Position-by-Position Preview of Auburn's 2014 Roster
Spring practices may seem like ancient history for Auburn fans who are anxiously awaiting the start of fall camp and the 2014 season.
The remaining members of Auburn's 2014 recruiting class have arrived on the Plains for summer workouts, looking for a chance to break into the experienced roster for the defending SEC champions.
Several position changes have been made since the Tigers ended their conference title-winning campaign in Pasadena, with a host of newcomers making an instant impact in spring practices and the annual A-Day Game.
As the Tigers hit the weight room in preparation for fall camp, here is a position-by-position look at the names expected to make an impact this season, from the expected starters to the reserve role players (projected starters are in bold).
After a debut season that ended with a trip to the national championship game, Nick Marshall will be the centerpiece of Gus Malzahn's offense in 2014. Marshall is coming off a 28-touchdown campaign with more than 3,000 all-purpose yards, which should give him some preseason Heisman hype.
The senior dual-threat quarterback has been tasked with leading an attack that seeks to have more balance than in its previous run-dominated performances. Marshall will have a full offseason to improve his accuracy and chemistry with his receiving corps.
If the speedy Marshall goes down with an injury this season, Auburn should feel confident in sophomore Jeremy Johnson. The Montgomery, Alabama native has a big, Cam Newton-like frame at 6'5" and 230 pounds and a big arm to go with it. Johnson showed confidence and touch in the pocket at A-Day, and all signs are pointing to him as the Tigers' quarterback of the future.
Behind Marshall and Johnson is junior Jonathan Wallace, who has starting experience from the Tigers' disappointing 2012 season. Wallace boasts an underrated running ability and figures to be a weapon in conversion packages as Auburn's newest holder on extra-point attempts.
Before Tre Mason got the "hot hand" last season and raced his way to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation, Auburn's offense boasted a three-headed rushing attack alongside Marshall.
This season, seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant return to lead the Tigers' running game, which finished No. 1 in the country in 2013. While Artis-Payne is known for hard-hitting power and Grant for breakaway speed, both running backs have worked hard to break those molds and develop more skills in the open field.
Two additional running backs are expected to get involved in the Tigers' offense this season. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber ended what was a promising spring with an injury on his first run of the A-Day Game, but he is expected to be fully healthy by fall camp. Barber received high praise from his teammates as a member of the scout team last season, as Mason called him "the best" back on campus last season.
True freshman Racean "Roc" Thomas arrives on the Plains with loads of hype from his 5-star high school campaign and decision to pick Auburn over Alabama. Thomas has been described as an all-around back with big-play potential, so look for him to get his fair share of touches in his first season at Auburn.
Auburn did not go to the air much in 2013, but when it did, it was usually in the direction of Sammie Coates. The fleet-footed Coates finished No. 3 in the country last season with 21.5 yards per catch and will continue to be Auburn's deep-ball threat in 2014.
The expected difference-maker for the Tigers' receiving corps and their move to a more balanced offense is D'haquille Williams. "Duke" was the No. 1 junior college player in the country for the class of 2014 and brings an intermediate passing threat with his impressive ability to catch in traffic.
Senior Quan Bray showed a solid amount of improvement during the spring, which culminated in a two-touchdown performance in the spring game. If opposing secondaries put too much attention on locking down Coates and Williams out wide, Bray could rack up the statistics as Auburn's top slot receiver.
Malzahn and receivers coach Dameyune Craig have more contributors in what is one of the deepest position groups on the roster. While Georgia game hero Ricardo Louis looks to be a factor in the slot with receiving and running reverses, sophomore Marcus Davis boasts sure hands for a more accurate Marshall. Fans should also watch for slot weapon Melvin Ray to pick up where he left off in Pasadena, as well as for speedy true freshman Stanton Truitt.
At Malzahn's hybrid H-back position, the Tigers will have to replace blocking specialist Jay Prosch, who was the first "fullback" taken off the board in the 2014 NFL draft.
The leader in the position battle is Brandon Fulse, a senior tight end who has experience as a reserve H-back and a hand-on-the-ground, in-line blocker. Fulse needs to show more in the passing game this season after a one-catch 2013 campaign—Prosch had a few opportunities downfield last season, including a memorable wheel route against Texas A&M.
If Fulse becomes the go-to H-back for Auburn, fellow senior C.J. Uzomah should be able to focus on being the No. 1 player at tight end. Uzomah had an up-and-down 2013 season that included a game-winning touchdown grab early in the season against Mississippi State but also featured a few games without a single target.
Behind the two seniors are Gage Batten and Chris Laye. Batten, a former walk-on linebacker, was the No. 2 H-back behind Prosch last season and could see some work this season, especially on running plays. Freshman Laye, on the other hand, is a player for the future at tight end.
Auburn's offensive line was an area of strength last season in its SEC championship run, and the Tigers will look to continue that success with four returning starters for 2014.
The Tigers' strength starts down the middle with Reese Dismukes, who is heading into his fourth consecutive season as a starter at center. Dismukes has been described by coaches as a second quarterback for Auburn's offense, and his connection with the backfield and the rest of the line will be extremely valuable this season.
