Auburn Football: Spring Practice Position Battle Tracker
The first two weeks of spring practice are in the books for the Auburn Tigers, who are looking to replace a few stars from their remarkable turnaround 2013 season.
Heisman finalist Tre Mason, Senior Bowl MVP Dee Ford and potential top-five NFL draft pick Greg Robinson are among those missing from last year's SEC Championship squad. The battles to replace these future pro players are the main storylines of Auburn's spring practices as the Tigers prepare for another possible run to Atlanta and beyond in 2014.
In the wake of Auburn's first spring scrimmage this past weekend, let's take a closer look at the five key position battles on the Tigers' 2014 depth chart.
Cameron Artis-Payne vs. Corey Grant vs. Peyton Barber vs. "The Committee"
The battle to be the next feature back at Running Back U seems to be a dead heat between two rising seniors, a redshirt freshman and a return to the split-carry style Auburn used at the beginning of the 2013 season.
Head coach Gus Malzahn said Cameron Artis-Payne, Corey Grant and Peyton Barber each got equal reps with both the first- and second-team units in Saturday's scrimmage. The trio ran by committee with the third team, and Malzahn said he was impressed with their work with each group.
"They protected the football, that was a good thing," he said. "Anytime you get out there and go scrimmage and you’re playing live, you can see protections and all the little things without the ball that we ask our running backs to do. That is very critical."
Artis-Payne finished last season with the third-most carries in the Auburn backfield, behind quarterback Nick Marshall and NFL-bound Tre Mason but had fewer yards than Grant. According to starting left guard Alex Kozan, Artis-Payne scored a rushing touchdown in the Tigers' scrimmage last Saturday on a draw play.
Both Artis-Payne and Grant have said they are trying to show they can be the all-around running back Auburn could use as the clear-cut starter. Artis-Payne was more of a power back in the Tigers' offense last season, but he showed some impressive agility in his touchdown run against Missouri at the 2013 SEC Championship Game.
Grant was primarily used on speed sweeps in the Tigers rushing attack last season, but he told the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea last week he is out to "establish" himself this spring and prove he "can run between the tackles."
Peyton Barber is the wild card of the running back race. The 5'11", 225-pound Alpharetta, Ga., native made an impression on both his coaches and teammates last season while he redshirted for the Tigers. Like Artis-Payne, Barber is built like a power running back, but he showed he could be dangerous in the open field during his high school days.
Brandon Fulse vs. C.J. Uzomah vs. Gage Batten vs. Ricky Parks
Malzahn said Saturday nothing had changed in the race to replace Jay Prosch at H-back in Auburn's offensive attack for this upcoming season.
The head coach said there were "four or five guys" who have been rotating at the tight end/fullback hybrid position through the first two weeks and in the first scrimmage of spring camp.
Fulse entered spring camp with a solid amount of experience at H-back, as he played alongside the powerful Prosch in some heavy formations last season. The Ft. Meade, Fla., native started on four special teams units last season and comes with plenty of experience as a Prosch-like blocker for the Auburn running game.
Uzomah, who started at tight end last season, is a more natural pass-catcher who could provide an extra element to the Tigers' H-back position. Before Prosch came to the Plains, former tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen made a move to H-back, and placing Uzomah in that spot would be a similar transition for the rising senior.
Batten, a former walk-on linebacker, was Prosch's main backup on the depth chart last season. Although he did not record a single offensive stat, Batten moved from defense to offense and featured in six games for the Tigers last season.
Parks is back on Auburn's roster after he was kicked off at the start of 2013's fall camp for a violation of team rules. Malzahn said the former Auburn tight end is getting a chance to contribute as a walk-on this season, per the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black:
He's getting a chance to play H-back and tight end and stuff like that. As the spring moves forward, I can probably be a little more specific. He's just getting an opportunity.
Shon Coleman vs. Patrick Miller
With Avery Young staying at right tackle this spring, the battle to replace possible top-10 draft pick Greg Robinson is down to Coleman and Miller.
