Auburn Football: 5 Tigers That Will Be Household Names by Season's End
When Auburn begins its first spring practice under new head coach Gus Malzahn on March 27, there will be question marks all over the field.
Who will play quarterback?
Can the defensive line develop a consistent pass rush?
Who will fill Emory Blake's shoes as a downfield threat for the Tigers?
Do I need to go on?
Chances are that someone who may have been overlooked going into the season will come out nowhere to be an important piece to the Tigers' 2014 campaign. There's been at least one player who fans looked over that has stepped up in each of the last four seasons.
In 2009, WR Darvin Adams grew up before Auburn fans' eyes and became a big-time threat at receiver.
In 2010, the obvious answer is Cam Newton and DT Nick Fairley. Even with those two names, fans also shouldn't forget how much of an impact that DT Zach Clayton made on that stout defensive line unit.
In 2011, linebacker Eltoro Freeman became a stable mainstay in the middle of the Tigers' defense by season's end.
Even in the atrocious 2012 campaign, RB Tre Mason was a bright spot that turned heads after running over 1,000 yards.
Auburn has been recruiting at a very high level over the past four years, so candidates for the next breakout stars shouldn't be hard to come by.
Those who follow Auburn closely will know these names, but the rest of the SEC and the country may have never heard of these players when the season kicks off.
That will change by season's end.
Let's meet the five best candidates to become household names at the end of the 2013 season...
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As a redshirt freshman, WR Sammie Coates was not able to become the complement to Emory Blake that Auburn fans had hoped.
The 6'2", 200-pound Alabama native caught 16 passes for two TDs and 114 yards in 2012.
In 2013, the opportunity to be the go-to guy for whoever Auburn's QB will be awaits Coates. With Blake departing for the NFL, Auburn will lack a proven receiving threat when the Tigers take the field in Week 1.
As fans saw during Auburn's win in Week 3 against Louisiana-Monroe, Coates has fantastic leaping ability. As the first half expired against the Warhawks, Auburn QB Kiehl Frazier threw a 33-yard Hail Mary pass that found the big hands of Coates in the back of the end zone.
According to 247Sports, Coates was the No. 6 recruit in all of Alabama in the class of 2011. He was a 4-star prospect and one of the top 25 receivers in the country.
Coates is a big body that won't get pushed around by the physical cornerbacks in the SEC in his sophomore campaign on the Plains. He has great speed and the Tigers will need him to be a downfield threat in 2013.
Coates made headlines after the Tigers started 1-4 in the 2012 season when he called out the lack of leadership on Auburn's team.
"We don't have leadership. The leadership has to come from somebody," Coates said. "Everybody talks about wanting to win, but nobody is showing how they want to win." (via Charles Goldberg, al.com)
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Most of the country remembers Cassanova McKinzy as the top recruit that chose Auburn over Clemson in 2011, citing a Chick-Fil-A location near campus as his reason. With continued development, he'll be remembered for far more than that.
As a true freshman in 2012, McKinzy did not see the field on a consistent basis as he had trouble learning the intricacies of former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's defensive scheme.
When he did see the field he had success.
McKinzy got his first start against Vanderbilt and he recorded 12 tackles along with a forced and recovered fumble. His second start came against Georgia and he had a team-high seven tackles.
McKinzy, along with LBs Jake Holland, Kris Frost, and Javiere Mitchell, will be the early favorites for playing time as the two inside linebackers in defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme.
Since the departure of MLB Josh Bynes after the 2010 season, the Tigers have not had a consistent playmaker for a full season in the middle of the defense.
McKinzy has an opportunity to stake his claim as that stalwart in the middle of the Tiger defense for the next three years beginning in 2013.
If he can continue to develop in his sophomore season, he will be a familiar name around the college football landscape at this time a year from now.
Photo credit: Allan Hancock Community College
Although Malzahn's offense is trendy and still relatively new to the college football landscape, it is based off of an old, physical offensive attack known as the Wing-T. You still see the counter and power plays that made that offense so successful in Malzahn's offense.
A big key to success in Malzahn's offense is having a physical running back that can be successful running between the tackles and able to survive the licks of doing so throughout the season.
Auburn RB Tre Mason proved that he can be a featured and every-down back in the SEC in 2012. He had limited success running inside.
