After an incredibly disappointing 3-9 record in 2012, the Auburn Tigers can only go up in 2013. Gene Chizik is no longer at the helm as Gus Malzahn is the squad's new head coach. He certainly has a lot of work ahead of him when it comes to improving the team, and it starts with Saturday's spring game.
There has been plenty of turnover and turmoil surrounding the Auburn football program, but things will get back to normalcy to some degree on Saturday. The focus is now entirely on football and figuring out which players give the Tigers the best chance to succeed in the difficult SEC this season and moving forward.
Here are three players fans should pay special attention to on Saturday as they battle for playing time and key roles on the 2013 Auburn football team.
Quarterback Kiehl Frazier was given every opportunity to seize the starting job as a sophomore last season, but he failed miserably and was a big reason for Auburn's struggles. Frazier finished the year with just two touchdowns and eight interceptions through the air.
Frazier is more of a dual-threat quarterback, though, and he didn't really have the opportunity to show that. In Malzahn's offense, he has a much better chance to succeed.
Since Malzahn is treating this year's team as a clean slate, Frazier essentially gets a pass for his poor play last season. Malzahn can only evaluate players based on what he sees them do in his own system, so Frazier has new life. As a junior, he definitely has the experience edge over his competition, and he knows what it's like to play against SEC defenses, so it's possible that he has an edge.
Frazier must put on a good performance in the spring game, though, because he won't be handed anything. When new coaches take over, it's generally said that every position is up for grabs. That is particularly true under center. One great performance on Saturday by Frazier could potentially erase all the bad things that happened in 2012.
When Frazier fell flat last year, Chizik turned to Jonathan Wallace at quarterback, and while Wallace didn't exactly lead Auburn to great success, he certainly performed better than Frazier. Wallace would probably have the upper hand in terms of winning the starting job if Chizik was still in place, but he isn't. Because of that, Wallace will be engaged in a wide-open competition with Frazier throughout the spring.
Wallace, who is entering his sophomore season, appears to be a more accurate passer than Frazier, although he isn't as dynamic. If Wallace can display some consistency in the spring game, Malzahn may be more comfortable with him when it comes to running the offense.
Frazier was incredibly erratic last year, and it is possible that Malzahn is looking for a stabilizing force under center until he can bring in some of his own guys.
While Wallace had only four touchdowns and four interceptions last season, he led the Tigers to two wins and got some much-needed experience. Perhaps that gave him some confidence heading into the spring, which could manifest itself on Saturday.
Wallace has a golden opportunity, and he'll surely to everything in his power to seize it.
Since the quarterback position is so unsettled at Auburn right now, Malzahn may turn to the running game early and often.
There isn't a lot of experience at running back right now, but junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne could potentially be a key player for the Tigers from day one. He has a great combination of size and speed and is definitely in the conversation to be Auburn's starting back in 2013.
Artis-Payne absolutely dominated inferior competition while at Allan Hancock Community College, as he totaled 2,048 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns last season alone. It's obvious that things won't come as easily against elite defenses in the SEC, but Artis-Payne has an impressive skill set that should allow him to be a key player on a rebuilt Auburn offense.
Saturday's spring game offers a great chance for Artis-Payne to show off his ability and insert himself into the starting running back conversation.
As mentioned previously, Malzahn enters this situation with no pre-conceived notions. In fact, he is probably more likely to give Artis-Payne a look since he brought him in himself. Regardless of that, Artis-Payne is a player who Auburn fans are quite intrigued by this spring.
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