker. As to depth, one has to wonder if incoming commits Cody Parkey and Steven Clark can punt?
Punt Returner: Auburn tried about a half dozen guys last season, and every one of them fumbled the ball! Auburn desperately needs to sign a punt returner, because it's clear that there's not one currently on the roster!
Kick Returner: Auburn has a number of veteran options in this space. Senior Mario Fannin, senior Demond Washington, sophomore Onterrio McCalebb and sophomore Phillip Pierre-Louis all had success last season returning kicks. Washington is the speediest, taking one to the house against Georgia. Washington may not be the best choice, though, because he's likely an every-down player in the secondary.
Placekicker: Auburn returns seniors Wes Byrum and Morgan Hull. I would think that Byrum may handle both kickoffs and placekicking, this season. In my opinion, the ball travels farther and higher when Byrum kicks off. I'd like to see him handle both chores. Byrum had an amazing season in 2009, missing only one long FG attempt. Although Auburn is set to bring in two good kickers, they'll both likely be riding the pine next season, as will junior returnee Chandler Brooks (he of the yellow shoes!).
Offensive Line: Auburn returns 4 senior starters that should be among the best in the SEC: Lee Ziemba, Byron Issom, Ryan Pugh, and Mike Berry. Finding that 5th starter and some depth will be critical to the offense this year. Coach Chizik has already signed two JUCO transfers (mentioned above) to compete for the job. Candidates from current roster include senior Bart Eddins, and sophomore John Sullen. I think the most likely scenario is for Mike Berry to move to right tackle, and for Bart Eddins to take over the guard slot. Auburn does have a number of underclassmen on the line that could make a move. It takes several years to build a good SEC offensive lineman in most cases. Newcomer Eric Mack has the potential to have an immediate impact, if not start.
Tight End: The split out "3" spot in Gus Malzhan's offensive system is a big question mark for 2010. The heir apparent is sophomore Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who has good speed and great hands. Whether he can replace the blocking of departed senior Tommy Trott is another question entirely. Senior walk-on Jay Wisner played some snaps at this position, but he's an undersized option. Redshirt freshman Robert Cooper is the only other tight end listed on the current roster. Incoming commit Dakota Moseley (3 star) may be able to come in a play immediately.
Wide Receiver: It's going to be awfully difficult for anyone to move junior Darvin Adams out of a starting job, and tough to take reps away from senior Terrell Zachary. Auburn's third option at wide receiver last year was senior Kodi Burns, mostly to run the Wildcat package. Burns was not terribly effective as either a receiver or a blocker, and will have his work cut out for him this year, to stay in the playing rotation. Auburn used a number of young 1st year players as a 4th receiver, including Emory Blake, Travante Stallworth, DeAngelo Benton, and Anthony Gulley. Junior Quindarious Carr has ability. With Derek Winter coming off a redshirt year and star Trovon Reed coming in, it's going to be a crowded position.
H-Back: Senior Mario Fannin and junior Eric Smith (grades allowing) return, as does blocking specialist junior John Douglas. Mario Fannin may be moved to tailback, but I feel like he'll remain where he is. The early signing and enrollment of Jessel Curry is an insurance policy. If Fannin does move to running back, and the two guys who missed the Outback Bowl don't make it, Curry might step in and start.
Running Back: You would think a fanbase would be more concerned with losing 1362 yard rusher Ben Tate. The Tigers have no seasoned, proven veteran to plug into his place. Mario Fannin is an option, but he's tended toward shoulder injuries when he starts taking a heavy number of carries. Ball security has been an issue, too. Sophomore Onterrio McCalebb was a huge factor in early games, but became more banged up and ineffective as the season progressed. McCalebb is a small player. The coaches will have to walk a fine line between bulking him up, and keeping his speed. The bulk of the carries into the line may go to the newcomers. There may well be a by-committee approach, utilizing redshirt freshman Dontae Aycock, and newcomer Michael Dyer. There should be a battle for carries, in the Tiger backfield.
Quarterback: As we saw in 2008, spread offenses don't work when the quarterback can't get the ball to the receivers. I'm still having nightmares about Javier Arenas corner blitzes, and no one even covering wide-open Auburn receivers on the sideline. We saw it in 2009 also, when Chris Todd underwent some arm soreness at midseason. While I'm predicting that transfer Cam Newton will win the starting job, we'll have to watch him this spring. We know Newton can run and has good size. What to watch for is hopped balls on screens, and throws into coverage. How accurate is Newton under pressure? Newton had good JUCO passing stats, but it will be different throwing to receivers with the speed Darvin Adams has, and against corners like Demond Washington and Neiko Thorpe. Auburn has options beyond Newton. 5th year senior Neil Caudle has waited patiently for 4 seasons, and knows the offense. Caudle has good mobility, and a good arm. In 2009, Caudle's first game action saw a hideous deep throw into double coverage for an interception. Since that time, he's run the offense pretty smoothly, albeit against Ball State, Furman, and LSU's reserves. Lurking in the pack are redshirt freshmen Tyrick Rollinson and Clint Moseley, and sophomore Barrett Trotter. There will be an early race, but it should be narrowed down pretty quickly. The coaches can't rep 5 quarterbacks for too long. I think it's an upset if Newton or Caudle doesn't win the job. A move to one of the younger guys will mean either injuries, or a lack of production among the vets, and won't bode well for the fall.
While the Auburn offense is poised for another good season, there are a few questions. I'm eager to see what Malzhan's offense can do with a real run-pass option at quarterback. On defense, Auburn is looking for answers after the worst statistical performance in school history. There don't seem to be too many instant solutions among Auburn's commitments, either. It may be another long year defensively. Where Auburn can really help themselves is by shoring up special teams coverage units, and not dropping punts on the ground. With better special teams play and a bit more depth, Auburn could win as many as ten or eleven games next season. War Eagle! We'll be looking forward to see how it all turns out.