Auburn Football: Grading Every Positional Unit Through the First 4 Games
Believe it or not, the college football season is one-third of the way complete. Auburn has the week off before hosting Arkansas next Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Auburn's Week 4 bye is great for a team that needs to regroup and get off to a fresh start in October before playing four very winnable SEC games next month.
Sitting at 1-3 after a disappointing opening month, Auburn can turn things around in October and salvage the 2012 season. The close loss to LSU has given Auburn fans hope that it can play with anyone in the country.
The Auburn coaching staff will be assessing the first four games during the off week and determining what they can improve on. We did that earlier this week.
Now, we would like to give our own position-by-position grades.
*All stats that are cited on the following slides can be found here.
When Kiehl Frazier hit Emory Blake on a beautiful 56-yard touchdown throw early in the game against Clemson, no one thought that he would only throw one more touchdown pass over the next three games.
To say that Frazier has struggled would be putting it kindly. Much of his problems can be attributed to not setting his feet, not making decisions quick enough and keeping his eyes on the rush instead of downfield at his receivers.
Frazier has completed only 53 percent (47-of-89) of his passes and has thrown seven interceptions. Frazier's passing-efficiency rating is 96.03.
Despite what the coaches say, Frazier is the only real option right now. Clint Moseley is still nursing his hurt shoulder and the coaches do not want to hand over the starting-quarterback duties to true freshman Jonathan Wallace, even though he got playing time against LSU.
The sophomore quarterback has shown flashes of his potential in the first half of the last two games. He has become more accurate and has appeared to be more comfortable.
That has disappeared in the second half of ball games when his team has needed him most, though. "I don't know whether it's a focus issue or I don't know what it is, but I know that obviously he's got to put together two good halves," said Gene Chizik (via Joel Erickson, AL.com)
Frazier is a Gus Malzahn quarterback playing in a Scot Loeffler offense. That hasn't turned into a good combination. He certainly has the talent to overcome his early season struggles, but his first four games have earned him a failing grade.
Running Backs: B
The Tigers' brightest spot on offense has been the play of the running backs. Auburn is averaging 153 yards rushing per game.
Onterio McCalebb has been reliable in the running game to the outside. As expected, his size does not allow him to do much between the tackles. He has 238 rushing yards on the season and his two touchdowns on the year came in the last two weeks.
Tre Mason has embraced his opportunity to be a featured back for Auburn. Mason burst onto the scene against Clemson, gaining 106 yards. Strangely, Mason was only called on eight times against Mississippi State the next week. Against ULM, the sophomore got 22 carries and picked up 90 yards. Last week, 54 yards on nine carries.
Mason had a costly fumble against Clemson, but came back strong and has been reliable in the running game ever since, proving he can shoulder the load. He should be getting the ball on a more consistent basis and running behind his big fullback, Jay Prosch.
Mike Blakely only got one touch against Clemson but made his first real impact as an Auburn running back against Mississippi State. He was the most effective rusher for the Tigers in the loss. Since that game, Blakely has only received three carries, all against ULM.
The lack of touches for Blakely may be due in large part to a big turnover Blakely had one yard away from scoring against ULM. Chizik said after that game that Blakely would continue getting the ball, though.
Scot Loeffler needs to continue getting all three of these running backs the ball. They have shown that they are more than capable of being running backs against hard-nosed SEC defenses.
Wide Receivers: C
Auburn has not had a passing attack through the first four games. Part of that blame can go to Kiehl Frazier not seeing open receivers, but other than Quan Bray, no one has taken the load off of Emory Blake's shoulders.
Blake and Bray lead the wide receiver group with 12 and 11 receptions, respectively. The next closest receiver is Sammie Coates with two. Travante Stallworth and Trovon Reed, who were supposed to complement Emory Blake, only have one reception each this year.
Auburn fans are waiting for Trovon Reed to become the player on Pat Dye Field who we hear about on the practice field. With each game that Reed doesn't produce, his story becomes more and more like DeAngelo Benton—a star recruit who is supposed to be the next great Auburn wide receiver, but does nothing on the field to warrant those accolades.
Sammie Coates made a fantastic catch on a Hail Mary in the end zone against ULM, but has been inconsistent other times. What might have been had Coates not let Kiehl Frazier's perfectly thrown pass against LSU slip through his fingers on Auburn's first possession.
Auburn must develop a passing game if it plans to improve its offensive numbers this year. Through four games, Auburn has the 115th-ranked passing offense in the country, also good enough for last in the SEC.
Tight Ends / Fullbacks
Tight Ends / Fullbacks: B
In the passing game, when Philip Lutzenkirchen gets an accurate throw, he has made the plays that we are used to seeing him make. However, Kiehl Frazier has had accuracy issues with seemingly every throw he makes to his star tight end. Frazier was much more successful finding Lutzenkirchen against LSU.
Lutzenkirchen has 12 catches this year for 128 yards. His best game came against Clemson when he had four catches for 71 yards. He had five catches against LSU for 29 yards.
Where Lutzenkirchen has struggled has been blocking on the edge. Against LSU, he had a very tough time on his blocking assignments, albeit most of them were against LSU's Sam Montgomery.
Brandon Fulse has yet to make a catch on the year.
The multiple tight end sets that were supposed be a theme of Scot Loeffler's offense have not had much of an impact.
As for fullbacks, Jay Prosch has been effective opening holes for his running backs. He has not seen as much playing time the last couple of games, especially against LSU.
