Auburn exceeded expectations like no other team in 2013, and now the question is whether the Tigers can be effective when they’re not playing the underdog role. Despite recent injuries on the offensive line, this is a dangerous offensive team that has the potential to show more balance in 2014. But a defense that is still struggling to attain effectiveness could be Auburn’s undoing.
Returning Offensive Starters: 6 (SE, WR, C, RG, RT, QB)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (RDT, LDE, RLB, ROV, LCB, FS)
Returning Specialists: 0
Projected Overall Record: 9-3 (UA, USC, UGA)
Projected SEC Record: 5-3 (UA, USC, UGA)
Projected SEC West Record: 5-1 (UA)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Fr
Running Backs: Vg Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Ex Special Teams: Pr
The hurry-up, no-huddle attack pioneered by Gus Malzahn almost carried the Tigers to a national title in 2013. Had Auburn been a bit more adept in throwing the football, the Tigers probably would have won it all. Auburn has above-average players across the board, but the system made the whole greater than the sum of the individual parts. With rule changes now allowing the defense to pause the game for substitutions, it will be interesting to see how Auburn responds.
Nick Marshall is a potential force in exactly one kind of offense – and this is it. Marshall is a passing threat only insofar as he can use play-action or trickery to get receivers open, but give him credit for realizing how to properly manipulate conditions to his advantage. Marshall is a major weapon as a runner, however, to the extent that sometimes Auburn doesn’t even need to attempt throwing the football. The Tigers have good depth behind him, with Jeremy Johnson and Jonathan Wallace bringing SEC experience to the table, and true freshman Sean White waiting in the wings. The big question is how Auburn’s offense would change if Marshall were to have to yield to Johnson, who is a pocket passer by trade.
The loss of Tre Mason will hurt from an overall talent standpoint, but Auburn’s system covers up talent drops to a large extend. Cameron Artis-Payne, Mason’s likely replacement, isn’t much of a step down, anyway. He has better straight-on ability than Mason had, but lacks Mason’s ability to cut. Corey Grant fills the scatback role, but his inside running success is predicated on playcall and situation more than the ability to take on tacklers. Redshirt freshman Peyton Barber could end up pushing Artis-Payne for the starting job. One of the more interesting subplots will be how Auburn replaces Jay Prosch at fullback. While not a threat with the ball in his hands, Prosch’s blocking ability was superb, and unless signee Kamryn Pettway can fill the void, a tight end will have to take care of it.
The combination of Sammie Coates and JUCO transfer D’haquille Williams could be lethal. Both have good size, speed and hands, although Williams needs to prove himself at this level. If he can, even average quarterback play from Nick Marshall would be enough to make Auburn a balanced threat. C.J. Uzomah will start at tight end, and big things are expected from him. He might also fill Prosch’s fullback/H-back role. Quan Bray will start in the slot, but he needs to be more of a threat. He averaged only 8.5 yards per catch last year and defenses mostly ignored him. Ricardo Louis gives Auburn some talent off the bench, but he doesn’t appear to have the speed he had prior to a knee injury a couple of years ago. Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens offer depth, while Brandon Fulse will back up Uzomah.
If TideFans.com issued re-rates, Auburn would get knocked down from “Excellent” to “Very Good” following a season-ending injury to guard Alex Kozan. Prior to Kozan getting hurt, Auburn had great balance across the line; now, the left side is a question. Center Reese Dismukes and the right side of the line, guard Chad Slade and tackle Avery Young, are solid, while Shon Coleman will start at left tackle. With Kozan out, Devonte Danzey will probably take his place, with Xavier Dampeer competing for the job and backing up Dismukes in the middle. Auburn’s major issue is depth, with Patrick Miller backing up both tackle slots and possibly getting into the mix at Kozan’s slot. Beyond him, there is no one of note. Neither Jordan Diamond nor Will Adams has made much of a step forward.
Auburn moved to a full-time 4-2-5 defense last season, but it didn’t help matters much. The Tigers ranked 10th or worse in rush defense, pass defense and total defense. Heading into 2014, there are questions about the defensive line, and about a secondary that continues to be unimpressive despite having enough talent to do better things.
Injury issues have crippled Auburn this fall, with end Carl Lawson likely out for the year and the other end, LaDarius Owens, hampered significantly. Montravius Adams joins Gabe Wright and Jeffrey Whitaker in the middle. Wright and Whitaker are veterans who can be particularly effective at times. Ben Bradley is a go-to bench player, with Angelo Blackson getting a shot at playing in the A-rotation. Outside, Elijah Daniel will start opposite Owens – provided Owens is ready to go – while JUCO transfer Davonte Lambert may become the go-to sub. Freshman Justin Thornton will get an early shot at tackle.
Auburn plays only two linebackers, a good thing given that the Tigers are thin at the position. Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost will be the starters, but the depth situation comes down to multiple freshmen. Tre’ Williams is expected to get a ton of early playing time, with redshirt Cameron Toney and signee Deshaun Davis the other possibilities. The pressure is clearly on Frost to finally realize his immense potential, and to give Auburn more athleticism at the position than Jake Holland could muster. McKinzy added bulk over the offseason, which may or may not be a good thing depending on how much responsibility he is given in coverage.
Someone has to step up back here, as Auburn has underachieved in the secondary ever since Tommy Tuberville left town. Robenson Therezie will start at the hybrid Star position, playing linebacker sometimes and safety most of the time. Therezie is a rare mix of athleticism, stout build and speed, but he needs help – and he had issues off the field this offseason, which could affect his playing timetable. The corners should be in good shape with Jonathon Mincy on one side and Joshua Holsey on the other. Safety, though, could be an issue. Jermaine Whitehead returns at free safety, but he needs to tighten up his game. JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief will start at strong safety, but the jury is out as to whether he’s a difference-maker in the SEC. Depth at corner was enough of a concern that Trovon Reed moved over from receiver, where he’ll split bench duties with Justin Garrett. Johnathan Ford and Brandon King are the primary names at safety.
For once, Auburn is chasing the field. Kicker Daniel Carlson and punter Jimmy Hutchinson are both freshmen, and although both have talent, for the first time in years, Auburn won’t be automatic when the special teams roll onto the field. The kick return situation needs to reload, with Corey Grant the primary option there now, and the punt return situation is undecided.