War Eagle, everybody! Now that spring drills have wrapped up across the country, it's time to look to the fall. Today, we'll examine how the Auburn Tigers will look in 2010. This is an Auburn team with a lot of experience in the starting lineup, and expectations will be high. At least 13 seniors will start among the top 24, and possibly a couple more. Last season at this time, I was mainly hoping that Auburn would not finish with a losing record. This year, I think that Auburn will be in the title hunt, barring bad injury luck.
On defense, there are holes to fill with the graduation of Antonio Coleman, Jake Ricks, and Walter McFadden. Everyone else is back, and the coaches have made finding depth a priority. A number of players have stepped up well since the end of last season, including Nick Fairley and Demond Washington. Initially, there were questions about the defensive line, but this group had a strong showing this spring. Auburn appears to have found four solid starters, and the depth behind them is starting to shape up. Similarly at linebacker, Auburn seems to have a solid starting rotation, and more depth than a year ago. In the secondary, the Tigers appear to have 3 capable cornerbacks, but safety is still up in the air. With more bodies to work with, I'd imagine we'll see defensive coordinator Ted Roof become a lot more aggressive with his schemes. If the Tigers stay healthy here, I think Auburn's points per game given up will drop from 27.5 down to around 20.
Auburn was streaky-dangerous on offense last season, but has to replace starting quarterback Chris Todd, 1000-yard rusher Ben Tate, and blockers Andrew McClain and Tommy Trott. After watching the A-Day game, I think most of the replacements will be upgrades in talent, if not experience. In addition, the Tigers seem to have developed more depth in the line, and particularly in the receiving corps. Auburn will be able to spread the field this season, with 4 or 5 guys that can all take it the distance. And this offense will operate behind one of the best lines in the SEC. The all-time Auburn record for points scored per game in a season was set back in 1920, when Mike Donahue's team put up 36.8 points per game. In the modern era, Terry Bowden's 1995 squad scored 36.5. I think this year's team has a great chance to erase those records!
Special teams should take a step forward in 2010, thanks to increased depth and athleticism. Last season Auburn was great placekicking, decent punting and returning kicks, and awful on coverage and punt returning. Coverage should improve, and the great news out of A-day was that no kicks or punts were dropped. The biggest question coming out of spring is the consistency of the punting game.
Position by position analysis after the jump!
Defensive Line: The starting rotation appears set, with 5th-year senior Mike Blanc and junior Nick Fairley in the middle. Manning the end spots will be a pair of 5th year seniors, Antione Carter and Michael Goggins. There is a lot of experience in this group. Carter and Fairley were particularly strong this spring. The Tigers appear to have that needed push in the middle, and good speed off the edge. This will be a solid starting line, but the Tigers had questions about depth coming into spring. In the second line, sophomore tackle Derrick Lykes improved dramatically, and sophomore Jamar Travis gives the Tigers a fourth tackle who can play. 5th year senior Zach Clayton spent most of the spring injured, but will likely play a role if he can get healthy this fall. Second team sophomore ends Nosa Egaue and Dee Ford made strides, too. Of Auburn's signees, don't be surprised if tackle Jeffery Whitaker make an immediate impact in the playing rotation.
Linebacker: For the third year in a row, the Auburn linebacker corps will be anchored by Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes. The two 5th year seniors have been mainstays on the Auburn defense for quite some time, and their experience should be valuable. Great things were expected of junior Eltoro Freeman, but the real mover this spring was sophomore Jonathan Evans. Evans appears to have the strong side starting spot. The Tigers should have more bodies to rotate into the mix this fall, but it did not appear that Ted Roof was particularly pleased with anyone beyond the starting group. Sophomore safety Darren Bates was moved to linebacker for this spring, but did not have any contact work while he was recovering from surgery. For now, depth consists of Freeman plus freshmen Jessell Curry and Harris Gaston, and juniors Ashton Richardson and Wade Christopher. Auburn has several linebacker signees that could work their way into the playing rotation, including LaDarius Owens and Jake Holland.
Secondary: At corner, senior Demond Washington drew rave reviews this spring. Junior Neiko Thorpe returns for his second year as a starter, and sophomore T'Sharvan Bell had a solid spring. The 4th and 5th corners appear to be junior D'Antoine Hood, and sophomore Anthony Gulley-Morgan. Safety remains a big question. Auburn has three veteran safeties on the roster. Junior Mike McNeil, 5th year senior Zac Etheridge, and 6th year senior Aaron Savage have started a combined 49 games. However, each is coming off of serious injuries. McNeil is still not full speed after a broken leg in the spring of 2009, and Etheridge missed spring drills after a horrific neck injury last fall. Savage hasn't played in a game since an injury-marred 2007 campaign. He's recovering from Achilles surgery this spring. In the event none of the three can contribute, sophomore Darren Bates could be moved back after starting all 13 games at free safety last fall. Spring stars at safety were junior Drew Cole, and sophomore Ikeem Means. Judging from A-Day footage, neither is ready to chase and successfully tackle top SEC backs and receivers. In summary, safety in 2010 could be a problem, or it could be one of the deepest units on the team. It all depends upon healing.
Punting: 5th year senior Ryan Shoemaker appears poised to be Auburn's starting punter in 2010, but consistency is still a question after a couple of poor kicks in the A-Day game. Shoemaker does have the leg strength to continue the standards set by Damon Duval, Kody Bliss, and Clinton Durst. If Shoemaker has a rough fall, it's possible that Auburn might play true freshman Steven Clark. Coverage needs to improve. The Tigers gave up a whopping 12.9 yards per return in 2009.
