Auburn Football: 5 Things We Learned About the Tigers This Spring
With all of spring practice now in the rearview mirror, the 2014 Auburn Tigers have a long summer of preparing and waiting ahead of them in the coming months.
The defending SEC champions returned plenty of starters and key contributors from their remarkable run to Pasadena last season, and the familiar cast of characters worked hard over the last few weeks with the goal of getting back to the national title game.
Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn and his coaching staff implemented a few tweaks to their title-winning squad from last season by opening up the playbook some more and inserting a few newcomers to shake up the depth chart.
As the Tigers get ready for summer workouts and the start of fall camp, here's a look at what Auburn coaches and fans learned from spring practice.
Auburn Can (and Will) Pass More in 2014
On junior college signing day last December, Gus Malzahn said his run-heavy Tigers would throw the ball more in 2014.
Malzahn followed through on his promise at A-Day.
The head coach opened up the playbook for returning quarterback Nick Marshall, who lit up the Tigers' second-team defense for 236 yards and four touchdowns in two quarters of Auburn's spring game. Marshall revisited his familiar deep-ball threat in Sammie Coates, highlighted a returning playmaker in Quan Bray and made an instant connection in the highly touted D'haquille "Duke" Williams.
"Our emphasis was mainly on throwing the football," Malzahn said after the A-Day Game. "That has been one of our main points offensively this spring. It was good to see our guys throwing and catching the ball in front of a crowd like that."
Marshall attempted 22 passes in just one half at A-Day, which was more attempts than he had in eight of his 13 starts for the Tigers last season.
With a more confident Marshall and a new weapon out wide, look for the team that ran the ball 72 percent of the time in 2013 to have more balance in 2014.
No Separation at Running Back
With Heisman Trophy finalist Tre Mason headed toward the NFL a season early, a main focus of Auburn's spring practice was to find out who would emerge as the newest feature back for their offensive attack.
When the dust settled at A-Day, there still seemed to be no separation in the "Battle of Running Back U."
Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant split carries with the first-team offense at A-Day after sharing the workload throughout practices. The powerful Artis-Payne and the speedy Grant each worked on evolving their game—Grant looked to be more physical in breaking tackles, while Artis-Payne showcased his agility—but Auburn will enter the fall without a true No. 1 running back.
The only real negative from the running back position was Peyton Barber, who ended his standout spring by suffering a high ankle sprain on his first carry of A-Day.
"All of [the running backs] did great this spring," offensive tackle Avery Young said. "I just wish Peyton Barber would have gotten a better chance to show what he's got. He's a great, powerful, skilled running back."
Auburn has a wealth of playmakers all across its 2014 offense, and running back is no exception. After none of the running backs emerged as a surefire No. 1, it looks like the committee system will be back in place this fall unless someone gets the hot hand like Mason did at the midway point last season.
Offensive Line Is Versatile
Auburn's coaching staff shook things up midway through spring practices to show the depth and versatility all across the team's veteran offensive line.
Cancer survivor Shon Coleman vs. former starter Patrick Miller for the starting left tackle job, one left vacant by the NFL-bound Greg Robinson, was the only true position battle heading into camp.
But the Tigers moved some pieces around during a Saturday scrimmage. Miller got reps at right tackle, while returning starter Avery Young moved inside to pulling right guard. Fellow returning starter Chad Slade moved to the left side behind sophomore standout Alex Kozan for some snaps.
Auburn coaches maintained the moves were not permanent, and players said it was all about building depth in case any one of the Tigers' veterans went down with injury this fall.
"Between the six of us rotating at these five spots with the first team, I think any of those six guys could start at pretty much any school in the country," Kozan told AL.com's Brandon Marcello earlier this month. "So those players have definitely improved this spring, and overall as a unit, I think we've got a lot of depth, as much as anyone in the nation."
The spring was also important for backups like junior-college center Xavier Dampeer to get more experience with the Auburn offense. With several starters showing they can play multiple positions, look for Auburn's offensive line to be the offense's strength as it prepares for another record-breaking season.
Defense Is Deeper
Spring practice injuries are almost always viewed as a negative, but Auburn's banged-up defensive unit could see them as a blessing in disguise in 2014.
Eleven different defensive players went down with injury this spring, causing defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson and his staff to get creative in practice.
One of the most creative ways the coaches dealt with the issues was what defensive tackle Gabe Wright called the "Rhino Package." With defensive ends Elijah Daniel, Carl Lawson and LaDarius Owens each missing time this spring, Auburn ran a front four of nothing but defensive tackles—designed to overpower opposing offensive lines.
While the defensive line showed versatility like its offensive counterparts, several new players were able to step up in the Tigers' linebacker corps and secondary. Backup linebacker Kenny Flowers took advantage of his extra playing time to earn the Defensive MVP Award at A-Day, while newcomers Trovon Reed and Derrick Moncrief stood out in the secondary.
"You’re always as a coach looking to develop quality depth, and I think over the course of the spring, we’ve come close to doing that," Malzahn said before A-Day. "We’ve gotten better in some areas, but like I’ve said it’ll be good for our coaches to see some of those younger guys, how they react."
Malzahn expects all of his Tigers to be healthy by the start of fall camp, but it should be comforting to know the defense—which has suffered from depth issues in years past—has been able to show off that "quality depth" during the preseason.
Special Teams Will Need Time
Auburn may return starters all across the field for 2014, but this season will feature a brand-new special teams unit.
Kicker Daniel Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson were redshirted last season after coming to the Plains with top rankings in their respective positions. Now the two freshmen will replace Cody Parkey and Steven Clark, two of the team's most reliable veteran players.
Carlson had an up-and-down debut at A-Day. He hit a 50-yard field goal to give the backup team its only points of the day, but he also missed a 51-yard field goal and an extra point.
Hutchinson and the punting team did not go live at A-Day, so his 40-yard punts were not returned by Auburn's rotating cast of playmakers vying for the return-man job left by Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis. However, Malzahn said he felt confident in his two young specialists.
"We really feel like both of those guys are talented and the more they get in that situation the better they are going to get," Malzahn said. "[Carlson] has a big-time leg."
The special teams unit will most likely be the biggest question mark heading into the Tigers' heavily hyped 2014 season. Carlson and Hutchinson come into their starting roles with big-time credentials, but it may take a few games before Auburn fans truly know what to expect from the specialists this season.
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. All stats courtesy of CFBStats.com.