Coleman was signed in Auburn's Class of 2011 but was diagnosed with leukemia in the spring of 2010. After three full seasons away from the sport to battle and recover from the disease, Coleman was Robinson's backup at left tackle last season and earned his first few appearances of his college career.
Miller started the first five games at right tackle last season but was suspended for three games for a violation of team rules. By the time he returned to action, Young established himself as the starting right tackle, and Miller was left to play limited action in the Tigers' run to Pasadena. Now he will have his second chance as a starter, this time on the opposite end of Auburn's front five.
Alex Kozan, Auburn's returning starter at left guard, gave his insight on the battle between his two offensive line teammates Saturday: "Shon does some freaky things every now and then. Pat's a consistent performer. He's started here before, so it's a pretty good battle between the two of them."
Malzahn said after Saturday's scrimmage he does not expect this heated battle between Coleman and Miller to end this spring.
"We probably won’t make a decision and may not make a decision even after spring," Malzahn said. "Both of those guys are veteran guys, and we feel like both of them have a starter-type mentality and talent.”
Elijah Daniel vs. Carl Lawson
The Tigers lost several defensive linemen from the 2013 senior class, but the biggest loss was definitely Dee Ford, who shot up mock draft boards after his MVP performance at the Senior Bowl.
The defensive stars from Auburn's 2013 recruiting class, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson, are poised to fight for one, if not both, of the defensive end positions in 2014.
With returning starter LaDarius Owens out for the rest of spring with a right foot injury and a host of highly rated defensive ends coming to The Plains this summer, Daniel and Lawson should be able to take advantage of the extra practice this spring.
Both Daniel and Lawson made instant impacts in their freshman seasons, combining for 39 tackles and five sacks in 2013. But whoever takes over for Ford will have big shoes to fill—the Tigers' star defensive end recorded 29 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks last season.
If defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and defensive line coach Rodney Garner decide to heavily rotate players in and out on the front four again this season, they will have two bigger pieces they can use on the ends.
With Owens and Daniel currently out of commission, defensive tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams have taken snaps at defensive end this spring.
Johnson told AL.com's Brandon Marcello the two tackles' moves to defensive line will not be permanent, but "if (Auburn) did have some unusual rash of injuries next year or something occur, those guys have got the ability to maybe go out there and help."
Rising senior Jonathon Mincy's fourth year as a starter for Auburn's secondary will be at boundary cornerback, where he will take over for Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis.
Mincy's spot at field cornerback is up for grabs, with a pair of returning defensive players and a recently converted wide receiver battling it out this spring.
Jonathan Jones, a rising junior, did not see any game action last season until the Ole Miss game because of a freak broken-ankle injury that occurred during fall camp. Jones also suffered a left hamstring injury during the 2014 BCS National Championship Game loss against Florida State.
Ellis Johnson said his main goal for Jones this spring is to keep him from injury in order to maintain the Tigers' newfound depth at cornerback.
"Jonesy, we’ve just got to keep him healthy," Johnson told Mike Szvetitz of the Opelika-Auburn News last Thursday. "We know he can play. He’ll have some roles to play, I’m sure, on third down and long."
Rising sophomore Kamryn Melton has rotated with Jones in Auburn's first-team defense this spring, per Alex Byington of the Opelika-Auburn News. Melton played in three games as a true freshman last season before suffering a knee injury.
Perhaps the biggest surprise so far in Auburn's position battles this season has been rising senior Trovon Reed, a former 5-star wide receiver who never found his role in the Tigers offense. Reed is new to the secondary this spring, but safety teammate Jermaine Whitehead told AL.com's Brandon Marcello he has been impressed with Reed in his new position:
I’ve always liked Trovon’s energy. When he played offense, he was the guy who got us pumped to have a good (day). Now he’s on my side of the ball, so it’s going to be a long year for the offense.