Punt Returns: This was the worst unit on the team, averaging only 4.5 yards per return, with numerous balls dropped on the ground. I don't think the starting return man job has been settled yet, but front runners are senior Demond Washington and junior Quindarious Carr. Carr handled the punts on A-day, and fielded them cleanly, albeit not under live conditions. Carr also fielded one near the goal line, which indicates that there's still work to be done. Washington may be the best option here, but not if he plays most snaps at corner, and returns kickoffs. Blocking on punt returns needs to take a big step up also.
Kick Returns: Auburn was pretty decent returning kicks last season, and all three return men who returned 10 kicks or more return. Demond Washington, Mario Fannin, and Onterrio McCalebb all averaged over 20 yards per return, and Washington went yard on Georgia. Incoming 5-star receiver Trovon Reed could see action here as well.
Kickoffs: This was a weak unit in 2009, and looks to improve in coverage at least, in 2010. The Tigers gave up 23.5 yards per return in 2009, and averaged kicking the ball only to the 8 yard line. Senior Wes Byrum is the heir-apparent kickoff man, and his A-Day kickoffs averaged about the 8 yard line. Incoming freshman Cody Parkey should get a look kicking off this fall. The Tigers could use some touchbacks!
Placekicking: Wes Byrum returns for his senior season with 3 years of SEC kicking experience. Byrum hit 14 of 15 field goals last fall, and all of his extra points. For his career, Byrum has hit 42 of 57 field goal attempts, for a 73.6 percent. If Byrum maintains that percentage, he'll finish 4th in all-time Auburn kicker accuracy.
Offensive Line: Among the starters at least, this is the strength of the team, and possibly the best offensive line in the conference. The Tigers return 4 veteran senior starters in tackle Lee Ziemba, guards Mike Berry and Byron Issom, and center Ryan Pugh. Ziemba and Pugh were all-SEC last year. At the right tackle spot, a pair of JUCO transfers have stepped up. Brandon Moseley is slightly ahead of Roszell Gayden coming out of spring. Gayden missed time with injuries. Guard Mike Berry is also trying to shake off the nagging injury bug. Auburn has more bodies here than a year ago, but quality depth may yet be a concern. Senior Bart Eddins and sophomore John Sullen have starting experience, but aren't necessarily ready for prime time. Eddins is fighting injury, and Sullen struggled against the starting D-line on A-Day. Other reserves that could see playing time include senior Jorell Bostrum, junior Jared Cooper and A. J. Greene, and redshirt freshman Andre Harris.
Tight End/H-Back: Coming out of spring drills, this is the most mysterious position on the team. Last fall, there were two distinct units, but so far this year, it looks mostly like one position. The clear front runner for starts looks like junior Eric Smith, who can do it all, running, blocking and catching the football. Behind Smith are sophomore Phillip Lutzenchirchen and redshirt freshman Robert Cooper. Both reserves are coming on nicely, and should be ready by fall. Also seeing time at H-back this spring was redshirt freshman running back Dontae Aycock.
Wide Receiver: This is one of the deepest positions on the team. While junior Darvin Adams and senior Terrell Zachary are entrenched as starters, at least a half dozen others have made some noise this spring. Quindarious Carr had a break-out A-Day with 150 yards. Carr was fast and elusive on A-Day, and his route-running and hands look vastly improved. Sophomores Emory Blake, DeAngelo Benton, and juniors Ralph Spry, and Jay Wisner were solid this spring as well. Senior Kodi Burns is still in the mix. Sophomore Phillip Pierre-Louis was having a great spring, till a knee injury took him out. No word on how serious that was. Incoming 5-star signee Trovon Reed should play, but it will be tough finding a niche in this receiving corps.
Running Back: 5th year senior Mario Fannin is the man at tailback coming out of spring. Questions about his durability and ball-security seem to have been answered. He endured a heavy workload and didn't put the ball on the ground all spring. Fannin is a powerful runner with good vision and great speed. If he stays healthy, he will rack up a lot of yards! Spelling Fannin may be sophomore Onterrio McCalebb. McCalebb was electric early last fall, but an ankle injury limited him thereafter. This spring, he had put on a few pounds of muscle, but looked a step slower. Dontae Aycock worked a dual role at H-back and tailback, and has some skill. Auburn also signed 5-star runner Michael Dyer, who could have an immediate impact.
Quarterback: What a difference a year makes! At this time last year, quarterback was the shakiest position on the team. After spring of 2010, it appears that Auburn actually has 4 quarterbacks that can win in the SEC! A-Day featured crisp exchanges, good ball movement, accurate (for the most part) throws, and nothing thrown up for grabs. It was easily the best overall spring quarterback performance in memory. JUCO transfer and former Florida quarterback Cameron Newton was named the starter. We didn't see much of him in the spring game, but he's likely going to be a nightmare to defend. Even if Newton goes down, senior Neil Caudle and sophomore Barrett Trotter look quite capable of running this offense, both throwing and running. Redshirt freshman Clint Mosely has conceded that he's probably behind the other 3 guys, but even he looked impressive on A-Day.
This fall, Auburn will be dangerous. Opponents will face a team that rips off chunks of yardage from a variety of positions, and a more aggressive defense that will force turnovers. To stay with the Tigers, foes will have to focus on ball control and eliminating turnovers. Even a few three and outs could be disastrous, as the Tigers have really focused on the uptempo offense in practices. When it's working correctly, the Gus Malzhan offense tends to leave defenses gasping for air late in the halves of games.
Looking at the 2010 schedule, the most dangerous opponents are Clemson, Arkansas, LSU, Georgia, and Alabama. Auburn has all of those games except Alabama in the friendly confines of Jordan Hare Stadium. The Tigers play Alabama in Tuscaloosa, where Auburn is 6-1 all time. 2010 is shaping up as a good year for the Tigers!