Auburn Football: Complete Spring Game Preview

Justin Ferguson@@JFergusonBRCFB National AnalystApril 18, 2014

Auburn Football: Complete Spring Game Preview

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    Dave Martin

    After a long slate of spring practices, the Auburn Tigers will return Saturday to where their remarkable run to the 2014 BCS National Championship began last season—A-Day.

    The Tigers will kick off their annual spring game April 19 at Jordan-Hare Stadium, where 83,401 Auburn fans watched the return of new head coach Gus Malzahn's hurry-Up, no-huddle offense and celebrated the final rolling of the historic oak trees at Toomer's Corner.

    Fans on the Plains and all over the country (thanks to an ESPN broadcast) will get their first look at the Tigers' high-powered attack, a more experienced 4-2-5 defense and a brand-new special teams unit at A-Day. 

    With all the spring game festivities just hours away, here is what you need to know about the defending SEC champions' A-Day Game.

Game Info

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    USA TODAY Sports

    A-Day 2014

    • Date: April 19
    • Location: Jordan-Hare Stadium (Gates open at noon ET)
    • Kickoff Time: 2 p.m.
    • Tickets: $5, free for Auburn students 
    • TV: ESPN
    • Radio: Auburn IMG Sports Network
    • Format: Traditional style with four 12-minute quarters. Offense will occupy one sideline, and the defense will occupy the other one, just like the 2013 game.

Position Battles to Watch

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    Associated Press

    Running back

    With the three-way battle between Cameron Artis-Payne, Peyton Barber and Corey Grant showing no clear signs of separation through spring practices, the annual A-Day Game will be a great chance for the running backs to make a big impression in front of thousands of Auburn fans.

    Artis-Payne was the Lionel James Offensive MVP from last year's A-Day, compiling 164 all-purpose yards and a rushing touchdown. After a breakout performance as a newcomer to the program in last year's game, the powerful senior running back sounds confident in his hopes of repeating as MVP on Saturday.

    "I definitely have a shot at that," Artis-Payne told's Brandon Marcello. "I don't think I'm going to need as many touches as I did last year."

    Neither Grant nor Barber, a redshirt freshman who continues to impress in his move from scout team to first team, participated in last year's A-Day Game. Grant, a former transfer from Alabama, said he is looking forward to competing against fellow senior Artis-Payne for the MVP award.

    "I think [Artis-Payne] can be [MVP], but I'm going to be right at his neck," Grant said, also per Marcello. "Because, you know, last year I didn't to get to play in it, so I'm kind of excited about this year."


    Left tackle

    The third week of spring practice ended with some surprising movement across Auburn's offensive line, which originally featured just the battle for the starting left tackle job.

    Patrick Miller, who was battling cancer survivor Shon Coleman at left tackle, moved to right tackle, where he started the first five games of 2013. Returning starter Avery Young moved inside to right guard for some reps in the Thursday practice and Saturday scrimmage at Jordan-Hare Stadium.

    However, head coach Gus Malzahn cleared up the offensive line shuffle earlier this week, telling reporters the nonpermanent moves were all about building depth across Auburn's veteran front five.

    “We’re trying to develop depth at different positions this spring,” Malzahn said, per the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington. “Especially when you got a lot of veteran guys, you can move some guys around to see what depth looks like and kind of play the what-ifs if you go through injuries next fall.”

    After all the offensive-line switches and explanations, the focus will return to the left tackle spot on A-Day. Keep an eye on the battle between Coleman and Miller at A-Day and how the coaching staff will divide the first-team left tackle snaps between the two offensive linemen.

Top Storylines

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    Dave Martin

    A more balanced offense in 2014

    It has been the mantra of Gus Malzahn since the end of last season: Expect the Tigers to run the ball a lot in 2014, but they are also going to let Nick Marshall air it out as well.

    After a run-heavy journey to Pasadena last season, both coaches and players are talking up more balance in Auburn's offensive attack. Marshall has a full spring camp under his belt now and a more experienced receiving corps that includes a couple of new faces.

