Out with the old, and in with the new. It’s a phrase that I don’t necessarily like, due to my hesitance when it comes to change.
As an avid Auburn football fan, it’s been a rough year full of changes. From a disappointing season on the field to the exit of what I consider one of the school’s best football coaches, the real fans have shown themselves in the aftermath of 2008.
I’m encouraged by the presence of true fans here in Auburn and around the country. While there are a lot of unknowns as the 2009 season approaches, I believe there are also reasons for optimism on the Plains.
Gene Chizik has done, by all accounts, better than expected since being hired in December. His staff is filled with competent coaches and well-known recruiters. Gus Malzahn and Ted Roof, offensive and defensive coordinators, are nationally known and respected.
He has preached hard work and unity to a team in need of both. He has a roster filled with top 20 recruiting classes, although depth will be an issue as his tenure starts.
Chizik has approached his first season in Auburn in the opposite way of many newcomers to the SEC. He’s quietly gone about his business: not drawing any truly negative attention and continuing the tradition of running a program in a respectable way.
...At least so far.
Don’t confuse the lack of national buzz for a lack of work and effort. Auburn coaches have renewed their emphasis on recruiting and are trying to create the brand of football that led to the undefeated 2004 season.
A little less than two weeks from kickoff, here’s a look position by position at the 2009 season.
Senior Chris Todd was named the starter during fall practice. He’s a transfer from passing power Texas Tech who has battled a surgically repaired shoulder since arriving at Auburn. He started at the beginning of 2008.
He could have given up after his shoulder problems, his benching, or after he couldn’t participate in spring practice. But Todd he pushed on and won the job in fall camp. His story is truly inspirational.
Todd has been established as the unquestioned starter and has been supported by the coaches and players alike—a move that should help the team as they move towards September. Senior quarterbacks usually perform well at Auburn and in the SEC.
Junior Neil Caudle and freshman Tyrik Rollison are battling for the backup job. I would prefer Rollison to redshirt just to preserve his eligibility for what is expected to be a very bright future. But I have a feeling he will find his way on the field at some point this year.
Kodi Burns has been moved to receiver, but will spend time in the “Wild Tiger” package. Burns handled the coaches’ decision for Todd as well as any competitive athlete could. He should be commended for his tremendous character and team-first attitude.
Auburn won’t be asking Chris Todd to go out and win the games on his own. If he can hand the ball off and manage the game not making mistakes to lose it, he will be successful.
He has proven running backs and what should be a solid defense. His experience last year will help, and he will improve given the starting job and a new quarterback friendly system. After all, it can’t get much worse than the production from a year ago.
This is one spot where Auburn should be good to go. Senior Ben Tate will be your starter, and should have a great year in Gus Malzahn’s run-first spread offense. Mario Fannin will presumably take some snaps in the backfield, as well.
New speedster Ontario McCalebb will find the field, as well. Behind them there is more talent that probably won’t play that often due to the talent of the frontrunners.
If Auburn is to have success this year, the running game will be pivotal. Tate and Fannin are proven playmakers, if given a chance by the scheme and the offensive line. A healthy backfield could go a long way to making drastic improvements on offense.
The underachieving group gets another chance to redeem themselves. Trooper Taylor is one of the best in the business when it comes to coaching wide receivers. He has made it his mission to improve this group as a whole.
It’s been years since Auburn had a legitimate down-the-field vertical passing threat, which has left a strain on the running game.
The top returning players slated to play right now are Terrell Zachery, Darvin Adams, Quindarius Carr, and Derek Winter. It looks like Montez Billings will be able to play after an academic issue held him out for a while.
Tim Hawthorne has a broken foot and will miss the first few weeks of the season. Philip Pierre-Louis is back after his knee injury, but his ability to contribute hasn’t been determined yet.
The success of this group will likely be determined by a talented group of incoming freshman. Deangelo Benton, Emory Blake, Travante Stallworth, and Anthony Gulley have made a splash since arriving on campus.