Auburn did not attempt to run up the middle very often versus the LSU defense, so Prosch wasn't called on as much as in previous games. The fact that Auburn has ran more plays out of the shotgun may also play a factor in Prosch receiving less playing time.
Auburn needs to be able to run up the middle to be successful and Jay Prosch is capable of making that happen. Scot Loeffler needs to take advantage of having an All-American fullback in his backfield.
Offensive Line: C
The offensive line has played above the expectations that many had set for them prior to the season. With multiple lineman making their collegiate starts, it was logical to believe that the offensive line may struggle. At times they have, but Jeff Grimes' unit has played decent so far in 2012.
Freshman Patrick Miller was inserted into the starting lineup last Saturday for Avery Young at right tackle and had a commendable collegiate debut.
Most of Auburn's running plays have gone to the left side behind tackle Greg Robinson and guard John Sullen.
Gene Chizik would like for his offensive line to be more physical. They have shown the capability to play that way, but not on a consistent basis. The Auburn offensive line has a bright future and should continue to improve throughout the season.
Auburn is tied for 81st in the nation in sacks allowed. They have allowed nine sacks through the first four games.
In the tackles-for-loss category, Auburn is 118th in the nation. The offensive line has allowed 35 tackles for loss and are averaging 8.75 tackles for loss a game. This is probably a product of opposing defenses knowing that Auburn is one-dimensional and bringing everyone they can to stop the run.
Defensive Line: B
If we broke it down further, the defensive ends would have earned an "A" and the defensive tackles would have earned a "C."
The defensive tackles have struggled getting any sort of penetration in the first third of the season. The main reason for this is their pad level. The low man wins on the line of scrimmage. Jeffrey Whitaker, Kenneth Carter, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright are getting pushed off the ball too often to have any success in the running game.
The defensive tackles played the way that everyone thought they would play in the final three quarters against LSU. The first quarter was rough, but all of them responded with a strong final 45 minutes last Saturday.
The defensive ends have played as expected. Corey Lemonier is tied for 10th in the country with five sacks. Dee Ford has also been productive on the end and accounted for two sacks.
The Auburn defensive line has 20 tackles for loss and nine sacks. That is good enough for 81st and 47th in the nation, respectively.
Many of the problems that the Auburn defense have been attributed to the linebackers.
For the first three games against spread-style offenses, there were usually only two linebackers on the field because the secondary was in nickel coverage (five defensive backs). The linebackers struggled making plays in space in these games.
A consistent theme with the linebackers—and the defense in general—has been missed tackles.
Too many times an opposing player has been wrapped up but not taken to the ground. It seems that every time an opposing player gets wrapped up by an Auburn defender, they just slip right through the grasp. Fundamentals, such as tackling, should not be a problem for a Division I football player.
The biggest problem with the linebackers has been getting off blocks. It has been too easy for offensive lineman to take the linebackers out of the play. Jake Holland and Co. must learn to get off the blocks and fill up the running lanes.
Against LSU, a pro-style, run-first offense, the linebackers performed much better. It was the first game that all three linebackers were on the field. After early problems against the run, the linebackers played a big part in holding LSU scoreless for the final three quarters.
Daren Bates is seventh in the nation in tackles with 47. He also leads Auburn and the SEC too.
Defensive Backs: C
The Auburn secondary has given up their share of passing yards. Opponents are averaging 211 yards per game.
The first couple of games was rough to watch in the secondary, as there were issues with communicating, tackling and basic coverage skills. It is very similar to the secondary play the last few years.
While that is not what any Auburn fans want to see, the unit has made strides since then. The Tigers have not allowed many big plays and played very well against an LSU team that is very dangerous on the outside with their receivers.
Complaints about the secondary typically involve the amount of cushion that cornerbacks are giving to opposing wide receivers. Brian Van Gorder thinks that Auburn's personnel simply doesn't have the right players to play press coverage.
Because of this, the Auburn secondary is conceding the short play and small chunks of the field each time. The Auburn defense needs to do a better job of disguising their coverage in the secondary.
Young defensive backs like Joshua Holsey are being thrown into the fray to see what kind of impact they can make. The return of Erique Florence to the defensive backfield should provide an immediate impact.
The Auburn secondary ranks 48th in the country in pass defense and ninth in the SEC. In pass efficiency defense, Auburn ranks 66th in the nation and 10th in the SEC.
Safety Demetruce McNeal is second on the team in tackles, averaging 10 per game.
Special Teams: A
The most consistent group of the 2012 Auburn Tigers has been Jay Boulware's special teams unit.
The Tigers have blocked three field goal attempts, including one in overtime at ULM to all but secure Auburn's lone victory this season.
Onterio McCalebb is sixth in the nation and first in the SEC with 221 kickoff return yards. He brought one kickoff return all the way back for a touchdown against Mississippi State to open up the second half of the game.
Steven Clark has not been the same punter that he was in 2012, averaging 40.5 yards per punt this year. Through the first four games in 2011, he was averaging 43.7 yards per punt. The 2011 Ray Guy Award finalist is currently ninth in college football in punting.
Cody Parkey has been perfect on field goals and extra-point attempts in 2012. He has also continued booming kicks out of the end zone.
It is a credit to Parkey and the kickoff coverage unit that Auburn is second in the nation in kickoff return-yardage defense. Out of 17 kickoff attempts, only six have been returned. The average yards per return is only 13.5.
The one miscue on special teams this season was when Quan Bray misplayed a punt return against LSU last Saturday. LSU took advantage and scored their only points of the second half.
Despite the one mistake, the Auburn special teams unit has earned an "A" for their play through the first four games.