Auburn Tigers: Team Overview
Returning Offensive Starters: 5 (LT, C, RG, RT, HB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 8 (LDE, LDT, RDE, LLB, RCB, LCB, SS, FS)
Returning Specialists: 2 (P, PK)
Projected Overall Record: 5-7 (UA, Ark, MSU, LSU, OM, TAM, UGA)
Projected SEC Record: 1-7 (UA, Ark, MSU, LSU, OM, TAM, UGA)
Projected SEC West Record: 0-6 (UA, Ark, MSU, LSU, OM, TAM)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Pr Defensive Line: Av
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Pr
Wide Receivers: Fr Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Ex
After a one-year experiment with a pro-style attack that ultimately cost Gene Chizik his job, Auburn is back to the land of the no-huddle spread offense under Gus Malzahn, who returns to Auburn after a year at Arkansas State. The Tigers hope to return to the glory days of 2010, but to do so, they’ll have to do it without a quarterback anywhere near the level of Cam Newton, not to mention a defense that has been in a rut for years and a general lack of playmakers on offense.
Malzahn will bring the “HUNH” (Hurry-Up, No-Huddle) offense back to the Plains, but doing so might not be the ideal fix for the team. One of the reasons Chizik was thought to have moved away from the scheme was the pressure it put on the Tiger defense, which still lacks athletes and depth. Formation-wise, Auburn will have three wideouts out on most every snap, along with a tight end or H-back plus one running back. The offense will make great use of option plays and misdirection, along with trickery to attempt to mask the general lack of talent.
Four players are (or were) vying for the job, and Auburn might eventually decide to use all of them. Most expected junior Kiehl Frazier to be the favorite for the job heading into the season, as Frazier was hand-picked by Malzahn in recruiting during Malzahn’s last stint in Auburn. But Frazier, who has good wheels and a decent arm, has never been able to grasp collegiate defenses and makes too many mistakes. He is being tried at safety now, and might stick there. Sophomore Jonathan Wallace was a surprise player as a freshman and has a good arm, but his mobility isn’t on Frazier’s level and he, too, had problems adjusting to the speed of college defenses. Nick Marshall, a junior college transfer, was originally a Georgia commitment – as a defensive back. But Marshall was converted to quarterback in JUCO and ran an offense very similar to the one Auburn plans to run. There is no doubting his athleticism or running skills, but whether he can throw against SEC defenses is another matter. That leaves true freshman Jeremy Johnson to round out the group. Johnson has the best pure arm of the bunch, but he’s a pro-style quarterback by trade and not really a threat to run, at least not as a primary option. Malzahn has worked with such before; Chris Todd was his QB at Auburn in 2009 and Todd became a viable triggerman by year’s end.
Auburn’s best offensive player is Tre Mason, who helped stabilize the position last year after it became clear Onterio McCalebb couldn’t handle the every-down pounding. Mason, while not as big as most SEC backs, still manages to do good work between the tackles and doesn’t make many mental errors. His backup is likely to be JUCO sensation Cameron Artis-Payne, who dominated in two years of work at the junior college level. He brings a tad more beef than Mason. Corey Grant, a former Alabama signee, and freshman Peyton Barber round out the depth chart. Auburn will also use a hybrid fullback/H-back position in its offense, staffed by last year’s fullback, Jay Prosch.
There is plenty of experience at this position, but just how good the players here are is sort of a mystery. Auburn’s receivers, as a group, were too reliant on names like Emory Blake and Darvin Adams in the past, while the supporting cast struggled to get open or make big players. Those role players are now the starters. Trovon Reed and Quan Bray will likely be the two most-relied-upon receivers in the rotation. Neither is especially big, and their speed is about average for SEC players. Bray is the team’s leading returning receiver, with 14 catches for only 94 yards (6.7 avg.) and no scores in 2012. Jaylon Denson will likely get the other starting job, due mostly to his size. He has yet to make an impact. The depth will come mostly from promising holdovers Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis, and true freshman Tony Stevens. Lightweight B.J. Trimble, clocking in at under 160 pounds, rounds out the top group. Auburn should be good to go at tight end, where Brandon Fulse is battling C.J. Uzomah for the starting job. Prosch might also see time here.
