It's spring, which means one thing around the Plains: A-Day. The annual scrimmage in Auburn is scheduled for Saturday at 2 p.m. CT, and even though it will broadcast on ESPN, a huge crowd is expected to be there. Although, there might be a slightly smaller number than last year's 83,401 (which led the nation), if only because there won't be a ceremonial rolling of Toomer's this time around. As the Tigers turn toward 2014, there are a few things you should be on the lookout for.
1) Nick Marshall's progression
It's no secret that Marshall (59.4%/1,976 passing yards/14 passing TD) grew exponentially as a QB last season on a week-to-week basis. During the Washington State game, he was obviously nervous and it showed. As the season progressed, however, Marshall settled down, got comfortable and got into a zone. By the national championship game, he had grown into a formidable player who knew his job and performed it extremely well.
Now, after a full spring with head coach Gus Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee under his belt, Marshall should look even better. Watch him throwing on intermediate routes to see if he has gained enough accuracy there to keep defenses from keying on Sammie Coates (42 rec/ 902 yds/ 21.5 ypc/ 7 TD) on the outside, like they tended to do last year. Keep an eye on Marshall's deep precision as well. Too many times this past season Marshall had what looked like a walk-in touchdown to a streaking Coates or Ricardo Louis, only to see the ball fall to the grass five yards ahead of the receiver's outstretched hands. If Marshall can locate these two types of throws, he should pose a much bigger threat to opposing defenses, as they won't be able to play the edge so much to keep the ground game honest. He's gained another big receiver on the outside in D'haquille "Duke" Williams (No. 1 JUCO WR) to take some of the pressure off Coates and open up even more wrinkles in the playbook.
We'll also need to see how Marshall is gelling with the running backs. Granted, it's still early, but if he can get a strong rapport with the backfield, then the Tigers won't have to spend the first few games of the season worrying about getting the read option in sync.
2) How will the new RB corps look?
After Tre Mason's departure, a few questions present themselves. Who, if anyone, will take over the lead running back job? Will we see a back-by-committee approach? How many backs will feature prominently in the offense?
So far, the verdict seems to be that seniors Cameron Artis-Payne (614 yds/ 6.7 ypc/ 6 TD) and Corey Grant (647 yds/ 9.8 ypc/ 6 TD), along with redshirt freshman Peyton Barber, have all established themselves as the primary ground options. Obviously, with CAP and Grant both receiving (somewhat) significant playing time last year, you had to know they were going to get a shot. The new guy, Barber, is an enigma. He didn't receive a single rep last year, but, according to Mason (al.com), "... [Barber] is, skill-wise, the best out of all of us." Of course, there's still Roc Thomas, the five-star prospect out of Oxford, who will join the competition in fall practice. Any five-star is going to get a shot to prove himself.
3) How will the offense look different?
With another year of Gus, the Tigers' offense is going to be even more fantastically awesome. But how much more awesome? LOTS. Malzahn himself said, "We think we can be quite a bit faster." If he can turn up the speed notch a few clicks, this offense is going to explode. The guys go through practice much faster than game speed, so playing in a real game, with defenses that aren't playing at breakneck speed will feel like trudging through quicksand. Add in a full season of conditioning, strength work and all these new pieces, and the offense is going to feel like a blur in 2014.
4) Who is going to fill the holes on defense?
There's a bit of work to do on the defensive side of the ball. Dee Ford (29 tackles/ 14.5 TFL/ 10.5 sacks) and Nosa Eguae (22/ 5.5/ 2.0) are gone from the line, Jake Holland leaves the linebacker corps, and Chris Davis, Ryan Smith and Ryan White are all gone from the secondary. Phew. All of those guys were major contributors last year, and replacing them isn't going to be easy.
Sophomores Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel will be leading the charge on the ends, which figure to be set for the next few years. Montravius Adams and senior Gabe Wright will also be working in there in jumbo package, but they will primarily be tasked with clogging the middle.
As for linebacker, Kris Frost (59 tackles/6.0 TFL) and Cassanova McKinzy (75/8.0) both return, and they will form a pretty strong tandem. McKinzy led the team in tackles, and Frost was the (vastly) better half of the duo with Holland. McKinzy has been dealing with injury, but with incoming five-star Tre' Williams, the backers look to be in pretty good shape. Watch to see how they react to Auburn's offense, as their play against such a fast-paced unit could be a pretty good indicator as to how they'll perform in the fall.
The secondary is going to be almost completely awash with new faces. The only returning starters are Robenson Therezie (57 tackles/ 4 INT) and Jonathon Mincy (56 tackles/ 14 passes broken up), the latter of whom will presumably take over for Chris Davis at boundary corner. Jonathan Jones will then slide in to take Mincy's old field corner spot. Jermaine Whitehead's going to hold on to his field safety spot, and JUCO signee Derrick Moncrief has been performing well at boundary safety. With CB converts Trovon Reed and Rudy Ford lined up as solid bench help, Ellis Johnson has what looks like quite a snazzy defensive backfield this year. Focus on whether or not this team can improve on its "bend but don't break" philosophy that defined it in 2013. Will the Tigers continue to dig their heels into the ground inside the red zone, or will they stop drives before opponents can even get that far?
5) How will the team respond after last year?
Finally, be on the lookout for the team's demeanor in general. Are the players pumped? Are they hungry? Do they realize what it will take to win the national championship this year?
After such a tantalizingly close crystal ball slipped away in January, the guys were obviously heartbroken. But finding a way to channel that into a desire and hunger to overcome that hump is going to be critical to winning the College Football Playoff this year. There's no doubt that Gus and the boys will have the team ready, but everyone has got to buy in even more so than last year. They've got to realize that they're not taking anyone by surprise again, and there's a gargantuan target on their back in the SEC. Even in the spring game, that fire is going to play a huge part in preparing them for the season. Watch how they respond to big plays, big hits or even the atmosphere in general. They've got a big task in front of them, but there shouldn't be any doubt that they'll be ready.