Still, Gus Malzahn's offense is at its best when it has a true power back with size that can have consistent success running the ball up the middle.
Auburn got just that when it signed RB Cameron Artis-Payne out of Allan Hancock Junior College. Artis-Payne has the frame needed to survive as a power back in the SEC. He stands 5'11" and weighs 210 pounds.
Artis-Payne originally committed to former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik, but after sitting down with Malzahn after he was hired, Malzahn reassured Artis-Payne of how he can be used in the Auburn offensive attack (via Joel Erickson, al.com):
After briefly going through doubts in the wake of Gene Chizik's firing, Artis-Payne reaffirmed his commitment after talking to Malzahn, who assured the runner that his offense is based around a two-back, power-running game, according to the sites that cover Auburn recruiting -- AuburnUndercover.com, AuburnSports.com and Inside the Auburn Tigers.
Artis-Payne proved to be the real deal when he was at the junior college ranks. In 2012, he rushed for 25 TDs and 2,048 yards. Auburn rushed for 1,781 yards as a team last season. According to 247Sports, he was the top JUCO RB in the country.
Artis-Payne will bring a missing dynamic to Malzahn's offense and will allow Mason to use his dazzling speed on the outside.
Malzahn has had nine 1,000-yard rushers in his seven years at the collegiate level.
Don't be surprised to see Artis-Payne become No. 10.
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When you think of Auburns prospective defensive end rotation, you probably think of DEs Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae and newcomers Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel.
Don't forget about Craig Sanders.
Sanders is a guy who Auburn fans remember as a tomahawk cruise missile on the Tigers' kickoff coverage unit in 2010.
He has spent the past two years mastering his craft at the DE position.
Sanders is someone that football fans will refer to as a "lunch-pail" guy.
He is known as a workout warrior among the coaches and his teammates. Former Auburn strength and conditioning coach Kevin Yoxall used to rave about Sanders dedication and intensity in the weight room before the 2011 (via Chris Low, ESPN.com):
“He’s gotten stronger, bigger and faster, and he hasn’t put on any bad weight,” Yoxall said. “He comes in on his own for that second workout after all of his classes and is an example of what we want in all of our kids. He comes in every day with a dedication to get better and is ready to work.
“You’ve got to have an edge at this level, and to me, it’s those guys who realize they have to continuously work on that edge. And that edge is in the weight room. Craig has figured that out.”
It is that intensity and work ethic that have Sanders poised to breakout in his senior season in 2013.
Sanders is currently 6'4" 257-pounds and battled injuries in the 2012 season. He recorded nine tackles in the season.
With an aggressive defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, look for Sanders to become a big-time threat at DE by the end of the 2013 season.
"In a basic responsibility, it will be the same, but our ends probably, in technique, will play a wider alignment, they'll be more up the field, a little bit more of an aggressive technique than playing on an offensive lineman or on a tight end," Johnson told Joel Erickson of al.com.
Defensive line coach Rodney Garner has coached his share of defensive end talent. Craig Sanders plays a lot like one of his former players, David Pollack.
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Rising junior WR Trovon Reed became the poster-child for what Auburn fans were frustrated with in Chizik's tenure as Auburn's head coach.
He was a highly sought after prospect that failed to develop under Chizik and staff.
Reed was the No. 1 player in the state of Louisiana and the No. 4 receiver in the nation coming out of high school in the class of 2010, according to Rivals.com.
While earning rave reviews from teammates and coaches in practice since his arrival on the Plains, his production in games has told a different story. In the two healthy years that Reed has had, he has 30 receptions and one TD.
With an offense that is designed to get the ball to its playmakers in space, opportunity is knocking on Reed's door.
One reason that Auburn's offense struggled so much in 2012 is that it put a lot of pressure on the QB. With a new system and a starting QB that has never played in a pro-style offense, it was doomed from the beginning. Couple that with a young, struggling offensive line and there was little chance for a receiver like Reed to be successful.
Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee come in with a system that Reed (and the rest of the offense) was recruited for and an offense that puts the QB in situations to be successful.
Reed will have many more opportunities to have the ball in his hands in 2013. With his athleticism, he can be a threat to score any time he has the ball.
Auburn fans will finally see Reed develop to his full potential in 2013. With his high ceiling, he will certainly be a household name by year's end.