Gus Malzahn should have a lot of reasons to be confident after Auburn's 2014 spring practices.
Nick Marshall, the first returning starter at quarterback in Malzahn's collegiate coaching career, showcased his offseason improvement in the passing department with his award-winning A-Day game performance last Saturday. The dual-threat senior was more accurate in his throws and immediately made a go-to connection with former No. 1 JUCO recruit D'haquille "Duke" Williams.
Malzahn's famed hurry-up, no-huddle offense also returns two key starters at the running back position, and his offensive line will enter the 2014 season as one of the most experienced units in the country.
On the other side of the ball, the first-team Tigers showed improvement in a critical area—pass defense—by holding their backup quarterbacks to a paltry 48 yards passing at A-Day. The first-teamers only allowed three points in one of the most lopsided spring games you will ever see.
But with all those positives, the skies are not completely clear over the Plains.
With the defending SEC champions now off the practice field until the start of fall camp, let's take a look at a few concerns Malzahn and his staff should have over the long summer months.
While Auburn's high-octane offensive stars seemingly took full advantage of spring practice, their teammates on defense were not as fortunate.
Eleven defensive players missed time this spring due to injuries, which resulted in the Tigers only having one full scrimmage before the annual A-Day game.
|Auburn Football: Defensive injuries during spring practice|
|LaDarius Owens||DE||Senior||Knee (missed entire spring)|
|Cassanova McKinzy||MLB||Junior||Hip, Tailbone|
|Josh Holsey||S||Junior||ACL (missed entire spring)|
|Source: spring press conferences|
Most of those injuries came on the defensive line. Senior LaDarius Owens, a potential replacement for Dee Ford at defensive end, missed the entire spring schedule with a broken foot. Sophomore standouts Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson each struggled with injuries during camp, and Lawson did not even dress for A-Day.
Some played through the pain—Star Robenson Therezie participated fully despite having a cast on his broken hand—but others were not able to see the field for valuable offseason training this spring.
Although Malzahn said Saturday that he expects all injured players to be fully healthy by fall camp, defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson told the AL.com's Brandon Marcello earlier this month that the injuries made for "a herky-jerky spring as far as really improving" as an entire defense.
The injuries might not be long term for the Tigers, but will the missed spring practice time set the defense back? Only time will tell.
The Tigers are replacing every major starter in the special teams unit this season, from longtime kicker Cody Parkey to holder Ryan White.
Auburn's two true redshirt freshmen specialists, kicker Daniel Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson, had mixed Jordan-Hare Stadium debuts at A-Day.
Carlson was 2-of-3 on field goals, hitting a 50-yard kick but missing a 51-yard kick. But the freshman also badly hooked an extra-point try, something those familiar with the program are not used to seeing after the Cody Parkey years.
Malzahn has said debuting two new specialists this season would be a concern, but he was impressed with Carlson's long-range skills at A-Day.
"He is a freshman," Malzahn said. "He is young but has a big leg."
The Tigers did not go live on special teams, which means all of Hutchinson's punts were fair caught. Each of the freshman's punts went more than 40 yards, but it will be tough to get a good read on him in game action until Auburn's season opener against Arkansas.
With two highly rated freshmen and a new holder in Jonathan Wallace, Auburn's special teams will be a work in progress throughout the 2014 season. The Tigers have talent in these positions, but inexperience will definitely be a concern for a unit that was so reliable in Auburn's run to the SEC title.
Redshirt freshman running back Peyton Barber was one of the most talked-about Auburn players heading into A-Day. After a full 2013 season and a 2014 spring of impressing coaches and teammates at practice, fans were anxious to see Barber's first in-game action at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
Unfortunately, Barber only lasted one play Saturday.
The young running back fumbled the ball on an 11-yard run after a hit from first-team middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and suffered a high ankle sprain at the end of the run.
Malzahn said Barber "should be OK" after he left the annual spring game early, but it was a disappointing break for a player who had many fans, coaches and fellow players excited.
"It was kinda hard to take," fellow running back Corey Grant said after A-Day. "Before the game, that was one guy we really wanted to see perform today. He's been working his butt off the entire spring."
Barber did not get a chance to prove his worth in the running back battle because of the injury. Although he should be fully recovered by the start of fall practice, the setback could affect Auburn's running back rotation this season.
Replacing Jay Prosch
While Auburn's coaching staff said throughout the spring that the team's position battles most likely would not be resolved until the fall, the H-back battle is still the murkiest heading into the summer.
Shon Coleman looks like he will be the starter at left tackle after his extended first-team work in the last few weeks of spring, and the running back-by-committee system seems to be the leader in the clubhouse after Auburn's A-Day game.
However, there is no clear-cut favorite as to who will replace Jay Prosch at H-back. Prosch's position might be the toughest to fill, as the powerhouse blocker was a key factor in Auburn's massive running success last season.
Brandon Fulse got the start with the first-team Blue squad at A-Day, but the former tight end did not particularly stand out at the position. Prosch's backup last season, former walk-on linebacker Gage Batten, also received some work Saturday and is still a leading candidate for the job.
H-back proved to be one of the most important positions on Auburn's offensive depth chart last season. While there was never going to be a starter named at the end of spring camp, this race could go right down to the wire in fall camp.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.
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