What type of team will the Auburn Tigers be this season? After winning the national championship in 2010, they had to replace the majority of the starting roster. Last season, Auburn won eight games, which was respectable for the amount of talent that had to be replaced.
This year, Auburn returns 16 starters, including nine on the defensive side of the ball. And with that amount of talent coming back, Tiger fans have great reason to believe that this will be another step toward returning to the national championship.
But there are still questions that need to be answered in fall camp before the season begins. Here are the top five that the Auburn Tigers must answer in the next couple of weeks.
Auburn had the worst pass defense in the SEC last season, allowing over 218 yards in the air, which was good for 51st in the country. A lot of that had to do with youth and injuries, and it should be improved this time around.
Willie Martinez was hired as a defensive assistant coach, which should go a long way, as he has worked with Brian Vangorder several times in the past. Cornerback T'Sharvan Bell is recovered from his knee injury, which gives the Tigers leadership and a solid starting corner. Cornerback Chris Davis will also be back after missing most of the 2011 season with an injury.
Jermaine Whitehead is a special player who played quite a bit during his true freshman year. He could see playing time at any position in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Robenson Therezie is quickly making a name for himself, while Demetruce McNeal and Erique Florence are two safeties who picked up much-needed experience last season and should be better with playing time under their belts.
There is no question the secondary has talent. Players just need to stay healthy and step up.
Another reason the secondary was so bad last season was the lack of pressure the defensive line generated. Auburn finished the year with only 22 sacks, 9.5 of those came from defensive end Corey Lemonier.
The good news is that the Tigers return all four starters on the defensive line, as well as the top five backups from a year ago.
Lemonier is one of the best defensive players in the country, but he'll get help from players such as Craig Sanders and Devaunte Sigler as well. Defensive end Dee Ford is an explosive player who also had a terrific spring, as he missed majority of the 2011 season with an injury. Jeffrey Whitaker is another player who has transformed during the offseason.
It is about competition. This is the best. We haven't had this kind of depth since I have been here. We are looking forward to competing, and I think that is our big thing. When everyone sees us competing, everyone will follow. Defensive tackle Nosa Eguae said about the depth on the defensive line.
Much like the secondary, it appears that the defensive line will be much improved this time around. Question is, just how good can it be?
With Michael Dyer no longer in the picture, Auburn must look elsewhere for production at the running back position. There is certainly talent to go around, but is there that one back that the Tigers can rely on, or will it be a running back by committee?
Onterio McCalebb is the likely starter after rushing for over 2,000 yards and scoring 21 total touchdowns in the last three years as a backup. He is an explosive runner who will provide this offense with big plays, although he is only 5'11", 174 pounds, which doesn't scream out every-down back at all.
Tre Mason has bulked up during the offseason and claims he is capable of carrying the load, but he only has 28 carries throughout his short career. Transfer running backs Corey Grant and Mike Blakely are also smaller backs who haven't seen much playing time, either.
Auburn has a talented backfield that should produce enough on the ground, but it is nice to have at least one running back that can be counted on at all times.
Auburn has depth issues at the receiver position, but it does have two receivers they can count on in Emory Blake and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen. The senior, Lutzenkirchen, has caught 44 career passes, 14 of which have went for touchdowns. With a great nose for the end zone and a big frame at 6'5", 250 pounds, he will be used a lot more in this offense.
“To get back to the opportunity where I’m going to be thrown at seven to 10 times a game, like coach [Scot] Loeffler said, is very exciting,” Lutzenkirchen said.
Lutzenkirchen was used more as a blocker the last couple of years, but with transfer Jay Prosch eligible to play right away, he will be free to catch the ball a lot more. This is great news, as Lutzenkirchen is a 2012 candidate for the Mackey Award and should have his most productive season in an Auburn uniform.
Question is, will a true No. 1 target help make up for some of the depth issues?
Of course this is the question that everybody wants to know the answer to. It is really a two-man race at the moment with Clint Moseley and Kiehl Frazier? Who has the edge at the moment? Apparently, no one at camp is fully underway.
"There's no separation whatsoever," offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler told Charles Goldberg of al.com.
Head coach Gene Chizik backed up those statements after a recent practice.
"It's still too early to say. We're still in the installation phase," Chizik said.
Moseley threw 108 passes last season, completing 61 percent of those throws for 800 yards and five touchdowns. Frazier lacks experience, but he did have a fabulous spring game, which has many Auburn fans buzzing. He is a dual-threat quarterback that could provide this offense that was ranked 79th in scoring with a much-needed spark.
While many believe that the front-runner is Frazier, we will just have to wait and see as practice continues to play itself out.