When Gus Malzahn's fourth Auburn football team takes the field next Tuesday for the first spring practice, there will be a lot of questions that need answering. That's especially true given what happened in 2015.
There are questions on both sides of the ball. The questions aren't just limited to the players, either. Auburn has five new coaches on the staff. Two of them are in their first position coach jobs at a major school.
So what are the biggest questions, storylines, narratives, etc for Spring Practice 2016? Here are some of my thoughts.
The QB Battle
Right off the bat, this is the obvious one. Who will come out of the spring as Auburn's quarterback? Will it be John Franklin III and a zone-read heavy offense? Will it be Sean White or Jeremy Johnson and a balanced offense? Could Tyler Queen make a move?
Here's the bad news: If you think you're going to get an answer to this question by A-Day or shortly afterwards, then you're crazy. The battle for the starting QB position will last into fall camp and may not be answered until just before the opening game against Clemson. Woody Barrett was also promised he'd get an opportunity, and he doesn't arrive until the summer. That by itself tells you there's no answer coming. Common sense also says Gus isn't going to tip his hand and let any sort of media hype train get started like last year for Jeremy Johnson.
What Will the Offensive Line Look Like?
This is one that I think will get at least some clarity, even if it doesn't reach a full resolution. The position battles will go into the fall, but we'll have a decent idea of the two-deep by the end of the spring.
Who will replace Avery Young and Shon Coleman? Will Austin Golson return to Center? Will Xavier Dampeer take over there while Golson moves to Guard to replace Braden Smith who moves to Tackle? This offensive line could get shuffled in so many different ways, and last year's positions mean nothing with new coach Herb Hand taking over.
I could see Darius James and Braden Smith as the tackles. Robert Leff may take over one of the tackle spots (where he played in replacement of injured Shon Coleman at times in 2015) and Smith and Kozan remain the two Guards. Mike Horton reportedly impressed last season in practices and could push for playing time or a starting role.
There are few positions we'll really be able to judge based on A-Day's vanilla offerings, but the offensive line is one where hopefully we'll be able to identify the contenders for the two deep and know which positions which players are focusing on.
What Will The Defensive Line Look Like?
This position is another that is in flux. We know where last year's players are going to be, but as I mentioned yesterday there's the possibility that some of the early enrollees may end up in different roles than where their recruiting rankings listed them.
Who will be the starter at defensive end opposite Carl Lawson? Will Lawson be a true defensive end or will he stay in the hybrid Buck/LB position? What will Kevin Steele's defense even look like? This, similar to the offensive line, is a question we'll get some answers on in the spring.
Can The Wide Receivers Catch A Ball?
The few practices Kodi Burns will spend with his receivers won't tell us much, but hopefully in A-Day they'll be catching the balls thrown to them. Of course, they didn't look that bad during 2015's A-Day, either. I'm no Xs and Os expert, so I'll have to rely on those of you who are to see if there's any noticeable difference in the blocking, route running, and general knowledge of the offense displayed by the receivers this spring.
What's The Pecking Order At Running Back?
We know Jovon Robinson should go into spring (and likely into fall) as the starter and the bell cow. Who gets the most snaps behind him, though? Will Roc Thomas stay healthy (and hold on to the football) enough to be the next man up? Will Kerryon Johnson fulfill the promise he displayed during 2016? Will Malik Miller show why some argued he was better than Johnson when they were high school teammates?
Will The Offense Return to a True Hurry Up / No Huddle?
This isn't likely to be answered until actual games are played, but I hope to see the offense go full speed with no substitutions during A-Day. Auburn really needs to get back to that fast mentality that takes advantages of a defense's inability to adjust on the fly. That will hinge on success on 1st Down and the number of substitutions needed.
How Will The New Coaching Staff Perform?
This is another one that won't be truly understood until the season begins. Hopefully, we'll get reports of how the players are reacting to Herb Hand, Kodi Burns, Travis Williams, Wesley McGriff, and Kevin Steele. I'm not really worried about the offensive coaches, as I think they'll all fall right in line with how Gus Malzahn wants to do business. How quickly will the defense adapt to the new scheme, though? This will be the fourth defensive coordinator for some of them. That type of turnover will cause confusion and breakdowns at times. I don't suspect we'll see much of an answer to this question in the spring, though.
We'll Have Indications, But No Real Answers
I wrote last year about the importance of spring games to coaches in the age of closed practices. If practices were more open, I doubt we would have the questions asked such as "how did Gus and Rhett not see the problems with Jeremy Johnson before the season started?" The beat writers would have either a) seen the problems and reported that there were some questions or b) seen nothing and be reporting on how everyone was blindsided. Either way, there would be less criticism of the coaches.
The fact is that we're not likely to really know anything at the end of Spring Practice. We'll have vague ideas based on who is playing what positions at A-Day, but nothing concrete will be revealed. The media gets "windows" of time they can watch warmups for a few of the practices, but they don't get to see the real thing and know what's going on. We're all left wondering.
I really think this is more harmful to the coaches than it is helpful, but that's just me. What I've written here are some questions I have and what little I think we'll know about them after April 9th. What do you think?