If a couple of the new faces can contribute right away, the position will be much more stable than expected. The health and eligibility of Tim Hawthorne and Montez Billings are crucial, as well. I think there will be improvement by this group as a whole, leading to a better passing game and more balanced offense.
Gabe McKenzie and Tommy Trott provide familiar faces at tight end. Trott will likely play some slot receiver, leaving room for talented freshman and Youtube sensation Philip Lutzenkirchen. All three players have good hangs and should be competent blockers when asked to do so. Vance Smith moved to tackle, but Bailey Woods provides some depth.
This is the key to the 2009 season. The offensive line needs to regain its 2007 form and forget about the horrors of weight loss and dissension a year ago.
The starting five can be a very talented group; Lee Ziemba , Mike Berry, Ryan Pugh, and Byron Isom have started numerous games. Fifth year senior Andrew McCain will start at right tackle.
The possible problem is a lack of depth, as any major injury could be fairly devastating. A.J. Greene, Bart Eddins, Jared Cooper, and Vance Smith provide able bodies but simply don’t have too much playing experience.
Because the running game is so crucial to this new offense, the line must regain their swagger like they did their weight (most of the starters beefed up after being ordered to lose weight last year).
They have the potential to be a quality SEC offensive line; it’s time to prove it. Hopefully, injuries don’t force inexperienced players into the lineup.
While inexperienced, this group could be a strength of what should be (as usual at Auburn) a pretty stout defense. Senior All-SEC defensive end Antonio Coleman returns for his senior year, to the delight of new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and defensive coordinator Ted Roof.
He should provide solid leadership on the defensive side of the ball. He and fellow defensive end Michael Goggans are a quality tandem on the edge.
Inside, there’s Zach Clayton, Jake Ricks, and Mike Blanc. All have shown potential and have limited playing time. Now they must combine to be the answer at defensive tackle.
Antoine Carter provides reliable depth at defensive end. Newcomers Nosa Eguae and Nick Fairley might find their way into the rotation as well.
Pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run, while always key, will be especially important this season due to a lack of depth at linebacker and in the secondary.
Coleman is on numerous watch lists for national awards, and there is a lot of talent waiting to translate into experience. He should draw quite a few double teams, making it easier for others to contribute in the stat column.
The starters are rock solid. Juniors Craig Stevens and Josh Bynes provide established SEC speed and experience, while junior college transfer Eltoro Freeman has all the makings of a stud linebacker.
Behind them, the situation gets worrisome. Spencer Pybus and Adam Herring made small contributions last year, but are both currently out with small injuries. True Freshmen Jonathan Evans and Harris Gaston are physically active bodies, but probably aren’t ready to compete in the SEC.
Walk-ons Wade Christopher and Ashton Richardson are there if needed.
The bottom line for me is the health of the starters. If they can remain healthy and take most of the snaps, the linebackers should be fine. If not, somebody will have to step up and play at an SEC level, or it will be too easy for other offenses to exploit.
It’s safe to assume linebacker is a point of emphasis in recruiting this year, to boost the numbers before 2010.
Senior Walt McFadden and sophomore Neiko Thorpe have grabbed the starting cornerback positions. Junior college transfer Demond Washington and Jeremy Flowers provide depth with potential.
Safety Mike McNeil went down with a broken leg, but hopes to be back for the start of the season. Zac Etheridge will start at free safety. Freshman Daren Bates has made a noticeable impression on multiple coaches and looks like he will provide depth.
Mike Slade, D’Antoine Hood, and T’Sharvan Bell are available as well. Aairon Savage would have probably been a starter somewhere in the secondary, but he went down with an Achilles injury a year after losing a season to an ACL.
Sources say he will apply for a sixth year of eligibility and try to play next year.
If healthy, this can be the strength of the defense. McFadden, Thorpe, Etheridge, and McNeil would be a great starting secondary in this conference.
There is even some depth there. Some injuries need to get cleared up before Sept. 5, though. Having shutdown corners is one of the most important parts of a defensive scheme, and I believe Auburn has that.
