Previews 2015: Auburn Tigers
Returning Offensive Starters: 4 (SE, LT, LG, RT)
Returning Defensive Starters: 6 (DT/E, NT, MLB, WLB, RCB, S)
Returning Specialists: 1 (PK)
Projected Overall Record: 9-3 (UGA, Ark, UA)
Projected SEC Record: 5-3 (UGA, Ark, UA)
Projected SEC West Record: 4-2 (Ark, UA)
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
Quarterbacks: Vg Defensive Line: Vg
Running Backs: Av Linebackers: Av
Wide Receivers: Vg Defensive Backs: Fr
Offensive Line: Av Special Teams: Av
Auburn is probably the most puzzling team in the SEC heading into 2015. The Tigers return only 11 starters as a whole and are rebuilding the defense, but at the same time, several pundits have Auburn as a darkhorse national championship contender. What one thinks of Auburn basically breaks down to what one thinks of Gus Malzahn and his ability to continue to innovate on offense. Purely from an analytical standpoint, Auburn has very good overall talent, but there are pockets of weakness here and there. Auburn’s schedule could swing wildly, from as low as 7-5 to as many as 10 or 11 wins.
Auburn’s hurry-up, no-huddle attack has been the standard-bearer for such systems in recent years, but over the last two seasons, the Tigers didn’t have a consistent passing attack. Auburn has refocused its offensive strategy a bit and intends to be more balanced in 2015. The real questions on offense, though, surround a receiver corps that is top-heavy and an offensive line that still appears to need some work.
Jeremy Johnson is replacing Nick Marshall, which many Auburn fans believe will guarantee the Tigers a balanced offense for the first time since Cam Newton left. Johnson has a huge arm and, while not a true dual-threat quarterback, he is a good athlete who can scramble in a pinch. Still, the offensive scheme will have to take a move back to the Chris Todd days rather than continuing along the path Marshall was piloting. Johnson hasn’t been tested by a truly elite defense yet, and he’ll need to get better pass protection than Marshall enjoyed, but he’s a much more well-rounded player than Marshall and could be headed for stardom. The depth situation is a bit cloudier. One of two freshmen, either Sean White or Tyler Queen, figure to be in line for the job. White is on the smallish side but has potential; Queen is built like an I-formation fullback. Neither has Johnson’s complete package of skills.
Both Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas have impressive prep resumes, but Thomas’ freshman effort was inconsistent at best. Robinson, one of the top JUCO running backs in the country, gives Auburn a big running back with an inside presence. Auburn should be fine with this pair but they’ll both need to prove it in games. Redshirt freshman Kamryn Pettway will add depth and may start at the H-back position. Chandler Cox and Peyton Barber will provide depth there, and Barber will be in the mix at running back as well. Another signee, Kerryon Johnson, figures to get in the mix early. Auburn’s system covers up a lot of rough spots in its skill players, as evidenced by departed Cameron Artis-Payne, who led the SEC in rushing despite not being its most talented player. Auburn should be fine here.
A lot depends on whether D’haquille Williams gets out of the doghouse. Williams’ off-season has been full of rumors concerning his relationship with his coaches. If he’s playing at 100-percent efficiency, he’s one of the best wideouts in the country. Without him, Auburn has a problem. Ricardo Louis has fought through injury to become a good second option, both as a receiver and a scatback out of the backfield. But he’s not a No. 1 guy. Melvin Ray could be that player if he ever lives up to his considerable hype. Jason Smith and Tony Stevens also have the ability to be starters in this offense, while Marcus Davis adds depth. Signee Darius Slayton could also have a role. Auburn doesn’t use a tight end much, and in 2015, figure to use one even less than before. Signee Jalen Harris will battle with holdovers Greg Hall and Chris Laye for the job. Hall is a transfer from Appalachian State. Basically, this unit’s effectiveness will come down to whether Williams wants to be a factor or not.
