Auburn Football: Players Who Need to Step Up Under Gus Malzahn

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistDecember 8, 2012

AUBURN, AL - SEPTEMBER 22:  Tre Mason #21 of the Auburn Tigers rushes away from Eric Reid #1 of the LSU Tigers at Jordan Hare Stadium on September 22, 2012 in Auburn, Alabama.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

2012 was a year to forget in Auburn, Alabama.

The Tigers pratfalled their way to a 3-9 record, including a winless stint in the SEC. Gene Chizik, just two years removed from a national title, became the fall guy; he was fired as soon as the season was done.

In his place comes former assistant Gus Malzahn, who coached Arkansas State to an impressive 9-3 record in the Sun Belt this season. Malzahn was the mastermind behind what's known as the "Cam Newton Offense," and his hiring has restored hope among the Tigers' faithful.

It won't be easy to do in the nation's premier conference, but Gus Malzahn plans to rebuild this team quickly. Here are three players he needs to get the most out of if he wants to be successful in that endeavor:

QB Jeremy Johnson

One of the most prized recruits in Auburn's forthcoming recruiting class is Jeremy Johnson, a 6'5'' quarterback from Carver, Alabama.

Built like Cam Newton, the ESPN 300 recruit is actually a far different player. He's a pocket passer by trade, but he still has the potential to thrive in Malzahn's system––a system that's famous for growing quarterbacks. 

There was a scare that he might de-commit following the firing of Gene Chizik, whom the Tigers released after the season, but fortunately, Johnson was familiar with Malzahn too. He honored his original commitment and could be a vital piece of Auburn's future. 

He's got a strong arm, a chance to play early and a much higher ceiling than any of Auburn's other quarterbacks. Whether he plays off the bat remains to be seen, but at some point, he's gonna be counted on during the Malzahn era.

RB Tre Mason

Although Malzahn is renowned for his work with quarterbacks, he actually runs a very balanced offense. If anything, he prefers to run the football more.

This season at Arkansas State, his Red Wolves averaged 264.4 passing yards and 217.4 rushing yards per game. Those were good for 41st and 21st in the nation, respectively.

Tre Mason was one of the few bright spots during Auburn's 2012 campaign. The sophomore speedster racked up 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns, averaging an impressive 5.9 yards per carry.

If he can build off a strong second season in Auburn, Mason could thrive under his new head coach. Watch for him to be one of the best backs in the SEC next year.

DE Corey Lemonier

 One of the biggest factors for the Tigers next season will be whether or not Corey Lemonier returns for his senior season at Auburn. 

The 6'4'', 242-pound pass rusher is a hot commodity among NFL draftniks right now and could leave for greener pastures. In all fairness, jumping ship after the season Auburn just had is hard to condemn. 

His stock fell a bit after an amazing sophomore season, indicating that he could maybe use another year in school. He hasn't yet declared his intentions, but convincing him to stay will be one of the most important early tasks in Malzahn's tenure.

If he does stay, he would provide the Tigers with a blue-chip pass rusher on the edge. In the SEC, where quarterback play and offensive lines are the peak of the nation, the importance of pressure can't be understated.