Auburn also returns two starters in the interior, left guard Alex Kozan and right guard Chad Slade. Kozan burst onto the national scene in 2014 as a reliable redshirt freshman starter, and the senior Slade is another fourth-year starter who has experience all across the front five in what has been an impressive career on the Plains.
The fourth returning starter, right tackle Avery Young, won the job midway through last season when Patrick Miller received a multi-game suspension. Miller is battling for the starting left tackle position left by No. 2 overall NFL draft pick Greg Robinson, but redshirt sophomore and cancer survivor Shon Coleman is projected to start there in 2014.
The Tigers' defensive line lost several veteran playmakers, including Dee Ford, but Auburn returns a host of talent young and old ready for another breakout season.
The defensive line suffered a number of injuries during spring camp that limited the development of projected starters LaDarius Owens and Carl Lawson. Owens, a senior returning starter, missed the entire slate of practices with a foot injury, and highly touted sophomore Lawson sat out the A-Day Game with a knee bruise. The third major player at defensive end, Elijah Daniel, missed a few practices toward the beginning of the spring with a groin issue.
This led to defensive tackles Gabe Wright and Montravius Adams getting work at defensive end in what was referred to as the "Rhino package." Although it was built out of necessity this spring, the rhinos could rumble later this season as the Tigers continue their heavy rotation along the defensive line from last season.
Other contributors along the defensive line include tackles Ben Bradley, who is coming off a breakout debut season for Auburn, and Jeff Whitaker, who returns to action after a devastating injury kept him off the field the entire season. Defensive end Gimel President could also work his way into the rotation this season after a solid spring of his own.
The biggest upheaval of the entire spring came in the linebacker department, where defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson flipped positions for starting middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy and returning weak-side linebacker Kris Frost in his 4-2-5 defense.
The switch appears to be the best move for the Tigers moving forward. McKinzy will bring a much-needed boost of sure tackling to the middle of the Auburn defense after leading the team with 75 tackles in 2013. Frost moves back to outside linebacker, a position that he was used to playing from his high school days and one that demands more of the pursuit ability he showcased several times last season.
But the Tigers' talent at linebacker does not stop at the experienced duo of McKinzy and Frost.
Kenny Flowers made a statement toward the end of the spring with a defensive-MVP performance at A-Day and can play either middle or weak-side linebacker. Hard-hitting sophomore Khari Harding makes his move to linebacker from safety, top weak-side reserve Anthony Swain has been reinstated to the team after missing the entire spring with an off-the-field issue, and 5-star middle linebacker Tre' Williams will debut this season.
The Star position is unique to the 4-2-5 defense, which demands a safety/linebacker hybrid to man the secondary alongside the traditional cornerbacks and safeties.
Auburn has tremendous depth and perhaps a little bit of controversy at this position.
Justin Garrett emerged out of spring practices in 2013 as the leader for the starting job with a breakout A-Day performance. But a pair of foot injuries kept him away from action for most of the season, opening the door for Robenson Therezie to take over the position.
Therezie is expected to start again as a Star, but Garrett is fully healthy and said he is ready to play "any position that helps the team." In addition to the experience of Therezie and Garrett, sophomore Mackenro Alexander benefited from some extra work this spring at the position.
Auburn has five potential starters in the traditional defensive back roles—returning starter at cornerback Jonathon Mincy, junior college transfer safety Derrick Moncrief, returning starter at safety Jermaine Whitehead, cornerback Jonathan Jones and versatile player Joshua Holsey—but only four spots.
Holsey is the biggest mystery of the entire depth chart. The junior started at boundary safety in 2013 before suffering a season-ending knee injury. That boundary safety spot was claimed by the now-departed Ryan Smith and seems to be the new landing spot for Moncrief, one of the nation's most talented junior college recruits from the class of 2014.
If Holsey moves back to cornerback, the position he played in high school, Jonathan Jones could be without a starting job. Fellow cornerback Mincy has moved to the other side of the field to take Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis' spot at field corner, leaving a spot open at boundary corner.
Whitehead seems to be locked into his position after starting all 14 games as field safety last season. Other contributors to this unit include running back-turned-safety Johnathan "Rudy" Ford, wide receiver-turned-cornerback Trovon Reed and a trio of true freshman cornerbacks.
Auburn's specialists will be newcomers, but their starting jobs are straightforward.
Redshirt freshmen Daniel Carlson and Jimmy Hutchinson will start at kicker and punter, respectively, after sitting out a year removed from their No. 1-ranked high school careers. Carlson has the big leg Tiger fans come to expect from their place-kickers, and Hutchinson has the high-kicking style of former standout Steven Clark.
Returning spots are still up for grabs heading into the fall with several big names dotting the list of players who got some practice at special teams in the spring, from speedster Corey Grant to cornerback Jonathon Mincy to wide receiver D'haquille Williams.
Justin Ferguson is Bleacher Report's lead Auburn writer. Follow him on Twitter @JFergusonAU. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats taken from CFBStats.com. All recruiting rankings and information courtesy of 247Sports.