Hard to say where this unit is headed, but the 2014 season was a decidedly mixed bag for Auburn despite the Tigers having good talent here. Tackles Shon Coleman and Avery Young return, but while both (especially Coleman) have above-average ability, Coleman in particular is going to have to learn to play cleaner, especially with an eighth official on the field looking at the offensive line. Internet highlight clips of Coleman’s many holds – some called, some not – can be found with minimal effort. But the real problem could be up the middle. Alex Kozan is back from injury, which removes Devonte Danzey from the starting lineup. Ole Miss transfer Austin Golson will be the starting center, while Braden Smith appears to be the pick at the other guard slot. The good news for Auburn is that depth is solid, with Danzey and Jordan Diamond providing a presence inside, with Xavier Dampeer at center and Robert Leff at tackle. Will Adams and Bailey Sharp are also around.
While the offense is what most people associate with Auburn, the biggest storyline of 2015 is actually the defense. Auburn fired coordinator Ellis Johnson over the offseason, replacing him with former Florida head coach and Nick Saban assistant Will Muschamp. Muschamp will lead Auburn in a switch from the 4-2-5 front preferred by Johnson, to the familiar 3-4 over/under attack designed by Saban. As such, expect some growing pains here. Auburn has plenty of experience in the middle of its front seven, but the defensive backfield is a concern and Auburn has a depth issue on the edges.
The dismissal of Elijah Daniel following an arrest thrusts true freshman Byron Cowart into a key role whether he’s ready for it or not. Cowart will be the weakside defensive end for the Tigers, and depth behind him is pretty thin. Signee Prince Tega Wanogho is extremely raw, but he might have to play regardless. Carl Lawson, who is technically the Jack linebacker for the Tigers, might have to slide over, but he lacks the optimum size for the position. Raashed Kennion may also have a role to play. Gimel President has shown flashes, but needs to get more consistent against the run. Things are much better for Auburn up the middle, where DaVonte Lambert and Montravius Adams return at the tackle slots. Maurice Swain gives Auburn some punch off the bench, while Dontavius Russell is also in the mix for playing time. Devaroe Lawrence and signee Jaunta’vius Jackson could also find their way into the mix. Muschamp’s expertise is more with linebackers and defensive backs, but Auburn’s defensive line will give him some nice pieces to play with in 2015.
Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost are enigmas for the Tigers. They are among the most experienced college linebackers in 2015, but neither has been particularly a difference-maker yet in their respective careers. McKinzy has the better chance of the two to break out. He’s a big force in the middle of the defense and has the ability to slide down to an end position when needed. Frost looks like an athletic nightmare for offenses, but he has issues in coverage and needs to get more consistent. The strongside position is completely up in the air. Signee Jeff Holland could be the guy, or it could fall to senior Justin Garrett. More likely, though, is that Auburn will simply stay in nickel most of the time in a 3-3-5 set. Tre Williams will back up the inside positions along with Garrett. JaViere Mitchell adds depth outside. Carl Lawson will hold down the Jack position unless Auburn is forced to move him to DE. Overall depth is actually a tad low, but as long as Auburn stays clear of the injury bug, the Tigers should be OK.
Auburn still has an issue at cornerback, but at least this is Muschamp’s wheelhouse. Jonathan Jones has emerged as one of the conference’s best corners, but he’s been hurt and isn’t 100 percent as fall camp starts. The other starter, Joshua Holsey, is too inconsistent. There is virtually no depth to speak of at cornerback, particularly any experience. Stephen Roberts is about it, although Michael Sherwood should play some despite his tiny size. Signee Carlton Davis could get in the mix early on. At safety, Johnathan Ford and Tray Matthews appear to be the starters, but Matthews needs to keep his nose clean. The real issue here is the lack of depth behind them; Nick Ruffin, Tim Irvin and Markell Boston will fight to see who gets the assignments. Auburn should be able to field a competent starting four, but whether the Tigers will have luck in nickel and dime packages remains to be seen. They also need to get more consistent effort from Holsey.
Daniel Carlson turned into a reliable placekicker for Auburn in 2014. Unfortunately, his work at punter left much to be desired. For that reason, a host of players – Ian Shannon, Duncan McKinney, Jack Bjork and Kevin Phillips – are lined up to try to take that job away. Carlson has the kicking job in his pocket, however. Ricardo Louis is a dangerous kick returner and will work with Marcus Davis and others. Team speed abounds, so there are no shortage of candidates.