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Early July Musings

<em>The new-look Tigers are gearing up to surprise a lot of folks!</em>
The new-look Tigers are gearing up to surprise a lot of folks!

War Eagle, everybody! July 4th's over, SEC Media Days are next week, and it's time to start talking Auburn football! Of course, while most of us have been moaning about the summer heat in the south (come on, folks! It's always hot in July! Every year! How do we forget?), the 2012 Auburn football team has been working out and trying to get better. By all accounts, this batch of summer workouts has been tougher and more productive than any the seniors can remember. We're hearing lots of good things from the practice fields this summer!

Pre-season watch lists are coming out all over, and a number of Auburn veterans are on them, including Onterio McCalebb, Phillip Lutzenkirchen, Reese Dismukes, Cody Parkey, and Steven Clark. We didn't have too many folks on those lists last year. It's worth noting that these are only lists, and one can drop off the list for a number of reasons, and there will doubtless be those players that are added as the season progresses. I'm not expecting nearly as much love when the pre-season All-SEC lists start coming out. You might see Corey Lemonier and Phillip Lutzenkirchen on some of those second teams. I don't think the SEC has a fullback position like the Big Ten does, so you'll likely not see All-American fullback Jay Prosch on there, either. I don't think it will bother us too much. We Auburn fans enjoy watching our team punch the big dogs out, from underdog status!

Defensively, I think Auburn has a great chance to return to being a nasty defensive unit. If we've learned anything the past three years against modern offenses, you can't stand around and wait for the play to come to you. You've got to disrupt things at the point of attack. I think the current staff understands that. I think our defensive line leaders like Lemonier and tackle Jeffery Whitaker are really looking forward to bringing the heat every snap, this fall! Likewise, I think linebackers Jake Holland and Darren Bates are much more suited to an aggressive style.

Auburn fans should be pretty excited about Auburn's secondary. We've never had a unit this talented and deep, ever. Even in the best Tuberville years, you had two or three really good starters, and some liabilities behind that. This past spring, even with three starters out in the secondary, Auburn was serving up quality defensive backs late into trash-time on A-Day.

Auburn special teams are as good as they've ever been, with top-notch coordinator Jay Boulware. The Tigers boast two very strong legs with Cody Parkey and Steven Clark. Auburn coverage has been very stout the past couple of seasons, and a fuller roster will only improve those numbers. After years of uncertainty, Auburn found a quality punt-returner last season in newcomer Quan Bray. At kick returner, Auburn has quite a few weapons, including Bray, veteran Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason, and others.

One of the two biggest questions on this team is the offensive line. With 15 or more blue-chip linemen on the team, the Tigers have the talent. But there's inexperience galore out there. How well the Scot Loefler offense, and by extension the Tigers do this fall will be determined by how well Auburn handles SEC front-line defenders. There's definitely reason for hope, though. Center Reese Dismukes was a freshman All-American last season, and he's on the Remington watch list this season. Dismukes really impressed me on A-Day. He's very sound, and you can count on him stopping a defensive tackle every play. Senior guard John Sullen's a wily veteran out there, and he's probably in the best shape of his life right now. Last year's 5th year senior starter at left tackle, A. J. Greene said last fall that redshirt newcomer Greg Robinson was good enough to start. Robinson came on this spring, and has nailed down that starting job, as a redshirt freshman. Now of course, Auburn's got to shore up the right side. There's a lot of room over there for folks to make a move in fall camp!

Every year, preseason pundits can point to an Auburn back or two, and a receiver or two who's likely to have a good year. And every year since Jake Slaughter and Cooper Wallace graduated 7 years ago, we've wondered who the heck the lead blockers would be at tight end and fullback. Or Y and H receivers for you spread folk. Or whatever numbers Malzhan used. Still, who's gonna block the SEC linebackers and safeties who crash up to stop the runner? Every year, we're hoping a Tommy Trott or Vance Smith will step up. Not this year. We found out last season that Phillip Lutzenkirchen can do very well as a lead blocker, and we add All-American fullback Jay Prosch to the equation. While there may yet be questions about his hands catching the ball, sophomore tight end Brandon Fulse was very impressive blocking on A-Day, too. Bottom line: this season, Auburn will be able to actually block out of the jumbo set, and can also send some very dangerous weapons out into the pass patterns from these sets as well.

Most recent Tiger years, we've counted our riches and blessings in January/February at running back, and by game two the next fall, we're bemoaning our surprising lack of depth at the same position. In 2007, it was a five-deep class that ended up with sophomore Ben Tate and not much else struggling against South Florida and Mississippi State early. In 2008, it was 3-2 crowbar fights in the Tony Franklin offense merged with Nall-ball. In 2009, Tate was a stud, but true freshman Onterio McCalebb was all we had behind him. In 2010, we were quickly looking to true freshman Michael Dyer as an every-down back. We had some numbers in 2011, but had blocking problems.

