Auburn Football: 5 Position Battles to Watch Going into Spring Practice
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Next Thursday, March 27, the Auburn football team will take the field for the very first time under new head coach Gus Malzahn.
The Tigers will squeeze in 15 practices this spring in preparation for the annual A-day game on April 20.
As with any transition from an old coaching staff to a new one, a clean slate is available for each player to prove himself in front of the new staff. Every position is open for competition.
The transition from former coach Gene Chizik to Malzahn will be smoother than most since Malzahn is only one year removed from being the Tigers offensive coordinator and is very familiar with most of the players.
On the offensive side, the majority of the players were recruited by Malzahn and he knows what each player is capable of.
Defensively, Auburn will be making a small transition from the 4-3 base defense to defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 base defense. The new defense will feature a hybrid linebacker and defensive back known as the "star" position.
Although each position will be up for grabs in spring practice, here are five that you need to keep a close eye on.
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One of the most talked about new positions on the field since the new coaching staff has taken over has been the "star" position on defense.
It is a hybrid between a linebacker and a safety, so there are not a lot of ideal candidates to fill the position.
The star must be able to make plays in open space, have the speed and coverage ability to defend a slot receiver and have the size and physicality to be used in run support and blitz packages. Essentially, it's a second strong safety.
What is Johnson looking for in a candidate for the star position? He explained it in his introductory press conference (via auburntigers.com):
It's the key to the flexibility and the effectiveness of the defense. You've got to be able to do so many things and do them well. He's got to be able to blitz off the edge, he's got to be able to cover a third wide receiver, most of the time with some help over the top, and he's got to be physical enough to play on the edge of the box. It will be a very important identification of personnel on that position.
As it sounds, this position is a key factor in turning around an Auburn defense that has struggled in recent years.
Some candidates to keep an eye on to play the star in Johnson's first year are Robenson Therezie, Jermaine Whitehead, Erique Florence, Anthony Swain, Kris Frost and newcomer Brandon King.
John Reed-USA TODAY Sports
One of the most disconcerting issues in the 2012 season, other than the 3-9 record, was the absence of a receiving threat outside of WR Emory Blake.
With Blake graduating and moving on to play on Sundays, a WR by another name will have to step up and become a primary target for whomever Auburn's QB will be in the fall.
The Tigers have gotten some quality talent in recent recruiting classes and more coming in the fall. Auburn will be thin on numbers in the spring, though. As Ryan Wood of the Opelika-Auburn News points out, there are only five scholarship receivers practicing this spring.
The leading WR returning is Trovon Reed, who caught nine passes for 122 yards last fall. Also returning is Sammie Coates, who hauled in six catches for 114 yards and two TDs. Slot receiver Quan Bray also returns. He had the most receptions of those returning. He had 14 catches for 94 yards in 2012.
The lack of production in 2012 by the receivers can't be totally placed on their shoulders. The QBs had issues finding time to get the ball down the field due to poor pass protection by the offensive line.
The Tigers were near the bottom of the SEC in sacks allowed, with over three sacks per game allowed. When the ball can't be thrown down the field, it's hard to put up big numbers at the receiver position.
With a more veteran offensive line in 2013, look for the receivers to have more opportunities to get the ball.
Auburn needs a leader like Reed, Coates or Bray to step up in spring practice and establish himself as the downfield receiving threat for the Tigers.
Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports
The linebacker position is one that has been under much scrutiny since the departure of Josh Bynes after the 2010 season.
It will be under a lot of scrutiny once again when spring practice kicks off next week.
Auburn's corps of linebackers will be learning their second defensive scheme in as many years under Johnson, who replaces former defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Johnson's defense will feature two inside linebackers. The top competitors for the two starting positions in spring practice will be LBs Jake Holland, Justin Garrett, Cassanova McKinzy, Kris Frost, JaViere Mitchell and JUCO transfer Kenny Flowers.
