Its football time on the plains again and spring practice in on the horizon. This year’s spring gives fans a mix of excitement and anxiety as a new coaching regime is in place and Auburn looks to put last season’s disappointing campaign behind it.
Its time for fans to look forward to the season ahead and explore the match ups and position battles that will take place on the Plains this spring.
Expect the offense to be the focus for the second straight year when Auburn takes to the field for spring practice March 24. Yet another guru has been brought in to over-haul the anemic offense and erase the memories of the debacle that was the Tony Franklin experiment.
Gus Malzahn was hired as offensive coordinator after two wildly successful stints at Tulsa where he coordinated one of the nation’s top-ranked offenses. Auburn will roll the dice again and is betting that Malzahn will succeed where Tony Franklin did not by allowing him to bring in his own assistant coaches.
Malzahn is holding a wide open competition for the starting quarterback position.
Junior Kodi Burns started the final six games last season and should be considered the favorite, but Malzahn is insisting that the job is up for grabs. Burns showed flashes of brilliance last year, especially with his running ability, but often times struggled in the passing game.
Chris Todd was the starter for the first half of 2008, finishing the regular season completing 52.5 percent of his passes with 903 yards and five touchdowns. Todd is expected to return to spring practice after off-season surgery to correct a shoulder problem that severely limited him in the 2008 campaign.
The other two competitors for the starting job have limited or no experience but plenty of raw talent. Neil Caudle threw only two passes last year and Barrett Trotter is a red shirt freshman.
Auburn also has two highly touted incoming freshmen in Tyrik Rollison and Clint Moseley, but neither will be on campus until the summer session.
Chris Todd is the wildcard in the quarterback competition as he has starting experience and is now presumably healthy.
Kodi Burns, despite his erratic passing last year is the best athlete, and I expect him to win the starting job. It will be interesting to see if Caudle or Trotter can do something to impress the new coaching staff and steal the starting position.
This could be the most important piece of the puzzle for Auburn’s success. Auburn struggled the entire season in with its offensive line. They must have consistent play along the line if they are going to have any success with the new offense.
Ryan Pugh and Lee Ziemba were both four-star recruits who were full time starters last season and will provide leadership along the line. Ziemba will stay at left guard while Pugh is expected to move back to center.
The rest of the line will be decided during the spring practice and new line coach Jeff Grimes plans on having a line were his players are capable of playing multiple positions.
Mike Berry and Byron Isom both played at right guard last season and could end up at either guard spot this year.
Senior Andrew McCain and sophomore A.J. Greene are expected to be the tackles but Grimes has hinted that a newcomer may prove himself in the spring.
The offensive line will again be asked to play in a fast-tempo, no-huddle offense, something they struggled mightily with last year. The good news is that most of the starters have experience playing in this style, the bad news is it didn't work, creating friction and ultimately ruining the season.
Offensive coordinator Malzahn was quoted as saying, “They have to get used to playing fast, recovering quickly. We try to get our guys into basketball shape. I don’t mean that as a soft word. Our guys are going to recover quickly. They’re going to mentally and physically recover. Our offensive line will run more than any offensive line in the country.”
It is not clear if Auburn’s linemen are capable of playing in such a style. They were recruited by Tommy Tuberville to be bruising lineman in a run oriented attack.
If Auburn can’t make this work, they are in serious trouble, not only this year but for the future as well. Auburn failed to land an offensive lineman recruit 2008 and only has two commits for the 2009 class.
The Tigers are going to need some receivers to step up for the new high octane offense. Returning are Montez Billings and Quindarius Carr. Billings is the most experienced of the group, catching 24 passes for 277 yards, second on the team last year.
Also returning are Tim Hawthorne, Chris Slaughter and Darvin Adams. Adams has the kind of size, 6-foot-3 and 178 pounds that coaches love in the red zone.
The lightning rod of the receiving corps could come in the form of 5’8 155 pound speedster Phillip Pierre-Louis. Pierre-Louis was a camp sensation last year before blowing out his knee during the opening kick off of the first game.
Assuming he fully recovers from knee surgery, Pierre-Louis could be the perfect kind of receiver in Malzahn’s new offense. He has game changing speed and after-the catch running ability in addition to being a scoring threat in the kick and punt return game.
Tommy Trott returns at tight end and could be poised for a breakout season. Trott should be a great security blanket for whoever ends up winning the starting quarterback job.
The running backs should be the strength of the offense, senior Ben Tate and junior Mario Fannin return to lead the potent ground game. Tate provides the strength and toughness of an every-down back, and Fannin can provide game-breaking runs.
It is not clear if Fannin will play at receiver or running back under the new regime, perhaps both as he did last season.
Freshman Onterio McCalebb enrolled in time for spring practice and could steal some carries from both backs.
Regardless if the offense can perform well or not, Auburn is expected to rely heavily upon its defensive unit. The offense will steal the headlines because it is almost taken for granted that the defense is in good hands and will be stellar once again.
Head coach Gene Chizik is known as a defensive mastermind, guiding Auburn’s defense during the undefeated campaign in 2004 and the national champion Texas defense in 2005.
Defensive coordinator Ted Roof also brings a multitude of coaching experience including a stint as head coach with the Duke Blue Devils from 2003-2007.
The tackle position is open for competition after the departures of stalwarts Tez Doolittle Sen’Derrick Marks.
Mike Blanc, Zach Clayton and Jake Ricks all have experience at DT but will be pushed by redshirt freshmen Andre Wadley and Derrick Lykes. Ricks is the biggest of the tackles at 302 pounds.
New line coach and former Auburn standout Tracy Rocker plans to rotate the lineman, hoping for an 8-10 man rotation.
Highly touted lineman Nick Fairley was expected to enroll in the spring semester but will not be able to compete. He was missing a required lab course that was not processed in time and will have to wait until summer to enroll.
End Antonio Coleman opted to return for his senior season and has become the leader of the defensive line and the defense as a whole. Micheal Goggans looks to man the other end position.
Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens return to the linebacker corps that will miss Trey Blackmon, but is still expected to be one of the strengths of the team.
Look out for freshman Eltoro Freeman who will be on campus this spring to possibly take one of the other linebacker spots.
Jerraud Powers left the Tigers for the greener pastures of the NFL, but Auburn is not short on talent in the defensive backfield.
Nieko Thorpe and Walter McFadden have starting experience at corner.
Expected to start at safety are Mike McNeil and Zac Etheridge and both have big game experience. T’Sharvan Bell and D’Antoine Hood are also expected to challenge for playing time in the defensive backfield.
Auburn has its work cut out for it during this spring practice season. If the new coaching staff gels together quickly, the offense is at least somewhat productive, and the defense can continue to be the cornerstone of the team, Auburn could have a surprisingly good season.
It is indeed a very pivotal year for Auburn football, and it all starts with spring practice.