Just two years removed from a thrilling 22-19 victory in the BCS National Championship Game, the Auburn Tigers are looking to regroup, repair and build something special.
Gus Malzahn is back at Auburn after a three-year stint as the Tigers’ offensive coordinator from 2009-2011. This time, Malzahn takes the reins as the head coach of a program that went 3-9 last season, including a winless mark in the SEC.
Last year’s record means nothing, and Malzahn’s new role represents a fresh start for the program.
With the No. 12 recruiting class in the nation for 2013, one that included two 5-star defensive line prospects, the future of Auburn football is already looking a little brighter (per 247Sports). It may take some time for those incoming freshmen to develop, but the Tigers have some talent already in place for 2013.
Malzahn’s biggest quandary for Auburn’s offense will be finding a starting quarterback who can take the helm of his fast-paced offense. With a handful of candidates and no clear-cut favorite, it’s hard to predict who will be playing under center this season.
The Tigers lost running back Onterio McCalebb, wide receiver Emory Blake and tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen this offseason, and replacing those three offensive pieces will be key to Auburn’s success.
Let’s take a look at the most likely candidates to replace those three, highlighting the players who could be difference makers in 2013. We’ll also pick out a couple defensive players who have a chance to do special things this season.
Tre Mason: Running Back
Mason has a chance to be a special player for Auburn in 2013, especially with Malzahn running the show.
At 5’10” and 198 pounds, Mason has the size, speed and quickness to be a terrific starter going forward. The Tigers’ offense will feature its running backs in an up-tempo look that will be a perfect fit for the team’s leading rusher in 2012.
Mason finished last season with 1,002 rushing yards and eight touchdowns on 171 carries (5.9 YPC). While he isn’t a prototypical home run threat at the position, he stands to see the biggest share of the work in 2013. If he can stay healthy, eclipsing 1,000 yards again should be in the cards.
While Mason stands to garner most of the carries in Malzahn’s offense, there will also be room for a change-of-pace back to step in and have an impact this season. Look for Corey Grant to be that guy. He has the size and speed to thrive in the coming seasons.
C.J. Uzomah: Tight End
Uzomah was originally recruited by Malzahn before he took the head coaching job at Arkansas State. With his coach back, it’s almost certain Uzomah will play a big role in Auburn’s offense this season.
The 6’4”, 250-pound tight end transitioned from wide receiver in 2012, and he showed a great deal of promise. Against Texas A&M, Uzomah caught three passes for 90 yards and a touchdown and showed in his limited opportunities that he has the potential to be a quality vertical threat as he continues his career with the Tigers.
With Lutzenkirchen entering the NFL draft, Malzahn has to find a player to fill his role. Uzomah has the size and hands to be that player. Look for him to be one of the team’s top receiving threats this year, regardless of who is getting him the ball.
Trovon Reed: Wide Receiver
The wide receiver will be a big question mark for the Tigers this season. Emory Blake was the team’s leading receiver in 2012, tallying 50 receptions for 789 yards and three scores. Apart from Blake, no one caught more than 18 passes all season.
Auburn isn’t without quality talent in its receiving corps, though.
Trovon Reed was expected to be a major contributor during his sophomore campaign, but he hasn’t lived up to the hype, due in large part to injuries and inconsistent quarterback play in 2012. If Reed can stay healthy, he has a chance to lead the Tigers in receiving this year.
The 6’0”, 190-pound wideout has terrific speed and the ability to stretch the field and get behind defenses. He hasn’t had a quarterback who can get him the ball, but that may change this season.
It’s unclear whether Kiehl Frazier, junior college transfer Nick Marshall, freshman Jeremy Johnson or Jonathan Wallace (who finished the 2012 season under center) will win the starting role for the Tigers this year. Whichever quarterback takes the reins in 2013 will have to be capable of finding Reed downfield.
Carl Lawson: Defensive End
Auburn’s defense was one of the worst in the SEC last season. The Tigers surrendered 28.3 points per game in 2012, and finished dead-last in the nation with just two interceptions. They also notched just 22 sacks as a team—No. 77 in the country in that category.
Luckily, Auburn’s incoming defensive class is impressive, and a couple players have a chance to shine in their freshman campaign.
Which freshman defender will have the biggest impact in 2013?
Dee Ford will be back for his senior season. He led the Tigers in sacks (six), but Corey Lemonier departed for the NFL draft, and Auburn needs to find a way to make up for the loss of his 5.5 sacks and 12 quarterback hurries.
Defensive tackle Montravius Adams has an opportunity to earn immediate playing time for the Tigers this season. He’s still a little raw though, and it’s unlikely he can establish himself as a dominant interior rusher in his first season with the team. Auburn may find that pass-rushing presence in Carl Lawson.
Lawson has the size, speed and quickness to be an exceptional pass-rusher at the college level. At 6’3” and 245 pounds, he projects well as a weakside defensive end in Auburn’s 4-2-5 scheme.
Whether it’s Lawson, Adams or freshman defensive end Elijah Daniel, the Tigers will no doubt find a young player who can create a pass rush in 2013. My money is on Lawson.