War Eagle, everybody! College football spring training is winding down across the nation, and it won't be long before those Athlons and Lindys preseason magazines start hitting the store shelves. After a spring of optimism, it is time to take a hard look at the Auburn Tigers, and compare them to what we know of their opponents coming up this fall.
First and foremost, I think Auburn has a great chance to drastically improve on defense. It has to. It's really a miracle that Auburn won 8 games last season while giving up 29 points per game. The real worry is that upwards of 9 defenders missed A-Day due to injury. Last season's young front seven fought inexperience and injury, and it hurt the Tigers against quality opponents. The good news is that even with the folks out for A-Day, the defense showed depth up front and in the secondary.
At tackle, Jeffery Whitaker seems ready to take the next step and become a great one. Kenneth Carter and Gabe Wright should return for fall camp, and they showed flashes of greatness last year. Angelo Blackson and Devaunte Sigler looked much bigger and stronger on A-Day, than they did as true freshmen a year ago. In addition, 5th year senior Jamar Travis refused to go away this spring, and is poised to earn time in the rotation this fall. That's six tackles who can play at an SEC level!
Defensive end is likewise loaded. Junior Corey Lemonier was a star last year. He'll be joined on the other side by veteran Dee Ford. Frankly, Ford looked like our best end before he was hurt last fall, and he looked sharp this spring. Nosa Eguae returns this fall after surgery, and he's a two-year starter. We saw quality play this spring out of Ladarius Owens, and Justin Delaine. Add in Craig Sanders, Keymiya Harrell and Jabrian Niles, and Auburn's as deep as it has ever been rushing from the edge.
Linebacker is a concern, and we could see true freshmen such as Cassanova McKinzy make an impact. The starting 3 on A-Day, Kris Frost, Jake Holland and Darren Bates looked solid, if unspectacular. Veteran Jonathan Evans should be back from surgery this fall, and he'll battle for a starting position. I remember a similar situation about 8 years ago after spring drills. We were quite concerned that smallish WLB Travis Williams was being moved to the middle of the defense. The starter on the strong side was a youngster we knew little about, Kevin Sears. The new WLB was a guy who'd spent his entire Auburn career injured, Antarrious Williams. It was a scary deal. All those guys ended up doing is leading a defense that only gave up 11 points per game, and won 13 games!
The Auburn secondary might not have a Carlos Rogers, or Mike Fuller, or David Irons caliber all-star this coming season, but I believe it is the greatest collection of depth in the defensive backfield Auburn's ever had. Auburn has at least 5 and possibly 6 bonafide SEC-starting-caliber players at cornerback! Those would be Chris Davis, Robensen Therezie, Jonathan Mincy, Jermaine Whitehead, Jonathan Rose, and of course veteran T'Sharvan Bell. The safety position isn't quite as deep, but I think the Tigers will be in good hands with Demetruce McNeal, Erique Florence, Ryan Smith, Trent Fisher and Ikeem Means. Auburn will play tighter coverage this season, and it's good to be able to rotate some guys in and eliminate fatigue.
Auburn's kicking game was phenomenal last season with Cody Parkey and Steven Clark, and those two guys will headline again. Tiger coverage has been pretty good the past two seasons, and the coaches will have even more talent to draw on when the new freshman class arrives in the fall. With Quan Bray, Onterio McCalebb and Tre Mason in the mix, there's always a chance for a big return.
A shaky offensive line was as much to blame for Tiger struggles in 2011 as anything else. The unit will again be young, with the only upperclassman likely to start being senior John Sullen. However, the interior guys like Reese Dismukes, Chad Slade and Eric Mack had their growing pains on the field last year, and looked like they knew what they were doing on A-Day. At tackles, redshirt freshman Greg Robinson could be another one of those guys like Wayne Gandy, or Marcus McNeil, who's brilliant for 4 years as a starter! It's a young line, but it's one with a lot of upside, and I think the system I saw on A-Day is a lot less difficult than the Malzhan one for linemen. In Malzhan's scheme, the guards often both pulled, and the tackles and center had to absolutely stone their guy with no help. If it didn't happen, disaster usually followed in the backfield. We'll see a lot more zone-blocking and slide protection, traditional concepts that allow a line to play to their strengths.
Those who've been reading my drivel since the Football Saturday In The South days know that I'm always concerned about the "lead blocker" positions, fullback and tight end. I think having quality players there is huge, and Auburn has not had enough guys in those roles for quite some time. As much as anything, it's the reason Auburn has gone only 23-18 in the SEC over the past 5 seasons. If you can't block 7 or 8 men up front, you'll have a hard time running the ball in the SEC, and you'll have a hard time beating the upper echelon. While Auburn has two dynamite starters in Phillip Lutzenkirchen and Jay Prosch, depth is a concern once again. I haven't read it anywhere else, and so I may have been hallucinating on A-Day, but I thought sophomore Brandon Fulse looked like he was ready to butt heads with the best of the SEC that day. That gives us three pretty crushing blockers at the skill positions, and that's really more than we've had since at least 2004.
