Auburn Football: Projecting Who Will Win the Tigers' Open Starting Positions
In less than 12 weeks, college football will be back.
The upcoming 2014 season cannot come any sooner for the Auburn Tigers and their fans, who are eager to see what Gus Malzahn and Co. have in store after their run to the SEC title and the final BCS National Championship Game.
Auburn will return a major portion of its talent from last year's conference-winning squad, including senior quarterback Nick Marshall, top receiver Sammie Coates, four veteran offensive linemen and bruising defensive tackle Gabe Wright.
But the Tigers have eight spots to fill on offense and defense thanks to the outgoing senior class and a pair of early NFL-bound players, running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson. Auburn has talent to fill these holes on the depth chart, but there are no guarantees for anyone heading into fall practices.
So as we count down the days to Auburn's opener August 30 against SEC West rival Arkansas, let's take a look at the Tigers projected to move to the top of the depth chart in 2014.
Mason was an all-around workhorse back for Auburn in his breakout 2013 campaign, which featured a school-record 1,816 yards, an SEC-record 23 rushing touchdowns and a trip to New York City for the Heisman Trophy presentation.
Although the new St. Louis Ram became the go-to runner for the Tigers late in their championship run—he carried the ball 46 times against Missouri in the SEC Championship Game—Mason was not always the high-volume rusher in 2013. Mason did not start dominating the carry count until the Arkansas game, when he took 32 of Auburn's 46 carries.
Now that Mason is gone, Auburn will need to find a new every-down running back or go back to the running back by committee system it showcased for the first half of the 2013 campaign. Seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant bring their "smash and dash" combination back to Auburn's uptempo attack, and freshmen Peyton Barber and Racean "Roc" Thomas could get their chances to make plays in 2014.
But if the Tigers start putting the vast majority of their carries on a single running back, Artis-Payne would most likely take that job. The powerful former junior college star got the most carries of any running back at A-Day this spring—with a majority of them going up the middle like Mason—and has the downfield moves to become an every-down weapon when compared to the speedy Grant and the two freshmen.
Jay Prosch's presence will surely be missed in Auburn's offense. The former All-American fullback at Illinois transferred to Auburn, learned two separate systems under two different coaching staffs and emerged as a vital blocker in the Tigers' run-dominated turnaround season.
Auburn had a varied cast of replacements for Prosch battle it out in spring practices, but the depth chart will look differently coming into the fall. C.J. Uzomah looks to be a lock at the traditional tight end position, while Ricky Parks was dismissed from the team for a second and final time.
Auburn assistant coach Scott Fountain told the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea that senior Brandon Fulse has emerged as the early front-runner for the starting H-back job. Auburn also has experience at H-back in Gage Batten, a former walk-on linebacker who backed up Prosch throughout the 2013 season.
Fulse has experience being both a hand-in-the-ground, in-line blocker and a traditional tight end in Malzahn's system. With Fulse, Auburn can expect consistent run blocking from the H-back position and some more creativity on passing plays as he is a more reliable receiving target than Prosch.
Heading into 2013, few fans would have expected starting left tackle Greg Robinson to become one of the NFL draft's most coveted prospects. But Robinson's play in Auburn's veteran offensive line and elite physical gifts made him the No. 2 overall pick in the 2014 draft, and now, the Tigers will have to replace his enormous presence at left tackle.
Auburn has not named a starter at this point in the preseason, but redshirt sophomore Shon Coleman is expected to take over following an impressive spring.
Coleman is not your average sophomore, though, as he signed with Auburn in 2010 before being diagnosed with cancer. After two years away from the game, Coleman has worked his way to becoming the lead candidate to replace Robinson thanks to his own physical gifts; teammate Gabe Wright said Coleman was "twice as strong" as Robinson.
The Mississippi native appears to have the edge over Patrick Miller, Auburn's former starter at right tackle who missed some time due a suspension near the midway point of the 2013 schedule. If Coleman does not win the starting job, Auburn will have an experienced alternative with Miller.
First-round selection Dee Ford is off to his new home in Kansas City with the NFL's Chiefs, but Auburn has more than enough personnel at defensive end to fill the Senior Bowl MVP's starting job.
Although both suffered injuries during spring camp, sophomore standouts Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson are expected to be the two players vying for Ford's slot opposite senior LaDarius Owens. Both of the former blue-chip recruits each made significant contributions in their true freshman seasons, with Lawson finishing with slightly better statistics and recognition.
Lawson was predicted by many to be the new starter this offseason, but a late-spring injury might change those picks. Keith Niebuhr of Auburn Undercover reported Lawson underwent knee surgery May 30, and Auburn has not released any information on the injury or surgery.
Malzahn said on A-Day he expected everyone to be 100 percent for the start of fall camp, but this surgery could set back Lawson's development and starting ambitions. With question marks surrounding the status of Lawson, Auburn fans could see Daniel start at defensive end this season.
Veteran Nosa Eguae was a reliable senior presence for the Tigers last season, and they will look to fill his spot with some exciting young talent.
Montravius Adams signed alongside Daniel and Lawson in 2013 as part of the Tigers' impressive defensive line class. Adams was named to several freshman awards lists last season, including 247Sports' All-American second team, following his 20-tackle season.
The Tigers rotate a lot along the defensive line, and Adams has a lot of talent behind him in former junior college standout Ben Bradley and returning senior Jeffrey Whitaker. However, the former 5-star Adams could be the most talented defensive lineman on Auburn's entire roster, so look for big No. 1 to get more time on the field in 2014.
Jake Holland is gone from the Plains following an up-and-down career as a Tiger linebacker. His replacement at middle linebacker for 2014 will be new to the position, looking to solidify himself as one of the SEC's best tacklers after leading the team in takedowns last season.
Cassanova McKinzy has flipped positions with Kris Frost, Holland's backup at middle linebacker in 2013, which will bring his strengths closer to the middle of the field.
McKinzy has put on muscle over the offseason and has all the tools needed to be a star at the position while Frost mans his former spot at "Will" linebacker. The Birmingham native should have this starting job on lockdown heading into the 2014 season.
Another flip in positions leaves a new spot open on Auburn's defensive depth chart, this time in the secondary.
Iron Bowl hero Chris Davis is off to the NFL after his legendary senior season, and former field-side cornerback Jonathon Mincy has switched to Davis' boundary side to replace him. This leaves an open spot at field cornerback, a spot that could go to one of two players with tough injury histories.
Jonathan Jones suffered a broken ankle before the start of the 2013 season, and he did not make his debut until game No. 5 against Ole Miss. Joshua Holsey moved from cornerback to safety to help out the Tigers' thin secondary, but he tore his ACL in mid-October and did not play another down in Auburn's championship campaign.
Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said he expects Holsey to start somewhere in Auburn's secondary this season, as he has experience at both positions. If he is at 100 percent at the start of fall camp, look for the talented Holsey to make a move back to cornerback in Auburn's versatile 4-2-5 defense and win Mincy's old job.
Auburn's Ryan duo—Ryan Smith and Ryan White—stepped up last season for an undermanned secondary and held down the fort at boundary safety.
The two Ryans, however, have departed, which left a wide-open spot at boundary safety heading into spring camp.
That is, until Derrick Moncrief made his presence felt.
The former No. 1 junior college safety wasted no time in grabbing the starting role for Auburn's A-Day Game, where he made a couple of big hits and pass breakups. The signing of Moncrief came at a perfect time for Auburn, and he is expected to become a key player for Auburn's rising defense in the 2014 season.
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.