The Auburn Tigers are heading into spring marking a new era for Auburn football. Gus Malzahn has returned to the Plains to guide the Tigers back to championships, but a lot of work has to get done this spring before this team can be competitive.
Last year Auburn had its worst season since 1980, finishing 3-9 overall and winless in the SEC. It was a rough year for the Tigers, but for all the bad that came there was some good. This spring there are some obvious strengths and weaknesses that will be on display.
The Tigers will return a number of experienced players to the fold, and a lot of talent that has yet to be developed. How this staff responds will be key, but the hope out of Auburn is that the proof is in the past.
Here is a snapshot of the good and bad for the Tigers heading into spring.
One of the lone highlights for the Tigers last season was Tre Mason at running back. The rising junior finished the year with 1,002 rushing yards after only starting six games last year.
Mason also led the Tigers in total offense for 2012, becoming the first running back to do that for Auburn since Bo Jackson in 1985 (h/t Auburn Athletics).
Alongside Mason will be Corey Grant and JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne.
Spring will be a proving ground for all three backs as they search for a specific role in the Malzahn offense.
Expect big things this spring from Cameron Artis-Payne as he tries to prove he belongs with the big boys. After rushing for 2,000 yards in the California JUCO circuit, it shouldn’t be too hard to crack the rotation.
Corey Grant only has nine carries in his Auburn career, but his speed and one-cut ability make him a force for the Malzahn offense as a slot-back or h-back runner.
This position group is full of talent and will be the backbone of the offense heading into summer.
When Gene Chizik was hired for the Auburn Tigers, he brought with him a talented recruiter and highly regarded receivers coach in Trooper Taylor. The Tigers' receivers were expected to instantly become stars under Taylor’s leadership, but instead they have underperformed.
One positive has been the perimeter blocking, but pass catching has been a lost art on the Plains.
Running crisp and effective routes has also been an issue for this program. Nothing has screamed success for Auburn in the passing game in the past few seasons, and not all of the struggles can be blamed on the quarterbacks.
There are stars on the rise for the Tigers despite the struggles. Guys like Sammie Coates and Jaylon Denson have shown flashes of brilliance, but overall they have fallen far short of consistent success.
Trovon Reed is another skill athlete that was praised for his talents leaving high school, but he has yet to produce much more than a few plays a season since arriving at Auburn.
With the departure of Emory Blake, the Tigers have to find a new set of receivers that can become reliable.
Expect Malzahn and former Tigers quarterback turned wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig to turn the tables on this weakness this spring. There is too much talent waiting in the wings to not perform at a higher level.
The Auburn secondary has been a woeful part of the defense over the past four years, but last season it took a step up for the second year in a row. The Tigers finished No. 47 nationally against the pass, marking the best finish in that category during Chizik’s tenure.
Heading into the new year every starter returns in the secondary, and the roster is loaded with quality depth throughout the position.
The Tigers are making the transition to the 4-2-5 defense this fall, which will place more defensive backs on the field than in the past. A third safety is the additional player.
Auburn has upperclassmen like Demetruce McNeal and Jermaine Whitehead that are chomping at the bit to hit the field in the new scheme.
Add in the play of Chris Davis, Jonathan Holsey—arguably the best cover corner for the Tigers last season—Ryan White and Jonathon Mincy, and the Tigers will be dangerous to throw on.
Ellis Johnson knows how to coach up a secondary so the expectations are unusually high for this group.
Expect them to be met.
Auburn is heading into the spring with a new attitude along the defensive line. Rodney Gardner has come to Auburn to reintroduce his alma mater to hardnosed defensive line play.
The Tigers got lost in the past year or two upfront defensively. There was a major youth movement along the line after the 2010 season, but that is still no excuse for the terrible execution and technique that was used on Saturday’s last fall.
Guys like Jeffery Whitaker and Angelo Blackson played moderately well on the inside, and Dee Ford showed flashes on the outside opposite of the now-departed Corey Lemonier.
There is a lot of growth that has to take place in the next few weeks of spring or this program will be hurting. The defensive line has to get better or the Tigers will limp out of conference play for the second year in a row in 2013.
One of the best things to happen to Auburn football in the past decade was the firing of Gene Chizik.
Yes, mean Gene and his crew won a national title in 2010, but how much of that was Gene and how much was Malzahn?
Malzahn received the majority of the credit for the national title because of his fast-attacking offensive scheme. Malzahn inserted all-world quarterback Cam Newton and built an unstoppable offensive machine.
After leaving Auburn in 2011, Malzahn took over a strong Arkansas State program and made it even more dangerous in the Sun Belt and on the national stage. He took a passing no-huddle offense and turned it into a Top 20 ground attack.
As he returns with his coaching staff to the Plains, there are a lot of good signs for the program. These players are eager to win, and this coaching staff will get them back there.
It starts this spring.
Auburn heads into spring with only two scholarship bodies at the quarterback position.
Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace have both earned starts for the Tigers in the past, but neither did enough last year to take over the offense and head into the new year as the incumbent starter.
Wallace had the better 2012 of the two, but that isn’t a hard indicator of which signal-caller will have the stronger spring and win the job.
The Tigers will exit spring with an even race happening at the position as more quarterbacks hit campus this summer, but spring is the time that these two can take the edge in the competition.
Frazier is experienced in Malzahn’s offense, but Wallace looked more poised last fall. Who knows what the future brings, but this will be a tight race for the most important position on the offense for 2013.