If Auburn can avoid injuries, this has a chance to be a solid group. Auburn won’t need its linemen to work as hard in Malzahn’s scheme as it would have in a pro-style attack, given the quicker pace. Conditioning will be the main key. Center Reese Dismukes is effective when his off-field issues don’t intrude. Tackles Patrick Miller and Greg Robinson are good players, and Robinson has an especially good upside. The guards are the most suspect. Chad Slade is a backup most anywhere else, while Alex Kozan has no experience. Tunde Fariyike will back up Dismukes at center and also compete at guard. JUCO transfer Devonte Danzey is also in the mix at guard, and redshirt freshman Shon Coleman could make some noise at tackle. Aside from Fariyike, none of the backups has been in a game yet, highlighting the need for injuries to be kept at bay.
Ellis Johnson is Auburn’s new defensive coordinator. He’ll bring a 4-2-5 scheme that he used to great success at South Carolina. Johnson’s career has been one of peaks and valleys, with little in between. He’s failed twice as a head coach, and once as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, but did good work at South Carolina and is willing to think outside the box. He’ll have to work magic to cover up deficiencies at linebacker and in the secondary, despite plenty of experience on this side of the ball.
The line will be the unquestioned strength of the Auburn defense, and as a unit, is probably the team’s greatest strength outside the kicking game. Dee Ford could be special at rush end. He’s shown flashes of dominance in the past but tends to lose focus. Tackle is deep, with Jeffrey Whitaker, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright fighting for the two starting jobs. Wright has the most raw potential but has been the slowest of the three to realize it. Whitaker is a plugger, but effective, while Blackson had a solid spring. The question mark comes at strongside end, where Nosa Eguae returns. Eguae has been good against the run, but fairly ineffective as a pass rusher during his time at Auburn. It’s now or never for him. Depth at end isn’t the best. Kenneth Carter is probably better suited to end in a 3-4 scheme, while undersized Craig Sanders has been largely a disappointment. A pair of true freshmen, Elijah Daniel and Carl Lawson, figure to get in the mix early. At tackle, true freshman Montravius Adams will see early playing time. Ben Bradley adds depth.
To put it bluntly, Auburn’s linebackers haven’t been very good lately. Daren Bates was the lone bright spot the last two seasons, but is no longer in Auburn, and it’s hardly a surprise that Auburn has elected to go to the 4-2-5. The difference between this unit being acceptable or poor probably rests with Cassanova McKinzy‘s ability to develop. A sophomore, McKinzy has shown flashes here and there, but overall needs to get better. He’ll start on the weakside. In the middle, Auburn will start Jake Holland, which barring some kind of senior-year miracle is itself a commentary on the state of the depth chart here. Holland has been one of the least effective SEC middle linebackers in recent memory. The two players set to back up Holland and McKinzy both had a lot of recruiting hype when signed, but have yet to fulfill it. Kris Frost and LaDarius Owens will get the assignment at the beginning of the year and attempt to hold off JaViere Mitchell and signees Cameron Toney and Kenny Flowers. Injuries would be catastrophic here.
Although Justin Garrett is technically a defensive back by scheme, he’ll play close enough to the line where he might be considered a linebacker at heart. Garrett was one of the breakout performers of the spring and seems to fit the Star position perfectly. The rest of the unit needs work. Safeties Jermaine Whitehead and Demetruce McNeal struggled most of the time last year, and McNeal has limited upside. Whitehead could become a solid player with better coaching. The cornerbacks varied between passable and downright bad. Jonathon Mincy has the most potential of the group, but off-corner Chris Davis is overmatched most of the time. Josh Holsey gives Auburn some experience at corner off the bench, while Robenson Therezie has moved from corner to the Star position and should see plenty of time. Jonathan Jones will back up corner while Trent Fisher will be the top safety reserve, along with senior Ryan White. Kiehl Frazier moved to safety from quarterback recently, but time will tell if the experiment works well, or whether Frazier follows Kodi Burns’ path and fades into obscurity.
There is no weakness here, at least; Auburn has the conference’s top placekicker in Cody Parkey and no worse than the second-best punter in Steven Clark. Auburn has had a good run of kickers and punters lately and Parkey and Clark should take some of the heat off Johnson’s defense. Despite speed at the return positions, Auburn was inconsistent under Chizik. Receivers Reed and Bray will replace McCalebb as the big threat deep.
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