Holland is Auburn's most experienced LB returning. Holland has started 16 games in his Auburn career (via Aaron Brenner, Columbus Ledger-Enquirer) He has yet to play at 100 percent in his Auburn career, but he has still managed to draw the ire of some Auburn fans. Holland was fourth on the team in tackles last fall, recording 73 tackles in 11 games played.
Auburn fans will be keeping a close eye on McKinzy and Frost this spring. McKinzy started two games as a freshman last fall against Vanderbilt and Georgia. Against the Commodores, he recorded a team-best 12 tackles.
Frost is a player who came to Auburn with very high expectations as one of the top LBs in the 2011 class. After redshirting in 2011, the former Rivals 5-star did not see much action in 2012 while backing up Daren Bates.
There is no question that Johnson will need much more production out of his LBs than what the group has done the past two years.
H-Back / Tight End
Jay Prosch talks to the media on Wednesday, March 20. Photo credit: Todd Van Emst / Auburn Media Relations
The H-Back and TE positions were filled by Eric Smith and Phillip Lutzenkirchen while Malzahn was Auburn's offensive coordinator from 2009-2011. With Lutzenkirchen graduating, this position will likely be shared by C.J. Uzomah and Jay Prosch.
In Malzahn's previous stop at Auburn we learned that he loved to go to his H-back in red-zone and short-yardage situations.
Earlier this week, I wrote that Prosch has a very good chance to shine in Malzahn's offense this fall. Based on his blocking ability and his developmental progress in receiving and running the ball, it's a fair assumption that he will.
Uzomah will probably split time with Prosch and bring another dimension to the Auburn passing attack. He moved from WR to TE last fall and came on strong at the end of the year. He finished the season with nine catches and 136 yards.
After switching to tight end from WR last year, C.J. Uzomah said he's more comfortable. He has a better grasp of things, ready for big year.
— Ryan Wood (@AUBlog) March 20, 2013
It will be important to see how Uzomah and Prosch adjust to the H-back role in spring practice. It's an important part of Malzahn's potent offensive attack.
Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports
You didn't think I would forget about Auburn's annual QB battle, did you?
Just like every year since 2008, Auburn will enter spring practice without a clearly defined starter at the QB position.
It's no secret how poorly Auburn's QBs performed in 2012. The Tigers used three different starters and each one left plenty to be desired.
Only Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace remain to battle it out in spring practice. The third starter, Clint Moseley, gave up football after the season.
The battle is not likely to be won in spring practice, but it can be lost.
Nick Marshall, Jason Smith and Jeremy Johnson all expect to compete for the spot in the fall.
Tight end C.J. Uzomah told reporters on Wednesday that both Wallace and Frazier have taken a leadership role.
"They're coming in. They're watching film on their own. They're organizing meetings with all the receivers, getting our alignment right, all the little things before spring. They're doing a lot. No matter who we have, we're going to be successful," Uzomah told Charles Goldberg of auburntigers.com.
Although Wallace put up the more impressive numbers (two wins, four TDs, 57.5 percent completion ratio) in his four games as starter last season, it's hard to believe that Frazier does not have the inherent advantage over Wallace going into spring practice.
Frazier was recruited by Malzahn for this system and played in a watered-down version of the offense in high school, where he won USA Today player of the year honors.
Frazier looked very out of place last fall in a pro-style offense. He is certainly talented enough to be starting QB. The bigger question is whether he recovers psychologically from a nightmare season.
Wallace showed flashes of being able to be the Tigers signal-caller of the future last year. However, all of his success came against New Mexico State and Alabama A&M. When he went up against Alabama and Georgia. He struggled as much as the other QBs that attempted to go under center.
Malzahn is used to having to groom QBs. He's had a different QB start in each of his years at the college level. From Mitch Mustain at Arkansas to Cam Newton at Auburn to Ryan Aplin at Arkansas State, each QB has tasted success under Malzahn.
A QB doesn't have to be an All-American to be successful in Malzahn's offense. The system puts QBs in situations to be successful.
Which QB will take advantage of getting a head start in the competition before the other newcomers arrive when camp begins in the summer?
We'll soon find out.