Wide receiver is another concern. Auburn has lots of talented guys there, though, this year. Talented, yes. Proven, no. Emory Blake has done it. The rest have looked good in practice, or in a game or two, but not over the long haul. I caught Trooper Taylor on the evening news a few weeks ago talking about one of his "candidates" for a break-out season. Of said player, Taylor said something to the effect of "if you were a race horse, you'd be dead. As many times as you've been injured, they'd have shot you!" Trovon Reed looked like he wanted to be that go-to guy on A-Day. As I recall, he did last A-Day, also. Other veterans caught well on A-Day, but didn't get many chances.
The last time Auburn came out of A-Day with this many good tailback candidates, the season following was a disaster. I'm talking about 2007, when we were figuring on a rotation of Brad Lester, redshirt freshman Super-Mario Fannin, Ben Tate and incoming stud Enrique Davis. When the season rolled around, Lester was suspended, Fannin was fumbling, Tate was a true sophomore, and Davis didn't make it to school and ended up at Ole Miss. Auburn dropped games early in the season to South Florida and Mississippi State. Trust me. You do NOT want to be sitting in Jordan Hare Stadium at midnight having just lost to South Florida in overtime! Absolutely miserable...
Anyway, Auburn looks to have a good stable of running backs lined up for 2012. We know McCalebb is a breakaway threat. Tre Mason was kept closely guarded on A-Day. What's worth noting is that he did get two carries against the ones, and broke into the second level both times. Like the aforementioned Brad Lester, Mason hits the hole hard and fast. Corey Grant looks like a worthy runner who does the other things well too. For all coach Chizik's talk of Mike Blakeley being inconsistent, he was the offensive star of A-Day. He has a burst, and is quite elusive.
In the past decade, it's become impossible to win in the SEC without quality quarterback play. Auburn lacked it for much of 2011. In defense of Barrett Trotter and Clint Mosley, not even Tim Tebow and Ryan Mallett could do it when they had line troubles and were getting pounded in the backfield. We've been pretty thrilled with Gene Chizik's decisions over the past three years at Auburn. But if there's chink in that armor, it was the decision to toss Clint Mosley out there for his first start on the road against number one LSU. That was just crazy. It wasn't fair to Trotter, who had won the starting job in fall camp, and it certainly wasn't fair to Mosley, who took an absolute beating in that game. I'd like to know who pushed that deal through. We'll probably never know, but ultimately it's on the head coach.
One has to like Chizik's recovery, though. He's hired one of the best QB gurus in the country to run the offense. I think Auburn fans really, really liked what they saw out of Khiel Frazier on A-Day. I know I did! Scot Loeffler has a reputation for developing great quarterbacks, and we saw a great debut on A-Day for Frazier. And honestly, we saw a better than expected debut for true freshman Zeke Pike. Pike forced a few balls in there, but he didn't look like a true freshman at all. My recollections of early-enrollee freshmen quarterbacks at Auburn are from the 1998 A-Day game. That day, early enrollee Jeff Kleine treated us to the freshman sack-fumble-defensive TD trifecta.
If one had to liken the known qualities of Scot Loeffler's offenses to any former Auburn coordinator, it would have to be Al Borges. Yes, I know Borges left Auburn under a cloud of mediocrity, but when he had playmakers the offense was diverse and difficult to defend. Another coordinator I could compare Loeffler to is Bobby Petrino. Like Petrino, Loeffler is going to make teams defend the power runs, and the 5 yard hitch. If they don't, the offense will move relentlessly forward. The defense will have to spread out and cover tight ends and fullbacks in the flat, or again Auburn will get one easy 10 yard completion after another. Once the defense is playing the run and press coverage, that play-action game will hit for big plays. Like Gus Malzhan, Loeffler believes in good ball fakes, and crisp timing. One thing evident on A-Day is that the coaches spent a LOT of time on base running plays. Guys knew where to go, who to block, and were good at it.
These Tigers are probably still a year away from being SEC and national championship contenders, but I think many of them would not agree with that! With the guys Auburn has recruited and developed over the past three years, Auburn should be able to bang and run with anyone in the SEC. It will show, and unless there is a big rash of injuries, I think Auburn will win at least 9 games in the regular season. I think these Tigers are better than 7 teams on the schedule, and should steal a couple against either Clemson, or someone in the SEC power players Arkansas, Georgia, LSU or Bama.
War Eagle, folks! You now know what I think of this year's Tigers at this point! In the coming weeks, I'll let you know what I think of our chances against our opponents. This should be a fun year.