After their predecessors finished the season 3-9 and 0-8 in SEC play for the first time in program history, the 2013 Auburn Tigers, led by first-year head coach Gus Malzahn, have a rather large hill to climb.
The proud program, which has had an undefeated season under every full-time head coach since Pat Dye left in 1992, took a major step back last season. As a result, the Tigers are largely being overlooked in preseason prognostications as they transition to a new staff and "a new day."
Offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee is one of the coaches Malzahn is counting on to ease the transition. He joined the Auburn staff after spending one year in the same position on Malzahn's staff at Arkansas State.
The 30-year-old has been with Malzahn for 15 years, first playing quarterback for Malzahn at Shiloh Christian High School in Springdale, Ark., from 1999-01, then coaching with Malzahn at Springdale (Ark.) High School in 2004-05, Arkansas in 2006 and Auburn from 2009-10.
Auburn has a talented corps of running backs, with 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason being joined by junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and speedy Corey Grant. No matter who's taking the snaps, Auburn's offense will be a downhill, power attack out of the spread.
Still for Lashlee, job No. 1 is finding a quarterback who can run Auburn's system.
Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace both started games for the Tigers last season, but neither could solidify the top spot on the depth chart exiting spring practice. That leaves the door open for incoming freshman Jeremy Johnson and junior college transfer Nick Marshall this summer.
"Whoever wins the job is going to have to be able to lead our football team and protect the football," Lashlee said. "I definitely want guys to win the football game and make plays. But at the same time, you can't get us beat. So the guy who protects the football and earns the respect of our football team is who, ultimately, will end up being our starter."
While Frazier and Wallace can play the experience card and Johnson has the upside, the wild card in the equation is Marshall—a former defensive back at Georgia who spent last season playing quarterback for Garden City (Kan.) Community College.
His stat line was impressive: 3,142 passing yards, 18 touchdowns, 1,095 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns. But one number jumps off Marshall's stats sheet in all the worst ways—20 interceptions.
"Twenty picks is too many, I don't care when and where you're playing," Lashlee said. "At the same time, Nick does have incredible playmaking ability. My job as a coach and our job as a staff is to put players in position to do what they do best, and in his case, so that number isn't 20."
Establishing consistency at the quarterback position is nothing new for Lashlee. When he got to Arkansas State, his quarterback, Ryan Aplin, was coming off a season in which he was named Sun Belt player of the year despite throwing 16 interceptions to go with 19 touchdown passes.
In one year with Lashlee, Aplin thrived.
"He had been the player of the year in the league and made a bunch of plays, but made a bunch of negative plays, too," Lashlee said. "Last year he was still the player of the year, we won the league with 10 wins and he had 24 touchdowns and only four picks. A lot of that had to do with his hard work, maturity and his work in the offseason. But we were able to put him in position to do what he does best."
While the quarterback spot remains open, the corps of running backs will be the focal point of the offense. Mason is the known commodity after rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns in a painfully predictable Auburn offense last season. Artis-Payne showed he could be a force in the spring game, earning MVP honors with 164 total yards and displaying a solid ability to pass protect.
Grant, a native of nearby Opelika, Ala., missed the spring game with a fever, but could be the home run hitter for this offense. Technically listed as a "slot receiver" behind Quan Bray, Grant and Bray will be mixed in the offense in a variety of ways to accentuate their strengths.
"Quan Bray is a receiver with running back skills, but Corey is a running back with great speed," Lashlee said. "There are certain guys like Tre and Cameron who will stay almost exclusively in the backfield, but then a guy like Corey may line up in the backfield one play and then the next play split out. He gives us a little more versatility."
Lashlee knows that you can't be one-dimensional in the SEC and be successful, so somebody in Aubrn's wide receiving corps needs to step up and be able to consistently stretch the field.
One of the primary options is little-used wide receiver Jaylon Denson, who emerged this spring as a consistent piece of the Tiger puzzle.
"We mentioned Jaylon this spring, because he was the one who was most consistent from Day 1 through Day 15," Lashlee said. "He was mentally tough, physically tough and wanted the ball."
While the spotlight shined on Denson this spring, there are plenty of talented wide receivers vying for time in the rotation.
"He wasn't the only one," Lashlee said. "Bray did a really good job trying to show leadership and making plays. Redshirt junior Trovon Reed has been around the block and did a really good job of being steady.''
Lashlee also said a few of the younger guys, such as Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis, did a good job toward the end of spring. "We know those guys have the talent, and it was kinda, 'Hey, we don't need you to go make the wow play every now and then, we need you to make the normal play'."
A new coaching staff for Auburn means that everyone on the roster has a clean slate. That presents opportunity for the players, but challenges for a coaching staff that was familiar with the roster but didn't want to have any preconceived notions.
"I haven't watched one game from last year," Lashlee said. "I don't know if I will or not before the season. But we came in and the first thing we told the guys is that it's 'a new day.' Everybody has a fresh start, and for us as coaches, we didn't need to know what happened [in 2012]."
The transition was tough for the staff, which reeled in the nation's 13th-ranked recruiting class in the 247Sports.com composite despite having only a little more than a month to recruit after the dead period ended. It put the new staff behind the eight-ball, but Lashlee was pleased with the results.
"Coach Malzahn and I had been here in the past, and we already knew that Auburn sells itself," Lashlee said. The hard part, he said, was being limited to recruiting a class in only four weeks..
"We had to put together a recruiting class that everybody else had been working two years or longer on,'' Lashlee said. "We feel we did a good job with that, but had to quickly transition to the 2014 and 2015 classes."
Talent isn't the issue for the Tigers. One of the primary reasons former head coach Gene Chizik is no longer employed is that the talent on hand wasn't developed. Lashlee and the rest of the offensive staff have plenty of pieces to succeed in Year 1, and their comfort with the roster should ease the transition.
*Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.
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