I think with McCalebb, and Tre Mason, along with transfers Corey Grant and Mike Blakely, and incoming freshman Jovon Robinson, Auburn has the numbers at tailback. More importantly, there's a commitment we haven't seen since the Dye era to provide enough numbers at the blocking positions to make a smash-mouth running game really go. And make no mistake. Offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler likes to punish the opposing front seven with alternating iso plays, and tricky motion plays like we've grown accustomed to the past three seasons. He'll be run-heavy, if we can block it.

A lot was made last season over the effect of the injury to star receiver Emory Blake. It seemed that no one else could step up. Frankly, I think Gus Malzhan's offense required a go-to receiver. Even when Auburn was winning a national championship in 2010, a lot of the time pass plays were dialed in for Darvin Adams, period. And when Blake got hurt in 2011, you can't just bring someone off the bench and have them beat double coverage on a consistent basis. Folks can talk all day about Travante Stallworth disappearing, and Quindarius Carr having a wasted senior season. Fact was, the quarterbacks seldom looked to the wide side.

In recent years, the trend among SEC defensive coordinators is that when they run-blitz, they like to bring "field pressure." This means that the blitzer is likely to come from the wide side of the field. The reason for this is that it's a bad idea to give an SEC back 30-40 lateral yards to play with, set his blocks, and operate. No, SEC coordinators want to force runs to the boundary, where there's less room to maneuver. Now, you'd think that those field-side receivers would have more room to operate with folks blitzing off that side. However, Auburn really didn't have a standard corner route in the playbook the past three years, and when we ran the smash with a slot receiver, back or tight end going corner, it was always to the boundary side. As Auburn's offensive woes mounted last season, Stallworth and Carr were pretty much ignored by opposing secondaries, and Auburn quarterbacks never looked their way. Both guys spent many plays running a route into an acre of green grass and no defender, and never got a look. To me, it's much more a failure of scheme and quarterbacking, than anything on those receivers.

Auburn has a fairly deep depth chart of talented wide receivers. It's up to Scot Loeffler to see that they are used. What's promising is that when Loeffler called plays at Michigan back in the early-mid 2000s, they really slung that ball around. You rarely saw those quarterbacks locked in one one guy.

If you don't have a dangerous quarterback in the SEC, it's a tough gig. I think last season, Auburn had potential in Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley. Neither was terribly experienced, neither had the big arm, and neither was going to truck over SEC linebackers like Cam Newton did. What a lot of the pundits are missing this season is that sophomore Khiel Frazier DOES have both the arm, and the mobility. Last season, Frazier was used as a wildcat quarterback only. What was telling in the bowl game was that Frazier was OBVIOUSLY only going to be called on to run, but he still led the team in carries, and chewed out a number of tough first downs on the ground.

Frazier's arm was much more in question in his first year. He didn't look very good throwing in 2011 on his few attempts. I think the most positive thing to take out of this year's spring drills is that Frazier looked very crisp throwing darts on A-Day. And by several accounts this summer, Frazier has really stepped up as one of the team leaders in early workouts.

Beyond Frazier, I'd not be surprised if we haven't heard the last out of Clint Moseley. In my eyes, he got a very raw deal last season, being thrown to the wolves in his first start against number one LSU. Like any armchair quarterback, I'm always second-guessing the coach and his calls. Usually, if I keep score, coach was right a LOT more times than I was! What makes you worry is when that's not the case. We saw the proof of that when Moseley was injured against Virginia in the Vidalia Bowl (or whatever it's called now in Atlanta. May Auburn never play in another New Year's Eve bowl. Those things are an abomination! I'm thinking a more appropriate name might be the "Brussel Sprouts Bowl."). How would the season have gone if Trotter had not been benched? If Moseley's line doesn't totally collapse, you've got a guy with mobility and good instincts as a backup QB, at least as things stand now. He's started against LSU, Georgia, and Alabama last year. It's great to have a guy like that on your roster.

2012 looks like a challenging year on the schedule, but I think Auburn has better talent overall than at least nine teams on the slate. The real question will be how well the coaches develop that talent. It's a new bunch of coordinators at the top. We'll be watching with great interest!

Next week, I'll return to my Auburn opponent previews. We're moving to game eight, on that score. Texas A&M makes their first EVER appearance at Jordan Hare Stadium late next October. Auburn is zero and two against the Aggies, all time. Lost a 16-0 decision 101 years ago in Dallas, and Bo and co. got hammered in the 2006 Cotton Bowl, 36-16. Particularly galling was that Jackie Sherrill's team featured a pair of backs that upstaged Bo. Johnny Hector and Roger Vick ran wild that New Year's Day, and the pair went on to have pretty good NFL careers with the New York Jets.