One of the strengths of Auburn during Tommy Tuberville’s tenure turned into a glaring weakness last year. Wes Byrum endured a tough sophomore slump. Walk-on Chandler Brooks and Morgan Hull provided healthy competition in the spring, and should continue to do so should Byrum slip up during the season.
Clinton Durst had a good year punting last year. He was in line to earn a scholarship with Tuberville’s staff, then was denied it by the new staff, left the team, came back to the team, and now has a scholarship due to their availability.
He and Ryan Shoemaker will push each other and keep Auburn’s punting game solid. I haven’t heard who will handle kickoffs yet.
The return game features some interesting options. Mario Fannin and Ontario McCalebb provide speed and elusive ability. Some of the newcomers might have a shot, as well. Philip Pierre-Louis lost his first season on the Plains returning the opening kickoff of the season, so he might get in the mix as well.
If someone could emerge as a player with Tristan Davis capability, it would greatly aid an offense in need of some positive momentum.
It’s crucial that all special teams improve this year. Field goals and kick coverage in particular must get back to Auburn’s standards. Coach Jay Boulware is the new special teams coach, and has his work cut out for him.
Quality special teams can win or lose games very easily. Hopefully, Wes Byrum can regain the consistency he showed during his freshman year and the return game can show some explosiveness.
I’m pretty comfortable with most of the new coaches. Losing Eddie Gran and James Willis hurt, but Trooper Taylor and Tracy Rocker provide great position improvements, and Gus Malzahn has an excellent track record with quarterbacks.
My questions are in terms of in-game situations.
Tommy Tuberville was one of the best in the SEC at winning on the road for a reason. He understood how to be conservative and play SEC style football. He almost always made the right call on fourth down. And he was extremely successful on the occasional trick plays when they were called.
How will Gene Chizik and company handle those situations and nuances? In a league as competitive as the SEC, that will go a long way towards determining wins and losses.
Sept. 5 LOUISIANA TECH
Sept. 12 MISSISSIPPI STATE
Sept. 19 WEST VIRGINIA
Sept. 26 BALL STATE
Oct. 3 at Tennessee
Oct. 10 at Arkansas
Oct. 17 KENTUCKY
Oct. 24 at LSU
Oct. 31 OLE MISS
Nov. 7 FURMAN [HC]
Nov. 14 at Georgia
Nov. 28 ALABAMA
The schedule is both manageable and extremely difficult. On one hand, I see the first seven games as winnable. On the other, Auburn must travel to Knoxville, Fayetteville, Baton Rouge, and Athens.
The last five games include LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama. And it’s not like the home games are incredibly easy. Louisiana Tech went into Starkville and beat Mississippi State last year, and earned a bowl bid. West Virginia still has talent, even if they don’t have Pat White. Ball State went 11-2 last year.
It’s absolutely crucial, however, that the Tigers get off to a fast start. If they take it one game at a time and play like they’re capable, they could be playing some important games in October and November.
It’s not as if Auburn has no talent. Recruiting has remained fairly strong through the last few years. One down year doesn’t mean too much in terms of the general direction of a college football program.
However, it’s critical that Auburn shows improvement this year and avoids the SEC cellar, both for Chizik’s sake and Auburn’s national reputation. My personal goal for this team is 8-4. They could do worse; they could even do a bit better.
A quick start is critical. The players need to believe that last year’s trouble is in the past. I believe the defense will remain one of the top 30 in the country. I believe the offense will be significantly better than last year. And I believe that this team will be competitive in all of its games.
The only threat to those beliefs, in my opinion, is a rash of injuries. So as an Auburn fan, I hope the Tigers can get a little lucky and avoid key injuries, and have some success.
I’ll be writing at least once a week looking ahead to future games and looking back to those that have passed.
If you’d like, feel free to follow my articles. I appreciate questions, comments, and good old fashioned debate. To college football fans everywhere, here’s to a great season. To Auburn fans, WAR EAGLE!!!