Auburn Tigers Football: Players with Most to Gain in Spring Practices

Brian LeighFeatured ColumnistFebruary 24, 2014

Auburn Tigers Football: Players with Most to Gain in Spring Practices

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Auburn opens spring football camp on Tuesday, March 18 and will run it for roughly one month before closing shop on Saturday, April 19, according to Phil Steele of the college football preview magazine that bears his name.

    At this time last year, first-year head coach Gus Malzahn was picking up the pieces of a program deflated, a group that had just gone 3-9 overall and 0-8 in SEC play and had been outscored 160-21 in its final three conference games.

    This year, Malzahn leads a program that is coming off of an 11-1 regular season, an SEC championship and a shoulda-coulda-woulda-type loss against Florida State, 34-31, in the BCS National Championship Game.

    A lot of things can change in a year.

    Auburn returns most of its offense intact from last season, but the pieces it does lose—Heisman finalist Tre Mason and potential top-five NFL draft pick Greg Robinson—were important to say the least.

    Defensively, some of the best players are gone from a unit that wasn't even all that good in the first place, leaving holes to be filled up and down the depth chart.

    These systemic changes leave room for certain less experienced players to become factors on a team that's projected to contend for a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff.

    That journey starts with a good showing in March and April.

WR D'haquille Williams

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    Credit: 247Sports

    The top-ranked JUCO player in the country, according to 247Sports, receiver D'haquille Williams has some pretty big footsteps to follow.

    And it's not just the one set. It's two.

    The last time a receiver was the No. 1 overall JUCO player in the country, it was future first-round pick and budding NFL superstar Cordarrelle Patterson. The last time Auburn brought in a JUCO player with this kind of pedigree, he won the Heisman Trophy, led the Tigers to a national championship and was drafted No. 1 overall.

    No pressure, D'haquille.

    Seriously, though, Williams doesn't need to be the next Cam Newton to make an impact on the Plains next season. He simply needs to find a spot—preferably a sizable one—toward the top of the receiving corps and establish a good rapport with quarterback Nick Marshall.

    Spring practice will be the key to both of those things—especially the latter. If Williams is as good as he's projected and becomes a true No. 1-type guy, this offense, sans Tre Mason and Greg Robinson, might somehow be even better than it was in 2014.

OT Shon Coleman

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Even beyond SEC country, the nation will be watching (and rooting for) offensive tackle Shon Coleman as he competes to win a starting job in Gus Malzahn's offense less than two years after beating leukemia.

    Coleman saw some time in heavy and unbalanced sets last season, learning behind Greg Robinson after leaving the program for two years and redshirting in 2012.

    Though he was the backup in 2013, however, that does not make Coleman a shoo-in to take Robinson's old post on the blind side of quarterback Nick Marshall. Avery Young and Patrick Miller both have starting experience at right tackle, and the trio of linemen will battle for two starting spots this spring and fall.

    What Coleman lacks in "starting" experience, he can make up for with a strong camp in March and April. Auburn can't simulate the rowdy environment of starting a game on a fall Saturday, but it can get him acclimated to running with the first team in practice.

    If he responds well, Coleman might find himself starting for good.

DEs Carl Lawson/Elijah Daniel

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    John Reed-USA TODAY Sports

    Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel were two of the three most prized recruits in Auburn's 2013 recruiting class, and though neither set the world on fire as a true freshman last season, both saw the field plenty and appear to be on track for promising careers.

    Lawson was the higher-touted, supposedly one of the best Auburn players in fall camp last year, and made a bigger impact than Daniel last season, finishing with 20 total tackles and 7.5 tackles for loss. He'll be counted on to replace the production of All-SEC first-teamer Dee Ford in the starting lineup.

    Daniel, meanwhile, finished 2013 with nine total tackles and three tackles for loss, playing in all 14 games. Unless he passes Lawson in the spring to start opposite LaDarius Owens, he'll be counted on to replace Lawson's production as the chief pass-rusher off the bench.

    Both have much to gain this spring, not in terms of increased playing opportunity—both are going to see the field a lot—but in terms of scheme comfort and leadership potential. While young, Lawson and Daniel are two of the most talented players on the team and might be looked to as keystone pieces of the defense.

    If they get even more comfortable with Ellis Johnson's system and start to turn the corner this spring, it won't just be a spot in the starting lineup Lawson and Daniel are playing for. It might be a spot on one of the All-SEC teams next postseason.

ILB Cameron Toney

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    Credit: 247Sports

    After a redshirt season in 2013, Cameron Toney is coming back to spring camp a bigger, stronger and faster prospect, according to Bryan Matthews of 247Sports (subscription required).

    Toney was a 3-star prospect on the 247Sports composite last recruiting cycle, but the site's subjective rankings thought higher and gave him a fourth star and named him the No. 21 inside linebacker in the class.

    With the graduation of Jake Holland, Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are expected to take most of the snaps at linebacker next season. But depth is important—as Frost himself made vivid in 2013—and Toney has a chance to ascend and become the third horse in that stable.

    With a good spring workout, Toney will be in a position where the coaches feel confidence in him. Able-bodied and capable of stopping the run, his presence on the field next season would be a huge boost for Auburn—even if it's in a reserve role.

S Derrick Moncrief

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    Credit: 247Sports

    Derrick Moncrief was teammates with D'haquille Williams at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, and he enters his first season at Auburn with similar expectations of immediate contribution.

    With Ryan Smith gone at boundary safety and little to no experienced depth behind him, Moncrief is a tentative favorite to walk in and claim that job. Maybe not from Day 1 but hopefully, in Auburn's eyes, by the end of spring camp at the latest.

    "[Moncrief] is a big rangy guy. He has very good ball skills and is a very good tackler," said Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn, according to James Crepea of the Montgomery Advertiser"We think he could be an impact player."

    Auburn better hope so. Moncrief—who was the No. 11 overall JUCO prospect in the country this cycle, according to 247Sports—enters the spring with everything to gain, but the Tigers enter the spring with everything to lose.

    If Moncrief can't latch on to the scheme or isn't a ready-to-play prospect, Auburn doesn't have much in the way of a backup plan.