Looking solely at the unit ratings for Auburn, there’s no reason to believe the Tigers would even have a shot at the postseason in 2011. But as 2010 taught us, things don’t always go as they should on the plains. Auburn entered 2010 predicted to finish around 8-4, yet ended up winning a national title despite a rickety defense and a lack of experienced star power on offense. This year, Auburn’s defense would seem to be worse than a year ago, but
Returning Offensive Starters: 3 (RT, RB, TE)
Returning Defensive Starters: 3 (RDE, SLB, SS)
Returning Specialists: 0
Projected Overall Record: 6-6 (UA, Ark, MSU, USC, LSU, UGA)
Projected SEC Record: 2-6 (UA, Ark, MSU, USC, LSU, UGA)
Projected SEC West Record: 1-4 (UA, Ark, MSU, LSU)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Running Backs: Vg
Wide Receivers: Av
Offensive Line: Fr
Defensive Line: Fr
Defensive Backs: Pr
Special Teams: Fr
Auburn’s spread-option offense figures to revert to its 2009 form now that Cam Newton is no longer on the plains. Still, it will be hard to defend. Auburn uses multiple formations, trickery and motion to create mismatches, and SEC defenses have yet to catch up with the basic premise. As the seasons pass, this will no longer be the case, but for now, Auburn has the upper hand in most matchups. The biggest issue is the effect of going from Cam Newton to a different style quarterback.
QUARTERBACKS (rating: Pr, 6th SEC West, 11th overall)
Talk about going from the penthouse to the outhouse. Auburn loses Cam Newton, and picks up Barrett Trotter as its starter. Trotter is not nearly as big or mobile as Newton was, and his arm strength is comparable to Chris Todd, who was Newton’s predecessor. Otherwise, Trotter is essentially Greg McElroy without the experience. Competing with Trotter is true freshman Kiehl Frazier, a highly ranked prospect from Arkansas who is a true dual-threat player. Frazier has decent size at 6’3”, 200, but does not carry Newton’s bulk, and will need time to acclimate himself to SEC defenses. Clint Moseley rounds out the competition. He is more similar to Trotter than Frazier in terms of his game, but Moseley is the biggest of the three at 6’3”, 230 and the only one who could approximate Newton’s running. Look for Trotter and Frazier to split the position with Frazier eventually taking over the reins in the future.
RUNNING BACKS (rating: Vg, 4th SEC West, 6th overall)
Auburn is pushing Michael Dyer as its next Heisman Trophy candidate, but Dyer has gotten off to a slow start in fall practices due to an unexplained injury. Dyer was successful as a freshman, accumulating 1,093 yards on 182 carries (6.0 avg.), but a large part of his success was due to having Newton in front of him, as well as a veteran offensive line. Dyer is at his best when he can match up one-on-one against a defender in space. At 5’9”, 200 pounds, he is ill-equipped to be an inside banger. His backup is Onterio McCalebb, a pure scatback who amassed 810 yards on 95 carries (8.5 avg.) but is even less adept at going inside than Dyer. Of the rest, only senior Davis Hooper had significant carries coming into 2011, and he’s not thought to be a candidate for substantial playing time. Anthony Morgan carried the ball twice for seven yards in 2010, but his build is almost identical to Dyer’s and McCalebb’s. Quan Bray and Tre Mason suffer from the same lack of size, as Auburn is apparently retooling the entire running back corps towards speed. The exception is near-300-pounder Ladarious Phillips, who should see some time as a situational fullback now that Eric Smith is no longer on the team.
WIDE RECEIVERS (rating: Av, 4th SEC West, 7th overall)
Auburn must replace all three wideouts, but the cupboard is not bare. DeAngelo Benton has gobs of talent, but has never been able to put together things either on or off the field. He figures to get the call at one of the three slots along with Emory Blake, who has a knack for big plays against Alabama, and Quindarius Carr, a senior who does nothing spectacularly but also doesn’t make a lot of errors. All eyes are on Trovon Reed as Auburn’s next standout wide receiver. Blake is the unquestioned leader of this group for now, having caught 33 passes for 554 yards (16.8 avg.) and 8 touchdowns, which led the team. Junior Travante Stallworth adds depth, but depth stops suddenly right there. Onterio McCalebb will have to function as a wideout at least some of the time. Auburn didn’t strike out in recruiting, but both Jaylon Denson and Sammie Coates are extremely raw. One of them will have to play in the A-rotation, at least. At tight end, Philip Lutzenkirchen is one of the most underrated at his position in the conference. Unfortunately for Auburn, he has no one of note behind him. Cameron Groce and Chris Otersen are available, but Otersen barely tips the scales at 200 pounds. An injury here would be critical. Look for Ladarious Phillips to play the spot at times. Good starters, but depth is scary thin overall.
OFFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr, 6th SEC West, 11th overall)
Auburn’s offensive lines have been underestimated before, including last year, when three of this year’s starters were dismissed as also-rans but who turned out to be fairly solid players. Part of the reason for this is a strength-and-conditioning program that is legend, and Auburn’s offense covers up mistakes. Still, Auburn can’t be thrilled at the moment with what’s on the field. Brandon Mosley is the lone returning full-time starter. He’s back at right tackle. A.J. Greene started 2010 as the starting right tackle but suffered an injury early on that knocked him out. Worse yet, he’s hurt again. When or if he’s able to return to the field, he’ll take Lee Ziemba’s left tackle spot. Left guard should be in good shape with Jared Cooper, who has starting experience and plenty of snaps under his belt. John Sullen surprised everyone in 2010 by being a capable backup. But the real issue is center, where Auburn will either start a walk-on, Blake Burgess, or true freshman Reese Dismukes. Neither option is what you want in the SEC. The other real issue is the lack of depth. Freshmen Chad Slade and Christian Westerman figure to be the backup tackles, while another pair of freshmen, Eric Mack and Tunde Fariyke, back up the guard slots. Injuries could be devastating, and despite Auburn’s offense being able to cover up softness at other positions, it’s might be a tall order to cover up four or five positions at once.
Auburn runs a fairly straightforward 4-3 defense, but last year was a disappointment. The Tigers ranked 60th in total defense and a staggering 108th in pass defense, making it one of the worst defenses ever to win a national title. The anchor points of that defense were found in a veteran front seven that produced first-round draft pick Nick Fairley and also boasted Josh Bynes at linebacker, who sometimes willed the defense to make plays all by himself. Auburn likes to overload with blitzes and use team speed, but there are holes in the middle of this defense and the veteran group, the secondary, was an outright liability in 2010.
DEFENSIVE LINE (rating: Fr, 5th SEC West, 9th overall)
Auburn should be fine off the corner with sophomores Nosa Eguae and Corey Lemonier. Eguae started in 2010 as a freshman and by the end of the year was a force, while Lemonier has a huge upside. The real issue is at tackle. Jeffrey Whitaker should hold down one tackle spot aptly, while Kenneth Carter has potential. But depth is an issue. Jamar Travis and Derrick Lykes are acceptable but neither is a playmaker. Much will be expected from freshmen Blair Walsh and Gabe Wright, as redshirting is out of the question. Depth is also a concern at end, where Joel Bonomolo got off to a slow start in his Auburn career. Craig Sanders is active, but undersized. Dee Ford and Justin Delaine are also available, but like Sanders, they need to add bulk. Jabrian Niles could be the answer, but is a true freshman himself. This line got a lot smaller in the transition from 2010, making Auburn’s decision to sell out to speed critical to the success of the defense.
LINEBACKERS (rating: Fr, 4th SEC West, 9th overall)
The dropoff from 2010 to 2011 may be at its worst, defensively, here at linebacker. Auburn returns Daren Bates at strongside backer, where he is essentially a roverback. But he’s effective. Bates has safety speed, is a fearless hitter and pushes the envelope of clean hits, meaning he gets in people’s heads. The rest of this group is unsettled. Jake Holland leads Eltoro Freeman for the starting middle linebacker position at the moment. Freeman is far more athletic and comes with a more impressive pedigree, but he’s never been able to live up to the hype since exiting high school. The problem with Holland is, like Bates, he’s basically the size of a defensive back. Given the small size of Auburn’s tackles, the middle may be soft. Career backup Jonathan Evans figures to get the important weakside assignment. The reserves are freshmen, Jawara White and LaDarius Owens. They have prototypical SEC linebacker size, but no experience. Harris Gaston adds depth. Freeman might be in the mix at Evans’ position, as well. Signee Kris Frost doesn’t figure to sit for very long, but he won’t play this year due to a shoulder injury.
DEFENSIVE BACKS (rating: Pr, 5th SEC West, 11th overall)
There’s an old saying about experience – it only counts if you were good in the first place. In 2010, Auburn wasn’t good. The Tigers were 108th in pass defense and 76th in pass efficiency defense, bringing up the rear in the conference in one of those stats and finishing 9th in the other. For 2011, old faces in new places may help. Neiko Thorpe moved from corner to safety in order to give Auburn someone who can act as a centerfielder. In his place at corner is T’Sharvan Bell and Chris Davis. Bell has plenty of upside and good size. Thorpe’s cohort at safety will be Demetruce McNeal, or at least for now. Talented signee Erique Florence figures to get on the field early and often. As for depth, it’s at a premium at safety, where walk-on Ikeem Means is working behind Thorpe. At corner, it’s sophomore Ryan White and a passel of freshmen, including Jonathon Mincy and Jonathan Rose. Jermaine Whitehead and Robenson Therezie are also available. Depth at safety is such that oft-injured special teams contributor Drew Cole is probably going to find himself with a key role. Anthony Swain might end up making an appearance. Athleticism is certainly present in this group, but given the track record, Auburn will have to prove itself first.
SPECIAL TEAMS (rating: Fr, 5th SEC West, 9th overall)
Auburn must replace both kickers, not a small feat given how important Wes Byrum and Ryan Shoemaker were to the team. Steven Clark will be the new punter; he has game experience and is bigger than two of Auburn’s tight ends. The question is consistency, as Clark only punted for a 34.9-yard average last year on 9 kicks. Cody Parkey will be the placekicker. He was 2-for-2 on PATs last year in blowouts. He had a strong spring and Auburn seems to grow kickers from seeds. The Tigers struggled in punt returns and in covering kicks last year, although kickoff returns were decent. Quindarius Carr handled some of those duties and returns for more action, although he’ll face plenty of challengers in fall camp.