5 Things We've Learned About Auburn Through Fall Camp so Far
The first week of fall practice had no shortage of new developments for the Auburn Tigers, who are now less than three weeks away from a highly anticipated opening kickoff against Arkansas.
Several new players on the Auburn roster have shaken up starter battles and other key positions on the depth chart, which has taken a couple of hits with the injuries to standout sophomores Alex Kozan and Carl Lawson.
A couple of positions that seemed to be set in stone have been opened in Auburn's second week of fall camp, including a crucial special teams spot.
The coaching staff will evaluate the entire depth chart for the upcoming week before turning toward preparations for a season-opening visit from Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks.
Here is a look at five new things we have learned about the defending SEC champions through the first 10 days of fall camp.
Auburn Is Not Ready to Name a Starting QB vs. Arkansas
Call it gamesmanship. Call it head coach Gus Malzahn being his usual guarded self. Call it an honest response.
No matter what you call it, one thing is obvious: Auburn has not officially named a starting quarterback for the season opener against Arkansas.
"We're not even going to go there yet," Malzahn said after Wednesday's scrimmage. "We'll wait, and, in time, we'll make sure and tell everybody how we're going to go about it."
The obvious choice to start the game is Jeremy Johnson, who started for an injured Nick Marshall against Western Carolina and was the backup player for the entire 2013 season. With Marshall confirmed not to start against the Razorbacks because of his July marijuana citation, Johnson is widely expected to crack his first lineup in an SEC game.
"I haven't even told (Johnson) that he's starting," offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee said last week. "We've gone to practice and gone to work and I've coached him like I would if he was the starter, or if he was the last-string guy—just trying to make him better."
Although the staff has not made anything official, Johnson has rotated with Marshall as first-string quarterback through the first week-and-a-half of fall practice. Don't expect the worst-kept secret in the state of Alabama to be "secret" for long.
Young RBs Will Get a Shot
As I mentioned in Friday's fall camp stock report, Auburn has a handful of freshmen who have an opportunity to contribute in their first game with the Tigers.
Despite having two seniors coming back for the 2014 season, running back is another spot that could get a youth revolution.
"All three young guys are going to have a chance to help us," Malzahn said Saturday. "We know what we have with our two older guys, and we feel really good about that. In a perfect world, two of those three will be in the mix. Like I've said before, you can't have enough depth at running back."
Auburn's three freshmen running backs—redshirt stud Peyton Barber, highly rated first-year player Roc Thomas and 250-pound newcomer Kamryn Pettway—will have a chance to get into the running back rotation when the coaching staff wraps up its evaluation of the depth chart later this week.
"If they are talented enough to play, then all the little things—who's coachable, who's going to protect the football—that's what's on my mind," Malzahn said. "I mean, who's going to protect the football, especially being young? So, hopefully, we'll give them enough chances during fall camp to show who can do that and who can execute our offense and who we can count on. That's the bottom line."
The Tigers' staff has raved about Thomas' ability to make a difference early in his Auburn career for months, but Barber received the highest praise from former starter Tre Mason during his redshirt season.
If Auburn sticks with the committee system, expect to see Thomas and Barber carve out their own roles this fall.
D'haquille Williams Is a Game Changer
Auburn coaches, players and fans knew the signing of No. 1 junior college player D'haquille Williams would make a major impact in an offense seeking more balance.
His position coach, Dameyune Craig, believes the wide receiver will change the way opponents go up against the Tigers this season.
"I think it stresses defense a little more," Craig told the Montgomery Advertiser's James Crepea. "He's going to have be game-planned, point blank. It'll be interesting to see how he progresses and how people try to defend us this upcoming season."
Craig said he cannot recall a time when Williams, who is playing inside and outside in Auburn's offense as a "Y" receiver, dropped a pass in camp.
"We call him a bulldog," junior wide receiver Melvin Ray said. "He just goes and gets it. Whether it's with good technique or just getting open, he's going to find a way to make a play. He's a game-changer, one of those guys who you can trust with throwing the ball. He's going to catch it, or nobody's going to catch it."
With Nick Marshall still working on improving his accuracy, Auburn needs an all-around receiver like Williams who attacks any pass thrown to him.
If Craig's comments are any indication of Williams' talent, "Duke" chants Auburn fans greeted Williams with at the A-Day spring game could continue all season long.
Tigers Need to Find a Top Pass-Rusher
With the departure of Dee Ford to the NFL and the major injury to sophomore Carl Lawson, Auburn's defensive line depth took a hit over the offseason.
Without those two sack leaders, the Tigers' coaching staff is looking for someone to step up at the position.
"We've got to get someone to want to step up and take ownership of being an outside rusher," defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. "I feel like we've got some good interior guys, but the challenge is to develop a guy who can be winning football on the edge in this conference."
While senior defensive tackle Gabe Wright and sophomore defensive end Elijah Daniel are both getting work at the first-team defensive end spots, Garner is focused on finding a better pass-rusher for third-down situations.
"I definitely think Gabe can be a very good first- and second-down defensive end," Garner said. "I think he could play really good ball now. I think he could be an adequate pass-rusher. But in a 3rd-and-long situation, you really need a guy who's got some juice that a Dee Ford or a Carl Lawson had. You need that guy who can get that tackle set deep and help get that quarterback off the spot."
Names to watch at the position are former linebacker LaDarius Owens, true freshman Raashed Kennion, junior college transfer DaVonte Lambert and—perhaps the surprise of the group—starting middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, who played a similar role at times in high school.
According to the coaching staff, Lambert could possibly be a full-time starter this season.
The Starting Punter Job Is Up for Grabs
Perhaps the surprise of camp so far has come from special teams coordinator Scott Fountain, who said the race to replace Steven Clark at punter is still four-wide at this point.
“We’re looking at, of course, Jimmy Hutchinson," Fountain said. "Daniel Carlson, who’s kind of solidified himself as the kicker for us, he’s also working at the punting area to see if he can compete there. Matt Shiel, the Australian...we wanted to bring him in and try to create a competitive atmosphere, and he’s done that for us. Tyler Stovall, the former baseball player, is competing."
With Hutchinson being the only punter on scholarship for the Tigers, the new starter seemed to be a foregone conclusion. A redshirt freshman, he was the consensus No. 1 punter nationally in the 2013 class.
But now, Fountain is suggesting there could even be a "by committee" approach—similar to that of the running backs—if there is no further separation.
"You have to find a guy that can do it all for you—can direct the punts, do sky punts—or you can do a punt-by-committee," Fountain said. "Maybe this guy’s good at this, this guy’s good at that, and we’re kind of looking at both avenues. Naturally, you’d like to have a guy that can just do all that for you to focus on. What we’re going to have to do in the next week or so is just narrow the pool down from four to three to two, and then go with our guy."
If Hutchinson cannot win the starting job by the end of camp, Carlson could be Auburn's first do-it-all specialist since Damon Duval, who finished his collegiate career in 2002.
Also, keep an eye on Shiel—especially after Clark's success with the Aussie-style punt last 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.
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