    A-Day will be the first chance for fans to see what might be a more balanced offense go to work at Jordan-Hare Stadium. While Marshall's reps have decreased over the last few days of practice, expect Malzahn and offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to let the senior quarterback throw the ball a lot more Saturday than he did in most games last season.


    How much has Auburn's defense reloaded?

    Injuries may have hampered some of the Tigers' progress on defense this spring, but Saturday will be the first opportunity for the defenders to show how much it has improved from last season to this season.

    There were definite signs of defensive improvement from the abysmal 2012 campaign to the 2013 championship run, but Auburn still has a long way to go before it can be called an elite defense in the SEC. Star defensive end Dee Ford and a host of veteran defensive backs are no longer on the Plains, so how has Auburn replaced them this offseason?

    While defensive success in spring games is usually at the detriment to the offense, especially a high-powered one like Auburn has, Tigers fans are anxious to see how Ellis Johnson's squad will fare this season—and it all starts at A-Day.


    Eyes on the newcomers

    Both the nation's No. 1 overall junior college player and the No. 1 junior college safety from the class of 2014 will get their first chance at impressing the crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium this Saturday as they battle for playing time this fall.

    D'haquille Williams and Derrick Moncrief will definitely be top players to watch on A-Day. Both have received high praise from their new coaches and teammates for their physical gifts and their ability to learn new systems.

    Other newcomers to watch will be versatile wide receiver Stanton Truitt, who impressed Auburn's offense from Day 1 this spring with his speed and agility. Xavier Dampeer will most likely have a good-sized amount of playing time Saturday as he backs up fourth-year starter Reese Dismukes at center. 

What the Experts Are Saying

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    Dave Martin

    How much playing time will the starters get?

    With a host of starters returning on both sides of the ball and several spots to fill in the backup slots on the depth chart, Auburn's key players might not play for an extended amount of time on Saturday. The team has already battled through several key injuries this spring, and's Brandon Marcello says Malzahn and Co. might not run any extra risks:

    No final decisions but it sounds like some veteran guys could see limited time at A-Day as not to chance injury.

    — Brandon Marcello (@bmarcello) April 15, 2014


    Last week of preparation

    Injuries have kept the Tigers away from scrimmaging, with the exception of the second Saturday of camp, but Malzahn said his players are still ready for A-Day. Per the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer's Ryan Black, the energy is high around the program for Saturday's game:

    Said he felt "there was good energy" and that he could tell "guys were looking forward to A-Day."

    — WarEagleExtra (@wareagleextra) April 17, 2014


    Ellis Johnson's take on spring practices

    Veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson is always good for a memorable quote. Earlier this week, he told the Opelika-Auburn News' Alex Byington that several of the injuries have caused camp to not go exactly as he expected:

    Johnson on his overall assessment of spring practices: "Overall it was sort of a herky-jerky spring."

    — Alex Byington (@AUBlog) April 15, 2014

Important Injuries

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    Todd J. Van Emst

    Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson estimated earlier this week about a dozen Tigers have missed time during the spring with injuries, with the vast majority on the defensive side of the ball. Here are three key injuries for Auburn as spring practice comes to a close:

    • Carl Lawson, DE: Auburn's injury woes on the defensive line continued earlier this week when sophomore standout Carl Lawson was on crutches following Tuesday's practice. Malzahn said he is unsure whether Lawson will play Saturday.

    • LaDarius Owens, DE: Owens has missed the entire spring with a broken foot. The senior recorded 28 tackles as a starter last season on the Tigers' improving defensive line, which will have to replace Senior Bowl MVP Dee Ford.

    • Jaylon Denson, WR: Denson, who also missed the entire spring, gets specific mention on here because of his preseason success last year and the Tigers' emphasis on the wide receivers and the passing game this spring. He suffered a serious knee injury at LSU last year, but he is expected to be back this fall to compete with a steadily improving crop of wideouts.


    Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.